Monthly Archives: September 2013

Going Seamless

When Casey Stoner won the final 800cc MotoGP World Championship for Honda in 2011, many a finger was pointed at the seamless gearbox Honda had developed as being a major factor in the RC212V’s reinvigorated performance.  Shuhei Nakamoto, vice-president of Honda Racing Corporation,  believed it was more a matter of refinement in many areas of RC212V that had brought about the championship winning performance.

HRC Vice-President Shuhei Nakamoto

HRC Vice-President Shuhei Nakamoto.

But the seamless gearbox did raise the ire of the MotoGP commercial rights holder Dorna, who with the FIM, was on a crusade to cut costs and to close the performance inequity between the CRT teams and the factory prototypes.

Yamaha, however, is the last of the factory teams to adopt the technology as Ducati had already introduced their version of the seamless gearbox in late 2011. To the delight of its Grand Prix World Champions Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi, the M1 went seamless at Misano for the San Marino Grand Prix. It was a concerted effort by Yamaha to try and bridge the technology gap to Honda and to help Jorge Lorenzo claw back lost ground in the MotoGP World Championship battle.

So what are the benefits of this new technology? According to Valentino Rossi, “The bike is more stable in acceleration so it’s less demanding, so you can be more consistent and more precise, with less effort,” he added. “The only difference in setup is the electronics: you get less wheelie, so you need less wheelie control [which means more horsepower and more acceleration].”

Rossi and Lorenzo were glad to have the seamless gearbox at Misano

Rossi and Lorenzo were delighted to have the seamless gearbox at Misano.

The fact that gears can be shifted without the split second loss of torque through the transmission that occurs with a racing speed shifter,  which momentarily cuts the ignition as another gear is engaged,  is the primary benefit.  With a conventional gearbox when the torque is reintroduced it can load up the rear tyre and cause wheelspin or wheelies. which may also unsettle the front end of the bike. Also with a seamless gearbox down, changes are smoother helping engine braking with a more controlled front end under brakes.  Greater stability while changing gears mid corner is another big benefit of the system.

How does it work? To put it in simple terms two gears are engaged simultaneously.  The torque is transmitted through the lower ratio but as engine torque rises the higher gear ratio is gradually engaged. When the higher gear is selected the torque is transferred seamlessly to it.  The reverse is true of down changes. There are many subtle benefits of the gearbox.  Shorter gear change time, Improved tyre wear, more precise handling and less fatigue on the rider.

Yamaha managed to close the technology gap at Misano

Yamaha managed to close the technology gap at Misano.

The cost of developing the seamless gearbox is a mute point with Dorna who thought that they had all the bases covered when they outlawed automatic, CVT and twin clutch transmissions, which is also the case in F1.  There is a certain amount of irony here concerning F1 which I will refer to shortly.

Lin Jarvis Managing Director of Yamaha Factory Racing towed the Dorna line initially saying that Yamaha would not have invested in the technology if Honda had not.  This in some ways is a strange approach as most manufacturers justification to go racing is to develop new technology that can eventually filter down to their production motorcycles.

Yamaha Factory Racing Managing Director Lin Jarvis.

Yamaha Factory Racing Managing Director Lin Jarvis.

Honda has quite openly been accused of spending a vast amount of money on their seamless system. But is this purely speculation?  This brings us back to Formula One.  The FIA outlawed automatic, CVT and twin clutch transmissions in the 1990’s, but for the 2005 season, the governing body deemed seamless gearboxes legal. One of the first cabs of the rank was the BAR Honda Formula One team who promptly announced they had developed such a gearbox for an introduction that season.

So seamless gearbox technology is not new to Honda having introduced it in F1 some six years before it appeared on the RC212V of the Repsol Honda Team in 2011.  It would, therefore, be safe to suggest that the cost to Honda for using existing technology would not have been as extreme as some would have us believe.

Considering Dorna’s close links with F1, it’s a surprising oversight that the move to seamless technology by Honda was not anticipated.

Words Geoff Dawes (C) 2013. Photographs courtesy of Repsol Honda Team and Yamaha Factory Racing.

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Archives: Blue Bolide

 

The Suzuki holds its line and changes direction easily.

The scene is the final hour of 1988 24 Heures De Leige at Spa in Belgium.  Suzuki France lead rider, Herve Moineau, waits nervously in the pit, quietly preparing himself for his final session on the GSX-R750.  After 23 hours of racing his teammate, Thierry Crine is leading by just 15 seconds from the Honda France entry.  But it’s not just the race that’s being decided on the track it’s also the World Endurance Championship.

The Honda pits first, Bouheben climbing exhausted off the ’87 model RVF that team manager, Jean-Louis Guillou, has entered in preference to the less reliable ’88 version.  Alex Vieira mounts the Honda to the clak-clak-clak of chief mechanic Coulon’s air gun as the rear wheel is changed.  Only 11.5 seconds have passed when Vieira blasts out of the pits.

A lap later Moineau is staring intently down pit lane waiting for Crine to come in.  The blue overalled mechanics ready themselves as they know the slightest mistake can cost them the Championship.  Crine dives into pit lane and hands the GSX-R750 Suzuki to Moineau who is refuelled and out the pit in 6.27 seconds.  Suzuki Team Manager, Domonique Meliand, stands by the pit wall, stop- watch in hand, ready to time the split as Moineau flashes by on his first flying lap, before flicking left then right through Eau Rouge and out of sight – but where’s the Honda!

45 seconds later Vieira’s Honda drones past. Word spreads down pit lane that on the last lap of his stint, Bouheben, who had heroically made up 13 seconds on the Suzuki, dropped the Honda at the bus-stop chicane before handing the RVF750 to Vieira.

The race and the championship are Suzuki’s, beating their great adversary, Honda, in the last year before the series loses its World Championship status.

*          *          *

Later that month half a world away, at Sugo in Japan, Suzuki scores its first win in a new production based World Championship, the World Superbike Series, with its new J model GSX-R750.  Yoshimura pilot, Gary Goodfellow’s win, however, is put down to luck, as the first leg victory was more the result of a tyre gamble, and in the second leg, an oil spill affects the outcome of the race.  Suzuki knows they are in trouble as the privateers complain about the F.I.M.’s stock carburettor ruling, bemoaning the J models 36mm slingshot CV carburettors that won’t let the engine run cleanly at the top end, and even Yoshimura is having trouble getting horsepower from the new short stroke motor!

*          *          *

It was the culmination of these major events that prompted Suzuki to produce a more competitive motorcycle for Superbike racing in 1989.   Taking a leaf out of Honda and Yamaha’s book, Suzuki has released the GSX-R750R, built specifically for Superbike homologation, and basically a road going replica of Suzuki’s Endurance World Championship winning machine and its F1 racer.  Suzuki Australia brought 50 of these $19,950 beauties into Australia last September, with six earmarked purely for racing (no A.D.R. compliance and $500 cheaper) while the other 44 are fully road registrable.

Jeff Zammit, the owner of Adelaide’s Suzuki South, was kind enough to let Bike Australia borrow his personal GSX-R750R for a ride impression.  Jeff’s RR (I will refer to Jeff’s bike as the RR so as not to cause confusion with the standard RK model) had 800km on it when I picked it up but was fully run in after some careful kilometres on the road and a bit of stick on the race track.  But before we go any further let’s have a look at what makes the RR cost $11,000 more than its similar looking stablemate.

Suzuki looks purposeful but "pretty".

Suzuki looks purposeful but “pretty”.

The heart of the RR is its engine and there are plenty of changes.  The carburettors are new BST 40mm CV items, up 4mm from the RK model and big enough to swallow birds and small dogs!  They feature easier resetting for race conditions and have a high-speed power jet which allows a leaner main jet for better mid-range throttle response.  Also improving throttle response is the atmospheric venting of the lower side of the carburettor diaphragm.  On the RK this is vented to the air-box where intake pulses can affect the pressure under the diaphragm and in turn throttle response.

A magnesium cover graces the factory-racer spec cylinder head, which features a valve system identical to the works racer and uses titanium nuts for valve adjustment.  Spark plugs are a new cold-type dual-electrode design by either NGK or ND with a smaller thread size of 10mm.  One reason for the change to a smaller thread size was to eliminate cracking in the combustion chamber that had occurred on RJ and some RK models used for superbike competition.  The RR also returns to the four-into-one exhaust system of the earlier models but with a lightweight stainless steel design that uses an aluminium muffler.

Another major change is the return to the old bore and stroke dimensions of 70.0mm x 48.7mm of the G and H model as opposed to the 73.0mm x 44.7mm of the shorter stroke J and K model.  One of the benefits the longer stroke provides is more time in terms of crankshaft degrees for the cylinder to charge, which in turn increases port velocity.   The crankshaft is a high-rigidity lightweight unit, identical to factory racer, as are the conrods, which spins to the same 13,000rpm redline as the short-stroke RK model.  Horsepower has increased over the RK by 8ps  to 120ps at the same 11,000rpm and torque has improved from 7.9kg.m to 8.3kg.m again at the same 9,500rpm. The clutch has received an extra drive plate and the cooling system now features a curved radiator from the GSX-R1100 with a sub cooler for the cylinder head to help deal with the increased thermal loads the optional $17,000 full race kit can create.

The chassis looks the same as the RK but has been strengthened around the steering head, and the swingarm is also heavily braced.  The front forks are of the inner- cartridge type, with beefy 43mm stanchion tubes that provide step-less spring preload and 12 positions for both rebound and compression damping.  A Showa remote gas shock is used at the rear with preload varied by screwing the spring collar up or down while a knob on the remote reservoir handles the compression damping and extension damping can be adjusted from the bottom of the shocker.  Wheel travel is 120mm for the front and 136mm at the rear, which is about par for the course for a serious sports bike these days.  Steering head rake is 30 degrees with 102mm of trail which is a bit slower than the RK’s 24 degrees 50 minutes and 99mm trail although the RR has a 5mm shorter wheelbase.

Racing riding position necessitates regular stops.

Racing riding position necessitates regular stops.

The Nissin four spot calipers of the RK set a high standard for its class and are retained at the front, but utilise slit-type floating disks from the GSX-R1100.  These are 5mm thicker than the RK’s and do a better job of drawing heat away from the pads, thereby reducing heat transfer into the calipers.  Wheels remain 17inches in diameter with the front the same 3.5inch width, while the rear is a massive 5.5inch job that takes advantage of Michelin’s latest fat low-profile road going radial and more obviously the current crop of racing slicks.  Tyre sizes are, up front an A59X 130/60 ZR17 and at the rear an M59X 170/60 ZR17.

The fairing is a quick-fastening two-piece affair of high cooling efficiency and low aerodynamic drag.  Suzuki has sand-cast special engine casings like those of the endurance racer to help reduce frontal area and give the RR a greater angle of lean.  The front fender and seat cowling are identical to the factory bike and all the bodywork is made from fibre reinforced plastic that’s suitable for racing conditions.

The seat rear subframe is of aluminium/steel construction and for solo use only.  A nice touch is the maintenance free battery that resides under the seat and is canted back at about 45 degrees so it will fit the confined space.  It no doubt helps, in some small way, the centre of mass of the bike.  Also, the seat bum pad is removable and can be unlocked with the ignition key.  This reveals two small storage spaces, one of which houses the tool kit.  The fuel tank holds 19 litres – 2 less than the RK and is styled after the F1 and endurance bikes.

Visually the RR is quite stunning – purposeful, but with a rounded shape and curved lines that to my mind can only be described as “pretty”. It’s also very compact and weighs only 187kg dry (8kg less than the RK) which makes the RR seem smaller than its capacity suggests.

My first impression when riding the RR was of discomfort, as the seating position is pure G.P. racer.  The clip-on handlebars are slightly lower than the RK’s while the footpegs are mounted more rearward – that combined with the angled seat force the rider to assume a serious racing crouch.  That’s not a complaint, the whole purpose of the RR is to win races not cruise the main street. But while riding home from Suzuki South, along Adelaide’s bumpy Main South Road, the RR was telegraphing subtle messages that were all very positive.

Form and function.

Form and function.

Getting off the line takes a deft hand as the throttle is very light which makes it easy to feed in more revs than necessary, as the engine has very little flywheel effect and responds instantly.  This is offset to a certain extent by the cable operated clutch which is smooth and progressive in its take up.  The tacho starts at 3000rpm but the RR will take off with about 1000rpm less than this no problem, even though it runs a very high first gear.  Using the close ratio six-speed gearbox was a pleasure – even with only 800km of use.  The engine spins very freely with little vibration just a faint rumble at around 4000rpm in the higher gears that are felt through the footpegs and seat.  The RR will sit happily on 80kmh at just under 4000 revs in sixth gear and felt as though it would pull cleanly right up to its 13,000rpm redline.  In this sort of stop start city riding the dual electrode spark plugs showed their mettle, allowing the RR to pull away from traffic lights with only the occasional slight trace of a stumble.  I was quite surprised that the RR would tolerate such low revs and yet carburated so cleanly.

Another pleasant surprise was the suspension, which had been set-up by Jeff for fast road work yet handled the bumpy conditions well by giving a firm but compliant ride.  Two fingers were all that was required on the front brake as they are very powerful and combine with the riding position to make the rider feel sure the rear wheel is going to lift off the ground.  The fairing did quite a good job in the warm conditions too, managing to get the hot air from the engine away without scorching the rider. Some hot air is deflected by heat shielding under the fuel tank, however, onto the riders forearms when stopped at traffic lights.  I have to compliment Suzuki on the RR’s mirrors.  They are slightly convex, and an elongated oval in shape that gives a good view of the following traffic – not the riders elbows, nice one Suzuki.

It’s an understatement that the RR was not designed for the hostile environment of city commuting but the Suzuki accredited itself surprisingly well (apart from the riding position), but to really get to know the RR better necessitates a more appropriate habitat.

The Adelaide Hills are crisscrossed with a great variety of scratchers roads, that vary from tight twisting turns to long sweeping curves – a natural place to head for with the RR.  In these conditions, the RR is in its element.  The Suzuki is so compact the rider can sense the centre of mass is just right, as the RR is so easy to flick into a corner, fast or slow, without any sign of top heaviness that can affect an inline four in a double cradle loop frame.  The steering is razor sharp too and it’s easy to place the Suzuki on the right line into a bend or change it mid-corner for that matter.

GSXR 750R in its natural habitat.

GSXR 750R in its natural habitat.

The engine is a real gem, it just loves to rev and gives such a linear power delivery that there is no real jump in performance.  On several occasion, when I managed to forget this was somebody else’s $20,000 motorcycle, my throttle hand got the better of me and I ventured into this higher plateau of the RR’s performance.  Apart from the feeling that somebody had put the scenery on fast forward the RR handled up-rushing bends in exactly the same. way  A quick two-fingered squeeze of the powerful front disc brakes washed of excess speed, at the same time snicking down a couple of gears, tip the RR into the corner on the chosen line clip the apex and back on the power accelerating out.  No protests from the chassis or tyres just rapid progress.

On a couple of occasions, I did manage to get into a few corners a bit too hot and found that hauling on the brakes in a turn caused the RR to stand up and run wide, which on one particular off-camber corner caused the front-end to chatter.  However I put this down to a suspension set-up for someone else, and a too tentative response to the situation from yours truly.  High-speed stability was impressive too, the RR feeling rock steady in a straight line almost giving the impression of squatting down on the road as speed increased. The very effective fairing had a lot to do with this and made sustaining high speeds easy, helped no doubt by the tiny perspex screen which deflected the brunt of on-rushing air past the rider’s helmet with very little buffeting.

Feeling at one with the exotic Suzuki GSXR 750R.

Feeling at one with the exotic Suzuki GSXR 750R.

Is it worth $20,000?  In my opinion, yes, it is that good. Suzuki has taken the evolutionary genes of their World Championship winning endurance racer and combined them with the DNA of their GSXR production model to create a racing thoroughbred.  But perhaps just as importantly it shows what good value for the money its slightly less race orientated stablemate the Suzuki GSX-R750K is.

Words Geoff Dawes (C) 1990. Photographs Geoff Dawes and Steve Frampton (C)1990. Published in Bike Australia May/June 1990.

Archives: Italian Masterpiece

 

The 250cc Benelli G.P. racer on display at the Birdwood Mill National Motor Museum in the late 1980’s

It was in the mid-1970’s that I first stumbled across the exotic little Benelli 250cc GP bike.  I’d made my usual pilgrimage to South Australia’s motorcycling mecca, which at that time was Adelaide’s Pirie Street, where I spotted the green and silver racer.  It was prominently displayed in the doorway of one of the many motorcycle shops that had come and gone over the years and whose name now eludes me.  The price tag tied to the alloy clip-on handlebar said $3,200, which seemed a lot considering I’d paid “only” $1,800 for a new Z1 900 Kawasaki, although I had no idea at the time of how rare the Benelli was.

My second encounter was some years later during a visit to South Australia’s Birdwood Mill National Motor Museum, nestled in the Adelaide Hills.  Taking pride of place in the motorcycle display was the Benelli, but more surprising was a sign declaring it to be Australian Kel Carruthers’ 1969 250cc World Championship winning bike!

Over the years since that second chance meeting I’ve found the idea of a rare “works” racer – and a world championship winning one at that – finding its way into an Adelaide motorcycle shop extremely intriguing.

With my curiosity finally getting the better of me I decided to ring Jon Chittleborough, the curator of the motor museum, with the intention of putting together an article on the said GP racer.  Jon confirmed that the bike was still on display at the museum and that I was quite welcome to come along and photograph it.  But since becoming curator he had been unable to confirm if the Benelli was, in fact, Carruthers’ championship winning bike as its past was rather foggy.

A masterpiece.

A masterpiece.

But before we go any further a brief description of the 250 fours evolution is perhaps called for.   It was in mid-1960’s that Giovanni Benelli and Ing Savelli introduced a totally new design four cylinder 250cc GP machine that would eventually replace their ageing D.O.H.C. single.  In true fifties’ style the prototypes chassis was rather bulky and over-engineered, while on the other hand, the rim sizes were a narrow 2.590 x 18 front, with a matching 2.75 section rear.  The engine was a dry sump design with vertical cylinders, double-overhead camshafts and two valves per cylinder.  Bore and stroke measured 44 x 40.6mm for a capacity of 246.8cc, which was retained up to Carruthers’ world title-winner.  Benelli claimed 122kg (268lb) dry weight for the bike and 40bhp at 13,000rpm, which compared quite well with the contemporary Honda of the day.

Benelli continued to rely on an updated version of their D.O.H.C. single during 1961 while they refined the untried four, so it was not until 1962 that the Benelli made its racing debut in the hands of works rider Silvio Grassetti.  Many changes had been made to the machine since its first appearance, mainly the removal of the oil tank from under the seat in favour of a large-capacity bolt-on sump with a two-way pump mounted above it, and running off the camshaft drive pinion.  Ignition on the prototype had been by battery and four coils with the points driven off the end of the inlet camshaft.  This system had proved unsuitable as the four-lobe contact-breaker points tended to float at high rpm effectively reducing the engines ability to reach maximum revs.  A Lucas magneto was installed on the right front side of the crankcase and bevel-driven of the camshaft pinion, which also had the desirable effect of reducing weight. The chassis was also partly redesigned and slightly wider sections tyres fitted.

The Lucas magneto fitted to the earlier model of the 250cc GP racer.

The Lucas magneto fitted to the earlier model of the 250cc GP racer.

1964 saw the great Italian rider Tarquinio Provini join the team.  He had been runner up in the previous year’s title riding a supposedly obsolete Morini single, only losing out at the last round in Japan to Jim Redman’s Honda four after each had won four races apiece.   The former two times world champions influence at Benelli was soon apparent with the factory completely redeveloping the bike.

The frame was made smaller and lighter helping to bring the overall weight down to 112kg (264lb) dry.  New camshafts were installed which raised the rev limit and narrowed the power-band giving 48bhp 14,500rpm.  To compensate for this a seven-speed gearbox replaced the original six-speed unit.  Two pairs of 20mm Dell’Orto’s provided Carburation with a single flat-sided float bowl between each pair.  Provini was the first to reap the rewards of these changes by defeating the Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha works teams at the opening European GP held in Barcelona’s Montjuich Park, although the rest of the season only produced a fourth and two-fifth places.

More alterations were made for 1965, with modified inlet and exhaust ports for better breathing, and new camshafts offering greater lift and dwell.  Combustion chambers and piston crowns were given more squish area, while larger 24mm carburettors were fitted with specially tuned bell-mouths that gave an extra 2bhp.  Usable power now started at 8,500rpm and lasted to 14,500rpm at which point it was producing 52bhp.  However, the most significant change came in the form of a new magneto from a Mercury two-stroke outboard motor, modified for four-stroke use.  The Lucas unit had been originally designed for the lower revving 350 and 500 fours produced by Gilera and MV in the 1950’s and proved unreliable when engine speeds went over 12,000rpm.  The American made unit solved the problem and was retained to the end of the model’s development, although some experimentation was done with an early form of electronic ignition.

Beautiful sand-cast engine cases.

Beautiful sand-cast engine cases.

The chassis was also modified for 1965, being lowered and shortened even more, and equipped for the first time with disc brakes.  Benelli was one of the first in GP racing to adopt this now universal feature.  Unfortunately, the US made Airheart disc brakes were originally designed for go-kart use, and this, plus a lack of brake pad choice, resulted in the twin 7in discs being insufficient to stop an 112kg motorcycle at 143mph, which the Benelli was by then was capable of.  By the end of the season, the team had reverted to drum brakes all round, especially after suffering braking problems in the pouring rain during the Italian GP at Monza, which nonetheless did not stop Provini winning in convincing fashion by lapping every other finisher on the Italian four.

Meanwhile, the desperate struggle for supremacy in the 250cc class raged between Honda and Yamaha, accelerating development of their race bikes.  Honda’s 250cc six-cylinder was now producing 60bhp and starting to handle thanks to the talents of Mike Hailwood.  Benelli had to do something if they were not to be left behind.

Ing Savelli’s answer was to introduce a stop gap model in the winter of 65/66 with three valves per cylinder, using two inlet and one exhaust.  This helped to increase bottom-end torque but not top-end power, so inevitably a leaf was taken out of Honda’s book and four valves per cylinder were adopted.  This narrowed the power band again but increased safe maximum revs to 16,000 and boosted the engine’s output to 55bhp.  It was on this machine, now painted slate grey instead of Benelli’s more colourful green, that Provini won their third consecutive Italian national title but failed to make any impression on the Japanese bikes in the Grands Prix.  Then tragically, while practising for the 1966 TT at the Isle of Man, Provini crashed and seriously injured his back ending a great racing career.

This was a serious blow to Benelli, but they decided to continue on and enlisted Aermacchi rider Renzo Pasolini for 1967, although it was not until 1968 that he started to show his full potential on the 250 by winning the Italian title and coming second in the TT.  By 1969 both Honda and Yamaha had withdrawn from GP racing giving Benelli perhaps their best chance at the title.  Pasolini proved as much by winning all seven races of the keenly contested Italian season-openers and was the pundits choice for the world championship.  Sadly, he crashed in practice for the first GP at Hockenheim and was injured seriously enough to miss the first three GP’s, including the important Isle of Man TT.

The Bennelli has a purposeful look.

The Benelli has a purposeful look.

The Spanish Ossa factories remarkable monocoque two-stroke single, in the hands of Santiago Herrero, easily led the championship, forcing Benelli team manager Nardi Dei to enlist the services of reigning world champion Phil Read and privateer Aussie Kel Carruthers’ for the TT.  Read retired during the race but Carruthers’ swept to victory more than three minutes ahead of Frank Perris’ Suzuki.

Kel was rewarded with a place on the team for the rest of the season even after Pasolini returned to win the next GP in Holland.  By this time Herrero’s challenge had begun to wane and it was left to the two Benelli riders to slug out the remaining rounds.  Unfortunately, Pasolini fell again in Finland putting himself out for the rest of the season.  Carruthers then became team leader and his less powerful two-valve engine was replaced with the eight-speed four-valve unit, which he used to notch up two wins and two-second places in the remaining four rounds to take out the world title.

American made Airheart disk brakes were originally designed for go-karts.

American made Airheart disk brakes were originally designed for go-karts.

It was indeed the 250 fours swan-song, winning the championship at its last gasp.  The FIM in their wisdom had changed the rules at the end of 1969 for the 1970 season, limiting the 250 class to two cylinders and six gears, which also prevented Benelli from showing off its mind boggling prototype 250cc V8 racer in public.

As the amiable Jon Chittleborough and I sat down in his office at the Birdwood Mill Motor Museum, it became apparent that there was quite a bit of mystery surrounding this particular Benelli.  Unfortunately, the racer was obtained when the museum was still in private hands and there’s very little in the way of records to go by.  Jon has written to the Benelli factory in the hope of finding out a little more of the 250’s history but regrettably Benelli English is even worse than the fabled Ducati English!

It is known, however, that the GP racer was brought into this country via Melbourne, probably by John Skepper of Zeltex Imports, who it’s thought was the importer of Benelli at that time.  The Museum acquired the Benelli as a straight swap for a 1927 DS Harley Davidson after the local agents were unable to sell it.  A previous employee of the Museum believed the Benelli was obtained from Carcycle (now Peter Stevens Motorcycles), but after checking with Mike Harris and Jim Russell (who had both been with Carcycle and its subsidiary sales team for over 20 years) this proved to be untrue, although Jim vaguely recalled seeing it for sale across the street in a shop that traded under the name of “Maintenance Services”.

Jewel-like engine is extremely compact.

The jewel-like engine is extremely compact.

Before the swap with the museum could go ahead the importers had to get approval from the Benelli factory, which they did with the understanding that the 250 would not be raced.  This brings us to the next part of our mystery and probably the saddest part of the story.  The museums’ Benelli has had its engine entirely gutted. Whether this was done before the bike left Italy or after it arrived in Australia is not known for sure, although former road racer John Maher did tell the Museum he was offered a ride on the 250 GP racer by John Skepper when a Benelli 750cc six failed to show up in time for the Castrol Six-Hour production race.

It also confirms what I was told by the salesman at the motorcycle shop, who had assured me that the bike was still competitive with the production TZ Yamaha of the time.  This creates the possibility that the engine parts could still be lying around in a dusty corner of someone’s garage.

Riders cockpit.

Riders cockpit.

Perhaps the most contentious issue is whether the museums 250 was the one used to win the 1969 World Championship.  Both Jon and I agreed it was probably an earlier model, possibly 1965 as it’s fitted with the Airheart disc brakes, Lucas magneto, and “straight” megaphones of that vintage.  To add credence to this, about eleven years ago, Derek Pickard of Road and Race magazine visited the museum and opined the view that it’s the bike that took Venturi to fourth place in 65/66 Italian Championships.  Nonetheless, it’s still a very rare motorcycle, (even prompting seven times World Champion, John Surtees, to approach the museum in an attempt to acquire the 250 to add to the 500 he has on loan from the factory) as there are very few “complete” 250cc fours in existence.

However, the museum would love to hear from anyone who can shed any further light on the Benelli, especially with regards to the missing engine parts as the museum would love to fully restore the 250.  The museum can be contacted by writing to The Curator, Australian National Motor Museum, Main Street, Birdwood South Australia 5234.

Words Geoff Dawes (c) 1989. Photographs Geoff Dawes (C) 1989.Published in the November 1989 issue of Bike Australia.

Archives: The Longest Mile

Bluebird k7 becomes airborne.

” Full power…tramping like hell here…I can’t see much and the water’s very bad indeed…I can’t get over the top…I’m getting a lot of bloody row in here…I can’t see anything…I’ve got the bows out…I’m going…Oh…”

It was over five decades ago, on January 4th, 1967, that British speed ace, Donald Campbell, lost his life to the cold dark waters of Lake Coniston in the English Lake District.  In a macabre sense, it was a fitting end to Britain’s most enigmatic record breaker and one that lifted him from a flawed hero into legend.

For Donald Campbell had appeared to be many things.  He was fiercely patriotic, extremely superstitious, generous and charming one minute, arrogant and uncompromising the next.  But to those who got close enough, Donald Campbell was full of a gnawing self-doubt that did not sit well with the popular belief of what a hero should be.

To understand this man that had broken the World Water Speed Record on seven occasions, and the Land Speed Record once, one has to search his past.

Born in 1921 the son of Sir Malcolm Campbell, Britain’s most successful record breaker, it was hardly surprising that he would one day try and emulate the man he hero-worshipped, even idolised.  But Sir Malcolm was a tough, overbearing, and some would say, cruel father, who had unrealistically high expectations for a son who did not shine academically at school, and who much preferred to be playing sport or working with his hands.

Bluebird CN7 sits poised on her built-in jacks.

Bluebird CN7 sits poised on her built-in jacks.

Indeed, the young boy afflicted with a nervous stutter barely survived a childhood fraught with accidents and illness.

At the age of eight Donald was taken by his father on an unsuccessful record attempt to South Africa, and upon returning to England contracted typhoid fever, which very nearly claimed his life.  Eight years later he came down with rheumatic fever, a debilitating disease that permanently damages the hearts’ valves, forcing the teenager to be wheelchair bound for many months.  Then the following year, he fell from his motorcycle and fractured his skull in two places.

When war broke out in 1939 Donald spent no time in enlisting for the RAF but was rejected when it was discovered he had suffered rheumatic fever.  This was an extremely low point in Campbell’s life.  His father, having served in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War, was acting as a liaison officer in the Middle – East, while Donald filled in time as a special constable and a progress chaser between component manufacturers and aircraft constructors.

Donald was quoted as saying, “It appeared I was somewhat of a failure.  The Old Man was doing a real job of work, and here was I, playing at Policeman and having bloody silly accidents.”  The accident in question was between his motorcycle and an army truck, which resulted in a broken shoulder, two cracked ribs and a broken arm.

It was not until after the war, following the death of his father and the auction of his estate, that Campbell decided to don the mantle.  A friend of Sir Malcolm’s, Lt. Col. “Goldie” Gardner, visited Donald and told him of an American threat to his father’s World Water Speed Record.  Campbell had decided years earlier to follow in his father’s footsteps but had been reluctant to throw his hat into the ring while Sir Malcolm was still record breaking, “The Old Man being what he is.”

Donald Campbell in discussion with Andrew Mustard at Lake Eyre.

Donald Campbell in discussion with Andrew Mustard at Lake Eyre.

Campbell immediately enlisted the help of Leo Villa, who had come to work as Sir Malcolm’s chief mechanic when Donald was only months old and was now almost part of the family.  There was no question that Villa would help.  He had always kept an eye out for the mischievous young Donald, whom among other things he had taught to drive and to dismantle a motorcycle engine.  Campbell would also continue another family tradition by naming his record breaking car and boat, Bluebird, just as his father had, in honour of Maeterlinck’s play The Blue Bird.

Although Sir Malcolm had been a wealthy man, making his fortune as an insurance broker with Lloyd’s, he had left little money to Donald and his sister Jean.  Most of it was held in trust for Sir Malcolm’s grandchildren, granting only a modest ten-pound a week allowance to his own children.  Record breaking had been an expensive hobby to Sir Malcolm, but for Donald finding enough money would always be a problem.

In fact, after six frustrating years of trying to break the record with his father’s old boat, Campbell was forced to sell his share in the successful engineering firm, Kine’s, and mortgage his home to finance a new design Bluebird hydroplane that would finally give him a new World Water Speed Record of 202.32mph in 1955.

In doing so he had succeeded in breaking the hypothetical “water barrier”, claimed by its proponents to lurk at 200mph and cause such severe buffeting to the hull of a boat that it would eventually disintegrate.  Campbell had proven this to be wrong and for the next five years, he continued to push the record higher, leaving it at 260.33mph.

Campbell's third wife Tonia Bern in an off guard moment at Lake Eyre.

Campbell’s third wife Tonia Bern in an off guard moment at Lake Eyre.

However, the cost of his success on a personal level had been extremely high.  His first two marriages had failed, due in no small part to Campbell’s single-minded preoccupation with record breaking.  He would marry his third wife on Christmas eve 1958, and outwardly, Tonia Bern, a well-known Belgian cabaret artist, seemed like an odd match.  But they were both determined, strong-willed characters, and Tonia understood that in an age of increasing commercial sponsorship, they were both, to a degree, in “show-business”.

But it was after his second World Water Speed Record on Lake Mead in the United States that the idea for Campbell’s greatest challenge gelled.

In 1947, Englishman John Cobb had set an outright Land Speed Record of 394.20mph which for years had stood unchallenged.  It now became Campbell’s obsession to recapture the record his father had held nine times.  He even toyed with the idea of breaking both the water and land record on the same day!

At this time Campbell’s stock had never been higher, and he was able to persuade, charm and cajole, eighty British companies to support his quest for the land record.

After a fanfare of publicity, in September 1960, Campbell took the enormously expensive gas-turbine Bluebird car to Bonneville Salt Flats and very nearly killed himself.

Campbell prepares to make another run at Lake Eyre.

Campbell prepares to make another run at Lake Eyre.

Anxious to get the record, he accelerated the massively powerful car too hard, too soon.  It became airborne at 360mph before slamming back down onto the salt track, bouncing back into the air then rolling over several times as it shed wheels and bodywork, before finally sliding on its belly to a halt.  Somehow though, Campbell had survived the world’s fastest automobile accident.

But the car was gone, a total write-off except for the gas turbine engine.  When it became known from Campbell’s hospital bedside that his first concern was the Bluebird car, and how soon he could have another crack at the record, his sponsors’ rallied.  Sir Alfred Owen, a hard-nosed north England industrialist whose company, Motor Panels, had been responsible for constructing Bluebird, immediately sent off a telegram offering to build Campbell a new car.

Bonneville Salt Flats, however, was no longer considered a suitable venue, the American track being considered too short to exploit Bluebird’s full potential.  Campbell’s long time sponsor, British Petroleum, suggested an alternative.  It was a little-known salt lake in the far north of South Australia called Lake Eyre.

Base camp southern end of the lake.

Base camp southern end of the lake.

There had been a drought at Lake Eyre for seven years, but as soon as Campbell and his huge entourage arrived in the Australian autumn of 1963, the heavens opened.  The bad weather would plague the Bluebird team from that point on, eventually flooding the lake and causing the abandonment of the record attempt that year.

Then came another blow.  On August 5th, 1963 an almost unknown American set a new record of 407.45mph at Bonneville Salt Flats.  His name was Craig Breedlove and his “car” was a three-wheeled device with a pure thrust jet engine called Spirit of America.  It did not, however, conform to the rules laid down by motorsports world governing body the F.I.A., and the record was not recognised officially.

But it did fire increasing criticism of the Bluebird Project.  Sir Alfred Owen arrived in Australia with a flurry of publicity, accusing Campbell of mismanaging the record attempt, while questioning his ability to drive the car to its full potential.  He also raised questions over who actually owned Bluebird.  Campbell retaliated by challenging Owen to a television debate and finally had his solicitor issue a writ for defamation on Sir Alfred in his Adelaide hotel.

More fuel was added to the fire, when later that year, Breedlove also arrived in Adelaide, and after examining Lake Eyre as a possible venue for his next record attempt declared he could go faster with a fraction of the money and support that Campbell had at his disposal.

Eventually, Campbell’s dispute with Owen was resolved, but by this time he found himself locked into staging the attempt at Lake Eyre.  So in 1964, he returned only to face the same problems with the weather, the car, and a team who had started to believe in a Campbell jinx.  Even Campbell’s ability to drive Bluebird was brought into question as rumours of a phobia of really high speeds persisted, because, it was said, of his Bonneville crash.

Campbell discusses problems with the track to his team.

Campbell discusses problems with the track after a run.

And indeed, Campbell’s approach was cautious.  The effects of the crash had taken their toll, and the possibility of damaging the car again must have weighed heavily on his mind.  But to the press and an increasingly sceptical public, Campbell no longer had what it takes.

To make matters worse, Andrew Mustard, a major member of the team whom Campbell had contracted to build the track on Lake Eyre, and who was also responsible for the enormous Dunlop tyres fitted to the Bluebird car, became increasingly critical of Campbell’s reluctance to go for the record.  As Bluebirds nominated reserve driver, he began to openly offer to do the job himself.

More controversy erupted when the Confederation of Australian Motorsport officials, whose job it was to verify the record should it be achieved, insisted that Campbell have a medical examination on the grounds he was unfit to drive Bluebird.  A huge argument ensued, putting the whole record attempt in jeopardy until a compromise was reached and Campbell agreed to take the medical.

Weeks dragged past as trouble with the track and the weather continued, until finally, on July 17th, 1964, on a track surface that was far from ideal, Campbell at last set a new official Land Speed Record of 403.10mph.

Longines timing photograph. The record at last.

Longines timing photograph. The record at last.

It was still, however, in the back of Campbell’s mind to try for “the double”, a feat not even achieved by his father, and plans were laid in Australia for an attempt on his own World Water Speed Record.

Lake Bonney at Barmera in the South Australian Riverland was tried, but poor weather made it unsuitable.  Lake Dumbleyung in Western Australia held promise, but problems again with the weather made it seem as though breaking both records in the same calendar year would elude Campbell.

The team had just about given up, when on the last day of 1964, with only three hours of light remaining, conditions improved sufficiently for Campbell to set a new World Water Speed record of 276.3mph.

This was to be Campbell’s swan song, for now, the world was looking to the heavens for its heroes.  The space race had generated a new breed of men, strapped atop enormous rockets, full of raw explosive power, yet controlled with incredible precision by computers.  With almost monotonous regularity these men were tossed into space, orbiting the earth at over 26,000mph.

Bluebird K7 on display at Barmera in the South Australian river land.

Bluebird K7 on display at Barmera in the South Australian Riverland.

Donald Campbell became a man trapped between eras, belonging to neither.  Few were interested when he proposed a new rocket powered car to break the sound barrier.  Science, it was said, not a man’s bravery, would now test the laws of psychics.

Perhaps then, on that cold winters morning at Lake Coniston, there was only one piece of equipment aboard the Bluebird hydroplane that could not have been scientifically perfected – only one component that was truly being tested to its limit and way beyond.  Perhaps it had always been, Donald Campbell himself.

Words Geoff Dawes (C) 1997. Colour photographs John Workman (C) 1964.  B/W photo’s courtesy Les Jackson.  Article published in Classic and Sports Car April 1997 and Australian Classic Car June 1997.

Archives: Basic Instinct

Duncan Harrington and “Instinct”.

According to the Collins English Dictionary, “instinct” is an inborn intuitive power.  It’s also the name of the project that Duncan Harrington undertook in his final year as an Industrial Design student, and from which came the innovative motorcycle you see on these pages.  Duncan readily admits that it’s perhaps a misnomer when applied to his well thought out and engineered creation, but it does say something about his own intuition when it comes to questioning the primary and secondary safety of todays motorcycle designs. But more of that later.

It was at the beginning of the year when 26-year-old Duncan proposed, as just one of his final year’s projects, to produce a motorcycle that would improve upon conventional chassis design and safety.  Unfortunately, the powers to be at the Underdale Campus of the University of South Australia needed a fair bit of persuasion, so the first half of the year was taken up with a research paper into roots and origins of motorcycle culture, which Duncan then used to help justify the project.  This was followed by a whole range of concept designs that were drawn up and presented before one was finally chosen.

Duncan then had to convince the University that he had the technical skills and know-how to complete the project in the time allowed.  Not an easy task with only six months left to do it in.  Fortunately, Duncan had completed an apprenticeship as a fitter and turner with CSR Softwoods in his home town of Mt. Gambier before going to University and also had quite a few years experience restoring cars and motorcycles at home.

“Instinct oozes quality workmanship.

There was still , however, one more hurdle – finding the money to pay for the materials and components to construct the bike.  A sad farewell was said to Duncan’s bevel drive, square case 750SS Ducati,  when it was sold to help finance the project, followed later in the year by his rebuilt Suzuki Katana. Only the time factor remained, and as Duncan succinctly put it to me, ” I haven’t had a holiday all year!”

But after watching Duncan work meticulously on “Instinct” and listening to him talk about the ideas that went into the bike, I got the distinct impression that this was more than just a final year project – which is quite understandable considering a large proportion of the bike had been handmade, polished and painted by Duncan.

First impression of the bike is its  high quality of workmanship, and a feeling of familiarity with its layout – the white chrome-moly steel trellis frame, single-sided swingarm and exhaust exiting under the seat being reminiscent of the Ducati 916, even the exotic double wishbone front suspension have been tried before on other motorcycles like Kiwi John Britten’s V-twin, and the American Hossack (it’s also been experimented with by expatriate South Aussie Tony Foale who by coincidence is distantly related to Duncan).

The under engine fuel tank is also not new and has appeared on some racing motorcycles in the search for a lower centre of gravity – bikes like the Mead and Tompkinson endurance racer, and the French Elf endurance and 500cc G.P. racers.  But perhaps more importantly, it’s the sum of “Instincts” parts and the thinking behind them that makes this motorcycle special – particularly when it comes to selling new ideas to a very conservative bunch of consumers.

Twin wishbone front end is a primary safety feature.

Twin wishbone front end is a primary safety feature.

For example, the use of a more traditional engine design, in the shape of Honda’s venerable big single NSX 650cc motor, is not just merely to keep costs down.  Like most contemporary big singles, the dry-dumped Honda engine is designed to sit high in the frame and “Instinct” utilises this characteristic to enable the fuel tank to be easily mounted underneath it.  The chrome-moly trellis frame was another natural choice, as Duncan has designed it to be made in a kit form to suit most big single-cylinder engines that generally have their mounting point at the cylinder head and above or below the gearbox.  Just as important though, is that this type of frame offers good mounting points for the front wishbone suspension, and it’s also more visually acceptable in the eyes of purists.

The solid looking front “fork” is also made from chrome-moly steel and is encased in carbon-fibre for added torsional stiffness.  This is attached to the two alloy wishbones by a 14mm upper and 16mm lower ball joint that can be adjusted by thread and lock nut to vary the forks rake from a fairly standard 25 degrees to a very steep 18 degrees.  The front suspension also makes use of car type polyurethane bushes, while the double wishbones move on plain bearings in order to keep costs down.

The clip-on style handlebars and top yoke pivot in what looks like a conventional steering head (the lower part of which doubles as the top mounting point for the front shock absorber) and uses two rods with eyeball joints at both ends to attach the steering yoke to the fork. The bottom of the front shock absorber is angled out onto a mount at the front of the lower wishbone.

The shock absorber itself is an American car racing A.V.O. unit, with infinitely adjustable rebound and compression damping.  Duncan found the A.V.O. shock absorbers specification to be very good, and apart from being a lot cheaper than the “name” brand motorcycle type, it can also be purchased as a single unit with the added bonus of different rate springs being available for a mere $30.

The fuel tank is a carbon fibre, glass fibre and kevlar composite, wrapped around aluminium side panels and inner bulkheads that also act as baffles to stop the 18 litres of fuel sloshing around.  A reliable solid state Facet electric pump is mounted down by the petrol tank and takes care of the fuel supply to the carby.

The dummy tank and seat unit are made from injected high-density polystyrene that incorporates aluminium plates for strength at its mounting points and is wrapped in overlapping layers of carbon and glass fibre, again to add strength.  The whole thing pivots upwards at the front for good access to the battery, cylinder head and oil tank, although the oil tank cap is also easily accessible even with the dummy tank unit in place.

The seat and dummy fuel tank pivot forward for good access to the battery cylinder head and oil tank.

The seat and dummy fuel tank pivot forward for good access to the battery cylinder head and oil tank.

The seat itself is sculptured from a thin rubber base and covered in vinyl before being glued in place.  Another interesting feature of the dummy tank/seat unit is its single rear mounting point.  This is directly below the seat and uses urethane bush to help the thinly padded perch absorb some of the road shocks.  The paint job is also a local product called Two-pack Pro-Tech polyurethane and is used by HSV on the Commodore.

Duncan also made the stainless steel exhaust system, (apart from two one hundred and eighty-degree bands in the header pipes just after they exit the twin-port head, courtesy of Pace Maker Exhausts) and the aluminium muffler.  When viewed from the rear the muffler combines with the seats tail-piece to look uncannily like a snakes head!

Underseat exhaust is neat and tidy.

Underseat exhaust is neat and tidy.

As mentioned earlier the bike was designed to be built in a kit form and can use a variety of single cylinder engines, rear suspension, swing arms, wheels and brakes.  On Duncan’s prototype, these were cannibalised from a 400cc V-Four Honda NC 30.  A special thanks has to go to Alan Rigby Motorcycle Service in Mt. Gambier who supplied the wheels and tyres for just $300, including the cost of sending them to Adelaide.

This brings us to how Duncan Harrington’s design has improved primary and secondary safety over the latest motorcycle designs from the worlds largest manufacturers.  Well, not surprisingly, there first came an intensive study of motorcycle design, followed by extensive research into motorcycle accidents, which included material supplied by Adelaide Universities renowned Road Accident Research Unit.

To improve primary safety two things had to be accomplished that in general terms are contrary to each other – manoeuvrability and stability, which in most modern motorcycle designs is at best a compromise.  Duncan got his design off to a good start in the manoeuvrability stakes with a wheelbase of just 1380mm, helped by a light weight of 140kg with oil but no fuel.  This compares well with the likes of Suzuki’s 250cc RGV two-stroke (they also share similar power to weight ratio’s), but where “Instinct” shines is with its lower centre of gravity, thanks to the underslung fuel tank, and also by keeping the centre of mass as close to the middle of the bike as possible.

The other innovation that Duncan’s bike has over conventional designs is the improved stability achieved by taking advantage of mechanical characteristics of a twin-wishbone front suspension.  With a conventional telescopic front fork even normal braking will cause them to compress and effectively shorten the wheelbase.  Combine this with turning into a corner, which rolls the contact patch across the curved tread away from the centre crown of the tyre to the smaller diameter shoulder, and you reduce the wheelbase further to undermine stability even more.

"Instinct" looks good from any angle.

“Instinct” looks good from any angle.

When “Instinct’s” front suspension system is compressed under braking (or over bumps), the twin-wishbones move through an arc which slightly increases the wheelbase and also helps compensate for the decreasing diameter of the tyres when leant over in a corner.  Another safety benefit with the twin-wishbone front end is that it rides over bumps a lot better as there is none of the stiction associated with a conventional telescopic fork, and the inbuilt stability of the system makes it more difficult for large bumps and potholes in the road to unsettle the motorcycle.  Duncan is still in the process of getting “Instinct” road registered (mudguards, lights and a speedo are all that’s needed), but has managed to put in some exploratory laps at the Mallala race track, and these have more than confirmed his faith in the design.

Just as impressive though are the secondary safety features of Duncan’s design.  From his research, he found that the front end t-bone was one of the most common accidents happening to motorcyclists and that there was a marked increase in the number of injuries to the lower abdominal region of the rider, whom according to the statistics are mainly males under 25.  Not good for the family jewels.  It was discovered that the increasing size of air boxes on motorcycles to help manufacturers meet noise pollution and performance requirements, were also increasing the height and width of fuel tanks with the aforementioned consequences.

By using an underslung fuel tank on “Instinct”, Duncan was able to go “organic” with the design of the dummy tank and seat unit, allowing it to be made lower in height and narrower in width as it is purely for styling.  The next problem our poor crash victim faces once he makes it past the fuel tank are the handlebars.  These have a nasty habit of shattering parts of the lower leg, which most definitely is not something to look forward to while holding onto one’s crotch.

Shear pins are used to secure the handlebars in place.

Shear pins are used to secure the handlebars in place.

Duncan has solved this problem by using shear pins through the steering yoke to lock “Instinct’s” handlebars in place.  As the name suggests the pins will shear when hit with a reasonable force, causing the handlebars to pivot forward and away, thereby saving the rider from a more serious leg injury.  While we’re on the subject of lower legs, Duncan has also made the foot pegs solid and mounted them at bumper bar height as he believes this offers better protection from errant car drivers than the swivel up type, which are more likely to cause the riders lower leg to be squashed in an accident.

Perhaps more than anything Duncan’s design project highlights how almost laughingly obvious some of the solutions are to the inherent problems built into the traditional motorcycle, and just as equally, how conservative motorcyclists are when it comes to accepting new technology.  Ask anyone at Yamaha involved with the GTS 1000.  Even the successful BMW R1100RS incorporates a sliding fork un its single wishbone front-end, not only as a necessary part of the design but also, no doubt, so as not to scare away too many traditionalists.

Will weever see it in production.

Will we ever see it in production?

In Duncan’s case, he has taken a step backwards to go forward by basing his design on a simple, reliable, single cylinder engine, and of course, a tubular steel frame to help package his concepts.  Although “Instinct” is designed to be built in a kit form, it, unfortunately, is beyond Duncan’s means to manufacture and market the design in any realistic numbers.  Let’s just hope there’s a manufacturer out there with enough foresight to prevent such an interesting and practical design becoming more than just another one off special.

Words and photographs Geoff Dawes (c) 1994. Published in Streetbike  April/May 1995.

The Rise Of Marc Marquez.

Two 20 year old MotoGp winners. Marquez the youngest ever by 133 days.

The temptation to compare great Grand Prix motorcycle racers from different eras is almost impossible to resist for many MotoGP commentators.  Admittedly, it does help generate increased interest from the media, the fans, and the general public, but grabs of history both past and present that align nicely do not necessarily make for a fair comparison or do justice to those involved.

Marc Marquez has already claimed the mantle of the youngest winner of a MotoGP at age 20 by 133 days from “fast” Freddie Spencer. In 1983 Spencer went on to win his first  World Championship aged 21 years in the 500cc class (MotoGP) becoming the youngest person to win the title.  Marquez appears to be on course to wrest that achievement away from Spencer as well, currently leading the MotoGP World Championship with six rounds to go as this is written. However in 1985 at the age of 24 Spencer won both the 250cc (Moto2) and 500cc (MotoGP) World Championships, something that no other rider has done, and is a feat that is unlikely to ever be repeated. It should also be noted that Marquez started racing in the 125cc World Championship in 2008 when he was 15 and has won both the 125cc (Moto3) World Championship and the Moto2 World Championship, although he was not the youngest champion of either of those two classes.

Freddie Spencer the youngest MotoGp World Champion at 21.

Freddie Spencer the youngest MotoGP World Champion at 21.

The same commentators are also espousing that rookie Marquez may win the MotoGP title in his first year. The last person to achieve this was Kenny Roberts 35 years ago in 1978. But here there is a rather large difference in circumstance between Roberts achievement and that of Marquez should he attain the title.

Roberts World Championship effort was backed by Yamaha America,  who only supplied his team with equipment. This consisted of three different GP racers for the three different classes Roberts was contesting. Formula 750, 500cc GP and 250cc GP – one machine for each class with no spare bikes. His crew chief was expatriate Australian, Kel Carruthers, a former 250cc World Champion and a mentor to Roberts, accompanied by mechanics Nobby Clark, Trevor Tilbury and a Yamaha technician. Roberts had helped develop Goodyear’s racing tyres in the States and it was the American company that put up the money that was needed to go racing in Europe. Goodyear naturally supplied the tyres.

The situation was not an ideal one as Roberts explains, “When we got to our first race it became crystal clear that, for sure, I wasn’t a Yamaha factory rider. Venezuelan rider Johnny Cecotto was. It wasn’t hard to tell; all we had to do was look at his equipment and then look at ours. We did have a Yamaha engineer by the name of Mikawa, and at some races, we also had a Goodyear technician. But it was us against the factory, really.”

'78 World Champion Kenny Roberts at the '79 French G.P. at Le Mans,

’78 World Champion Kenny Roberts at the ’79 French G.P. at Le Mans,

“So ’78 was a piece of work. I was riding 250 and 500 Grand Prix and Formula 750 as well. We had just one bike per class; no backup bikes. At practically every race it was my first look at the track. Usually, all I had was 30 minutes to figure it out. And not just the track, everything–the right lines, bike setup and tire selection, if there was any. There I was, aiming to beat reigning World Champion Barry Sheene, who’d usually seen the track a dozen times before. And we were on Goodyear tires. We were on our own there, too, because nearly everyone else was on Michelins. I swear, some things never change! To say the Goodyear guys had their hands full is to understate the problems we faced. Usually, the Goodyear guys would show up at a track they’d never seen before, which meant they didn’t have the right tires. That’s a nightmare you really don’t want to deal with. But deal with it we did.”

Roberts wen ton to win a hat-trick of 500cc World Championships.

Roberts went on to win a hat-trick of 500cc World Championships.

Nonetheless, Goodyear eventually weighed in with more development tyres and Yamaha finally supplied Roberts with a second bike for the 500cc GP class. Roberts dropped the 250cc title challenge after winning two races and at one stage leading the championship, finally finishing fourth in the standings.  Roberts continued on with the Formula 750cc World Championship finishing second in the title five points behind Johnny Cecotto. But Roberts won the 500cc GP (MotoGP) World Championship by 10 points from Barry Sheene against a flotilla of factory Suzuki’s and the works Yamaha of  Johnny Cecotto. It was an outstanding achievement.

Marc Marquez in action. A future multi MotoGp WorldChampion ?

Marc Marquez in action. A future multi MotoGP World Champion ?

By comparison, Marc Marquez has raced in the world championships for five years now. In MotoGP, there is only one track that was new to him, Laguna Seca (The Circuit of the Americas was new to everyone in MotoGP this year). As a World Championship prodigy in the smaller classes, he has been groomed by both Repsol and Honda to fit seamlessly into the retired Casey Stoner’s seat at the team. With a dearth of experience from the team around him and mountain of electronic data to relate to and the use of control tyres, the only thing that can stop Marquez from claiming the title may be fate. He has proven he is fearless and usually comes out on top when pressured by his peers. Indeed if there is a similarity between Marc Marquez and Kenny Roberts championship campaign it is the fact that they are both real racers in every sense of the word. And there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Marquez will continue to break records.

Words Geoff Dawes (c) 2013. Images courtesy http://www.motogp.com

Read more: http://www.motorcyclistonline.com/features/122_0503_kenny_roberts/#ixzz2dn69hATZ