The famous TT has been the cornerstone circuit of Honda's racing activities. Honda's relationship with the TT began in 1954, when the company's founder Soichiro Honda vowed to take part. Five years later a party of four riders and five engineers set foot on Manx soil to begin Honda's love affair with the Tourist Trophy races. The first year saw a sixth, seventh, eighth and tenth place claiming the Manufacturers' title in only their second international road race, but just two years later Honda won its first race in the hands of legendary rider Mike Hailwood. Its riders had dominated practice for the 1961 Ultra Lightweight TT and Hailwood led a sweep of five Hondas in the top six placings, which he followed up with a win in the Lightweight TT later the same day.
Since then Honda has carried on winning at the TT - its current tally of victories stands at 139 - and Honda Racing currently holds the outright lap record of 129.451mph which John McGuinness set on board his HM Plant Honda CBR1000RR Fireblade in 2007.
Honda will be celebrating the Japanese manufacturer's 2009 TT campaign with a range of commemorative items including a previously unpublished image of the original 1959 Isle of Man TT team.
In association with the Isle of Man Post Office, a 50th anniversary of racing set of commemorative stamps has also been launched, each featuring one of Honda's legendary riders spanning the decades of Honda's competition at the TT. The Treasury of the Isle of Man has approved the release of a new fifty pence circulating coin to mark Honda's 50th anniversary of world championship racing, depicting multi winning TT rider John McGuinness on a CBR1000RR Fireblade. An official anniversary book will also be launched in July following the TT, to ensure that all stories and results from the full fifty years are included.
Isle of Man TT Race Declaration
In a rather bizarre expression of commitment Soichiro Honda, then President of Honda, sent out to his workers on 20 March 1954 a declaration which outlined Honda's motorsport challenge. At that time, a victory in the World GP series was unimaginable for the majority of Japanese, but Honda did not flinch. He had set himself this noble target, and by issuing the written declaration, allowed his enthusiastic staff to become part of his long held dream.
The history of motorcycle racing and the Road Racing World Championship In the 1950s.
The first motorcycle was sold in 1894, a product of Germany, while the first race - of about 400km - was held in France only a few years later. From 1906, Britain held the Tourist Trophy (TT) races on the Isle of Man, and the motorsport scene blossomed throughout central Europe in pre-war days. After the Second World War, in 1949, the FIM (Federation Internationale de Motorcyclisme) was founded, establishing the format for road racing that is still recognisable to this day in the World GP series. The first race held under FIM rules was the Isle of Man TT event of June 1949.
Why did Soichiro Honda set his sights on the TT race? The answer is simple - the Isle of Man race was the most difficult to win and had come to symbolise the very essence of the sport. Honda felt that by declaring his ambition to win this demanding race, it would bring his company a great deal of interest, as indeed it did, from all over Japan.
The First Steps (1959~1967)
1959: The first steps towards greatness
Until the 1950s, the World GP races were held exclusively in Europe, and dominated by European manufacturers. The 1959 Isle of Man TT witnessed the first entry from a Japanese team in the World GP series, the four 125cc Hondas being managed by Kiyoshi Kawashima, who had the complete trust and support of Soichiro Honda. This first challenge resulted in Honda claiming 6th, 7th, 8th and 11th in the 125cc light weight class, as well as the Manufacturers' Team Award. At the time, against stiff opposition, this level of success was truly remarkable, prompting Honda to compete in the full GP series in the following year.
From 1960, Honda entered all of the World GP races with 125cc and 250cc machines, its efforts finally rewarded with a maiden win in the 1961 Spanish Grand Prix the opening event, when Tom Phillis brought his 125cc Honda home in first place. In the next race, in Germany, Kunimitsu Takahashi became the first Japanese rider to win a World GP event, with his 250cc Honda the first Japanese bike to win in this Class. That same year, Honda was declared the double World Champion, claiming the 125cc and 250cc categories.
In the third year of its TT challenge program, at last Honda was able to lift the winning trophy on the Isle of Man thanks to some sterling rides from Mike Hailwood that enabled him to claim victory in the 125cc and 250cc races. Indeed, the Japanese manufacturer took the first five places in both the 125cc and 250cc Classes, the latter bringing particular pleasure to Soichiro Honda.
After Honda's dramatic domination of the 250cc Class, it moved up into the 500cc category in 1966, by which time the marque was represented in all Classes (50, 125, 250, 350 and 500cc) except for sidecars. Almost unbelievably, Honda claimed the World Championship title in each. Honda clocked up a total of 138 wins in this first sortie into World GP racing before the company took a break from the arena in 1967. It had shown that Honda had the technology to compete on the world stage, and successfully spread the Honda name across the globe.
Honda's racing success in the early 1960s prompted other Japanese manufacturers to join the World GP scene, their domination sealing the fate of those from Europe, who struggled to compete. At that time, in the 250cc and 350cc Classes, Japanese racing machines were sporting six-cylinder engines and gearboxes with between seven and ten speeds, while production models were typically four- or five-speed twins. The huge difference in specification between a road and race bike was unacceptable in the eyes of the FIM and, in 1969, each Class was given a new set of guidelines (including weight, number of cylinders and a maximum of six speeds) to narrow the gap.
Renewed Challenge (1977~1982)
A renewed challenge using four-stroke machines for the World GP.
Without doubt, Honda's domination of the World GP series in the 1960s and its contemporary production machines proved that it had superior technology. However, progress in the field of racing is measured in days rather than years, and Honda had been away from the tracks for a decade. Would Honda still have the power to win? It was a question that needed answering, and the company declared its return to the 500cc Class in World GP events, the pinnacle of the series, in November 1977. This was big news in itself, but Honda's declaration included another element that raised many eyebrows in the racing arena - whilst two-stroke engines were considered the norm, Honda's new machine would sport a four-stroke engine.
When Honda first joined the racing circus, for the given capacity of 500cc, four-stroke engines were considered an advantage, as two-stroke technology was still far from perfected. However, by the 1970s, two-stroke engines were giving exceptional power, and the situation was reversed, with four-stroke units thought to be at a disadvantage for the engine size. Notwithstanding, Honda wanted an engine that displayed a level of originality that fitted in with the business principles laid out by its founding father. The result was an engine unlike that ever seen before in the racing world - a high-revving four-stroke, four-cylinder unit, with unique oval-shaped pistons that gave the visual impression of a V8.
The NR500's legacy of innovation
This oval-pistoned four-stroke machine, duly named the NR500, was unveiled as a prototype in 1978. However, such innovative technology takes time to perfect, and it wasn't until the 1979 British GP (the 11th race of the year) that the NR500 made its track debut. Both Honda riders - Takazumi Katayama and Mick Grant - retired. Indeed, the new motorcycle failed to win any races before it was withdrawn in 1981. Many lessons were learnt during the development process, though, and various technologies were applied to a number of successful Honda road bikes with V-type engines.
A direction change: The two-stroke V3 NS500
Having concluded that the NR500 was never going to give Honda the desired results on the track, in 1982, Honda's engineers decided to concentrate their efforts on creating a new two-stroke racing machine for the World GP series. At the time, most competitors were using two-stroke fours delivering around 130bhp, but these engines were not ideally matched to contemporary tyre performance, causing stability problems and fast wear rates. Therefore Honda selected a V3 configuration for its new power-unit, which was lighter, thus enhancing both handling and tyre life.
Also, the bike's bodywork could be made slimmer, improving aerodynamics, which would allow a higher top speed. It was felt that this combination of fresh ideas would give Honda the upper hand on the track, or, at the very least, enable it to close in on its rivals. The NS500 was entrusted to Freddie Spencer, Marco Lucchinelli and Takazumi Katayama for 1982. The opening race of the World GP series, held in Argentina, saw Spencer claim a podium finish, and Honda's first taste of victory in its second era of Grand Prix racing came just seven races later, in Belgium. It had been 15 years since Honda had last won a World GP race, but Katayama duly won in Sweden and Spencer in San Marino, thus proving the NS500 concept was the right way to go.
Claiming Rider's Titles (1983~2001) Claiming the first 500cc Rider's title
The 1983 season will always be remembered by motorcycle racing fans. Of the 12 races that made up the World GP series that year, just two riders - Yamaha's Kenny Roberts and Honda's Freddie Spencer - claimed all of the pole positions and race victories between them, providing a memorable head-to-head season-long duel. Equal on race wins, Spencer ultimately won the title by a margin of two points, giving Honda its first World GP 500cc rider's championship. At the same time, Honda won the constructor's title for the first time since its Grand Prix comeback.
However, during this era, huge progress was made in tyre technology, with radial rubber making its way onto the tracks. This allowed those using four-cylinder engines to compete on equal terms. By 1984, Honda had its own four-cylinder racer (the NSR500) to take up the challenge at a time of extreme horsepower battles.
In 1985, Freddie Spencer entered both the 500cc and 250cc Class using Honda's first works two-stroke racing bikes. Spencer was given an RS250RW and won the title with ease with this one-off machine, and duly secured the 500cc championship, too. To date, no-one has managed this feat since. Production versions of the RS250 found their way into the showrooms, and with Honda also involved in the 125cc Class, it was once again a force to be reckoned with on the GP scene.
The power battle continued in the 1990s, with engines often delivering far more than the contemporary racing tyres could handle. Only a handful of riders were able to convert the additional power into greater speed. In effect, the machines had become monsters that very few could deal with. Recognising this fact, Honda sought to develop a bike that would have the necessary power, but also be far more forgiving in its handling. In 1992, Honda developed the ‘Big Bang' engine, with its unconventional ignition timing and distinctive, deep exhaust note. Honda ace Mick Doohan showed superb pace with the new NSR500 until an injury ended his challenge that season. This latest version of the bike was so impressive it was also able to compete in the MotoGP Class. It was a technological marvel that left a lasting impression on the racing world. Doohan was also impressive, winning the 500cc title with Honda five times from 1994 onwards.
From 1984, when the NSR500 made its debut, until 2002, when the final version of the series was built, the NSR500 spawned 11 rider's titles and gave Honda 14 constructor's titles. 1997 was the best season for the model, with 15 wins, some of them counting toward a record breaking run of 22 consecutive victories.
The NSR500 will go down in history as a legendary bike of the 1990s. It was carried out with three successive victories with Masao Azuma in the 125cc, Daijiro Katoh in the 250cc and Valentino Rossi in the 500cc class in 2001, and Honda marked reaching 500 wins in the World Championship Road Racing Grand Prix at last.
Four-Stroke (2002~) From two-Stroke to four-stroke.
The NR500 was the only four-stroke machine competing in the 500cc Class of the World GP series back in the early 1980s - all other motorcycles had two-stroke engines. It was notable, however, that society was calling for four-stroke technology for road bikes. Thus, the link between road and race machines was once again too weak in the eyes of the GPMA (now the MSMA) and there were worries about the future viability of the 500cc category. The manufacturer's body therefore put forward a proposal to the FIM to encourage four-stroke development. Duly accepted, the new rules, in effect from 2002, stated that the top racers could have two-stroke engines with a maximum capacity of 500cc, while four-stroke units could be bored out to 990cc. At the same time, the World GP moniker was changed to MotoGP. It was the biggest event in motorcycle sport since the revolutionary rule changes of 1969.
For 2002, Honda fielded the 990cc, four-stroke RC211V, the RC designation reviving memories of Honda's golden years in the World GP series in the 1960s. In keeping with Honda's policy of pushing the engineering envelope, the power plant was a revolutionary V5 unit, made all the more interesting by its use of ‘big bang' ignition timing from the company's two-stroke era. Despite a short period of development, the RC211V quickly showed its potential, even managing to eclipse the NSR500 on the tracks. Honda duly won both the rider's and constructor's championship that year, the first to be held under the new MotoGP rules. It was also symbolic of a new era that the NSR500, which had previously been the machine to beat, failed to win all season.
Ironically, the straight-line speed of the 990cc racers increased to a point where safety issues were raised. Bikes were now capable of exceeding 330kph, and very few circuits had gravel traps or other safety features that could match this level of performance. The time had come, once again, for a review of the regulations, prompting the governing body to specify four-stroke engines with a maximum capacity of 800cc to be adopted from 2007, along with a limit on tyre use.
Meanwhile, each manufacturer had refined its machines for an ultimate showdown in the final year of 990cc MotoGP racing, with Honda fielding two versions of the RC211V. One was a regular model, used by five riders, while the other, a one-off, was provided for ace rider Nicky Hayden, with a modified engine, frame and bodywork. This combination created a level of excitement not seen in the Honda camp since Freddie Spencer had been given an NSR500 in 1984.
2006 was notable for the emergence of several younger riders in an eventful season. Hayden scored well in the early races, but was caught up in the second half of the season. A fall cost him dearly in the penultimate race, but he came through to take the flag in the final meeting and claim the last 990cc MotoGP championship. During the five years of 990cc MotoGP racing, the RC211V was the strongest machine of them all, winning around half of the events held.
For 2007, Honda made a V4 engine for its latest RC212V machine ready to compete in the new 800cc MotoGP series. Straight-line speed was reduced by 15kph, but riders were able to put the power down earlier and brake later. Tyre technology also improved, and traction control systems from the 990c era were further refined. As a result, overall lap times with 800cc bikes were not that different to those posted by the top 990cc runners.
2009 brings with it a single tyre supplier for the MotoGP series, making the roles of the machine and rider that much more important. This has prompted more off-season development than ever before, with computers, data analysts and high-level simulations coming together to make high-precision bikes capable of fighting for race honours, and giving birth to technology that will duly find its way onto Honda production machines. The spirit of the Isle of Man TT declaration continues…
Source: JUST BIKES, July 2009, Issue #241