From the Isle of Man TT Race Declaration (1954), to the First Race
In 2015, Honda races in more than 100 categories, from its MotoGP activities, to categories undertaken by its subsidiaries worldwide. This all began with the Isle of Man TT races. Honda’s founder, Soichiro Honda, believed that winning the premier motor sports event of the time - the Isle of Man TT - would not only allow Honda to venture into the world, but would contribute to Japan’s technological development. In March 1954, Honda declared his company's entry into the Isle of Man TT races.
In the declaration, Soichiro Honda stated that to perform at world level, an engine had to produce 100PS per liter. But at the Isle of Man TT race in June that year, the German NSU company's 125cc machine made 15PS and its 250cc machine made 35PS, nearly 150PS per liter. Visiting the race, Soichiro Honda was shocked by this, and realized how difficult it would be to win a world class race.
Man TT Race Declaration
Undaunted, Honda began its journey to winning the Isle of Man TT by competing in domestic races, which were beginning to take hold in Japan. Honda viewed these races as testing grounds for bike performance, and began the development of precision ultra high-revving engines, aiming to realize high output and solid reliability.
Team Honda (1959 Man TT)
In April 1958, based on prior race records which indicated speeds of 120km/h (or more than 17PS) were required, Honda began designing the RC140 aiming to output 20PS (160PS per liter). In October that year, Honda succeeded in producing an engine which output more than 120PS per liter, enabling it to enter the Isle of Man TT race in 1959. Honda entered the race with the RC142 (4-valve version of the RC141, which was based on the 125cc RC140), but although its output was 17.3PS (138.4PS per liter), top class machines were outputting 150PS per liter, a seemingly insurmountable gap. Honda won the team prize. Results far exceeded expectations, however, with Naomi Taniguchi finishing 6th, Giichi Suzuki 7th, and Teisuke Tanaka 8th. Every Honda employee was understandably overjoyed, but reaction to Honda’s performance was further reaching, as Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry made an unprecedented statement announcing that domestic motorcycles were now world-class, and the future of Japan’s product export was bright.
In 1960, Honda forayed into 250cc class racing in addition to the 125cc class, and World GP racing (which included the Isle of Man TT race). In Round 1 (Isle of Man TT), Honda finished 6th in the 125cc class, and 4th in the 250cc class. Honda fought valiantly in Rounds 2 and 3, but the world’s top class machines seemed an impossible hurdle to overcome. But, in Round 4 (East German Grand Prix), Kenjiro Tanaka finished 3rd in the 250cc class, giving Honda its first podium finish. Six years had passed from the Isle of Man TT declaration, as team members hugged and shared tears of joy. Honda maintained its momentum, taking 2nd place in the 250cc class at both the remaining Ulster and Nations grands prix, finishing the constructors' championship 3rd (125cc) and 2nd (250cc).
First World GP Win, First Domination (1961)
Honda challenged the 1961 season with refined machines -. In the season-opening Spanish Grand Prix, Tom Phillis rode his 125cc RC143 - last year’s model - to Honda’s first victory, and continued his charge from Round 3 to tally 8 wins out of 11 grands prix.
In the 250cc class, the RC162’s output was increased to 160PS per liter. Honda was taking firm steps towards championship victory: In Round 2 (West German Grand Prix), Kunimitsu Takahashi rode his RC162 for Honda’s first 250cc win. This also made Takahashi the first Japanese rider to win a grand prix. At the French Grand Prix which followed, Tom Phillis was once again victorious, and at the 1961 Isle of Man TT (Round 4 this year) the RC162, later to be tagged “frightening” by the British press, set lap record after lap record, dominating the top 5 spots, and completed the race with an average race time faster than the 350cc machines for a historic victory. The RC162 continued to perform, winning a total of 10 races.
In 1961, 7 years since its Isle of Man TT declaration, Honda had won the riders' and constructors' titles in both the 125cc and 250cc classes.
Kunimitsu Takahashi / RC162 (1961)
To the Domination of All World GP Classes (1962 - 1966)
Through its success in 1961, Honda was suddenly in a position to be chased by, not chase, the competition. 1962 also saw the addition to World GP racing of the 50cc class, now totaling five classes. Honda embarked on a new challenge, entering machines into every class except 500cc (50cc, 125cc, 250cc and 250cc classes), as the largest team in grand prix racing.
Honda developed the gear train-driven 4-stroke single-cylinder DOHC powered RC110/111 to compete in the 50cc class, but managed to win only one race during the season against fierce competition from the 2-stroke machines. The other three classes were more successful and reminiscent of a champion manufacturer, with 10 wins in the 125cc class, 9 wins in the 250cc class, and 5 wins in the 350cc class: Riders' titles went to Taveri (125cc) and Redman (250cc and 350cc), while Honda secured the constructors' title, showing its strength as defending champion. This year also saw the completion of the Suzuka circuit - Japan’s first fully paved circuit - solidifying Honda’s resolve in its motor sports activities.
For three years beginning in 1963, however, Honda struggled. In 1963, Honda’s complete dominance of the 250cc class was seriously threatened, as it fought every round managing only 4 wins out of 10 races, finally securing the riders' and constructors' titles in the very last round. Honda convincingly won both titles in the 350cc class, with the RC172 winning 6 of the 8 grands prix, but the 50cc and 125cc classes were not so successful, with only 1 win, and 3 wins respectively. In 1964, Honda managed to win the riders' and constructors' titles in the 125cc and 350cc classes with 7 and 8 wins respectively, but that was as far as Honda’s success went for the season. Winning all of the titles became increasingly difficult as competition intensified, with Suzuki entering World GP racing in 1960, and Yamaha in 1961.
Luigi Taveri / RC116
In 1966, Honda increased its participation from four, to all five classes, aiming to win the championship in all classes. The season started with Honda upgrading its machines in every class. Luigi Taveri rode in the 50cc and 125cc classes, Mike Hailwood in the 250cc and 350cc classes, and Jim Redman in the 500cc class. The RC116, based on the RC115 with expanded bore for a short-stroke engine, was entered into the 50cc class. The RC149, a short-stroke successor to the RC148, raced in the 125cc class, the RC165 and its successor the RC166 in the 250cc class, the RC173, a further developed version of the RC172, in the 350cc class, and the 489.94cc 4-cylinder RC181, with a bore/stroke of 57mm/48mm outputting more than 80PS, raced in the 500cc class.
Despite problems such as Hailwood replacing injured Redman in the 500cc class, Honda won the constructors' title in all five classes winning an astounding 29 of 37 races, staging legendary races along the way - such as the thunderous Czech Republic Grand Prix at which Hailwood set new lap records and won all 3 classes he raced in. It was the first time ever that one manufacturer dominated all World GP classes, securing Honda’s place in grand prix racing history.
Jim Redman (#103)、Mike Hailwood (#104) / RC181 (1966)
The Return to World GP and the Pursuit of Innovative Technology (1979 - 1981)
Honda had temporarily retreated from World GP racing in 1967, and returned after a decade-long hiatus, in 1979.
Honda had developed the 4-stroke NR500 to compete in the 500cc class, which was at the time dominated by 2-stroke machines. This dominance was indeed Honda’s motivation to fight for the title with a 4-stroke machine. The biggest issue at the beginning, was power. For a 4-stroke engine to produce power equal to a 2-stroke, it would in essence need twice the revs. 4-stroke engines were more complicated than 2-strokes, and were thus larger, and heavier. Miniaturization of the engine was a major challenge in winning grands prix.
Honda’s engineers first considered a V-8 engine: A 32-valve V-8 engine with 32.5cc cylinders would be able to produce the same power as rivals’ machines. World GP regulations, however, limited the number of cylinders to four, so the V-8 was out of the question. The engineers, keeping the basic structure of the V-8, decided to merge pairs of cylinders, giving birth to the oval piston engine. This new, unheard-of V-4 engine, powered the NR500.
Development of a radically new engine demanded endless trial and error procedures, but in the end, although the engine was less powerful than first planned, was completed. The engine was paired with a chassis brimming with Honda’s innovative technologies, such as an aluminum monocoque frame, 16-inch tires, coaxially-mounted drive sprocket and swing arm, and multi-component Com-Star wheels. The NR500 entered World GP racing as the epitome of Honda’s challenging spirit.
The NR500 first appeared in August, 1979 at the British Grand Prix, but retired soon after the race began, owing to insufficient development and testing. The grands prix that followed were ideal testing grounds for the NR500 which was continuously improved. In the 1980 season, the NR500 entered 3 races and finished 2, in 15th and 12th places. In 1981, the NR500 raced 6 grands prix, and finished one in 13th place.
For three years the NR500 failed to win, but the technologies and experiences Honda accumulated during this time were invaluable, and were undoubtedly a major contributing factor to the success of the NS500 which appeared in 1982.
The Second Era (1982 - 2001)
In 1982, Honda developed a compact, lightweight and high-output 2-stroke engine for the newly introduced machine - the NS500 - which incorporated the experience gained from the NR500. After winning the 7th round in Belgium giving Honda its first victory in 15 years, the NS500 went on to win a total of 3 races for the season. In its second year at the hands of Freddie Spencer, the NS500 was instrumental in winning 6 grands prix, giving Honda the riders' and constructors' titles, and the momentum for more victories ahead.
As World GP racing machines were becoming faster every year, Honda pursued the development of a machine with” devastating performance,” and developed the NSR500 with a V-4 layout which would be more advantageous to generating the tremendous power needed.
Freddie Spencer / NSR500 (1985)
The early model NSR500 debuted in 1984, with a unique layout - the fuel tank was below the engine and the exhaust pipes were above. Although the NSR500 output a class-topping 150PS, the unique layout was prone to fluctuating handling depending on fuel load, and could produce results as anticipated. The following year, Honda had revamped the NSR500’s chassis, and also released a 250cc V-2 RS250RW, aiming to clinch for the first time in World GP history both 250cc and 500cc titles. These machines performed as anticipated, with the NSR500 winning 8, and the RS250RW winning 9 of the 12 grands prix. Freddie Spencer and Honda ended the successful season with the riders' and constructors' titles in both the 250cc and 500cc classes.
The NSR500 continued to be an extremely fast machine, but Honda’s new goal was to control the massive power delivery to make it faster. Even during this time, the NSR500 won 3 races in 1986, and 7 races in 1987, a consistent performer.
In 1987, Honda had also returned to 125cc class racing after a 21 year absence, with the RS125R, which was a proven performer in the All Japan Road Race Championship. Although the RS125R did not win any races in its first year, it morphed into a world-class machine over the following years. After winning 2 grands prix in 1988, the RS125R won 6 races the following year, giving Honda the constructors' title and more importantly, Honda’s complete domination of all classes, a feat not achieved for 23 years. The RS125R evolved even further, and in 1990 won 11 of the 14 grands prix and dominated the top 5 riders’ rankings, and its reputation was legendary - “only an RS125R could win the 125cc class.”
Honda’s wins in World GP racing increased dramatically by its participation in all World GP classes. In the five years from 1987 to 1991, Honda had won 104 races over the three classes - a golden era indeed, but still, it was only the first step to a more incredible achievement.
Loris Capirossi / RS125R
In 1992, a new engine with better traction performance was introduced to the NSR500, leading Mick Doohan to victory at the season opener in Japan. The high-powered NSR500 had won the race in the rain, despite its poor wet weather track record to date. Doohan and the NSR500 seemed certain to achieve a title victory, but ended the season with 5 wins as Doohan missed numerous races due to injury. Honda’s development of the machine, however, was paying off with its power output increasing to over 170PS.
In 1994, Honda had realized its goal of a manageable high-powered engine, and, with a machine that could handle the power and Doohan back from injury, won 9 out of 14 races to convincingly clinch the riders' and constructors' titles. The NSR500’s achievements continued. After winning 9 races during the 1995 season, the NSR500 was victorious in 13 of the 15 grands prix the following year. In 1997, it won all 15 grands prix, and in 1998 won every race up to the 7th round - giving it a record-breaking 22 consecutive victories. Although in the following year, 1999, Mick Doohan retired from grand prix racing after falling during the practice session in Round 3 (Spain), taking with him an impressive 54 wins, the NSR500 won 9 races by a number of riders including the champion of the year - Alex Crivillé, resulting in Honda taking the riders’ and constructors' titles six years straight.
Mick Doohan / NSR500 (1998)
Honda’s success during this period was not limited to the 500cc class. In the 125cc class, the RS125R won Honda the constructors' title in 1989, and continued to win the title up to 1995. It regained the title from 1997 to 2000, tallying 106 victories over 12 years. In the 250cc class, the NSR250, since it debut in 1985, had won Honda 11 constructors' titles in the 16 years up to 2000, and boasted 119 wins, a result rivaling that of the 500cc class achievements.
Daijiro Kato / NSR250
By the season opener in 2001, Honda had won a grand total of 497 grands prix. At this first round, at Suzuka, Honda’s home-ground, after Honda won the 125cc and 250cc classes, the NSR500 was victorious in the 500cc class, giving Honda its 500th World GP victory, an outstanding achievement. This same year, Honda won twelve races in the 500cc class, eleven in the 250cc class, and four in the 125cc class, dominating all World GP classes once again. Honda had finished the very last 500cc class season (due to regulation changes), in the best way possible.
The New MotoGP Era (2002 - 2015)
In 2002, The 500cc class evolved into the new premier class, MotoGP. Environmental performance now became a consideration even in grand prix racing, and the transition from 2- to 4-strokes was progressing. In the MotoGP class, 4-stroke engines were limited to 990cc to be on par with 500cc 2-stroke machines, encouraging participation by even more manufacturers to further develop and invigorate the racing class. This year Honda introduced its new 4-stroke machine, the RC211V, based on the technologies developed through racing the NSR500. The machine, powered by an unprecedented V-5 engine, won 14 of the 16 grands prix in its debut year, and went on to conquer 15 of the 16 races in 2003, and 7 races in 2004 to give Honda three straight constructors' crowns.
In the 250cc class, the RS250RW replaced the NSR250. Although off to a disappointing start, failing to win in 2002 and winning only two races in 2003, the NSR250 was victorious in 9 grands prix in 2004, winning the constructors' title. In the 125cc class, the RS125R won 15 races in 2002 through 2004, and although missed out on the constructors' title, Dani Pedrosa became champion in 2003, and Andrea Dovizioso likewise in 2004.
In 2005 at the Australian Grand Prix, Pedrosa in the 250cc class with 8 season wins and the championship under his belt gave Honda its 600th World GP racing victory. In 2006, he rode the RC211V to 8 wins to claim back, on his third attempt, the MotoGP title.
MotoGP machines were becoming faster every year, and in 2007, MotoGP class regulations were changed: The maximum displacement for 4-stroke engines was reduced from 990cc to 800cc. Honda responded by releasing its successor to the RC211V, the V-4 powered RC212V. The new machine won only two races each in the 2007 and 2008 seasons, and although 2009 saw 3 wins and 2010 only 4 in 2011, in 2011 Honda’s hard work paid off. The 2011 RC212V won 13 of the 18 grands prix, giving Honda the riders', teams' and constructors' titles, after a five year struggle.
The waves of change also hit the medium and light displacement classes. In 2007, Honda halted development of the 250cc RS250RW, and in 2008 was unable to win a single grand prix. In 2009, however, Hiroshi Aoyama rode the now obsolete machine to four victories and became the champion of what was to be the last year of 250cc racing. As the Moto2 class, which replaced the 250cc class in 2010, was a category in which all machines were powered by identical Honda engines, Honda does not count Moto2 class victories in its World GP tally. The RS125R, which had forged its own era, was discontinued in 2009, and in 2010, the 125cc class itself came to an end, to be replaced in 2011 with the 4-stroke, 250cc Moto3 class.
Hiroshi Aoyama / RS250RW
In 2012, as MotoGP class regulations changed by increasing the maximum displacement to 1,000cc, Honda developed the new RC213V. 2011 champion Casey Stoner, despite injuries ending the season early, managed to win 5 races, and Dani Pedrosa an impressive 7, giving Honda its second constructors' title in as many years. The RC213V’s success continued in 2013, leading Marc Márquez, who had just been promoted to the premier class, to six wins, to become the youngest premier class champion in history. Teammate Dani Pedrosa also took 3 wins, and with Honda riders on the podium in every grand prix, gave Honda the constructors’ title for the third year in a row. In 2014, with 12 straight victories from Round 1, winning a total of 14 grands prix during the season, Honda achieved a back-to-back triple crown (constructors’, team, and riders’ titles). This year also saw the NSF250R appear in the Moto3 class to take 8 victories, and for the first time in 5 years, the constructors’ title in the lightest category.
Marc Márquez / RC213V
The 2015 season started exceptionally in the Moto3 class with four straight wins, but in the premier class, Márquez retired twice, and Pedrosa was absent while recovering from arm pump problems in his right forearm. But before the summer break at the German Grand Prix, Márquez claims his second victory of the season, reigniting hope for the championship. At the next race which was to start off the second half of the season, Indianapolis, Honda won the Moto3 and MotoGP classes, taking its tally of World GP wins to an unprecedented 700 victories, another achievement in the pages of World GP racing history.