MotoGP'S Oldest Foes

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Mat Oxley, On two wheels

Unless Audi works some instant magic at Ducati, the contest for the 2013 MotoGP crown will be a straight duel between Honda and Yamaha. The precedent is no less than the past 30 years. Since 1983, the sport’s oldest foes have been beaten only once to the championship for constructors.

That’s quite a duopoly, but perhaps more surprising is that after all these years both manufacturers play the game the same way: Honda has more horsepower, Yamaha beffer handling. With a couple of exceptions it has always been thus.

Remember last summer’s epic Brno duel between Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa? The helicopter shots clearly illustrated the contrasting characteristics the companies’ bikes have carried for so long, almost as if Japan’s love of tradition demands it.

Pedrosa frequently ran crazily wide in Brno’s sweeping curves as he fought to overcome the Honda’s traditional understeer. And then they got to the straights, where Lorenzo’s fine-handling YZR-M1 showed off its traditional lack of speed. On the final straight Pedrosa happily rode past to win. There’s a reason it’s called the Honda Motor Company.

Always more technically adventurous, Honda uses a screamer engine that creates more power in a wilder style than Yamaha’s big-bang counterpart. The anger is tamed with a torque sensor that measures chain force so the ECU can tell the engine exactly how much torque to produce at any given moment. The RCV’s rtorductor’ and slick-shifter gearbox are two technologies taken from car racing and miraculously shrunk to motorcycle size. HRC’s MotoGP chief Shuhei Nakamoto once ran Honda’s Fl operation…

Yamaha is more cautious in its technical ambitions. The first YZR-M1 of 2002 used antique fuelling technology carbureffors while everyone else was forging ahead with fuel injection.

However Yamaha seems to have a beffer understanding of MotoGP chassis technology. The company is very good at building rider-friendly frames that are subtly flexible in all the right places to deliver excellent grip, steering and feedback at 65 degrees of lean; an engineering conundrum that’s hellishly difficult to solve.

It’s also rather neat that the exhaust notes of the two machines exactly describe their contrasting characters: the aggressive RCV emits a spine-chilling yowl, while the cool, calm M1 burbles along.

Most peculiarly of all, these characteristics don’t apply only to the bikes, they also run deep in the culture of each company. Honda’s race department has always been a bigger, brasher deal than Yamaha’s. Over most of the past few decades HRC has been led by men who make sure you are aware of their power and their genius for creating it.

Youchi Oguma the architect of Honda’s stunning GP successes in the 1980s and 1990swas a charismatic Samurai warlord with a fondness for donning a Banzai headband. He made his opposite numbers at Yamaha seem like Taoist monks.

Honda’s race department has always been robust with its riders. Valentino Rossi quit after winning three world titles because he felt his contribution wasn’t fully appreciated. He switched to Yamaha, vowing to prove that man is more important than machine. His remark cut deep at HRC: when Rossi was floundering around on the Ducati, Nakamoto quipped, “Now is the time for him to prove what he said.” He had a point.

Contrast that with a bizarre situation that arose at Yamaha when Rossi beat Max Biaggi to the final 500 title in 2001. Biaggi liked to blame his YZR500’s front end for his inability to beat Rossi’s NSR500, so towards the season’s end Yamaha staged a press conference to admit culpability that Biaggi was a genius and they were engineering dunces. This was wrong, of course; the YZR500 was a great motorcycle, but the firm had been bludgeoned into selfflagellation by a rider’s grossly swollen ego. It is inconceivable that HRC would ever be hoodwinked in this manner.

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