1959: The First Steps Towards Greatness
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 light weight 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 in 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 lift the winning 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 up 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.
Japanese Motorcycle Manufacturers Reined In
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 were sporting 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, number of cylinders and a maximum of six speeds) to narrow the gap.