A Renewed Challenge Using Four-Stroke Machines For The World GP
Without doubt, Honda's domination of the World GP series in the 1960s and its contemporary production machines proved that it had superior technology. However, progress in the field of racing is measured in days rather than years, and Honda had been away from the tracks for a decade. Would Honda still have the power to win? It was a question that needed answering, and the company declared its return to the 500cc Class in World GP events, the pinnacle of the series, in November 1977. This was big news in itself, but Honda's declaration included another element that raised many eyebrows in the racing arena - whilst two-stroke engines were considered the norm, Honda's new machine would sport a four-stroke engine.
When Honda first joined the racing circus, for the given capacity of 500cc, four-stroke engines were considered an advantage, as two-stroke technology was still far from perfected. However, by the 1970s, two-stroke engines were giving exceptional power, and the situation was reversed, with four-stroke units thought to be at a disadvantage for the engine size.
Notwithstanding, Honda wanted an engine that displayed a level of originality that fitted in with the business principles laid out by its founding father. The result was an engine unlike that ever seen before in the racing world - a high-revving four-stroke, four-cylinder unit, with unique oval-shaped pistons that gave the visual impression of a V8.
The NR500's Legacy of Innovation
This oval-pistoned four-stroke machine, duly named the NR500, was unveiled as a prototype in 1978. However, such innovative technology takes time to perfect, and it wasn't until the 1979 British GP (the 11th race of the year) that the NR500 made its track debut. Both Honda riders - Takazumi Katayama and Mick Grant - retired. Indeed, the new motorcycle failed to win any races before it was withdrawn in 1981. Many lessons were learnt during the development process, though, and various technologies were applied to a number of successful Honda road bikes with V-type engines.
A Direction Change: The Two-Stroke V3 NS500
Having concluded that the NR500 was never going to give Honda the desired results on the track, in 1982, Honda's engineers decided to concentrate their efforts on creating a new two-stroke racing machine for the World GP series.
At the time, most competitors were using two-stroke fours delivering around 130bhp, but these engines were not ideally matched to contemporary tyre performance, causing stability problems and fast wear rates. Therefore Honda selected a V3 configuration for its new power-unit, which was lighter, thus enhancing both handling and tyre life. See rare photographs from 1982 Also, the bike's bodywork could be made slimmer, improving aerodynamics, which would allow a higher top speed. It was felt that this combination of fresh ideas would give Honda the upper hand on the track, or, at the very least, enable it to close in on its rivals.
The NS500 was entrusted to Freddie Spencer, Marco Lucchinelli and Takazumi Katayama for 1982. The opening race of the World GP series, held in Argentina, saw Spencer claim a podium finish, and Honda's first taste of victory in its second era of Grand Prix racing came just seven races later, in Belgium. It had been 15 years since Honda had last won a World GP race, but Katayama duly won in Sweden and Spencer in San Marino, thus proving the NS500 concept was the right way to go.