European Endurance Racing: The History of Invincible Honda 1976~1979

Honda Endurance Racing and F.C.C. TSR Honda are participating in the 2016/2017 FIM Endurance World Championship (EWC) series with Honda CBR1000RR bikes. The series stages a total of 6 races, ending with the Suzuka 8hours FIM EWC. The European Endurance Championship series is the predecessor to the FIM EWC series. In the 1970’s, Honda won both the riders and the constructors titles for four consecutive years. The team was so strong, it was known as “the invincible.”

1978 RCB1000s Return to Japan with Three Straight Bol d'or Victories

1978 Bol d'or 24 hours race opening
1978 Bol d'or 24 hours race opening

After an invincible campaign in Europe, Honda decided to enter the RCB1000s in the Suzuka 8 hours race, to be held in late July, 1978. As success of the RCB1000 was widely reported in Japan, Honda was expected to obliterate the European endurance professionals. Many fans came to Suzuka to catch sight of the indomitable RCB1000s which had dominated the European Endurance Championship, and many other teams had ambitions to beat the endurance champions. The conventional theory to win an endurance race was to set and maintain a pace at 80% capacity, but rival teams eager to beat the RCB1000s begged to differ. They were going to race flat out from lap one, for the entire eight hours.

Charlie Williams / RCB1000 (1978 Suzuka 8 hours)
Charlie Williams / RCB1000
(1978 Suzuka 8 hours)

For the race, Team Director Aika prepared 482 bikes equipped with 481 engines. The team's priority was the European Championship, and they were not prepared to ship the new 482 engines between Europe and Japan for a non-title race. They hadn't even considered racing in the Suzuka 8 hours, considering the strain on the riders leading up to the Bol d'or 24 hours in six weeks time.

Christian Leon / RCB1000 (1978 Bol d'or 24 hours)
Christian Leon / RCB1000
(1978 Bol d'or 24 hours)

Jean-Claude Chemarin / RCB1000 (1978 Bol d'or 24 hours)
Jean-Claude Chemarin / RCB1000
(1978 Bol d'or 24 hours)

Hubert Rigal / RCB1000 (1978 Bol d'or 24 hours)
Hubert Rigal / RCB1000
(1978 Bol d'or 24 hours)

Jacques Luc / RCB1000 (1978 Bol d'or 24 hours)
Jacques Luc / RCB1000
(1978 Bol d'or 24 hours)

The Suzuka 8 hours turned out to be more like a sprint race than an endurance race, and the race strategy tuned for a 24 hour race did not work. Honda Britain's Woods/Williams crashed on the second lap and retired, and while Honda France's Leon/Chemarin kept a constant pace, engine problems caused the team to retire around three hours into the race after only 67 laps. Albeit a non-title race, the team that won Japan's first international race was Yoshimura Suzuki on a Super Bike-spec GS1000 (Wes Cooley/Mike Baldwin). In second place was European rival Yamaha TZ750 (Isohiro Sugimoto/David Emde), and in third was another Super Bike-spec Moriwaki Kawasaki Z1 (Grame Crosby/Tony Hatton). Noone had expected the sprinters to be so successful, nor that the RCB1000s would be defeated. Yoshimura, on the other hand, had researched the RCB1000s' lap times in Europe, and had planned their own strategy carefully.

Back in Europe, the Bol d'or 24 hours had been moved from Le Mans to Paul Recard, and Honda entered eight 482-model RCB1000s, reinforcing the commitment to Europe, and not Suzuka. Patrick Pons/Christian Sarrons' Yamaha TZ750 led the race for 16 hours, when they retired due to a broken crankshaft. Leon/Chemarin who had kept up pace behind chasing the Yamaha took the lead, and finished the race after 603 laps, winning the Bol d'or three years in a row for Honda. Jacques Luc/Hubert Rigal of Honda France finished 2nd, followed by Woods/Williams in 3rd, for an all-Honda podium. 8 Honda bikes finished within the top 10, and Honda had won the manufacturers title for the third consecutive time, equalling the record set 27 years ago by Norton in 1951. The last round of the season in Brands Hatch was won by Wood/Williams and Leon/Chemarin were second. This was another year of Honda's domination of the Endurance scene in Europe, winning all eight races.

In the three years Honda teams challenged endurance racing, they had won 24 out of 26 races. They had missed wins at the Le Mans 1000km in their second year, due to various problems, and the Suzuka 8 hours in 1978. As both these races did not count towards the title, Honda had won every single European Endurance Championship race they competed in, becoming the unbeatable champion. Satisfied with this result, HERT considered their mission accomplished, and disbanded. Honda had a new project to tackle, challenging the WGP title with the NR500 in 1979. The inexperienced, later to be NR500 development team had entered this year's Bol d'or 24 hours with a 481 model, to gain race experience. The American pair David Emde/Heints Clintsman finished 9th.

Poster for third consecutve Bol d'or 24 hours victory
Poster for third consecutve Bol d'or 24 hours victory

Michihiko Aika, project leader of the endurance racing team, was transferred to RSC (Racing Service Centre), the former body of HRC (developing/selling racing machines and kit parts was their function), as Chief Executive Officer. The Endurance team's headquarters was moved to RCS at the same time, and around ten members from HERT joined RSC. In 1979, RSC used its know-how gained from racing in Europe to produce a new type of racer, the RS1000, based on the CB900F for European markets and the CB750F for Japanese and U.S. markets. The RCB1000s leased out to local affiliates were originally aimed at increasing recognition with local riders, and making Honda's image widespread in these countries. The release of the RS1000 made it even easier for local teams and privateers to start racing, which was precisely how RSC intended.

The success of the RCB1000s also made a great impression on the market. Honda had lacked an attractive large bike in Europe, until it released the CB900F in September 1978. With its light-weight, compact engine and flowing form, aimed at high performance on the track, the CB900F was an instant hit. It's catalog displayed the RS1000 alongside the CB900F, strongly suggesting its lineage, and reminding consumers of how successful the RCB1000s were. Soon after the CB900F became a mega-hit around Europe, the CB750F was released in Japan, in June 1979. This was another smash hit selling around 1000 units per month as soon as it appeared. Until the release of the CB750F, monthly sales for large bikes were typically around 100 to 150 units, making it a phenomenal model. The enormous popularity of the CB-F series also had an influence in the U.S. where there was a marked increase in racing fans as well as street riders.


1978 Race Results

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