Category Archives: Motorcycle Racing

Vale Geoffrey Ernest Duke, 29th of March 1923 to the 1st of May 2015.

In this modern world of instant access to 24-hour news services and an almost inescapable saturation of the latest events from around the globe, it’s not unusual for those in the public eye to quickly achieve the status of celebrity or even “Superstar”. But to accomplish this level of fame during the 1950’s, in what could only be described at that time as a minority sport, is truly extraordinary.

Born in St. Helens, Lancashire on the 29th of March 1923, Geoff Duke OBE became a household name during this period in Britain, Europe and the Commonwealth. A four times World Champion in the 500cc (MotoGP) class and twice in the 350cc category of Grand Prix motorcycle racing, Duke also became the first rider to win three consecutive 500cc (MotoGP) World Championships between1953 and1955. Geoff would have been in contention for a fourth title had the FIM not imposed a six-month ban for supporting a privateers strike for more start money at the 1955 Dutch TT. Duke also became the first rider to win two World Championships in the same year, taking the 350cc and 500cc titles in 1951.

Duke on the Norton.

Duke on the Norton single.

Duke’s background in motorcycling had started at the age of 10, when unbeknown to his parents he bought a belt drive Raleigh of the same vintage. While still a teenager at the start of the Second World War, Duke trained dispatch riders in the Royal Signals Corps. He subsequently competed for the first time in military trials events and also achieved the status of Team Sergeant in the Royal Signals Motorcycle Team, the famous “White Helmets”.

An exceptional trials rider, Duke was employed in Norton’s trials department after the war. However, he already had his sights set on something faster. With Norton’s backing, he made his road-racing debut in 1948, starting out on the most dangerous racetrack of them all, the Isle of Man TT course.

World Champion Geoff Duke at Hesketh1 - Copy

Duke on the technically advanced Gilera.

His initial World Championship titles in 1951 had come on Norton singles but a reluctance by Norton management to pay Duke what he was worth led him to change to the technically advanced, but unruly, Italian four-cylinder Gilera. Duke helped develop the advanced machines to take a hat-trick of 500cc titles. He also became the first rider to win 500cc world titles on two different brands of motorcycles, a feat that has only been emulated by a handful of riders. Geoff also set new standards off the motorcycle, with a polite manner, good looks and smart clothes.

Another first for Duke was the use of a close-fitting one-piece leather racing suit, which no doubt came about by trying to reduce wind resistance on the underpowered Norton singles. Duke also dabbled in car racing and became an Aston Martin “works driver” during in 1952 and 1953.

Another win for .Duke

Another win for Duke.

After 33 Grand Prix wins from 89 starts and 50 podiums, which included 6 wins at the Isle of Man TT, Duke retired from GP motorcycle racing, ending an illustrious 10-year road racing career. A short-lived and unsuccessful return to car racing resulted in a major crash in Sweden after which Geoff became a Hotelier in the Isle of Man, which by then was his home.

As well as receiving an Order of the British Empire in 1953, Duke was voted BBC Sportsman of the year and awarded the prestigious RAC Seagrave Trophy, both in 1951.

Duke passed away at his home on the Isle Of Man on the 1st of May 2015. He was 92 years old.

Words Geoff Dawes © 2015. Images courtesy http://www.theguardian.com, http://www.members.boardhost.com. Video courtesy http://www.dukevideo.com.

The NR500 Honda

There is an age-old adage that “necessity is the mother of invention”, which is an apt description of the challenge that the Honda Motor Company faced on its return to the 500cc class of Grand Prix motorcycle racing in 1979.

Honda had withdrawn from motorcycle Grands Prix at the end of 1967 for a variety of reasons. The Japanese company had prioritised the R&D department to concentrate on its venture into road cars, while also supplying racing engines to the Brabham Formula 2 team and entering its own car into Formula 1 with a former motorcycle and F1 world champion John Surtees at the wheel. The company’s resources were being stretched to the very limit.

And there were also changes in the wind for Grand Pix motorcycle racing with new regulations being introduced by the F.I.M. at the end 1969 season. These would limit the number of cylinders and gears for the different Grand Prix classes, in an attempt to reduce costs, which also played a part in the decision by Honda to withdraw.

During the mid-sixties Honda, a stoic champion of the four-stroke engine, had been fighting a rearguard action against the ever-improving two-stroke engines of its Japanese and European rivals, particularly in the smaller capacity classes. To overcome the more frequent power strokes the two-stroke engine design, Honda could only improve the four-stroke engines volumetric efficiency with more cylinders, higher engine rev’s and more gears, which were effectively to be outlawed by the FIM in 1969.

How could Honda respond to this technical conundrum? The answer is one of the most technically innovative motorcycle engine designs of all time.

The NR500's revolutionary engine.

The NR500’s innovative engine.

The decision to return to the Grand’s Prix was officially announced in December 1977 by the President of Honda, Koyoshi Kawashima. In true Honda tradition, the group of young engineers brought together to develop a winning machine had little if any racing experience. This “clean sheet” approach was indeed a risky one. No four-stroke had competed in the 500cc class since 1976 when the mighty MV Agusta team withdrew, conceding to the supremacy of the two-stroke engine.

With the official title of “New Racing”, the development team came together in 1978 at the Asaka R&D Center. Takeo Fukui, who would later become director of R&D and president of Honda Racing Corporation, would lead the team, while Soichiro Irimajiri, the man who was the father of the CBX road bike and the legendary RC166 250cc six-cylinder GP racer would help guide the group. It soon became apparent to the young engineers that, within the limitation of four cylinders, to get on a competitive footing with the two-strokes they needed to double the number of engine revs and improve intake efficiency by increasing the number of inlet valves and exhaust valves from four to eight. To accommodate eight valves, the team decided to free themselves from the traditional round piston and use a revolutionary oval design. In effect, a V8 with 4 sets of two cylinders fused together. According to their calculations, an estimated output of 130hp at 23,000rpm was possible.

Cylinder head for the Honda NR500.

A cylinder head for the Honda NR500.

To prove the potential of this design a single cylinder “slave” engine was built, initially with two valves, which showed the engine would rev. The number of valves was then increased step by step from two to eight. This was not without teething problems with the engine self destructing at anything over 10,000rpm. The problem was with the two connecting rods the oval piston design required, which distorted and pulled the piston pins out of position. Sealing of the piston rings, not unexpectedly, was also a significant problem.

However, it was the persistence of the team that one by one identified and found solutions to these problems. The achievement of effectively sealing of the piston ring, in particular, was a considerable boost to the feasibility of the overall design. With that, the test target moved from the single-cylinder ‘slave” engines to a full four-cylinder engine.

Toshimitsu Yoshimura was responsible for designing the 100-degree V-four, and bench testing of the revolutionary engine began in April 1979. The Grand Prix season was already well underway. But the 0X engine was still giving the team problems, from a damaged gear train to broken valves. Nevertheless, the engine was producing around 110 horsepower, and the engineers knew that to understand its real-world potential it needed to be assessed in the white heat of competition. “We wanted to identify the weaknesses in our new engine by seeing how it performed in an actual race,” remembered Yoshimura.

Oval piston from the NR750 Honda.

The oval piston from the NR750 Honda.

However, it was not just the engine of the NR500 that was innovative, the chassis was as well. Designed by research engineer, Tadahashi Kamiya, it was constructed as a true monocoque. The engine, with swingarm, attached, slotted into the stressed skin of the fairing, tank and seat unit. Radiators for the liquid cooled engine were mounted on the sides of the fairing, utilising the air funnelling through the front of the “fairing” to flow onto the engine and out the sides of the fairing through the cooling radiators. Although the rear suspension was a more conventional monoshock system, the front forks were unusual by using an “upside down” design in which the triple clamps held the fork tubes and the stanchions held the front wheel axle. The Honda design used external fork springs to enable quick changes of spring rates and a higher volume of fork oil and larger damping components in the fork tube.

Oddly the disk calipers where mounted in front of the forks, which to a degree was offset by an unusual trailing front axle. Again the team of engineers pushed the envelope by opting to use 16inch Comstar wheels with tyres developed by Dunlop as opposed to the commonly used 18inch rims with Michelin tyres in search of lower unsprung weight and a smaller frontal area for the NR500.

The revolutionary NR500 Honda of 1979.

The ground breaking NR500 Honda of 1979.

It was at the 1979 British Grand Prix at Silverstone, the 11th World Championship race of the season that the NR500 made its debut. Veteran English rider Mick Grant, an Isle of Man Senior TT and 250cc Grand Prix winner, along with Takazumi Katayama, a Korean born Japanese rider and 1977 350cc World Champion, had been recruited to race the groundbreaking machine. Both had tested the bike in Japan, and Grant, in particular, understood the frustration of developing the avant-garde Honda.

“By that time I knew what to expect.” Commented Grant. “They had open practice, and on the straight, a 250cc Yamaha was pulling away from me – not a lot, but pulling away and that was enough to show me the scale of the problem. I had never ridden harder.”

Even with Grant and Katayama’s best efforts, they qualified on the last row of the grid. Grand Prix racing in those days required a push start by the rider to fire up the engine when the starter’s flag was dropped. The Honda at that stage would only idle at 7000rpm and making the engine fire up was a hit and miss affair. Katayama caught his engine but waited for Grant’s engine to fire so they could circulate together around the circuit. It took several embarrassing seconds before Grant could get away. With his weight too far back on the saddle the Honda pulled wheelies through the gears. As he approached the first corner, the NR500 slid out beneath him and started to catch fire. The wheelie had caused oil to spill out the carburettors and onto the rear tyre. Katayama retired several laps later with engine problems.

The revolutionary oval piston technology.

The revolutionary oval piston technology.

The next race was the French Grand Prix at Le Mans where the Honda team suffered the humiliation of not even qualifying for the race. It was the last race of the year, and Yoshimura was moved to tears, “I felt miserable, just miserable,” he said. “Tears welled up in my eyes. Except for ours, all the bikes were using two-stroke engines. To be honest, I’d been hoping they would go to the final race and give us a really good run, even if it meant trailing at the very end. After the race, they asked me to watch the video, but I couldn’t bring myself to see it.” If anything it underlined how long the road would be for the NR500.

In fact, the plan documents for the “New Racing” team had stipulated, “Become World Champion within three years.” Time was of the essence, and the vast amount of new technology and innovation would take to long to perfect.

At the beginning of the 1980 season, the team had returned to a conventional tube type frame and 18inch wheels. The focus could then be put into developing the engine, which in many ways was the fundamental problem. Due to the V4’s extreme engine breaking which caused the rear wheel to hop on downshifts in the lower gears, a back torque-limiting clutch was developed to cure the problem. By now the 1X engine was producing 115ps, but acceleration and throttle response in corners was still a problem. And as reliability improved so did the engines weight by around 20kg requiring the use of exotic materials such as magnesium and titanium to maintain the status quo.

The tube frame for the 1980 NR500.

The tube frame for the 1980 NR500.

The 1980 Grand Prix season, however, did not see much reward for a lot of hard work. Although Katayama had managed, take a third place podium at an international meeting in Italy, in the World Championship his best results were fifteenth place at the British Grand Prix (the first finish for the NR500 in a GP), and twelfth place at the German Grand Prix. This did not stop the motorcycle media from harshly criticising the NR500 Honda, tagging it as “Never Ready”.

The oval piston engine was further refined for the 1981 season in order to reduce weight, improve durability and increase power. The 100-degree V of the engine was narrowed to 90 creating a more compact unit, but just as importantly it was now producing 130ps at 19,000rpm in its 2X configuration.

Freddie Spencer on the NR500 Honda at Silverstone.

Freddie Spencer on the NR500 Honda at Silverstone.

Honda had decided it would enter machines in the All-Japan Championship to help speed up development of the NR500. A fifth place at the second round of the championship saw the NR500 starting to compete on more equal terms with two-strokes. This was backed up with the NR500’s first win at the Suzuka 200 kilometre race where the four-strokes better fuel consumption was pivotal to the victory. Then in July Honda’s new rider signing, Freddie Spencer, scored a victory over 500cc Grand Prix World Champion “King” Kenny Roberts in a heat race for the final in an international meeting at Laguna Seca.

The NR500 (2X) machine that helped Kengo Kiyama to win the 1981 Suzuka 500-Kilometer Race, giving Honda its first victory with the oval piston engine

The NR500 (2X) machine that helped Kengo Kiyama to win the 1981 Suzuka 200-Kilometer Race, giving Honda its first victory with the oval piston engine

The competitiveness did not follow the Honda to Europe. Katayama managed a thirteenth place in the first round of the 500cc World Championship in Austria, but retirement from the subsequent races resulted in no points for the team that season.

For the 1982 season, after finally accepting that the rules favoured the two-stroke engine, Honda introduced the NS500 two-stroke Grand Prix racer. Although race appearances became fewer for the NR500, bench testing of the remarkable engine continued.

The technology continued to be developed resulting with the gestation of the NR750 to race at the 1987 Le Mans endurance race in France. Although not expected to win, (that was the job of the more “conventional “ Honda RVF’s of Honda France) and with two of rider line-up who were motorcycle journalists, it was up to two times Australian Superbike Champion, Malcolm “Wally” Campbell, to qualify for the race. Someone forgot to tell Campbell that for Honda it was more about publicity than racing and he put NR750 in second place on the grid behind the factory Honda RVF. Unreliability again put the NR out at the 22hour mark, but it did emphasise how far the technology had come. Campbell would give the NR750 its first win in a heat of the Swan Insurance International Series at Calder Park in December that year.

The 1992 NR750 Honda.

The 1992 NR750 Honda.

In 1992, thirteen years after the NR500’s debut in the World Championship Grands Prix, Honda unveiled a production version of the NR750. Around 300 of these machines are believed to have been made with an extremely high price tag of around US$50,000. Recently an example was placed on eBay with an asking price of approximately US$100,000.

There is also a certain amount of irony that Formula 1 banned both oval piston and two-stroke technology for use in an F1 engine.

Perhaps a quote by an unnamed engineer that worked on the project best sums up the NR.        “ The true value of the engine lay in its remarkable potential”.

Words Geoff Dawes © 2015. Images courtesy of Honda Worldwide. Video courtesy Honda Worldwide, MCN and Youtube.

A Legendary Champion

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Perhaps the only surprise surrounding World Champion Marc Marquez securing his second MotoGP championship was the fact that he did not accomplish it with a win at Honda’s own circuit of Motegi. After dominating the class from the opening round in Qatar to notch up ten consecutive wins by Indianapolis, which equalled the great Giacomo Agostini, it was quite clear that the 2014 championship trophy already had his name partially engraved upon it.

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Marquez celebrates his back to back MotoGP World Championships.

The 21-year-old became the youngest rider to win back-to-back Premier class championships since Mike Hailwood achieved it as a 23-year-old in1964. Marquez is also the first Spaniard to accomplish this feat. After finishing fourth in Czechoslovakia to the winner and Repsol Honda teammate, Dani Pedrosa, Marquez won again in England at the British Grand Prix. But mistakes at Mugello in Italy and Aragon in Spain kept the title tantalisingly out of reach until a tactical 2nd place to Jorge Lorenzo in Motegi secured the crown.

After a crash in Australia, Marquez still has two more races, in Malaysia and Valencia, to equal or beat Australian Mick Doohan’s record of 12 victories in a premier class season.

But although Marquez continues to set and break records, there is, maybe, one record he will be unable to achieve.

Fifty years ago on the 25th of October this year, John Surtees O.B.E. secured the Formula One World Championship for Ferrari, becoming the first and only man to win a Grand Prix World Championships on two wheels and four. Surtees had already won the premier 500cc Grand Prix crown on four occasions (1956, 1958, 1959 and 1960) and the 350cc G.P. title on three times (1958, 1959 and 1960) for a total of seven World Championships on two wheels. Surtees then clinched the Formula One title at the last race in Mexico in 1964.

John Surtees rides his MV Agusta to victory at the 1958 Isle of Man TT.

John Surtees rides his MV Agusta to victory at the 1958 Isle of Man TT.

It’s interesting to note that Surtees won his World Championships on two wheels and four with Italian racing royalty, Ferrari and MV Agusta. But remarkably Surtees had never raced a car until a non-championship meeting at Goodwood in 1960. Surtees put his F2 Cooper-Climax on pole and finished an incredible second to Jim Clark in a Lotus. In only his second F1 Grand Prix at Silverstone Surtees, driving a Lotus finished second to World Champion Jack Brabham. It was just his eighth car race.

At the Portuguese F1 Grand Prix, he put the Lotus on pole giving the team their very first pole position. This was all in 1960 while he was on his way to winning both the 500cc and 350cc World Championship on two wheels with MV Agusta.

Other examples of John’s versatility was to win the inaugural 1966 Can-Am Sports Car Championship in America driving a Lola T70 while another was taking Honda’s second F1 win in 1967 by driving the Honda Racing RA 300 to a fantastic victory on its debut at Monza in Italy.

Surtees pushes the Ferrari 158 to second place behind Jim Clark’s Lotus at Zandvoort in Holland 1964.

Surtees pushes the Ferrari 158 to second place behind Jim Clark’s Lotus at Zandvoort in Holland 1964.

In today’s world of specialisation in Motorsport this type of versatility is unheard of. Surtees, like most riders in the 1950’s and 1960’s, also rode in more than one Grand Prix class during a championship meeting: a concept that would be alien to today’s MotoGP heroes. Yet there is still even more to Surtees’ accomplishments.

Surtees also became a racing car manufacturer in 1970 forming the Surtees Racing Organisation with his cars competing in Formula 5000, Formula 2 and Formula 1. Surtees most significant success as a manufacturer came with another former motorcycle multi-world champion, Mike Hailwood, who won the European F2 championship for Surtees in 1972.

Surtees in discussion with "Il commendatore" Enzo Ferrari.

Surtees in discussion with “Il Commendatore” Enzo Ferrari.

The prodigious talents of John Surtees have created a unique chapter in the history of Motorsport and one that is unlikely to be repeated. Although Surtees has already been awarded an M.B.E. and an O.B.E. in the Queen’s honours list, many feel that a Knighthood would be a more appropriate recognition of this great man and his ongoing contribution to Motorsport. Surtees turned 80 this year.

Words Geoff Dawes © 2014. Images http://www.commons.wikimedia.org, http://www.ilpost.it, http://www.performanceforums.com and the Repsol Honda Team.

50 Years of Grand Prix Legacy

Left to right: Masahiko Nakajima (President of Yamaha Motor Racing) Phil Read and Marco Riva (General Manager of Yamaha Motor Racing)

Left to right: Masahiko Nakajima President of Yamaha Motor Racing, Phil Read and Marco Riva General Manager of Yamaha Motor Racing.

Saturday the 13th of September represented a significant milestone for Yamaha Factory Racing. Precisely fifty years had passed since the Iwata based company attained its first world championship with the two-stroke 250cc RD56 when English motorcycle legend Phil Read won the Nations Grand Prix at Monza.

Read was on hand at the Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli to present Masahiko Nakajima (President of Yamaha Motor Racing) and Marco Riva (General Manager of Yamaha Motor Racing) with his original 1964 F.I.M. World Championship certificate. The certificate will now take pride of place at Yamaha’s Hall Of Fame in Japan. A copy of the document has been made that will be signed by all those present to mark the occasion and in return will be presented to Read.

Phil Read went on to win a total of eight world titles across four classes, 125GP, 250GP, 500GP and TTF1. His career is littered with impressive achievements, including eight IOM TT race, wins, 121 Grand Prix podiums and four 250cc world titles which have only ever been equalled by Max Biaggi. Alongside Mike Hailwood and fellow Yamaha icon Valentino Rossi, Phil is one of only three riders to have won road-racing world championships in three or more classes.

Read receives the trophies and takes the 1964 250cc World Championship.

Read receives the trophies and takes the 1964 250cc World Championship.

Read was quoted as saying, “This special evening to celebrate my bringing Yamaha’s first world title to them after 50 years is like coming home to the happy team, the reception has been fantastic, it’s overwhelming for me to see I get this recognition. I’m lucky to be here after fifty years of racing! It’s also thrilling to be here in Misano with Jorge on pole and Valentino so close on the front row too. It’s a little different now, from 1964; I came to Monza with two factory 250 Yamaha RD56s in the back of my car with one English mechanic and a Japanese mechanic who came over for the race in Monza. I think we had our carburettor settings written on a postcard! I still feel as much part of the Yamaha family today as I did then, and feel privileged to have started a run of world championship success that has continued to this day.”

Marco Riva, Yamaha Motor Racing, General Manager responded, “Our success with the RD56 wrote a page in motorcycle history. It was very competitive for many years and is still, in my opinion, the best race bike. Our aim has always been to have the rider at the centre of our racing project, Phil and other Yamaha icons such as Giacomo Agostini, Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo are all still the most important factor. We are the only manufacturer that raced from the beginning of the world championship to now, we’ve never stopped, and this is something very special. We are honoured to have Phil here with us to celebrate this anniversary. He is an icon in motorcycle racing, fourth in the all-time world rankings with eight world titles. We hold riders such as Phil in a special place in our hearts over these years for allowing us to win these titles together.”

Yamaha followed Japanese rivals Honda and Suzuki into the World Championship Motorcycle Road Racing Grands Prix in 1961. Since the inception of the F.I.M. World Championship Grands Prix in 1949, Yamaha has won 38 manufacturers titles and 37 riders titles that cover 125cc, 250cc, 350cc, 500cc and MotoGP.

Words Geoff Dawes © 2014. Images courtesy Movistar Yamaha Factory Racing.

Superhuman

In a recent interview with U.K. newspaper The Telegraph, the most successful design engineer in F1 history made quite a thought-provoking statement. Adrian Newey commented, “If you watch a sport – it doesn’t matter what sport – you want to come away with a feeling those guys are special. If you watch MotoGP, you think those guys are just superhuman. You just don’t get that with the current breed of F1 cars.”

The most successful design engineer in F1 history.

Adrian Newey, the most successful design engineer in F1 history.

Newey who is unenamoured with the tightly controlled regulations currently in force in F1, believes they are so constrictive that, “the regulations design the cars.” Even as recently as two races ago in Germany the FIA outlawed FRICS, a front and rear interconnected hydraulic/mechanical suspension system which some teams had been using since 2010.

So disappointed is Newey with F1 he is stepping back from hands-on involvement at the end of the season with the Red Bull Racing F1 team. He has signed a new deal, where from next year he will be involved in Red Bull Technologies special projects, one of which is believed to be Britain’s America’s Cup challenger.

Newey, of course, has always had an uncanny ability to exploit the “grey” areas of the regulations on his way to designing F1 cars for the Red Bull team that have won four constructors and four drivers world championships between 2010-2113.

Four time World Champion Sebastian Vettel in the RB10.

Four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel in the RB10.

But as justified as the analogy between F1 and MotoGP is, the ongoing homogeny in technical terms for Grand Prix motorcycle racing is to a degree mimicking F1 and is of great concern for the “purity” of the sport. Let’s not forget that F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone created Two Wheeled Promotions to form a joint venture with Dorna Sports in the early 1990’s to acquire the commercial rights to the motorcycle Grand Prix from the FIM. Ecclestone sold his companies interest to Dorna and its CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta has often looked to F1 for inspiration, “to improve the spectacle.”

We now have a situation in MotoGP where, just as in F1, there are colour coded control tyres, a freeze on engine development for the “factory” machines during the season and a limit on the number engines available. Which for 2014 can only consume a meagre 20 litres of fuel per Grand Prix. In 2016 it will also be mandatory for all the MotoGP teams to use a Dorna supplied ECU and software.

One significant difference, however, is the use of traction control in MotoGP. Banned initially in F1 in 1994 and backed up with the introduction of a standard FIA ECU in 2008, some MotoGP riders and a proportion of the fans are against these electronics as well, as it’s seen as an artificial enhancement of a rider’s ability. But it is also a concession by Dorna to maintain motorcycle manufacturer involvement, who have to justify the enormous expenditure required to go Grand Prix motorcycle racing and who have traditionally seen MotoGP as part of their research and development programs that filters new technology down to their road bikes.

F1 like colour coding of MotoGp tyres.

F1 like colour coding of MotoGP tyres.

The same is true of the new regulations in F1 with the return of a smaller capacity 1.6litre fuel-efficient turbocharged V6 engine that use a more complex hybrid energy recovery systems. Again, if the changes had not happened Renault and Mercedes may have withdrawn from F1, as they too have to justify the massive expenditure to go racing to their respective boards and shareholders by developing technology that is relevant to the road cars they build and sell. Nonetheless, the real racing person that Newey is, he describes F1 as becoming an “an engine formula.”

However, regardless of electronic rider aids and constrictive regulations, MotoGP racers by the very nature of motorcycle design are themselves “part of the machine”. Where they place their body weight under braking or going around a corner and accelerating out of a corner has a significant impact on lap times. Indeed MotoGP racers use everything available to them to go as fast as they can, carving angles of lean through bends that defy the laws of physics, and dragging not just their knees but also their elbows on the tarmac.

They also, thankfully, have no radio hookups with the pits and a team of technicians reading telemetry telling them what to do, only pit boards and their own judgment for tactical use of their fuel and tyre consumption over the course of a race.

Jorge Lorenzo becomes airborne trying to avoid backmarker James Ellison.

Jorge Lorenzo becomes airborne trying to avoid backmarker James Ellison.

Also, these racers are not strapped tightly into a safety cell with only a low percentile chance of serious injury should they crash, as is the case in F1. And regardless of the current technology MotoGP riders do crash regularly, and often spectacularly, suffering abrasions and broken bones. Ask Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pedrosa and Cal Crutchlow to name a few. No matter what the technical regulators do to the sport of MotoGP, that innate, spectacular and highly dangerous involvement of the motorcycle racer themselves does indeed make them “superhuman.”

Words Geoff Dawes © 2014.  Images courtesy http://www.f1fanatic.co.uk, http://www.nhatnet.com, http://www.vroom-magazine.com, and http://www.zigwheels.com

 

Ewald Kluge, DKW and the Lobethal TT

In August 2013 that most famous of road racing circuits, the Isle of Man, celebrated its first Classic TT as part of the Festival of Motorcycling. With a burgeoning number of classic events around Europe, it was perhaps a long time coming to this historic racing venue. The event featured racing machinery from the 1950’s to the 1990’s, but perhaps more interesting was the presence of a pre World War Two German DKW SS 250 supercharged two-stroke, that was ridden on a parade lap by former 250cc Grand Prix winner Ralph Waldmann.

Two time European Champion Elwad Kluge.

Two time European Champion Ewald Kluge.

Brought to the Island by Audi Heritage to celebrate its historic victory in 1938, it was a recreation of the machine that Ewald Kluge used to become the first German, and only the second foreigner, to win a TT.  DKW was the largest manufacturer of motorcycles in the world during the 1930’s with a vast research and development department that boasted 150 employees.  DKW also produced cars and in 1932 merged with three other German car manufacturers Audi, Horch and Wanderer to become part of Auto Union, which was represented by the four linked circle insignia that the Audi brand still uses today.

DKW’s only produced two-stroke motorcycles at that time, and in the 1930’s the technology was still in its infancy. But thanks to the innovative genius of Ing Zoller, DKW came up with a unique design that used a split single layout with tandem piston bores that utilised a common combustion chamber and articulated connecting rods. A third piston was housed in a pumping chamber or ladepumpe (supercharger) mounted horizontally to the front of the engine crankcases.  This forced the air and fuel from the Amal TT carburettors, which was inducted via a rotary valve, to be pressurised in the main crankcases. The end result was a big jump in power and also fuel consumption. With the megaphone style exhaust fitted it also had a reputation as one of the loudest racers of its era.

Engine diagram of the DKW SS 250 two-stroke engine.

Engine diagram of the DKW SS 250 ladepumpe (supercharged) two-stroke engine.

There is no doubt about the Nazi influence on the German Automotive industry before the Second World War.  Hitler bankrolled the racing efforts of the Silver Arrows, supporting Mercedes and Auto Unions dominance of Grand Prix motor racing.  It was all part of Hitler’s plan to show the world the technological superiority of Nazi Germany. The Nazi’s had infiltrated most aspects of German life and in 1932 set up the N.S.K.K. or the Nationalist Socialist Drivers Corps which “Nazified” the driving associations and clubs. It made it almost impossible for the national racing heroes of the era not to be associated with the Nazi’s.

Ewald Kluge was a member of the N.S.K.K. and became the Lightweight (250cc) European Champion in both 1938 and 1939 (which was the forerunner of the Moto2 world championship). From 1936 to 1939 Kluge was also a four-time German National Champion. But 1938 was his most successful year taking the European crown and the German road racing and Hillclimb titles. Out of fourteen events he entered, he won 12 and was second twice attaining the “Champion of Champions “ accolade that was only granted to those who achieved the highest possible number of points.

Kluge in action at the Isle of Man Lightweight TT.

Kluge in action at the Isle of Man Lightweight TT.

But Europe was not the only place that Kluge and DKW were to compete.   In 1937 the sleepy Adelaide Hills town of Lobethal in South Australia hosted the inaugural South Australian TT on a road circuit that compared favourably with those in Europe.  Enticed by the Lobethal Carnival Committee the DKW team was to tour Australia taking in events in other States as well. Officially it was called a cultural and sporting exchange. It may also have helped that there was a strong German influence in the area with immigrants settling in Lobethal and nearby Handorf in the mid-1800’s.

The circuit itself was on sealed public roads and eight and three-quarter miles in length (14.082 km) running in a clockwise direction and took in the towns of both Lobethal and Charleston. It was almost triangular in shape and featured hairpins, s-bends, fast sweepers and flat out straights with changes in elevation that ranked it as one of the best road courses of the time anywhere in the world.

Les Friedrichs is re-united with the works DKW in 1988.

Les Friedrichs is re-united with the works DKW in 1988 at the  Lobethal  TT recreation.

Baron Claus Von Oertzen managed the DKW team and his vivacious wife Baroness Irene Von Oertzen also accompanied him to Australia.  It was quite a shock to the locals when the teams van, plastered in swastikas, arrived in the township.  There were also rumours that a British Special Intelligence Service agent was shadowing the team as pre-war tensions began to rise.

The Baron had chosen a local rider, Les Friedrichs, to be Kluge’s co-rider and although this would be Friedrichs first road race he had outstanding credentials in other motorcycle sports. The choice was a good one and in the Lightweight (250cc) TT, Friedrichs followed home his team leader Kluge for a stunning 1-2 victory.  Kluge then went on to win the Junior TT (350cc) with his 250cc machine; such was the technical advantage of the German racer.

The grid lines up for the start of the 1988 Lobethal TT recreation.

The grid lines up in the main street of Lobethal for the start of the 1988 TT recreation.

Because of the success of the races, the following year the Auto Cycle Council of Australia endorsed the Lobethal event to be run as the Australian TT.  Racing car events were also held on the circuit, and the popular road course hosted the Australian Grand Prix in 1939. The Lobethal TT was held on the December Boxing Day holiday and the DKW team, as part of their tour, contested several interstate events in early 1938.

The team had planned to return again at the end 1938 and Kluge left behind his practice bike. This was a 1936 model works URe 250, which was left in the care of the Victorian DKW importer who was waiting for the arrival of a 1938 SS 250 production version of the factory machines. DKW was the first manufacturer to sell a production version of their “works” racers to the public.  However, the team did not return due to the onset of the Second World War.

Kluge was called up for military service in 1940 and was captured by the Russians and not released until 1949 due to his association with the Nazi’s.  At the age of 44, he returned to competition but suffered a severe high-speed accident at the 1953 Eifelrennen at the Nurburgring, which ended his career.  Ewald Kluge was only 55 years old when he passed away in 1964, leaving a remarkable racing legacy.

The 1936 works racer left behind by Kluge in 1938.

The 1936 works racer left behind by Kluge in 1938.

After the war road races were held at nearby Woodside and in 1948 racing returned once more to Lobethatl until the South Australian State Government banned racing on public roads and brought to an end any thoughts of resurrecting the Lobethal TT.

The ex Kluge machine was discovered again by Eric Williams in 1960 who retrieved it from the side of a house in St. Peters in Adelaide where it was found lying and slowly rusting away. The engine had blown up in a big way at the Sellicks Beach races.

Williams then spent 17 years restoring the machine, and it made an appearance in 1988 at TT88, which recreated the Lobethal TT as part of South Australia’s sesquicentennial. The TT reunited the DKW racer with a 78-year-old Les Friedrichs who performed a parade lap of the circuit stunning the onlookers with a cacophony of ear-shattering sound emitted by the exotic little racer.

Jewel like high tech two-stroke engineering in 1936 from DKW.

Jewel-like high tech two-stroke engineering in 1936 from DKW.

Williams sold the DKW in 1992 for $50,000 (Aus), a record for a vintage machine in Australia. Steve Hazelton outbid the American Barber Museum to keep the rare works racer in Australia, but 20 years later decided to put the DKW up for sale again.  Hazelton was extremely disappointed to receive very little interest from within Australia for this exotic ex-works racer.

It would no doubt be reassuring to Kluge, that Audi Tradition continues to honour his racing achievements and that of the DKW works team.  And although the roads around Lobethal are no longer used as a racing circuit, motorcyclists from all over Adelaide ride the course regularly to enjoy what was once one of the worlds great road racing circuits.

Words Geoff Dawes © 2014. Photographs Geoff Dawes (C) 1988. Images courtesy of http://www.audimediaservices.com. Diagram www.motorradonline.de.

Below is a link to a map of the Lobethal TT course. https://maps.google.com/maps/ms?msa=0&msid=201984503616328999196.0004d09b2905e2b5ca5e4

Who The Hell Is Steve Baker?

When American Kenny Roberts invaded the European Grands Prix in 1978, the two times, AMA Grand National Champion left an indelible mark on the World Championship.  Not only did Roberts become the first American to win a 500cc world title  (the first of three), he also brought to Europe an American dirt track style of racing that would change the face of the sport forever.   Not only that, but Roberts was also instrumental in improving paddock conditions, safety and appearance money after ruffling the FIM and establishment’s feathers by proposing a breakaway “World Series” to compete with the Grands Prix.

The quiet achiever Steve Baker.

The quiet achiever Steve Baker.

It’s therefore somewhat understandable that when the question of who was the first American to win a 500cc Grand Prix, it’s assumed it was Kenny.

In fact, it was a fellow Californian, Pat Hennen. Hennen started racing in the 500cc World Championship in 1976 for Suzuki GB and won his and America’s first 500cc Grand Prix in Finland that year. He also finished a creditable third in the Championship.  Hennen performed the same feat the following year, this time winning British Grand Prix and placing third again in the Championship. In 1978 Hennen won in Spain but suffered a severe race crash at the Isle of Man TT, which ended his career.

So who was the first American to win an FIM road racing World Championship? Ditto, again it’s assumed to be Roberts.

It was, however, a diminutive, unassuming, and quietly spoken character by the name of Steve Baker. Born on the 5th of September 1952 in Bellingham, Washington State, Baker, like so many of the American World Champions that followed, started out a dirt tracker.   At age 11 he would spend hours riding the many dirt trails around his hometown and at 16 began to race on short track and the TT dirt tracks of the Pacific Northwest. By the early 1970’s Steve had become one of the top-ranked novices, and junior TT riders in America.  Baker was by now racing in events up and down the west coast of the United States and Canada.

Baker at work on Yamaha Canada TZ750.

Baker at work on Yamaha Canada TZ750.

Steve then turned his hand to road racing, mainly in Canada, competing in as many as five classes during a typical weekend. It wasn’t long before Baker had a hat-trick of Canadian road racing titles to his name in the 500cc expert class, taking the number one plate in 1974, 1975 and 1976.  1976 was a good year for Baker who also took out the 250cc and unlimited expert class as well.

Baker had begun racing professionally in 1973 with sponsorship from Yamaha Canada’s Trevor Deeley, with Bob Work as his tuner. Baker’s debut in his first AMA national was at the 1973 Daytona 200 in which he finished 28th.  It was not until September that year that Baker showed his true potential with a creditable 2nd place to former 250cc World Champion Kel Carruthers at Talladega in Alabama.  Unfortunately, it was on the same circuit the following year that Baker crashed and broke his leg, leaving him sidelined for the rest of the year.

Bakers comeback ride was at Daytona in 1975, and it netted him a commendable 2nd place to Gene Romero. But it was in 1976 that Baker’s star really shone.  Now one of only five riders to receive a “works” OW31 TZ750 Yamaha, it proved to be an awe-inspiring combination.  Baker qualified 2nd to Kenny Roberts at the season-opening Daytona 200, but during the race suffered mechanical problems after holding down third place.  Disappointment turned to success at the next two FIM Formula 750 Prize events in Venezuela and at Imola in Italy with Baker winning both of the 200-mile races.

Baker on the grid alongside future factory teammate Johnny Ceccotto.

Baker on the grid at Imola alongside future factory teammate Johnny Cecotto.

On the home front, he recorded his first AMA national victory at the Loudon Classic in June and backed it up with a win in the 250cc race.  Baker repeated this at Laguna Seca again winning both the national and 250cc event.  1976 was also Baker’s debut in the Trans-Atlantic Match Races, a series that pitted a team of America’s best riders against seasoned English racers on circuits in the UK. Baker won four of the six races finishing second and fourth in the other two and was top points scorer of the series.  This was against riders of the calibre of Kenny Roberts, Barry Sheene and former world champion Phil Read.  Baker followed this up later that year with a win in the prestigious Race of the Year at Mallory Park beating the likes of 500cc World Champion Barry Sheene and multiple World Champion Giacomo Agostini amongst others.

For 1977 the FIM Formula 750 Prize had been granted full World Championship status with the season starting Daytona 200 as the opening round.  Baker by now had been drafted into the official Yamaha factory squad to contest not only the new 750cc World Championship but the 500cc World Championship as well alongside Johnny Ceccotto. Giacomo Agostini was also provided with “works” machinery through the Italian Yamaha importer.

Baker leads Roberts both on the OW31.

Baker leads Roberts both on the OW31.

Finally, everything seemed to come together for Baker at Daytona, qualifying on pole position and winning the race.  Baker also clinched the double by winning the International Lightweight 250cc race. The F750 World Championship consisted of eleven rounds most of which (unlike the Grands Prix) consisted of two heats. Six of the circuits Baker had raced on before and with the mighty OW31 at his disposal he was able to win five of the rounds, coming second in three and third in two. Baker never finished off the podium in the 10 championship rounds he contested. His nearest rival Frenchman Christian Sarron was 76 points behind.  America, at last, had its first FIM road racing World Champion.

BakerSteve2_l

Diminutive Baker manhandles the OW31 through the infield.

But it was the 500cc World Championship that Yamaha was most eager to capture.  The Japanese company had first entered the blue riband 500cc class in 1973 with 1972 250cc World Champion Jarno Saarinen.  Unfortunately, Saarinen was killed in the 250cc race at Monza while leading the point’s table in the 500cc class. Yamaha withdrew for the rest of the season but returned in 1974 with the great Giacomo Agostini.  Agostini went on to win the title for Yamaha in 1975 giving them and Japan their first 500cc World Championship. But in 1976 rival Japanese manufacturer Suzuki with the talented Barry Sheene had taken the title away. Yamaha was required to save face.

In 1977 the 500cc GP’s were also contested over eleven rounds, but many of the circuits were new to Baker. Steve was reported to have said in a recent interview that he was “overwhelmed by Europe” when contesting the championship.  Not only were their new circuits to learn, but there was also the question of racing in the rain, something that did not occur in the United States.  On top of that, there was the culture shock of living outside of the states. Then, of course, there were the street circuits, which were part of the Grand Prix calendar.  Spa in Belgium, Imatra in Finland, Brno in Czechoslovakia and Opitijia in Yugoslavia all could prove deadly and finding the right place to make up time or take calculated risks could only come from experience. Let’s not forget that 1977 saw the British Grand Prix on the mainland for the first time (at Silverstone) after the top riders of the day vetoed that most deadly of all road courses, the Isle of Man TT.  Even the closed circuits at that time could not be considered “safe” by today’s standards, and fatalities regularly took place.

It was with this backdrop that Baker contested the championship, taking on seasoned campaigners like World Champion Sheene and a flotilla of “works” or factory-supported RG500 Suzuki’s, not to mention his own teammate Ceccotto and Agostini on the other factory Yamaha YZR500 0W35’s.

At the end of a tough season, Baker finished in a creditable second place to World Champion Barry Sheene.  He had scored second place three times, third place three times, fourth once and fifth once.  The second round of the 500cc Championship had been boycotted in Austria at the Salzburgring after an accident in the 350cc race that saw one rider killed and several others seriously injured, including Baker’s teammate Johnny Ceccoto, who broke his arm. At the other two tracks that made up the series in Finland and Czechoslovakia, Baker suffered mechanical problems which blunted his final points tally,  80 to Sheene’s 107.

Always fast.

Always fast.

With such a performance in his rookie year, a factory contract for 1978 might have been expected.  The only thing that Baker hadn’t achieved was winning a 500cc Grand Prix.  Unfortunately Yamaha top brass witnessed a domestic bust-up between Baker and his fiancé Bonnie with his sister and Bob Work at the Dutch TT in Assen.  This seemed to seal Steve’s fate, and a contract was not forthcoming.

The Gallina team signed Baker for the following season on a private Suzuki RG500. But against factory machinery, he could only achieve seventh in the championship, his best result a third-place podium in Venezuela.  Baker also competed in the F750 World Championship for the Gallina team on a production Yamaha TZ750E although he was “allowed” to ride Yamaha Canada’s factory OW31 in North America.  Daytona was no longer part of the F750 World Championship in 1978, although it was still the most significant road race in America. Baker suffered a DNF through mechanical failure while in second place chasing Kenny Roberts. The season turned out to be one of mechanical failures and risky strategy for Baker, desperate to try and compete with the “works” machines. To cap off a disastrous season, at the last round at Mosport in Canada, Baker was involved in another riders fatal practice crash. Baker escaped with a badly broken arm and leg.

Steve finished sixth in the Championship with his best results being two-second places at Imola and Laguna Seca and a third-place at Paul Ricard. The following season, in 1979, Baker was set to race in the MCN/Superbike championship in the UK riding a Yamaha TZ750F for Sid Griffiths.  At the second round of the series, at Brands Hatch, Baker crashed entering Paddock Hill bend and sustained similar injuries to his Mosport crash of the previous year.

Bakers privateer Gallina TZ750D.

Bakers privateer Gallina TZ750E.

Steve Baker left the sport without having the chance to fulfil his enormous potential and returned home to open a Yamaha dealership in his hometown of Bellingham, which he runs to this day. Often overlooked as America’s first World Champion, Baker holds no grudges, and there is no bitterness, only humble gratitude to have been able to enjoy the experience.

In recent years Baker has ridden for the Yamaha Classic Racing Team at numerous classic events around Europe, jogging peoples memories while attracting new fans, and reminding us all of the very special the talent that is, Steve Baker.

Words Geoff Dawes © 2014. Images courtesy http://www.global.yamaha-motor.com, http://www.aircooledrdclub.com, http://www.classicmotorcycles.net and http://www.ge-board.de

Life Without Rossi

It was not that long ago that the very thought of MotoGP without Valentino Rossi was almost heresy.  Although Rossi’s eventual retirement was an inevitable reality, there was some consternation about the future popularity of the sport and its existence as a saleable commodity without him.  Rossi’s ability to engage such a broad demographic of fans, from children to retirees has given Grand Prix motorcycle racing the kind of exposure that other forms of motorsport would dearly love to have had. His post-race antics, charm and humility, coupled with an amazing ability to push a Grand Prix racing motorcycle to the very limit, using racecraft so ruthless it enabled him to regularly outwit his many opponents is legendary.

Rossi on his 2001 Championship winning NSR500 two-stroke.

Rossi on his 2001 Championship winning NSR500 two-stroke.

Rossi is arguably the greatest rider of all time, having won a record 80 MotoGP compared to the 68 of the great Giacomo Agostini.  But next month, on February 16th Valentino will celebrate his 35th birthday, and after three years with only one win, Rossi has given himself six races before he decides whether he will continue in MotoGP in 2015.  That sixth race will be his “home” Grand Prix at Mugello a race he has won a record seven times.

The surprise sacking of longtime crew chief, Jeremy Burgess, at the 2013 season-ending race in Valencia, sent shock waves through the paddock.  As Burgess pointed out at a pre-race press conference “I’ve read many sports biographies and quite often the top sportsman in the latter part of his career will have a change of caddy or a change of coach, and this is what we’re working on. We worked on fixing the problem for four years, and this is part of that fix, and this is the next step to try and get Valentino back on top.” But is there more to Valentino’s lack of form since his last championship in 2009?

Valentino on the 990cc RC211V Honda 5 cylinder four-stroke.

Valentino on the 990cc RC211V Honda 5 cylinder four-stroke.

Burgess has also mentioned the “survival gene” that kicks in when a rider reaches their thirties and can erode a competitor’s ability to push to the absolute limits on a Grand Prix motorcycle.  Micheal Scott, a longtime Grand Prix journalist and the editor of the authoritative annual Motocourse, had previously noted in his column, that during his long career Rossi had always possessed that bit of luck which saved him from serious injury when involved in a practice or race crash.  That was not the case however in 2010. Rossi suffered a pre-season Motocross accident that severely affected his right shoulder and was not rectified until after the season had finished. But more tellingly a practice crash at Mugello, a circuit that Rossi had so much success on, bit back, giving the Italian a broken leg and for the first a time in his career caused him to miss not just one race, but three. Was the magic waning?

Rossi after winning the 2010 Malaysian GP aboard his beloved 800cc four-stroke Yamaha YZR-M1.

Rossi after winning the 2010 Malaysian GP aboard his beloved 800cc four-stroke Yamaha YZR-M1.

Dealing with a recalcitrant Ducati in 2011 and 2012 did little to admonish the growing number of doubters that believed Rossi’s star was on the decline. Perhaps more tragically though was the effect that Valentino’s innocent involvement in Marco Simoncelli’s fatal accident in Malaysia may have had.  I for one cannot comprehend how difficult it must have been for Valentino to deal with.

The most reassuring thing about Rossi though is his love of racing and commitment to the sport. As the owner of a new Team Sky- VR46 Moto3 team, which he formed in a bid to help cultivate young Italian talent for the Grand Prix, there is no doubt that Rossi’s presence and star quality will thankfully be around the paddock for many years to come.

Words Geoff Dawes ©2013. Images http://www.sportrider.us, http://www.hdwallres.com and http://www.yamaharacing.com

Reminiscing: The Honda CB1100RC

Not a small motorcycle but extremely functional.

In 1982 the there was only one thing better for a Japanese motorcycle enthusiast to see than a Honda CB1100RC and that was more than one. In fact, it was the sight of five of the limited run, homologation specials, that greeted me on the forecourt of Trevena Honda at their Main North road dealership.  Only 200 of the RC model had been imported into Australia, and I was on a mission to secure one for myself.

My current bike, at that time, was a 1979 Honda CB900FZ, the machine the RC was based on. It was in my opinion, a somewhat underrated motorcycle that boasted lightweight, good handling and attractive styling, yet it had been pushed into the background due to the capacity war being waged with the other Japanese manufacturers.

The CB1100RC though was a different kettle of fish. Built primarily to redress the balance of power in production bike racing, it was not cheap. At $5,800 (Aus) it was almost twice the price of the CB900FZ it was based on, although this was tempered somewhat by the fact, that as a limited run special, it would hold its price and potentially appreciate in value.

That first ride home on the RC was an interesting one as it was the first time I’d ridden a motorcycle with a full fairing.  It proved to be quite effective at keeping the wind and weather off the rider although the hands were less well protected.  The footpegs were set slightly higher and a bit more rearward pushing the rider’s knees into the alloy fuel tanks indentations. The adjustable handlebars (a similar system to Laverda’s) were in the dropped position giving a good “feel” from the front end.  The brakes were highly effective causing the forks to compress considerably.  The RC was physically a large machine, but it steered and changed direction with relative ease.

Once at home it was time to indulge in the motorcyclist’s favourite pastime, making adjustments to the bike.  The TRAC anti-dive system on the front forks was set at number one of its four positions, hence the accentuated nose-dive under brakes. This setting was changed to number three, and the air pressure in both forks was set to 25psi (between 23 to 27psi was recommended by Honda).

Air caps on the fork top and the engine oil temperature gauge with warning lights.

Air caps on the fork top and the engine oil temperature gauge with warning lights.

The remote reservoir gas charged FVQ rear shockers had four compression, three extension damping settings and five spring preload settings.  These were adjusted with the spring preload set to three, the compression damping to three and the rebound damping to two.  The eighteen-inch wheels fitted to the RC sported 2.5inch front and 3.0inch rim rear widths respectively.  Checking the standard fitment Japanese Dunlop F11 100/90 V18 and K527 130/80 V18 tyre pressures was another essential job.

Next was to set the handlebars in the “flat” position. This was easily done by loosening the hexagonal through bolt enough to disengage the meshed “teeth” of the lower and upper part of the handlebar, so the upper bars could be tilted into the flat position, and then re-tightened.

A quick run on a favourite stretch of road showed the suspension adjustments had firmed up the big Honda making it more responsive to rider input and the raised handlebars improved the comfort of the riding position.

The owner’s manual was also very comprehensive and more of a condensed workshop manual, showing tolerances and recommended replacement of engine parts in racing kilometres/miles. The regular service schedule for normal road use was fairly standard, and the manual also quoted the CB1100RC as giving 115hp at 9,000rpm and 75kg-m at 7500rpm some 20hp up on the CB900FZ.

All the usual service points on the RC were easily accessible for the home mechanic.  The fairing lower took about five minutes to remove to reach the oil filter and cam chain tensioner, while the fuel tank had to be removed to gain access to the spark plugs and carburettors. The air filter was also easily accessible through the air-box side cover.  The RC was not fitted with a main-stand, but a rear paddock type stand was available from Honda dealers.

Naked RC. It took about forty minutes to undress.

Naked RC. It took about forty minutes to undress.

It became apparent after running in the RC that this motorcycle could be used as a serious high-speed, long-distance sports tourer.  On a favourite piece of road riding the CB900FZ at 120kmh was a comfortable rate of knots, but on the RC this seemed slow, and 140kmh was a comparative trot.  The full fairing was doing its job with very little buffeting, even around the rider’s helmet.  The power delivery of the 1062cc engine was quite linear, with a flat torque curve making hard acceleration deceptive with only a slight jump in power at higher revs.

What did become apparent though was a vibration zone at around 4000-4500rpm that could be felt through the footpegs and handlebars, was more predominant through the large 26lt alloy fuel tank.  This did eventually cause an internal baffle in the tank to break away which sounded like a buzz saw at these revs.  Also, a baffle in the right-hand exhaust became loose and rattled.  Both of these problems were fixed without question under warranty.  The engine did smooth out considerably once out of this “zone”, although this did translate into higher illegal road speeds.

FVQ gas charged remote reservoir shock absorbers.

FVQ gas charged remote reservoir shock absorbers.

The only down sides that the RC did have was a restricted turning circle, thanks to the large fuel tank and fairing, but once this was factored in it never really became an issue. Also carrying a pillion passenger was really not a design prerequisite for the RC.  The pillion part of the seat was higher, and the bulk of the weight of the passenger was behind the rear axle line of the motorcycle.  This really didn’t help the handling of the RC regardless of the suspension settings.

Although the front brakes were Honda’s very effective new twin-piston floating calipers that gripped 300mm ventilated disks, I opted to have the optional braided steel brake lines fitted. These were standard on the U.K. model and gave better initial bite and feel and were a worthwhile investment.

The Honda’s presence on the road was also quite impressive.  This was the first motorcycle I can remember that had car drivers change lanes to get out of the way. Other drivers would slow down just to see what sort of exotic piece of kit it was. Indeed the prominent fairing and bright colour scheme made the motorcycle quite visible to other road users, and it made the rider feel that little bit safer in traffic.

What I didn’t expect was the reaction of other motorcyclists.  In one instance I was told that it was a racer for the road and impractical for everyday use, and there was no way you could use all the power available.  This was from a group of riders, one of whom rode a Laverda Jota!

A comfortable sports tourer.

A comfortable sports tourer.

In reality, the Honda CB1100RC was a motorcycle you could commute to work on and use for weekend blasts through the hills.  And for five years I did exactly that and enjoyed every minute of it. The RC’s engine performance was user-friendly, as was the superb handling in just about all conditions. It was a big and heavy bike, and after few hours of scratching on winding roads, the rider would know it. But this just added to the satisfaction of riding this type of motorcycle.  The Honda was also a competent sports tourer that with the handlebars in the “flat” position was quite comfortable over long distances.

Many of the specifications of the CB1100RC were carried over to the CB1100F with improvements (including rubber mounting the engine) that made it more civilised than its production-racing cousin.  Unfortunately, the CB1100R series and CB1100F were also the last generations of big air-cooled four-cylinder bikes from Honda that along with other Japanese models quickly became dinosaurs in the fast-moving technological evolution of the performance motorcycle.

Words Geoff Dawes (C) 2014. Photographs Geoff and Vivienne Dawes © 1982.

The Honda CB1100R Series

The fully faired 1982 CB1100RC Honda.

It ‘s an understatement to suggest that racing success helped build the very foundations of the Honda Motor Company.  It was the driving force to win, instilled by corporation founder Soichiro Honda that the company’s engineering capabilities be proven in the white heat of competition. The forays, starting in 1959 to the Isle of Man TT, to take on the best in the world in Grand Prix racing, proved pivotal to the success of the fledgeling motorcycle manufacturer.

But in 1970’s production racing, and in particular the prestigious Australian Castrol Six Hour production race, this philosophy was faltering. In a class of racing that pitted showroom floor models against each other under racing conditions, Honda had tasted success but once, in the 1971 event, with the venerable CB750.

The unfaired CB1100RB explicitly built for the 1980 Australian Castrol Six Hour race.

The Castrol Six-Hour had become the jewel in the crown of endurance production racing that enjoyed live television coverage in Australia and immense media exposure all over the world.  It was a class of racing with a huge following as it allowed motorcycle owners to see how “their” bike performed against machines from the other manufacturers.  And in an era of unprecedented motorcycle sales, the old adage, “what wins on Sunday sells on Monday”, had never been more true.

Honda held great hope for success in 1979 with the RCB endurance racer inspired CB900FZ, but it was unable to be fully competitive against its larger capacity rivals from Suzuki and Yamaha. Although claiming a creditable third place the previous year, Honda’s own CBX1000 six-cylinder flagship did not have the success that Honda desired.

And the war for production racing supremacy was not just being waged in Australia, but also South Africa, New Zealand and the U.K which was also a part of Honda’s dilemma.  This required contemplation and a new approach to the race, or rather, the regulations.

The 1979 CB900FZ

The CB1100R series of motorcycles was created out of production racing necessity.  Honda became the first Japanese manufacturer to build a production homologation special for the road,  manufacturing enough road-registerable models to stay within the rules.

In a clever bit of reverse engineering Honda looked to its CB900FZ road bike, which had been based on the highly successful RCB1000 endurance racer.  It used lessons learnt from the RCB to transform the CB900F into a specialist endurance production racer. There was some irony here as Honda was also developing in parallel the RSC1000, by necessity based on the CB900F, to meet the regulations for the new prototype World Endurance Championship of 1980.

Honda Australia rider Dennis Neil was recruited by Honda Japan to develop the new machine and was responsible for testing it in both Australia and Japan. One hundred of the CB1100RB were fast-tracked and registered by Honda to make the September cut off deadline for entry into the 1980 Castrol Six Hour.  This was an unfaired version of the bike, which was unique to the R series.  European models and those released in most other markets were fitted with a half fairing.

The faired version of the CB1100RB sold in South Africa the UK and New Zealand.

The faired version of the CB1100RB sold in South Africa the UK and New Zealand.

The evolution of the CB900F to transform it into the CB1100R, though, was quite extensive.

Although the engine shared the same 69mm stroke of the CB900F, the bore was increased from 64.5mm to 70mm to give an engine capacity of 1062cc, the same as variants of both the RCB and RSC endurance racers. The cylinder block was solid, doing away with the air gap between the two outer and two inside cylinders. The compression ratio was increased, up from 8.8:1 to 10:1, and many of the engine internals were beefed up, including a wider primary drive chain, strengthened clutch, conrods, big end bearings and gudgeon pins while the pistons became semi-forged items and the camshafts had sportier profiles. The standard gearbox was retained, although final overall gearing was raised by ten percent, and carburation also remained the same as the CB900F using four constant velocity Keihin VB 32mm units. This resulted in CB1100RB producing 115hp (85kw) at 9000rpm and 72ft.lb  (98N-m) of torque at 7,500rpm, compared to 95hp (69.8kw) at 9000rpm and 57ft.lb (77.4N-m) at 8000rpm of the CB900FZ.

The chassis was strengthened with extra gusseting and the detachable lower frame rail of the CB900F, designed for ease of engine removal, now became a solid part of the frame.  The front engine mounts were also heavy-duty alloy items, which no doubt all helped to improve the rigidity of the chassis.  The 35mm CB900F front forks were replaced with new 38mm units that used air assistance to adjust the spring rate via a linked hose from each fork and the rear shock absorbers carried a finned piggyback reservoir to help cool the damping oil.  Honda reverse Comstar wheels were fitted although the diameters remained the same as the CB900F, with an 18inch rear wheel and a 19inch front. But the rim widths were wider, up from 2.15 inches for both the front and rear of CB900F to a 2.75 inch rear and a 2.5 inch front for the CB1100RB. This was to accommodate the new generation tyres developed for the race due to the intense competition between tyre manufacturers. Honda also introduced for the first time their dual twin-piston floating calipers that gripped solid 296mm disks.

A single fibreglass seat unit that also housed the toolkit took the place of the CB900F’s dual seat. The fuel capacity was increased from 20 litres to 26 litres with a massive alloy fuel tank.  The instruments and switchgear were taken straight off the CB900F, but the duralumin handlebars were changed to multi-adjustable items that could be replaced quickly in the event of a crash. The exhaust system was visually similar to the CB900F, being a four into two, but on the CB1100RB it was freer flowing and utilised a balance pipe just ahead of the two mufflers. It was also finished in matt black as opposed to chrome and was well tucked in. The pulse generator and ignition cover on either end of the crankshaft were reduced in size and chamfered to also help improve ground clearance.  The foot pegs were rear-set and raised slightly on new lighter alloy castings. Honda was quite proud of achieving a fifty-degree angle of lean for the RB without anything touching down. This was extremely important at such a tight circuit as Amaroo Park where the Castrol Six Hour was held.

Single seat unit housed the toolkit.

Single seat unit of the RB housed the toolkit.

However, the Willoughby District Motorcycle Club did not welcome the appearance of the CB1100RB at the 1980 Castrol Six Hour.  The organisers of the event argued that the CB100RB did not conform to the rules for a touring motorcycle, as it had no provision to carry a pillion passenger. Honda quite rightly pointed out that this was not written into the supplementary regulations for the event and indeed the organisers had to yield. It should also be pointed out that the organisers had turned a blind eye in previous years to entries such as the 750 and 900 SS Ducati’s that also could not carry a pillion passenger.

It’s history now that Wayne Gardner and Andrew Johnson on the privately entered Mentor Motorcycles CB1100RB won the race, held in wet conditions, ahead of the Honda Australia entry of Dennis Neil and Roger Heyes.  But it was a controversial win and not the clear-cut victory Honda would have hoped for. Suzuki Australia claimed that a lap scoring error had taken the win away from John Pace and Neil Chivas on a GSX1100.  After three appeals the Suzuki team were eventually awarded the win, only for Mentor Motorcycles to appeal against the ruling and be reinstated just four weeks before the 1981 race. To top all this off, the WDMC released the supplementary regulations for the race, which specifically banned solo seats.  Honda turned its back on the 1981 race and once again studied the rules.  Some solace was sought when the CB1100RB won all of the eight 1981 MCN Streetbike series in the UK, with seven victories going to series winner Ron Haslam.

The end result of all of the above culminated in the 1982 CB1100RC, which came equipped with a dual seat and rear footpegs – and also a full fairing. A removable cover was used to give the appearance of a single seat, while the tools were moved to a lockable toolbox that was hung off the seat subframe just behind the left rear shock absorber.  The rear suspension units were now inverted reservoir gas charged FVQ units with four-way compression damping and three-way adjustable extension damping with five spring preloads.  Front fork diameter was increased from 38mm to 39mm with separate air adjustment on the top of each fork leg.  The forks also boasted a new innovation from Honda, Torque Reactive Anti-dive Control or TRAC. This was a mechanical four-way adjustable system that utilised the pivoting torque of the brake calipers to close a valve in the fork leg, under braking, to increase compression damping which limited front end nose-dive.

The fully faired 1982 CB1100RC Honda.

The fully faired 1982 CB1100RC Honda.

The front brake disks now became ventilated while 18-inch “boomerang” spoked Comstar wheels graced both ends of the RC.  The rear rim width was now 3.0 inches, up from 2.75 on the RB, while the front rim width remained 2.5 inches but on an 18 instead of 19-inch wheel.  Steering rake was increased by half a degree to 28 degrees and trail was shortened from 121mm to 113mm mainly to accommodate the effects of the new 18-inch front wheel.  The wheelbase also became slightly longer from 1488mm of the RB to 1490mm for the RC but still 25mm shorter than the CB900F.

The instrument “pod” now was now mounted in the nose of the full fairing, and the tachometer became electronic as opposed to the cable driven item of the RB.  There was also the inclusion of an oil temperature gauge mounted with the warning lights on the top steering yoke.  The full fairing was lightweight fibreglass, reinforced with carbon fibre, and its lower half was quickly removable utilising six Dzus type fasteners and two screws.  In the engine department, the only significant mechanical change was a stronger cam chain tensioner and 1mm larger Keihin VB 33mm CV carburettors. Claimed horsepower and torque remained the same as the CB1100RB, although South African and New Zealand models were recorded as giving 120hp.

Honda dominated the 1982 Castrol Six Hour even though Suzuki unleashed its 1100 Katana with special wider wire wheels.  Wayne Gardner and Wayne Clarke took the top place on the podium with three other CB1100RC’s finishing behind them.  The nearest Suzuki Katana was a lap down in fifth. Honda again dominated the British MCN Streetbike series winning all the races with Ron Haslam and Wayne Gardner sharing the spoils and series title. For 1983 new restrictions were put in place for production racing, which limited engine capacity to 1000cc and effectively made the CB1100RC redundant.

The Honda CB1100RD. Note the nose of the fairing in line with front axle line.

The Honda CB1100RD. Note the nose of the fairing in line with front axle line.

Honda still produced one more model in the series, the 1983 CB1100RD, the main differences from the RC being a rectangular tube swingarm, which was slightly wider for the new fatter tyres, and it also carried upgraded rear shock absorbers. The nose of the fairing was also pulled back to be in line with the front axle to meet racing regulations.  Aesthetically the blue stripe ran up the sides of the headlight and not underneath it while the blue and red paintwork appeared almost metallic in its finish. The Honda winged transfer on the tank was grey, black and white as opposed to yellow and white of the RB and RC.

The overall finish of the RD appeared a notch above the RB and RC, and it was suggested that Honda did not have the capacity on its production line to cope with the limited number run required to homologate these two models.  Honda’s Racing Services Centre (which became the Honda Racing Corporation in 1982) was said to have been responsible for assembling both the RB and RC.  An upgraded production line in 1983 enabled Honda to accommodate the RD.  This does make sense and a good reason for the better quality of finish of the RD. It also makes the RB and RC somewhat unique as they would have been assembled by Honda’s racing department.

How limited in numbers was the CB1100R series?  1,050 of the 1981 RB were reported to have been built, although whether this figure includes the 100 fast -racked unfaired machines for the 1980 Castrol Six Hour is unclear.  It seems that 1,500 of both the RC and RD were made, giving a number of 4,050 in total.

Words Geoff Dawes © 2013. Photograph Geoff Dawes (C)1982. Images http://www.nirvanamotorcycles.com, http://www.mctrader.com.au, http://www.worldhonda.com, http://www.carandclassic.co.uk, http://www.flkr.com.