From Two-Stroke To Four-Stroke
The NR500 was the only four-stroke machine competing in the 500cc Class of the World GP series back in the early 1980s - all other motorcycles had two-stroke engines. It was notable, however, that society was calling for four-stroke technology for road bikes. Thus, the link between road and race machines was once again too weak in the eyes of the GPMA (now the MSMA) and there were worries about the future viability of the 500cc category. The manufacturer's body therefore put forward a proposal to the FIM to encourage four-stroke development. Duly accepted, the new rules, in effect from 2002, stated that the top racers could have two-stroke engines with a maximum capacity of 500cc, while four-stroke units could be bored out to 990cc. At the same time, the World GP moniker was changed to MotoGP. It was the biggest event in motorcycle sport since the revolutionary rule changes of 1969.
For 2002, Honda fielded the 990cc, four-stroke RC211V, the RC designation reviving memories of Honda's golden years in the World GP series in the 1960s. In keeping with Honda's policy of pushing the engineering envelope, the power plant was a revolutionary V5 unit, made all the more interesting by its use of 'big bang' ignition timing from the company's two-stroke era. RC211V Despite a short period of development, the RC211V quickly showed its potential, even managing to eclipse the NSR500 on the tracks. Honda duly won both the rider's and constructor's championship that year, the first to be held under the new MotoGP rules. It was also symbolic of a new era that the NSR500, which had previously been the machine to beat, failed to win all season.
Ironically, the straight-line speed of the 990cc racers increased to a point where safety issues were raised. Bikes were now capable of exceeding 330kph, and very few circuits had gravel traps or other safety features that could match this level of performance. The time had come, once again, for a review of the regulations, prompting the governing body to specify four-stroke engines with a maximum capacity of 800cc to be adopted from 2007, along with a limit on tyre use.
Meanwhile, each manufacturer had refined its machines for an ultimate showdown in the final year of 990cc MotoGP racing, with Honda fielding two versions of the RC211V. One was a regular model, used by five riders, while the other, a one-off, was provided for ace rider Nicky Hayden, with a modified engine, frame and bodywork. This combination created a level of excitement not seen in the Honda camp since Freddie Spencer had been given an NSR500 in 1984.
2006 was notable for the emergence of several younger riders in an eventful season. Hayden scored well in the early races, but was caught up in the second half of the season. A fall cost him dearly in the penultimate race, but he came through to take the flag in the final meeting and claim the last 990cc MotoGP championship. During the five years of 990cc MotoGP racing, the RC211V was the strongest machine of them all, winning around half of the events held.
For 2007, Honda made a V4 engine for its latest RC212V machine ready to compete in the new 800cc MotoGP series. Straight-line speed was reduced by 15kph, but riders were able to put the power down earlier and brake later. Tyre technology also improved, and traction control systems from the 990c era were further refined. As a result, overall lap times with 800cc bikes were not that different to those posted by the top 990cc runners.
2009 brings with it a single tyre supplier for the MotoGP series, making the roles of the machine and rider that much more important. This has prompted more off-season development than ever before, with computers, data analysts and high-level simulations coming together to make high-precision bikes capable of fighting for race honours, and giving birth to technology that will duly find its way onto Honda production machines. The spirit of the Isle of Man TT declaration continues...