2002 was a year of revolutionary rule changes in world championship motorcycle racing.
It was also the year Honda unveiled the RC211V.
Packed with new technology and ideas as well as a unique V5 engine layout, the bike's outstanding performance quickly gained a high reputation among riders.
Winning both the rider's and constructor's titles in its debut year, the RC211V opened the door to a new era of motorcycle racing.
We trace the evolution of this pioneering MotoGP machine from 2002 to 2006, after which it was succeeded by the RC212V.
In 2002 MotoGP replaced GP500 as the world's premier motorcycle road race championship. For the first year of MotoGP, Honda debuted the new 4-stroke, 990cc V-5 engined RC211V. Its three front and two rear cylinder layout, with a 75.5 degree bank angle, reduced first order vibration and eliminated the need for a secondary balancer so the engine itself could be made lighter. Even more than the technology involved, the choice of a V-5 layout – the first in the history of road racing – positioned this machine as the kind of ground-breaking innovation the world expected from Honda. In a season in which new larger bikes raced alongside older 2-stroke 500cc machines, the RC211V absolutely dominated the field, taking 14 out of 16 races to win both rider's and constructor's titles for Honda.
Mufflers were changed to megaphone style and increased from two to three. Engine intake-exhaust control and a slipper clutch to control engine braking were also introduced. In addition to these approaches to reducing back torque, suspension geometry was also changed. These measures aimed at preventing rear tire hopping and ensuring better handling for the bike. The 2003 modifications effectively eliminated most of the negative factors associated with 4-stroke engines, making the RC211V much easier to ride, and the previously common sight of its rear end drifting on corner entry now became rare. In the RC211V 's second season it won 15 out of 16 races, once again taking both rider's and constructor's titles.
Power was further increased with the aim of shortening lap times, and to handle this a revised Unit ProLink rear suspension was introduced, with the link now positioned above the arm instead of below. The objective was to ensure increased traction and stability during acceleration. 2004 also saw the introduction of the HITCS (Honda Intelligent Throttle Control System). This system sensed differences in speed between front and back wheels, and then used electronic throttle control to prevent wheel spin and wheelies. It not only achieved more effective acceleration when straightening up out of corners, it also automatically opened the throttle when decelerating for smoother engine revs, and used engine braking to prevent hopping. This year Honda took the constructor's title, but missed the rider's although we had seven wins (Gibernau 4, Biaggi 1 and Tamada 2).
Several changes were made to both frame and engine to make handling sharper on corner entry and improve cornering speed. The HITCS was further improved to provide greater responsiveness and to more naturally and faithfully follow the rider's intentions when accelerating. Because of the large scale changes planned for future frames and engines, many prototypes were tested. Marco Melandri won twice to finish second in the championship ranking, while Nicky Hayden was third with one win. For the first time since the introduction of the RC211V the bike won no titles, but both bike and riders showed great promise for the future.
For 2006, the final year under 990cc rules, Honda prepared two variations of the RC211V – the Original and the New Generation. Compared to the Original, which was a development of the 2005 model, the New Generation ridden by Nicky Hayden was a more compact bike, designed to be both lighter and more powerful in anticipation of the coming switch to 800cc bikes. The wheelbase was unchanged, so the swingarm pivot was moved forward to make space for setting the rear suspension. The smaller profile side fairing improved yaw characteristics that contributed to better handling, and the new HITCS II system now featured direct wire connection to the front three cylinders to more closely reflect the rider's intention. Electronic throttle control for the rear pair of cylinders indicated the engine response to the rider's intention to allow more accurate control when opening the throttle and at full throttle. Nicky Hayden won the championship on his New Generation RC211V, and in this final season for the bike it gained all three titles for Honda.