Honda's bete noir

Honda is having a tough time in MotoGP these days. The world’s biggest motorcycle manufacturer has won just seven races in the past three seasons, while Yamaha and Ducati have won 45 between them. But Honda has known darker days in bike racing. In the late ’70s the company decreed that its engineers must vanquish the dominant two-stroke Grand Prix bikes with a hi-tech four-stroke because Soichiro Honda hated stinky two-strokes. The company had no idea how much humiliation it would suffer as a result of Honda-san’s prejudices.

The two-stroke is hard to beat because it fires twice as often, so Honda assigned a group of brilliant young engineers to the project, led by Takeo Fukui, later Honda Motor president. This was their chance to run riot with technical innovation.

The NR500 (NR for ‘New Racer’) was rampantly revolutionary or wilfully unconventional, depending on your viewpoint: four oval pistons, eight valves, two sparking plugs and two connecting rods per cylinder. The idea of the oval pistons (in fact shaped like an athletics track) was to increase valve area, so the V4 would work rather like a V8. Ultra-high engine speeds would further reduce the four-stroke’s handicap. The NR (above) revved past 20,000rpm, while the best two-strokes made 11,000. There was even talk of cooling the hard-working engine with liquid nitrogen.

The NR missed the start of the 1979 World Championship, arriving five months late at Silverstone, where one bike failed to qualify and the other made the back of the grid. Over-the-counter two-strokes were faster. Journalists dubbed the bike the ‘Nearly Ready’.

It would be hard to imagine a more ignominious debut. Yet things hardly got any better through the next three seasons during which Honda threw more and more money at the bike without the reward of a single point. Thus the NR became the ‘Never Ready’.

The NR’s problems were manifold – it was slow, fragile and intractable. “The engine would run to 21,000rpm,” recalls Briton Mick Grant, who spent two anguished years developing the bike. “The biggest problem came when you shut off; with no flywheel and that massive rpm, the back wheel would chatter even in fifth gear, so you were always on the clutch. It hopped around so much I couldn’t see a thing, everything was in triplicate! That’s where the idea for the slipper clutch came from.”

NR chassis technology was as radical as engine design. The bike had a monocoque frame, almost unheard of in bike racing, and smaller-than-usual 16in wheels, for which Dunlop and Michelin had to create a new range of tyres. The aluminium monocoque made maintenance a nightmare – it had to be split to change spark plugs or re-jet the carburettors – and it cracked frequently.

Day-to-day maintenance meant more torment. “We had two teams at races,” says Gerald Davison, Honda’s NR team manager. “One that worked at the track during the day and another that worked, in secret, rebuilding the engines.”

Eventually, the NR’s recalcitrance made some Honda engineers ill and others slightly mad. During one heart-to-heart with chief engineer Shoichiro Irimajiri in Japan, Davison suggested the NR design team needed to seek inspiration from another source.

“Half joking, I said he should send the NR people to a temple to reflect on what they were trying to do. The next day he did just that! A fleet of minibuses took 40 of us to a Buddhist temple, and we also took some bits of the bike that would receive blessings. We arrived at this beautiful place, up a forest-clad mountain, with dancing girls and music. It was pretty spectacular.”

The blessings did no good but Honda refuses to consider the NR a failure because the project expanded its fund of knowledge. In particular, the NR taught Honda about carbon brakes, cam gear trains, ultra-high-rpm motors and the back-torque limiter. Much of this know-how was later applied to road and race machines, including Honda’s hugely successful Formula 1 engines.