Honda's NSR500 has won more GPs than any other 500 in the history of world championship racing. Mat Oxley traces its development from wacky loser to dominant winner
It's been a long road: a decade and a half of racing, nine world titles, more than a few cock-ups and now Honda's NSR is indisputably the most successful bike in 500 GP history.
Alex Criville's win at the Imola GP was the NSR's 112th GP success, easily surpassing MV Agusta's roaring four-stroke four, previously the winningest 500, with 79 GP victories from 1952 to '76. Three more victories and the NSR will make Honda the most successful factory in 500 history with a total of 140 wins, against MV's long-running record of 139 firsts.
Perhaps even more impressive is the NSR's domination of 500 racing's most competitive era - the bike has won no less than 47 of the past 52 500 GPs when there's been more factory bikes than ever before and closer racing than ever before. An incredible achievement.
But it wasn't always so. The NSR has been the butt of many a paddock joke during the 15 years and four months since its GP debut in March 1984. Some debut - the bike's carbon-fiber rear wheel collapsed, hurting Freddie Spencer and putting him out of the race. An ignominious beginning and there was plenty of sniggering from Honda's rivals around Kyalami that weekend.
Three weeks later Spencer won the bike's first success in Italy but the V4 was still one hell of a handful. So much so that he begged for his beloved three when he got to the twisty Nurburgring. HRC raced back to their Belgian HQ overnight to dig an old NS out of the corner of the workshop and Spencer won the race. A major embarrassment for Honda because Japanese factories never go backwards: new is always better.
So why did Honda create the V4 in the first place when Spencer had won Honda's first 500 crown in '83 on the NS, beating Kenny Roberts' fiery Yamaha OW70 V4 in GP racing's greatest confrontation? The NS wasn't as awesomely powerful as King Kenny's unwieldy V4 but it was way more rideable - the perfect racetrack package. At least it seemed that way, but Spencer and mentor Erv Kanemoto told Honda they needed more horsepower, so it had to be a four.
But what kind of four - in-line, square or vee? HRC's proud engineers had a habit of doing things differently. Back in '79 they'd built the oval-pistoned four-stroke NR, when everyone else was racing two-strokes, then in '82 they created the triple when others were running four-cylinder 500s.
Now they wanted to show once again that Honda thinking is superior. Yamaha's OW70 ran twin crankshafts so the NSR had a single crank for less friction losses and thus greater power output. Honda have always been dedicated horsepower worshippers.
The '84 NSR's problem wasn't lack of speed - the bike was a wheelspin-crazy rocketship, 140 horses was a big number back then. No, its downfall was the willfully innovative 'upside-down' chassis design - fuel tank mounted below the engine with expansion chambers sweeping back above the engine, for a low center of gravity. But motorcycle dynamics aren't that simple - the NSR's center of g was too low so the bike wouldn't transfer weight into and out of corners to aid front and rear traction. The low-slung fuel load also sloshed forward under brakes, pushing the front like crazy, causing major understeer. And the NSR was a mechanic's nightmare - imagine trying to change plugs or jets beneath those burning hot pipes. So much for superior engineering.
Not surprisingly, Fast Freddie lost the title to Yamaha's new man Eddie Lawson, even though he won four GPs on the NSR, all at faster racetracks. Obviously HRC were going to have to do a serious redesign for '85.
And they did. The motor was redesigned and the wacky chassis tossed, with more weight up front to improve front-end grip. But the bike still wasn't right. Lawson's Yamaha steered better and despite mid-season improvements Spencer still wanted his NS triple back.
Amazingly Spencer did regain the crown, producing one of the most remarkable displays in racing history to win 14 GPs to take a unique 250/500 title double. But the superhuman effort burned him out, though HRC didn't know that as they set about another redesign for '86.
The third NSR wasn't so different from its immediate predecessor; chassis work again concentrated on improving front grip and reducing understeer, the bike's center of mass once again moved forward. The biggest change for '86 was Spencer's team-mate - wild man Wayne Gardner. The young Aussie had been racing an NS three in the '85 GPs and got his first taste of the NSR during the off-season. WG always called a spade a bloody spade and told HRC what he thought: "It's a piece of crap!"
Like Spencer, WG preferred the three. But he also wanted a big, fat factory contract, so he raced the NSR. He had arrived just as the Spencer legend disintegrated: the American's '85 season had given him carpal tunnel syndrome, a tendon condition that locked his arms. Effectively his career was over.
In his absence, Gardner rode the NSR like a man possessed. He won three GPs - handlebars thrashing from lock to lock, rear tire spinning like crazy to get the beast steered - but the title went back to Lawson and Yamaha. Gardner's riding style was always massively entertaining: give it heaps and hold on for dear life. In fact, there was probably no other way to ride the NSR.
The following winter HRC finally created something that behaved like a motorcycle. They totally redesigned the engine, opening the vee angle from 90 to 112 degrees so the carburetors could sit within the vee. Previously the carbs had sat behind the motor, so each bank of cylinders was fed by different length inlet tracts. Not good for smooth, consistent power. The redesign also opened up more space for exhausts, allowing HRC to route the rear pipes straight back through the seat. That helped improve power characteristics yet more.
Just as significantly, they also changed the direction of crankshaft rotation. Ever since '84 there had been dark mutterings about 'single-crank voodoo' and a growing belief that the crank's gyro effect was responsible for the bike's wayward handling. In other words, crankshaft inertia made it hard work to steer the bike from its current course. Yamaha ran contra-rotating cranks, which canceled out any gyro effect, HRC thought that was the reason the Yamaha handled better.
Two years later these suspicions would push HRC into testing their own twin-crank motor (not long for life, alas, for the single crank was now The Honda Way) but for now a change of rotation would have to do. Before '87 the NSR crank rotated anti-clockwise, so when the rider opened the throttle, the front would go light, sending the bike disastrously wide on corner exits.
Incredibly - for a company of Honda's size - the '87 model was the first decent NSR, a tool that Gardner could really go to work with. And he did, dominating the year against Lawson's now inferior YZR to win the title with seven resounding victories.
And now HRC could develop an even better bike for '88. Could but didn't. Somehow they managed to build a real pile of junk for Gardner's title-defense season. A new bunch of HRC designers got the chassis all wrong and if WG had looked scary on the '86 NSR, he looked terrifying on the latest version.
HRC had lowered the bike in a bid to improve slow-speed handling. Instead they created a wild, tyre-spinning wobbler that threw Gardner onto the tarmac at every opportunity.
Desperate mid-season cut 'n' shut chassis mods cured the worst traits but they came too late, Gardner was on his way to losing his crown, which went back to Lawson once again.
Now came a landmark moment in the NSR's history. Lawson fell out with Marlboro Yamaha and defected to Honda, teaming up with Spencer's former guru Erv Kanemoto. Lawson's prowess was a turning point because the Californian knew how a 500 should handle - after all, he'd raced Yamahas since '83 - and Kanemoto had the influence to get things done at HRC. But Lawson swapped sides too late to have any say in the design of the '89 NSR. Needless to say he was appalled when he first tried the bike, just like Honda's latest signing, fresh-faced young Aussie Mick Doohan. Said Lawson: "Riding the Honda was like death - every time you flicked into a turn you didn't know if you'd make it out."
What HRC had created was probably the most evil race bike ever built. The motor was now massively powerful, making more than 170 bhp, and Honda had made more flawed chassis changes. Now the chassis just wasn't strong enough to handle the horses. And the brakes were useless too.
Lawson's season started disastrously but got better as Kanemoto toiled day and night to fix the bike's handling. They went through more than a dozen chassis redesigns that year, new units jetted from Japan to Europe every week or two. It paid off, Lawson just beat Yamaha's new find Wayne Rainey to the title, while Doohan and Gardner spent most of the year crashing their brains out.
This was the first NSR I got to ride. I'd paid for my own plane ticket to Suzuka and wished I hadn't. I'd ridden street bikes that handled better than Lawson's NSR and it was so blindingly, terrifyingly fast. First, the thing tried to throw me off in sixth gear in a straight line. Then after HRC mechanics had adjusted the steering damper, the bike wanted to go straight on at the end of the back straight - getting it turned for the fast left was a superhuman effort. Maximum respect to Lawson, who, unsurprisingly, scurried back to Yamaha for 1990.
But Steady Eddie's legacy lived on. Doohan's crew chief Jerry Burgess believes the 1990 NSR was the best ever - a huge leap forward. HRC dumped the 90-degree firing order, copying the more forgiving Yamaha's double-strike 180-degree configuration to tame wheelspin. This was the first step towards the Big Bang concept. And for the first time HRC trimmed the bike right to the 115kg minimum. So when Doohan's crew made some mid-season geometry changes, he was able to take his first GP win in Hungary.
The 1991 NSR was even better because HRC were now concentrating on Doohan's development input, not Gardner's. As Burgess says: "No disrespect, but Wayne didn't really know how a motorcycle worked, he just wrestled it around".
Now Mighty Mick was starting to feel at home. Looked like it too. He led the championship but eventually lost out to Rainey's Yamaha due to front-end grip worries; Michelin were only supplying production slicks that year while Rainey benefited from Dunlop's intense R&D program. With a good front tire Doohan would've won the title, for he finally had a chassis suited to his high corner-speed style, instead of the point and squirt technique used by Gardner and the Yankee ex-dirt trackers.
The 180-degree motor was good but not good enough and still prone to chucking riders over the highside, so excess caution was necessary on corner exits. Doohan and
Burgess told HRC to forget about big horsepower and top-speed figures and concentrate on unusable acceleration. "You only use top speed once a lap, you use acceleration every corner," said JB, reminding Honda bosses of Spencer's '83 title success on the under-powered but easy-riding NS.
HRC built several different motors in their search for that user-friendly power delivery. Finally, they settled on the Big Bang, that fired all four cylinders within 70 degrees, giving the rear tire time to regain traction between each salvo.
But it took Doohan a while to fall in love with the droning motor. HRC man Shoji Tachikawa remembers: "The engine note made it sound slow, so riders thought they were going slow. Mick was very surprised when he came into pits and saw his times."
In fact lap times weren't faster but they weren't slower either and the reduced wheelspin improved tire life, so race times were faster.
There was another advantage to the Big Bang. Although reversing crank rotation in '87 had solved front-end lift, it hadn't totally exorcised single-crank voodoo.
As Doohan explains: "After they changed the rotation the bike would lift the rear when you accelerated, so you'd have the back tire spinning and the rear would lift, making the wheelspin worse. At the same time it pushed the front down, messing up the steering". The Big Bang eradicated the voodoo purely by chance, because the extra vibration produced by the close firing order required a counter-balance shaft that damped out the gyro effect.
Now equipped with the perfect 500 GP bike, Doohan totally dominated the season until he smashed his leg at Assen. A heroic end-of-season comeback didn't stop the title staying at Yamaha.
This was the year the NSR got to be fun. I'd ridden different NSRs at Suzuka every year since my '89 baptism and had come to fear the trip, especially since it invariably rained. This time it was gloriously sunny and I got an hour or so on the '92 Big Bang. The bike had changed from enemy to friend, you could get on the throttle so much sooner it was stupid. Pulling a big wheelie exiting Spoon Curve while still well cranked over will always be one of my best biking memories.
For the first time ever there was no doubt Honda had the best 500. So what did they do? Yup, they made it worse. With Doohan recuperating from his horrific leg injury, off-season development fell to team-mates Shinichi Itoh and Daryl Beattie. Neither man was brave or experienced enough to tell HRC they'd fallen back into their old habit of chasing ultimate horsepower at the expense of readability. When Honda's limping number-one first rode the bike he hated it. "It was a piece of junk and I told them so," he recalls.
The new bike also ran fuel injection that the Aussie refused to use, so Itoh was given the chance of developing the system. At Hockenheim his NSR became the first GP bike to clock 200mph but the PGM-FI never worked better than conventional carbs and was quietly dropped a year later. By mid-season Doohan set about changing his '93 NSR back to a '92 NSR and suddenly he was winning again. The era of Doohan Domination was underway.
He ruled in '94, winning nine races to take his first crown, largely because he'd convinced HRC to leave the bike alone. By '95 HRC's engineers must've been getting bored, because they started firing high-tech gizmos at Doohan and his team-mates. The world champ rejected them all: water injection for improved mid-range power, an anti-wheelie device for easier starts, semi-active suspension and so on.
Doohan prefers to keep things simple, he wants to win races not develop motorcycles and his tireless efforts at weaning HRC off their high-tech fantasies have been largely responsible for the NSR's success. He only improves things when they need improving.
Doohan's input was starting to show dividends in other ways too - a whole new generation of riders were starting to win on the NSR. Former 125 and 250 men who would have fried their brains on old 500s were now competitive. There were two reasons for this: Big Bang power and Doohan's riding style, that had changed the direction of chassis and tire development away from rear-wheel steering to high corner speed. This suited the Europeans who had never been able to do that tail-sliding dirt track stuff. Now guys like Alex Criville, Alberto Puig, Loris Capirossi, Carlos Checa and Max Biaggi could ride and win on a 500. The NSR had become the ultimate go-anywhere, do-anything 500: fast, good-handling, reliable and easy to set-up (especially if you had access to Doohan's set-up data). Everyone wanted one.
With the NSR now barely changing year on year, Doohan dominated again in '95 and '96, though the new Europeans were starting to give him some trouble. During '96 Criville twice beat him in head-to-head finishes, the first time anyone had done that since Schwantz and Rainey. Something had to be done to keep the upstarts under control.
For '97 Doohan decided he wanted to run a 180-degree motor. HRC didn't like the idea but he was mighty fast during first tests, and when Criville tried the screamer it spat him off at 120mph. Doohan knew he could regain an advantage with the engine, for engine management technology made it more rideable than the old 180-degree V4s and tire technology had caught up too. Plus the screamer sounded so much better.
"The 180 got back a direct relationship between the throttle and the rear wheel," he says. "When the tire spun I could roll off without losing drive."
There were other advantages, as JB explains: "The big bang has a lot of engine braking, so it upsets to bike into corners, then when you open the throttle you get this sudden pulse of power, which again upsets the suspension. Mick's secret is corner speed, so he needs the bike to be smooth and the 180 is much smoother."
Proving himself wholly right, the '97 season was Doohan's and the NSR's best ever. Doohan won 12 races, Criville two and team-mate Tady Okada one. A Honda full-house: Suzuki and Yamaha were in deep shit. But '98 turned out to be his toughest ever. New regulations introduced unleaded fuel and suddenly 500s became even easier to ride, so Doohan found it harder to use his prodigious talent to make the difference. He did win the title but only after some serious hassle from 250 graduate Max Biaggi.
Once again Doohan knew he needed to raise the level in '99, so he asked for a new chassis. First time he'd done that since '91. His aim was to increase corner speed still further and push ahead of the pack once again. After a slow start to the season he crashed heavily at Jerez in May. He's still recovering from that fall but the NSR is still all dominant in his absence, winning seven of this year's 10 GPs. Suzuki have caught up and Yamaha aren't far off nowadays but there's still no other GP bike that works so well and so consistently from one track to another. Maybe no one will ever build a more successful GP racer.
Then men who made it what it is: these guys won on NSR500s
Some were good. Some were not.
Further reading: Colin MacKellar, Honda GP Racers, published by The Crowodd Press, Ramsbury, Wilthsire, SN8 2HR, England
Mat Oxley, Mick Doohan: Thunder From Down Under, published By Haynes, Sparkford, Somerset, BA22 7JJ, England