History of Motorcycle Racing
The first motorcycle was sold in 1894, a product of Germany, while the first race—of about 400 km—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 recognizable 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? The answer is simple: the Isle of Man race was the most difficult to win and had come to symbolize the very essence of the sport. Honda felt that declaring his ambition to win this demanding race would bring his company a great deal of interest, as indeed it did, from all over Japan.
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 lightweight 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 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 hoist the winner’s 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 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 sported 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 minimums, a maximum number of cylinders and a maximum of six speeds) to narrow the gap.
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: although 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.
Nonetheless, 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 anything 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.
This oval-piston 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 from the race. Indeed, the new motorcycle failed to win any races before it was withdrawn in 1981. Many lessons were learned during the development process, though, and various technologies were applied to a number of successful Honda road bikes with V-type engines.
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-strokes 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.
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 classes, 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, the manufacturer 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. Recognizing 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 premier 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. The 1997 season was the best year 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.
The 2001 season was marked by an incredible opening round at Suzuka, where Masao Azuma, Daijiro Kato and Valentino Rossi won the 125, 250 and 500cc classes, respectively, enabling Honda to attain its 500th win in World Championship Grand Prix Road Racing.
The NR500 had been 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 manufacturers’ 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 have a displacement of 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.
The 2006 season was notable for the emergence of several younger riders in an eventful year. 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.
The 2009 season brought with it a single tyre supplier for the MotoGP series, making the roles of the machine and rider that much more important. This 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.
In 2011, the factory Repsol Honda team fielded three bikes with a credible line-up of Dani Pedrosa, Andrea Dovizioso and 2007 World Champion, Casey Stoner. The RC212V proved too strong for the competition this year and Australian Casey Stoner took the championship with two races remaining, with Honda also taking the Team title and its 60th Constructor’s title.
Coming into 2012 as Triple Crown World Champions, the Repsol Honda Team endured a more difficult season. The reigning World Champion, Casey Stoner, had a good start to the year, winning three of the first seven races, but he experienced a tough mid-season, resulting in a horrific crash in Indianapolis that side-lined him for three races and ended his title hopes. Teammate Dani Pedrosa had a slower start to the series but discovered his best form from the eighth round, at the Sachsenring. He won seven races in 2012, six of which came in the last eight races, and narrowly lost the World Championship to Jorge Lorenzo by just 18 points. With 12 victories in 2012, Honda won the Constructor’s championship and the Repsol Honda Team took the Team’s championship.
With 2011 World Champion Casey Stoner retiring at the end of 2012, a bike was vacant for the 2013 season. Moto2 World Champion Marc Marquez was chosen as Stoner’s successor, and he had some pretty big shoes to fill.
It didn’t take long for Marc to show his talent in MotoGP, achieving a podium finish at his first race, in Qatar, and fighting with the elite of the premier class. Marquez earned his first win in only his second race, in Austin, Texas, and the records began to roll in. Pedrosa had a slower start than anticipated, but with wins in Jerez and Le Mans, it seemed his season was finally getting on track until a crash in Germany ended his Championship hopes. Marquez went on to win four races in a row and then manage the gap to the end of the season, taking the Championship to a title decider at the final round, in Valencia.
The young Spaniard emerged victorious and became the youngest premier-class World Champion (bettering Freddie Spencer) and the first rookie to win the premier-class world title since Kenny Roberts in 1978.
Marquez experienced a difficult start to 2014, breaking his leg after the first Sepang test and arriving in Qatar for round one with just three days on the bike. However, after slowly finding his rhythm, he took pole in qualifying and never looked back. The defending champ won the race, with Pedrosa taking third for a double Honda podium. Marquez continued his dominance through the season’s midway point, making it 10 wins out of 10 races in Indianapolis after the summer break, with Dani joining him on the podium on six occasions. Marc couldn’t quite manage 11 out of 11 in Brno, as Pedrosa himself took the victory, while Marquez had to settle for fourth.
After going back on top in Silverstone, Marquez experienced a couple of difficult races in San Marino and Aragón, but arriving in Japan with a 75-point margin, he had a strong chance to clinch the title at Honda’s home GP. In fact, a second-place finish in Motegi was enough to deliver his second successive MotoGP World Championship, and it made him the first Honda rider to clinch a World title (in any class) at the Motegi circuit. Marc won again in Malaysia, and Honda secured the Constructor’s title for the fourth year running, extending its record to 63 Constructor’s championships across all classes. Meanwhile, Pedrosa’s 10 podium finishes, including a victory, helped him to finish 2014 in fourth overall and heavily contributed to the conquest of the Constructor’s and Team titles, as Honda secured back-to-back Triple Crowns.
In 2015, Marquez and Pedrosa experienced a season of ups and downs and had to settle for third and fourth overall, respectively, in the final standings. The challenges started at the opening race in Qatar, where Marc ran wide in turn 1 and had to mount a great recovery to earn fifth place, while Dani struggled with serious arm pump on his way to a sixth-place finish. Immediately after the race, Pedrosa decided to undergo surgery and therefore missed the following three races. Marquez got back on the podium’s top spot in Texas but crashed out in Argentina after he and Valentino Rossi touched while battling at the front with two laps to go. After making it to the podium in Spain, Marquez only managed to finish fourth in France and then went on to post two more zeros in Italy and Catalunya.
Pedrosa returned to racing in Le Mans only to crash and finish in 16th place, but at his home race in Catalunya, he earned his first podium result of the season. The Assen TT saw Marc once again battling for the lead with Rossi, and the two again touched briefly in the last chicane on the final lap, with the Italian able to ride through the gravel trap and beat Marquez to the finish line. In Germany, Marc clinched his second win of the year, with Dani finishing second to make it a Honda 1-2. Marquez won again in Indy, confirming his special feeling with the North American tracks, and he then managed a runner-up finish in Brno. The next two rounds were both affected by bad weather conditions, but Marc’s results were polar opposites—a crash at Silverstone and a remarkable victory at San Marino where he managed the situation in exemplary fashion when required to make two bike changes. The Repsol Honda pair experienced mixed fortunes at Aragón also, where Marquez crashed out at turn 12 and Pedrosa took a magnificent second-place finish after an intense battle with Rossi.
Dani and Marc followed a similar pattern at Honda’s home race in Japan, where the former returned to victory for the first time since the 2014 Brno GP, while the latter (nursing an injured left hand) managed to come home fourth in the wet. An extraordinary final lap by Marquez at the Australian GP helped him earn his 50th career win and his first at Phillip Island in the MotoGP class, while Dani took fifth after a closely fought race. In Malaysia, Marquez was involved in a lap-five incident that saw Valentino Rossi slow suddenly, resulting in a crash by the Spaniard. Meanwhile, Pedrosa took his second win of the season, sealing a hat trick of Repsol Honda Team victories at the flyaway races. Marc and Dani concluded the 2015 season with a double podium finish in the Valencia GP.
The 2016 MotoGP World Championship was an impressive season for Honda and for Marc Marquez as the former celebrated a record-breaking 22nd Constructors World Championships in the premier class and the latter was crowned as the youngest rider to win three premier-class World Championships, bringing his tally to five titles over all classes in his Grand Prix career. At 23 years and 242 days old, the Repsol Honda’s rider took the record from the legendary Mike Hailwood, who had already turned 24 years when he won his third 500cc crown in 1964.
However, although Marc clinched the title at Honda home race in Japan with three rounds remaining in the season, it has not been an easy year for Honda and HRC. Important technical changes were made to the 2016 MotoGP Championship regulations with the introduction of unified electronics and a switch from Bridgestone to Michelin tyres and it took time to the HRC Engineers and the team to fully understand how to exploit the full potential of the RC213V. They achieved it step by step and with everyone totally focused on the main goal.
Marquez prevailed with intelligence, maturity and a strategy based on great consistency in his results and, at the same time, he won more races than anyone else in the season, scoring a total of five MotoGP victories (Argentina, Texas, Sachsenring, Aragon and Motegi). Marc’s achievement looks even more remarkable considering that 2016 has seen nine different MotoGP winners, the greatest number in a single season in the 68-year history of motorcycling’s World Championships. Jorge Lorenzo, Marc Marquez, Valentino Rossi, Jack Miller, Andrea Iannone, Cal Crutchlow, Maverick Vinales, Dani Pedrosa and Andrea Dovizioso, in that order, stood on the highest step of the podium at least once. Four of them were Honda riders, and no other factory has done the same in 2016.
Dani Pedrosa had a difficult start to the season. He struggled – despite stepping on the podium in Argentina and Catalunya – more than he had done since his rookie 125cc season in 2001, but him and his Repsol Honda crew never gave up and kept working until finally they found a promising direction with set-up at the Brno post-races. He finished just off the podium at the British GP and took an awesome victory at the subsequent San Marino round. Misfortune struck him a hard blow two races later at Motegi, and Dani was side-lined by a crash that left him nursing a broken right collarbone, left fibula and toe. The brave Spaniard once again fought back to recover as soon as possible and was able to return to his team and his bike for the Valencia finale in November. Dani finished the year sixth in the standings.
In 2016 Honda also celebrated 50 years since they first entered premier-class World Grand Prix racing. From 1966 Honda have won 18 Riders World Championships and 22 Constructors titles and they top the rankings of most successful Manufacturer ever with 65 titles over all classes.