|First Victory: The Suzuka 200-Kilometer Race
The oval piston engine underwent further improvements in order to reduce its weight, enhance output, and improve durability. The improved engine intended for the 1981 season had a smaller body, made possible by dropping the V-bank angle from 100 degrees to 90. Moreover, it had a maximum output of 130 ps at 19,000 rpm. Therefore, beginning with the 1981 season, Honda decided it wouldn't just compete in the World GP, but that it would also enter the All-Japan Championship Series. Honda made the decision to refine its NR500s more rapidly through participation in more races, hoping to build winning machines as quickly as possible.
In the second race of the All-Japan Championship, held at Suzuka Circuit in March 1981, the two NR500s ridden by Katayama and Kengo Kiyama both fell and retired. However, they had demonstrated considerable tenacity during the race, advancing to a point just behind the top group. In the next race held at Suzuka in April, the team saw one of its NR500s finish in fifth place. By this time, the NR500s were performing at levels equal to those of their 2-stroke counterparts.
Yoichi Oguma, the chief research engineer from HGA's Second Research Block who had joined the NR project in 1981 and became the first manager of the Honda Racing Team (HRC) the following year, had one vision: "Tactics and strategies also are important in winning the race. Honda is so preoccupied with the performance of its machines, but we can't win unless the machines, the riders and the team work as one."
This was a conviction that Oguma, a former All-Japan champion in the 125 cc junior class, had acquired through his own experience. Reflecting on that belief, the Suzuka 200-km Race-the sixth All-Japan race held in June 1981-was run under his careful supervision, according to a calculated strategy.
Any 2-stroke engine running a distance of 200 km, or 34 laps of the Suzuka Circuit track, will require at least one pit stop in order to refuel. That means approximately 10 seconds in the pit area. Considering that the bike must decelerate to enter the pits and accelerate again on its return to the course, nearly 20 seconds must be given up. Oguma's strategy was to let his machines run the entire race without a fuel stop by making use of their higher fuel efficiency, which was of course the advantage of 4-stroke design. According to his calculations, the NR500s would save around 0.6 second per lap by eliminating the fuel stop.
The race was carried out according to plan. While the rival machines were making their fuel stops, Kiyama's NR500 gradually advanced, eventually passing the leader on lap 23. It was the first time an NR500 had led a race. What's more, Kiyama maintained his time, leading the race lap after lap. Coming out of the last corner first, his NR500 kept its lead and took the checkered flag. Three years after the start of development, the NR Block and its NR500 had achieved a victory.
The team was again victorious in July, when Freddie Spencer rode his NR500 to a first-place finish in a five-lap heat race held at Laguna Seca in California, which doubled as the qualifying round for an international race. It was with these victories that the NR500s were established as contenders in the ultimate challenge: to win a World GP race.
It was, however, still quite premature to assume that victory in a World GP event was theirs for the taking. That was too high a mountain to climb. After Katayama's thirteenth place finish at the first Austrian Grand Prix in April 1981, the riders continued to retire from subsequent races. The 1981 season ended without any point total for the Honda team.
Hence, the promise to become the world champion within three years was broken. The NR Block had found itself at the crossroads of victory and defeat, survival and abandonment
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