Interview with the leader of the Dakar Rally TEAM HRC

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The Road to the Dakar RallyThe Road to the Dakar Rally

First Honda Works Bike in 24 Years: TEAM HRC to Participate in Rally Raid. With a different location and different rivals, the Dakar Rally has changed significantly since Honda's four consecutive wins from 1986 to 1989 during the NXR era. What are Honda's aims, and how will they achieve them? We asked Katsumi Yamazaki, the leader of TEAM HRC, who recently returned from a test race in the Morocco Rally in Africa.

Q.When and how did Honda decide to enter the Dakar Rally?

Internal discussions on Honda entering a works bike in the Dakar Rally began in January 2012. But that was a decision that could not be made by Japan alone. We spoke with Honda's companies in South America, North America and Europe before reaching a general agreement in March. After that, we summarized what we had discussed and officially launched the project on April 17th. After the project was launched, there were discussions on who would join the team, how many people we needed, and other such details. I was asked to join in May after the Golden Week holiday. It has been less than 6 months and we just raced in the Morocco Rally, so in terms of development, our pace has been incredibly fast.

Q.How did you proceed with development?

First, we built clay models. We used design clay to create models that would approximate the exterior parts of the actual machine. We more-or-less finished this work in June. That is when we had two racers-Helder Rodrigues and Sam Sunderland-come to Japan, so we could perform the fitting work at HRC in Asaka. During the rally, having navigation equipment that is easy to read and operate is extremely important, as is checking the impact of a large fuel tank on riding. We also checked the width of the machine and how much freedom the riders had when they moved their bodies forward and backward on the bike.

After that, we took them to Hokkaido Off-Road Park (HOP) in Chitose for some field tests. Based on our clay models, we manufactured the exterior parts in FRP and added dead weight on either end of the bike (to simulate the weight of gasoline). We took the proposed revisions from these tests back to Asaka and made some adjustments. This is basically when we finalized the overall shape of the bike. The design remained almost unchanged by the time we released it at Intermot in October. In other words, we had achieved the best design very early in the process.

In mid-July we went to Morocco in Africa for a second set of tests. The Dakar Rally is currently staged in South America, but I had been to Morocco several times when we raced in the former Paris to Dakar Rally, so I was familiar with the territory. I chose to test the bike where I knew we could subject it to extreme harsh conditions. We had the riders ride the bike, and, to make a long story short, the bike got beat up. Almost all of the parts broke.

This is when we ended up readjusting our targets. We realized the goals we had set were not good enough and that we would never win the Dakar Rally with the current targets. So, we reset almost 200 items, including engine power, durability and serviceability, and these revised target values are what we are now using in the development process.

For our third test, we went to the Mojave Desert in California (in the United States) in late August. I chose this location because, while Morocco is an excellent place to race, it is a rather harsh environment in terms of ease of testing. Several times when we needed something in Morocco, we didn't have it or couldn't obtain it easily. That is why I decided to do the next test in the United States where I joined 11-time Baja 1,000 winner Johnny Campbell of JCR (who I had developed machines with several times in the past), JCR mechanic Eric and HRA's Mr. Hanawa, who was there to assist JCR. I thought we should conduct a test in the easiest place to run tests.

I worked with Johnny for over 10 years developing machines for the Baja 1000; he and I are kindred spirits. That is when it hit me: if a respected veteran like Johnny joined the team, we would surely do well in the race. So, I decided to get Johnny and his team involved in the project. The machine we used in the Morocco test was the initial bike with dead weight strapped on it, but this time we had a bike equipped with a fuel tank and key parts, so we were able to test a near-complete machine in very good condition. We had been raising the bar in each of our previous engine output tests, and in the United States test, we ended up achieving a considerably high score.

In September, we invited Felipe Zanol to another test in Hokkaido since we had yet to test the bike with a South American rider. The first photo released on the Honda homepage of the bike with black exterior parts is from this test.

The next stop was Morocco for our first actual race. By the time we went to Morocco, we had a machine with considerably higher engine output. Since it's a works machine, I cannot mention the actual number, but I can give you an idea if I tell you we boosted power by more than 30%. Since power is normally 33kW, that means our bike was registering over 43kW. The bike was only about 70% complete in terms of our targets, so we honestly did not expect to perform well in the rally. But when we let it loose, we found it ran at a level equivalent to the KTM, which is currently the top competitor. Another reason for racing in this rally is to check rider suitability, and the results of the test were extremely valuable.
Our main objectives for this rally were to shakedown the machine and verify its performance in an actual race. We also aimed to check rider and staff suitability and foster teamwork among the 30 TEAM HRC members from 11 countries. In the end, we received some very valuable feedback on each of these objectives. Since we knew the machine was only 70% complete, our goal for this rally was to identify any issues so we could fix them before the Dakar Rally.

Q.You unveiled the bike at Intermot in October. What was the crowd's reaction?

It was very good. In particular, the design was very well received. Since it was our first works entry in a long time, we gained a good deal of attention. The design had hardly changed since the initial model, so Intermot served to reaffirm the high precision of our early design.

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