Tag Archives: Freddie Spencer

Freddie Spencer: FEEL My Story

I have been an enthusiast of Grand Prix motorcycle racing since the early 1970’s and always relished reading the latest news, race reports and interviews in the specialist press. To a degree, it allows a certain amount of insight into the character of our racing heroes but like anyone who is thrust into the media spotlight, the public image does not fully reveal the person.

For example, triple World Champion, Freddie Spencer, was presented by many in the media as a devout Christian who hailed from the Bible belt town of Shreveport Louisiana USA. It was alleged his faith helped him to his first 500cc World Championship in 1983 defeating “King” Kenny Roberts by just two points. The truth though is somewhat different.

Freddie Spencer’s autobiography (with Rick Broadbent) is an openly disarming account of his life. From the early days racing with his Dad, Frederick Snr, to the highs and the lows of his racing career and the many injuries he sustained but hid from the press. Freddie reveals that he was not a churchgoer or deeply religious, but he has faith and his journey has been in many ways a spiritual one.

Spencer is also the only rider to have won both the 250cc (Moto2) and 500cc (MotoGP) World Championship in the same season, a feat that is unlikely to be emulated. FEEL: My Story, is the book that fills in the blanks surrounding Freddie’s career and reveals a fascinating insight into his search for meaning.

Highly recommended.

Available from the Book Depository.

Review © Geoff Dawes 2017.

 

 

 

 

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The 1982 NS500 and 1984 NSR500 Grand Prix Racers.

 

The Honda NS500 V3.

The Honda NS500 V3.

When Honda made the decision to return to the premier class of Grand Prix motorcycle racing in 1975 it did so with a great deal of optimism. The Japanese company had withdrawn in 1967 for numerous reasons (see the Honda NR500 story) yet when it officially announced its return in 1977 the 500cc Grand Prix landscape had shifted dramatically. The two-stroke racing engine reigned supreme; even the four-stroke Grand Prix racers of the mighty MV Agusta team had withdrawn in 1976 leaving a two-stroke monopoly on the class. Honda’s Japanese rivals, Yamaha and Suzuki, had by now both won 500cc world titles, Yamaha winning Japan’s first 500cc World Championship with the great Giacomo Agostini in 1975 and Suzuki winning titles in 1976 and 1977 with the talented Barry Sheene. This must have been a severe “loss of face” for Honda who pioneered Japan’s first foray into Grand Prix racing.

And the decision by Honda to build a four-stroke racing engine within the limitations of the regulations was a bold one. Honda’s approach reflected the philosophy of the companies’ founder, Soichiro Honda, a stalwart of the four-stroke design. However, the plan documents for Honda’s “New Racing” engineers stipulated three years to win the world championship. By 1982 it was clear that the four-stroke racer was unlikely to get on even terms with the two-strokes. In a racing sense the oval piston eight-valve NR500 V4 was indeed a racing failure, but as a technical exercise it was an outstanding achievement.

But regardless of Honda’s aversion to the two-stroke engine, it did have experience with the concept going back to 1974 with the release of the highly successful Honda Elsinore CR125 and CR250 motocross racers. Veteran engineer Shinichi Miyakoshi, who had designed four-stroke GP machines for Honda that dominated Grand Prix racing in the 1960’s, was assigned to the task of developing Honda’s first two-stroke GP racer. The experienced Miyakoshi had been designing two-stroke engines for the motocross group within Honda, which proved to be invaluable to the gestation of the new two-stroke NS500 Grand Prix racer.

Spencer in action on the NS500 V3.

Spencer in action on the NS500 V3.

In June 1981 Miyakoshi visited the Dutch TT at Assen in Holland. There he noted that the fastest of the 350cc GP machines would have qualified on the second row of the grid for the 500cc race. Hence the concept for the NS500 became one of a compact and light machine with a small frontal area of a 350cc GP racer. The engine would be designed for usable power and optimum control, not top speed. A compact V3 layout was chosen using reed valves for smoother power delivery and easier starting (push starts were mandatory at that time). The idea was to have a machine with total balance and again Honda would utilise its motocross experience for the suspension of the NS500. Interestingly the V3 engine configuration had been used before. German manufacturer DKW had utilised it in the 1950’s for its 350cc GP racer. The NS500 also used similar engine architecture to the DKW with two upright cylinders, but unlike the DKW the third cylinder pointed downwards at 112 degrees instead of the more conventional 90 degrees of the DKW.

DKW's air-cooled 350cc V3 two-stroke engine.

DKW’s air-cooled 350cc V3 two-stroke engine.

Another major part of the NS500’s rationale would be its ability to maximise its tyre wear. Racing slicks at this time were still using bias belt construction and the harsher power characteristics of the more powerful rotary valve engines from Yamaha and Suzuki punished the tyres, particularly towards the end of a Grand Prix. The more agile Honda would be able to maintain higher corners speeds for longer, which would negate to a certain degree its lower top speed down the straights.

The NS500 debuted in 1982 in the hands of reigning 1981 World Champion, Italian Marco Lucchinelli, whom Honda had lured away from Suzuki. Korean born Japanese Takazumi Katayama was again part of Honda’s 500cc rider line-up alongside the promising 20-year-old American Freddie Spencer who was promoted full-time to the Grand Prix squad.

It was not until the seventh race of the season in Belgium at the Spa Francorchamps circuit that Honda tasted victory. The win was Honda’s first in15 years and remarkably it was at a circuit renowned for its high speed. And it was “Fast” Freddie Spencer that had ridden the NS500 to victory, his main opposition suffering tyre and mechanical problems. By the end of the season, Spencer had won two races (Belgium and San Marino) and achieved three podiums. Katayama also won the Swedish Grand Prix, but this was just a taste of what was to come.

Spencer chases Takazumi both on the NS500.

Spencer chases Takazumi both on the NS500.

The 1983 season saw an epic battle between “King” Kenny Roberts and “Fast” Freddie Spencer. At the penultimate round in Sweden Spencer had claimed a forceful victory with Roberts running off the track before finishing in second place. In the twelve round race series, it was Spencer that had accumulated six race wins to Robert’s five. If Roberts won at the last round in San Marino Spencer would have to finish second to claim the championship. Indeed Roberts won in Italy, but despite slowing tactics by “King” Kenny in an attempt to put his teammate Eddie Lawson between them, Spencer was still able to finish in second place claiming Honda’s first 500cc World Championship by two points.

Although the lateral thinking behind the V3 triple had borne the fruit of victory it was clear to Honda that with the introduction of radial racing slicks and the limitations of the Honda’s V3 engine architecture that a V4 would be needed against the more powerful opposition from Yamaha and Suzuki for the 1984 season. Honda decided to enter the power war, but again in typical Honda fashion.

In contrast to the twin crankshaft OW76 Yamaha V4 and the twin crankshaft Suzuki RG500 XR45 square four, the 1984 Honda NSR500’s 90-degree V4 used a single crankshaft as this design reduces frictional losses to maximise horsepower. But if anything it was the chassis of the ’84 NSR500 that pushed the envelope.

Honda had been supplying its four-stroke RSC1000 endurance-racing engine to the avant-garde ELFe endurance racer. With the financial backing of the French oil company ELF and Honda itself, Andre de Cortanze and his team had devised a radical alternative to the conventional motorcycle chassis. Using a single sided swingarm at the rear for quick wheel changes, the front also boasted twin swingarms utilising a steering system that could loosely be describe as hub centre steering that again allowed the front wheel to be removed from one side. The objectives of the ELFe were “reduced weight, lower centre of gravity, improved anti-dive under braking and elimination of a conventional chassis”.

Freddie Spencer and the innovative NSR500 Honda.

Freddie Spencer and the innovative V4 NSR500 Honda.

The lower centre of gravity of the ELFe was achieved by mounting the fuel tank under the engine with the exhaust exiting over the top of the engine. It should also be noted that English endurance race team Mead and Tompkinson preceded the ELFe with their creation nicknamed “Nessie” in the mid 1970’s which used Difazio hub centre steering and the same under engine fuel tank and above engine exhaust layout. But it was the ELFe that the Honda engineers took inspiration from. Although retaining a conventional suspension layout, the lower centre of gravity of the ELFe underslung fuel tank was deemed a desirable asset.

The NSR500 first appeared at the 1984 Daytona 200 in Florida, and the initial result was promising with Freddie Spencer setting a lap record of 116.87mph (188.08kph) in qualifying to take pole position. During the race though, tyre problems and a slipping clutch relegated Spencer to second place behind Kenny Roberts. But two weeks later at the opening round of the 500cc World Championship at the Kyalami circuit in South Africa disaster struck. During practice another innovation of the NSR500 V4, its carbon fibre composite rear wheel, collapsed causing Spencer to crash and sit out the race.

The reigning World Champion bounced back, however, to win the Italian Grand Prix at Misano on the V4. This was then followed by another crash while leading the fifth leg of Trans-Atlantic Challenge races at Donnington. This forced Spencer to miss the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama, returning to race at the Austrian Grand Prix at the Salzburgring. It was clear to the spectators watching the race that the NSR500 V4 had handling issues, especially under power exiting the esses onto the main straight. Indeed Randy Mamola on the factory Honda NS500 V3 allowed his team leader through to take second place behind championship leader Eddie Lawson infuriating the crowd who showed their dislike by booing Spencer and Mamola on the slow down lap.

Spencer's chief engineer Erv Kanemoto and mechanic George Vukmanovich walk the V4 NSR500 back from the pits in Austria.

Spencer’s chief engineer Erv Kanemoto and mechanic George Vukmanovich walk the V4 NSR500 back from the pits in Austria.

Freddie by now was getting desperate to bridge the points gap to Eddie Lawson and demanded the NS500 V3 for the next race at the Nurburgring. A mad dash was made to take Marco Lucchinelli’s NS500 out of mothballs in time for the race which Spencer duly won on the V3. This was a bitter pill for Honda to swallow and an embarrassment to a company where new is seen as better. The problem lay with the underslung fuel tank, which by lowering the centre of gravity also affected weight transfer under braking and acceleration which was not generating enough force onto the front and rear tyre, thereby reducing grip. Heat build up from the over the engine exhaust system was also a problem as it heated the air going into the carburettors. The positioning of the expansion chambers themselves also made it difficult to check and change spark plugs and to undertake fine tuning of the carburation, all crucial to a two-stroke racing engine within the time limitations of the practice sessions.

Spencer somehow went on to win the next two Grand Prix on the V4 at Paul Ricard in France and Rijeka in Yugoslavia. The next race was the Dutch TT at Assen. After practicing on the V4 Spencer decided to switch to the V3 for the race after practice had finished. This was scuppered by the supplementary regulations and Freddie was forced to start on the V4. A broken spark plug cap put an end to Freddie’s race as the title started to slip further from his grasp. Again Spencer opted for the V3 for the Belgium GP at Spa and again won the race. Then once more fate played a hand with Freddie crashing at an international meeting at Laguna Seca in California. The crash re-broke an old fracture Spencer had suffered two years before so the reigning World Champion would miss the three final races of the season at Silverstone in Britain, Anderstorp in Sweden and the San Marino GP at Mugello in Italy. This effectively handed the riders World Championship to Honda’s great rival Yamaha and gave Eddie Lawson his first world title. Honda did have the consolation of winning the manufacturer’s trophy, but this was more due to the number of factory, factory supported and privateer riders competing on the NS500 V3.

Randy Mammal on the NS500 V3 leatds Eddie Lawson on the Yamaha V4 Yamaha, Ron Haslam V3 Honda and Spencer V4 Honda.

Randy Mamola on the Honda NS500 V3 leads Eddie Lawson on the Yamaha OW76 V4 , Ron Haslam Honda NS500 V3 and Spencer on the Honda NSR500 V4 in Austria.

It would be unfair to say the 1984 NSR500 was a disappointment; the V4 did win three GP’s and a podium second place. Considering Spencer only contested 6 of the 12 rounds (missing 2 races through mechanical problems and a further four races through injury) fourth place in the rider’s championship was quite a remarkable achievement for Freddie.

Spencer also won 2 GP’s on the NS500 V3 while Randy Mammola won 3 GP’s and accumulated 5 podiums also on the V3 Honda. Which begs the question, would Spencer have defended his title had he campaigned the proven NS500 V3? Hindsight, of course, is a wonderful thing, and one has to admire Honda for empowering its engineers to look for new solutions with the 1984 NSR500. The single crankshaft V4 engine, however, more than lived up to Honda’s high expectations and the NSR500’s that followed, utilising a more conventional chassis, became the most successful 500cc machines in Grand Prix racing history.

Words Geoff Dawes © 2016. Photographs © Geoff Dawes 1984 and courtesy of http://www.blogs.yahoo.co.jp, http://www.commons.wikimedia.org, http://www.s307.photobucket.com, http://www.southbayriders.com.

Below is a short documentary about the NS & NSR 500 Grand Prix racers courtesy of Honda.

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 prioritized 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 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, which would limit the number of cylinders and gears for the different Grand Prix classes, in an attempt to reduce costs, that 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 fabled RC166 250cc six-cylinder GP racer would help guide the group. It soon became clear 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 doubling the number of inlet 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 proved the engine would rev. The number of valves was then increased step by step to eight valves. 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 major 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.

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, utilizing the air funneling 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 greater 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 a 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 starters flag was dropped. The Honda at that stage would only idle at 7000rpm and getting the engine to 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 carburetors 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 at 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 whom were motorcycle journalists, it was up to two time Australian Superbike Champion, Malcom “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.

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