At the 2020 Teruel Grand Prix on October 22 Honda became the first motorcycle manufacturer to achieve the historic milestone of 800 Grand Prix victories, thanks to a superb Moto3 win by Jaume Masia (Leopard Racing Honda NSF250RW). This accomplishment is the result of Honda’s relentless pursuit of performance and perfection – the same driving force that brought the Tokyo-based company into World Championship racing more than half a century ago. Riders from across the world have been able to enjoy success with Honda machinery, in every Grand Prix category, all the way from 50cc racing in the 1960s to 1000cc MotoGP today. During these six decades of Grand Prix racing Honda riders have won more than 60 Riders World Championships and Honda has taken more than 70 Constructors World Championships. Honda’s next target is straightforward: 900 motorcycle Grand Prix victories and then 1000!
Soichiro Honda established Honda Motor Company in September 1948. The 41-year-old had been in love with engines and wheels since he was a boy. From the age of 16 he worked as a mechanic and as an engineer, already building the knowhow that would help him create the world’s greatest motorcycle manufacturer. Honda san always loved racing, so it wasn’t long before the first Honda motorcycles were entered in competitions, like Japan’s Mount Fuji and Asama Plains events, mostly run on dirt roads. Success at home soon had Honda san thinking big and dreaming of racing abroad.
“I don’t need to be a winner in Japan,” he said. “I want to be a winner in the world. If I become number one in the world, we will also be number one in Japan.”
In March 1954 Honda san made an astonishing announcement: his company would enter Britain’s Isle of Man TT, at that time the world’s most prestigious motorcycle racing event.
“Today we have accomplished a production system in which we have full confidence and the chance has come to compete,” he wrote. “Here I have decided to compete in the TT races next year! This aim is a difficult one, but we have to achieve it to test the viability of Japanese industrial technology, and to demonstrate it to the world. Our mission is the enlightenment of Japanese industry.
“I here avow my definite intention that I will participate in the TT races and I proclaim with my fellow employees that I will pour in all my energy and creative powers to win.”
In fact it was five years before Honda motorcycles took part in the TT, after Honda san had made an earlier fact-finding visit to the Isle of Man. On that occasion he was shocked by the performance of the mostly Italian and British machines. Afterwards he returned to Japan and went to work with his engineers.
In April 1958 Honda began development the RC140 125cc twin, the company’s first Grand Prix bike. Honda san had calculated they would need at least 17PS to be competitive on the Isle of Man, so they went to work with an aim of 20PS (160PS per litre). By October the target had been reached, so Honda entered the following year’s Ultra-Lightweight TT.
The RC142 that led Honda’s hopes in its first World Championship race was an even better design, with four valves per cylinder, putting Honda on the road that would take it to a remarkable series of successes on the world scene.
It’s true that the RC142 wasn’t fast enough to compete for victory in Honda’s world-class debut, but the bike was strong enough to take World Championship points at Honda’s first attempt.
Naomi Taniguchi finished the race in sixth place, taking the last point, ahead of three team-mates. Giichi Suzuki was seventh, Teisuke Tanaka eighth and Junzo Suzuki 11th. This was an impressive group performance that won Honda the Ultra-Lightweight TT Teams Prize.
After the race Honda team leader Kiyoshi Kawashima (later Honda Motor Co., Ltd President) telephoned Honda san in Tokyo. “Congratulations, you did well!” the boss told him.
Honda’s first race against world-class rivals had taught the company plenty – most of all that it had a lot of work to do if Soichiro Honda’s dream of winning on the world stage was to be made real.
Perhaps most importantly Honda had found the right way forward. This was the combination of four valves per cylinder, cylinder multiplication and short strokes, which would become the blueprint for high-performance engines across the globe for the next few decades. Honda was only starting out but was already showing the way.
In 1960 Honda returned to Europe for its first full World Championship campaign, with the RC143 125cc and the four-cylinder RC162, at a time when most 250s were twins or singles.
Multiplying cylinders allowed a shorter stroke, which allowed more rpm. Four valves per cylinder reduced high-rpm problems with the valve train and improved airflow. They also allowed a centralised sparkplug for better combustion. Honda had created a potent formula.
In July 1960 Teisuke Tanaka made history by taking Honda’s first World Championship podium, with an excellent third-place finish in the West German Grand Prix at Solitude.
The following season was Honda’s breakthrough year. In April 1961 Australian Tom Phillis won the company’s first GP, taking his RC144 to victory in the 125cc Spanish GP at Barcelona, Spain. Three weeks later Kunimitsu Takahashi took Honda’s first 250cc GP success, with the RC162, at Hockenheim, Germany. At the same time Takahashi became the first Japanese to win a GP. When he flew home he was greeted at Haneda airport by Honda san and Honda vice-president Takeo Fujisawa.
A month later Mike Hailwood scored Honda’s first TT glory, aboard an RC162. And Honda riders monopolised the top five positions: Hailwood, Phillis, Jim Redman, Kunimitsu Takahashi and Naomi Taniguchi.
By the end of 1961, Honda’s second Grand Prix season, the company had won the 125cc Riders and Constructors World Championships and the 250cc Riders and Constructors World Championships. A phenomenal achievement.
And this was only the beginning. Honda grew into the dominant force of 1960s Grand Prix racing, taking 34 world titles and 138 GP victories, far more than any rival manufacturer.
Throughout this period Honda technology climbed a steep curve of improvement. When competitors responded, Honda climbed further still, creating a range of machines that are still regarded as legends of engineering.
Honda enjoyed its greatest success in 1966, when its machines won the 50, 125, 250, 350 and 500cc Constructors World Championships, a unique accomplishment.
The machines used during 1966 represented the pinnacle of power-per-litre performance in any motorsport: the twin-cylinder RC116 50, the five-cylinder RC149 125, the six-cylinder RC166 and RC173 250 and 350 and the RC181 500.
The RC149 produced an incredible 270PS per litre at 20,500rpm, which was transferred to the road via an eight-speed gearbox. More than half a century later, today’s fastest MotoGP bikes produce around 290 horsepower per litre.
Most famous of all was the 250 six, renowned for its awesome exhaust note and back-to-back world title victories with Hailwood.
In 1966 Honda entered the premier 500cc category for the first time. Redman rode the fast but challenging-to-ride RC181 to victory in its first outing, the West German GP, but was injured at the Belgian round; which cost Honda the world title.
The following year Hailwood rode the bike, missing he title by just half a point. Soichiro Honda has yet to fulfil his dream of winning the premier-class Riders World Championship.
Honda withdrew from Grand Prix racing at the end of the 1967 season to focus on development of road machines, including the seminal CB750 superbike, and its new Formula 1 car project.
Honda returned to international motorcycle roadracing in 1976, contesting the Europe-based FIM Coupe d’Endurance with the CB750-based RCB1000 and RS1000. Honda won the title five years in a row, from 1976 to 1980.
In 1979 Honda returned to Grand Prix competition, with another fabulous machine, which also became a legend, even though it never won a race. Honda was committed to the four-stroke engine, even though by that time GP racing was dominated by two-strokes. To beat the two-strokes Honda had to build its most radical machine yet: the NR500.
The NR was an engineering miracle – a V4 engine with oval pistons, eight valves, two connecting road and two spark plugs per cylinder, revving to over 20,000rpm. In essence it was like a V8, with the eight cylinders merged into four, the maximum allowed.
The chassis was no less radical, with aluminium monocoque frame, 16-inch tyres, coaxially mounted drive sprocket, composite Com-Star wheels and pannier-style radiators.
NR stood for New Racer and Honda assembled its youngest and brightest engineers to work on the project. However, despite numerous engineering ideas that would help Honda R&D in the future, the NR was unable to beat the two-strokes.
Thus in 1982 Honda launched its first two-stroke Grand Prix bike, the NS500. This three-cylinder machine with reed-valve induction was unlike the dominant four-cylinder bikes with disc-valve induction, but it was a potential winner from the moment it hit the track. In 1983 Freddie Spencer rode the NS to Honda’s first 500cc World Championship, making Soichiro Honda a happy man. So happy, that Spencer was invited to lunch at Honda san’s Tokyo home.
The following year Honda unleashed the most successful premier-class machine of all time: the NSR500. During the next decade and a half, ongoing iterations of the V4 two-stroke won more than 130 GPs and 21 Riders and Constructors World Championships. NSR500 world champions included Spencer, Wayne Gardner, Eddie Lawson, Mick Doohan, Alex Criville and Valentino Rossi.
Honda’s development of the NSR, from 1984 to 2001, tells the story of Grand Prix technical development during that decisive era. From the mid-1980s horsepower levels increased at a dramatic rate, forcing chassis engineers to seek new ways of getting all that power to the ground.
During this period Honda chassis engineers learned a great deal about frame and swingarm design – geometry, rigidity, bike balance – that could be transferred to road machines.
The first NSR500 was a machine created by blue-sky thinking, with the fuel tank below the engine to reduce centre of gravity. In fact this didn’t work, so the 1985 NSR500 was of more conventional configuration. The bike took Spencer to that years’ world title. At the same time Spencer rode an all-new NSR250 to the 250 crown. The 500/250 has never been achieved by another rider or manufacturer.
The NSR250 and RS250RW won many more successes, taking more than 160 Grand Prix wins, 11 250cc Riders Constructors World Championships and 14 250cc Constructors World Championships. Honda’s NSR250/RS250RW champions included Spencer, Sito Pons, Luca Cadalora, Daijiro Kato, Dani Pedrosa and Hiroshi Aoyama, who won the final 250cc crown in 2009
In 1987 Honda returned to the 125cc class for the first time in 21 years. The machine was the RS12R single-cylinder two-stroke, which became one of most significant Grand Prix bikes of all time, because its helped thousands of riders across the world compete, in everything from GP racing to club racing. The RS125R won more than 130 GPs and took many great riders to 125cc title success, including Loris Capirossi, Haruchika Aoki and Pedrosa.
In 1989 the RS125R helped Honda assume total domination of Grand Prix racing for the first time since 1966, the company conquering the 125cc, 250cc and 500cc Constructors World Championships.
In 1992 Honda made another breakthrough with a new concept NSR500 engine. The so-called big-bang engine used a revised firing configuration to deliver power in a more rider-friendly way. This machine took Doohan to an historic five consecutive 500cc world titles, from 1994 to 1998 and helped Rossi win the final 500cc World Championship of 2001.
The MotoGP era
During the 1970s and 1980s ever-tightening global emissions regulations made two-stroke engines unviable for the road, so eventually it made no sense to continue racing two-strokes. In 2002 Grand Prix racing moved to four-stroke power, with 990cc four-strokes replacing the 500cc two-strokes.
Honda’s first machine for this new era was the RC211V, a superbly conceived V5 machine that won 29 of the first 32 MotoGP races, as well as the 2002 and 2003 MotoGP Riders and Constructors World Championships.
The RC211V was a work of genius, taking the lessons learned from the NSR500 and Honda’s RC45 World Superbike machine to create a motorcycle that delivered superbly rider-friendly performance.
The compact design of the 75.5-degree V5 engine, with three cylinders in the front bank and two in the rear, allowed the construction of a mass-centralised chassis that gave riders real confidence when they attacked corners.
This ground-breaking concept allowed numerous riders to get the maximum out of the RC211V: Alex Barros, Max Biaggi, Toni Elias, Sete Gibernau, Nicky Hayden, Marco Melandri, Dani Pedrosa, Valentino Rossi, Makoto Tamada and Tohru Ukawa all won races on the bike. In 2006 Hayden took the RC211V’s third riders title. At the same time the bike took Honda’s fourth MotoGP constructors crown in five years.
For 2007 MotoGP engine capacity was reduced from 990cc to 800cc. Once again, Honda built an all-new machine, capitalising on the knowhow gained during the first five seasons of MotoGP. The RC212V used a narrow-degree V4 engine that revved past 18,000rpm, demanding pneumatic-valve springs for better high-rpm valve control. The steeper power curve of the 800s also demanded better electronic rider controls, the most significant development during the 800cc era.
The RC212V wasn’t an instant success like the RC211V. The machine demanded a huge amount of input from HRC engineers, who learned much from their work on engine, chassis and electronics. In 2011 Casey Stoner rode the RC212V to the MotoGP Riders World Championship. Fellow RC212V race-winners Andrea Dovizioso and Dani Pedrosa finished third and fourth overall to give Honda another MotoGP Constructors World Championship.
In 2012 MotoGP engine regulations changed once again, with engine capacity increasing to 1000cc. The new RC213V was also a V4, but with a wider 90-degree vee, for perfect primary balance. The bike was an instant championship challenger, with Casey Stoner’s 2012 title hopes spoiled only by a mid-season change of front tyre spec.
Super-rookie Marc Marquez arrived in 2013 to take the title at his first attempt, using his all-action riding technique to push the RC213V to the limit and beyond. The new machine opened a new golden era for Honda, with the young Spaniard winning six MotoGP Riders World Championships between 2013 and 2019, while Honda took seven MotoGP Constructors World Championships between 2012 and 2019. That latest constructors title was Honda’s 25th in the premier class, another historic landmark. During this period Briton Cal Crutchlow and Jack Miller also won MotoGP races aboard the RC213V.
The intermediate Grand Prix classes also switched to four-stroke power, with the 250cc category becoming Moto2 in 2010 and the 125cc class becoming Moto3 in 2012.
Honda built an all-new machine for Moto3, the company’s first four-stroke 250cc Grand Prix bike since the six-cylinder RC166 of the 1960s. The NSF250RW was a single-cylinder machine, according to technical regulations designed to create lower-cost racing.
The NSF250RW’s clever, compact design – with rearward-facing cylinder – has made it consistently the most successful machine in Moto3, with almost 100 victories achieved in the class. Honda has also won four of the last five constructors prizes in the category.