The Rise and Fall of HRC

We all got so used to Honda winning everything for so long that their slow-down in race results, followed by recent pull-outs, have sent wagging tongues into overdrive. What’s really going on at Honda and why?

In the Eighties and Nineties World Championship motorcycle racing was a relatively simple affair. If

Honda entered, Honda won. Honda were so good they even made the final results of some racing series boring with such unremitting success, and their numerical domination of most other classes. Doohan, Lawson, Gardner, Dunlop, Merkel, Spencer, Kocinski: the list was endless and assured. No one could deny that Honda had it all under control when they chose to wind up the wick, on any number of fronts. They were The Untouchables.

And then things changed. Bit by bit, Honda stopped winning so much. The championships came, but with more effort and not as regularly. Key people left, moved on. And psychologically, the arena had altered. For example, if you were a prospective MotoGP racer right now and Rossi, Stoner and Pedrosa all decided to retire tomorrow, would you automatically chose to ride the factory Honda any more? In the days of Doohan, Rainey and Schwantz, you would have rushed into that Honda awning with a tin of silver polish before you could say “and the next world champion is...” But today, that choice is far from automatic.

Down Memory Pitlane

If we take a snapshot of what seemed like a typical year of other-era competition for Honda – in 1997 – the contrast between then and now is amazing.

Doohan is World Champion for the fourth of five times, NSR500s of some kind win every GP contested and Honda wins its 10th constructors’ championship. Biaggi wins 250cc championship first time out on an NSR250. The NSR500V twin, the saviour of many 500GP privateers, goes on sale. Kocinski is WSB champion on an impossibly expensive full-factory RC45. Itoh and Ukawa win 8-Hours. Stefan Everts retains his 250MX crown.

Even in 2004 Pedrosa won in 250s, Dovizioso won in 125s, Muggeridge won WSS, Ukawa/Izutsu took the 8-Hour, Takahisa Fujinami won World Trials. But the tide was turning. Valentino Rossi won MotoGP on a Yamaha, motocross was becoming the domain of virtually everybody apart from Honda, and Ten Kate was forced to run a virtually private/ Honda Europe Superbike effort after the factory left WSB in a huff in 2003.

And so to the present day. The championship successes of Honda in all forms of major racing in 2008 are just World Supersport, World Trial and the Suzuka 8-Hours. Unthinkable just five years ago. Honda used to win just about every single championship they took seriously. It was their ethos, the way they did things, and it was expected by everyone. It’s still expected today. But now the paucity of results Honda has had compared to its previously dominant position in all levels of competition begs all manner of questions. And their exit from the u¨bermoney world of Formula One (to the tune of around £200 million) is nothing short of a tsunami shock wave in motor racing.

So what’s changed and why?

The Technical Race

Here’s the main crux of the matter. Honda may be the biggest motorcycle manufacturer and so much more in terms of other machine based products, but technologically, the rest of the world has caught up.

How come? Did you know that almost anybody with the required money can buy software and engine simulation programmes that let you evaluate any kind of engine design pretty accurately, before you have even made a single part?

Do you know that you can get virtually any quality component you like - metal, plastic or electrical - made in a multitude of countries, by outside contractors you may never even have to speak to other than by e-mail or phone? And also get them at a competitive price too.

Or to put it all simply: as the world of electronics and computers has experienced a massive exponential growth, the knowledge of what works and what doesn’t, knowledge that used to be jealously guarded in the brains of certain individuals or amassed in big companies like Honda over decades, is now much more freely available. At a cost, of course.

People haven’t stolen this greater base of knowledge and specialisation, they have simply used modern technology to arrive at it and/or bought it in, and can now predict (in relative terms of course) how a certain design of engine will work just from a few taps on a keyboard.

Today there are few limits to what you can make if you have some money, dedicated engineers and a desire to be competitive with the big boys. At least over a narrow enough frontier. Racebike design is less intuitive now, because you can see what areas to keep away from even before you have started.

Obviously it’s not that easy, or everybody would be competitive all at the same time. But to put it simply, you need less people, less trial and error testing, and need much smaller R&D departments than 10 years ago. Then it’s up to you whether you execute things well or badly, or move in a better direction than the others. The world has become a whole lot smaller in recent years, and this has meant that the smaller European manufacturers, once almost eradicated from racing, have been able to come back with a vengeance.

The Great Bear

For Honda, that has had a greater effect than almost any other company. Because they are so big they have come under attack on more fronts, and have had to leave some disciplines to fight harder in the ones they continue to race in, and even when they bring all their weight to bear there is no reason why a smaller, more flexible, equally committed company can’t still beat them anyway. It’s like a pack of small, hungry dogs attacking a great big bear. In this instance, the dogs are Ducati in MotoGP, out for the kill as well as in their usual haunt of WSB. Think KTM in smaller two stroke classes and off road competition, and Aprilia in 125/250GPs.

These little companies are stuffed with enthusiastic and intelligent people who work long hours towards a common goal. Honda makes everything from cars to bikes, from jet engines to robots, and traditionally engineers get moved around a lot to learn, while every Ducati Corse employee does racebikes only for his whole career. That’s how minnows like Ducati beat Honda at their own four-stroke game, and arguably with Honda’s very own 800cc rules.

The Human Element

When Valentino Rossi made his epic decision to leave victory junkies Honda to go ride for MotoGP fourstroke stumblers Yamaha, part of the reason was reputed to be that Honda had told him anybody could win on their machines. Rossi went out and disproved those words with not only an unexpectedly quick Yamaha race and World Championship victory, but also a generally long-lasting one. It was not all about the bike, as Rossi demonstrated.

Honda also lost the background men who had been behind virtually all Honda’s main successes in GPs; Jerry Burgess and his mixed bag of fellow Aussies, Kiwis and Belgians. Their input has been a vital element in the rebirth of Yamaha, trackside and in terms of feedback to the engineers in Japan and fixing any technical shortfalls on site.

Ducati? Everybody underestimates Ducati, still do it seems. Even compared to Honda, Ducati has the greatest percentage of racing genes in its corporate double helix. That’s why they have can win even when someone else defines the rules.

In MotoGP, Honda has seen a series of key personnel changes at the top, starting in 2007, changes which have hardly been good for stability during a time of drastic change from the 990s to the 800s. That trend of reassigning roles has not changed, while the other two power houses in MotoGP, Yamaha and Ducati, have continued with almost unchanged line-ups in the key management and strategic roles. In times of change, having a tried and tested team is worth everything. Without those things, it’s sometimes easy to lose your way.

Managing Director of HRC: Kosuke Yasutake

Nobody is better placed to give Honda’s take on recent MotoGP events than Yasutake-san, who explains why things have been the way they are in MotoGP and where things are going now.

Q: Is there an identifiable reason why Honda’s racing results have not matched those of the recent past?

A: It is fact that technology level among competitors has been getting closer than before. In current MotoGP, not only machine performance, but also a highly well balanced combination of rider skill, tyre and race strategy is required to win the race. We think that we did not have enough management to combine these factors to optimize each performance.

Q: Is being competitive and involved on a corporate level now deemed more important than  championship Honda competes in?

A: We think that both competitiveness in market and winning the race is equally important for us at Honda.

Q: Is it more expensive to make a competitive MotoGP bike than a competitive 500?

A: In comparison with 500cc, in addition to structural difference, we have had an additional cost in accordance with development of control technology. And also, due to increase of race and test, we have recognized that cost has been increased totally.

Q: Is losing Rossi to Yamaha now seen as a mistake, or did Nicky Hayden winning the MotoGP championship in 2006 prove that you did not, and still do not, need Rossi to win in MotoGP?

A: We compete in Moto GP with a bond between our rider and us under strong trust. We think that Rossi is a great rider, but now we do not think that we need him to win in MotoGP.

Q: How much more competitive are other manufacturers compared to a few years ago, across all the disciplines of racing? Has this been the reason why your satellite teams and privateer teams have such difficulties now compared to previous years?

A: We have already mentioned, technology level among manufacturers is getting closer. We think that the possibility of satellite team’s podium is getting lower than before. However, in such a situation, it is a fact that there is a rider like Dovizioso who has got good results.

Key Partnerships

Honda has had to pay a price for the recent troubles of others. Once, in the good old days when money was no object and only a few riders had to be serviced with some specially designed tyres, Honda’s symbiotic roadracing relationship with Michelin delivered so much global success it became almost embarrassing for everyone else.

Wherever you looked, Honda and Michelin seemed joined at the hip on the podium ceremonies. Two-stroke 500GP or four-stroke MotoGP, WSB: their mutual admiration was so strong that it was one of two main reasons why Honda terminally left their previously low-numbers/high-scoring factory role in WSB in a serious and long-lasting strop when Pirelli was given the single-make tyre gig in 2004. Their public defence of their vulcanised allies at that time was as outraged as it was unbreakable.

There was a possible Michelin to Bridgestone switch on the cards at the end of 2007, but Honda opted for the status quo. They stuck with Michelin even as the new tyre rules came in, hoping that it would re-energize the old alliance. Particularly now Rossi was on Bridgestones, and Honda could enjoy nearly all Michelin’s focus. But some high profile miscalculations meant Michelin had some serious issues with available choices at certain rounds, like Sachsenring, Laguna and Brno.

Seeing the Bridgestone guys make a better go of the new tyre rules, Pedrosa and his mentor Alberto Puig have been fingered as the guys who finally got the top Honda brass to consider the idea of changing shoes mid-season. Those disappointing GPs seem to have been the final straws, and the decision to swap mid-season was announced at Misano, implemented at the very next round. It was a painful blow that stunned all those involved. Sacking a technical partner of 24 years mid-season shows how serious things got for the MotoGP effort, and some argue that it was the final link in the chain that led to single make tyres in GPs.

The irony is that in 2009 Honda may well have more to gain than anyone from the single tyre rules, even thought they have been so publicly against it in the very recent past.


The surprising conclusion is that even for a company as forward-looking as Honda, the world around them changed more fundamentally and faster than even they could have predicted. The relentless advance and cheapening of technology allowed the rest of the globe to catch up. And when the recession hit, it’s often the biggest companies that get hit the hardest. Kawasaki are expected to be the first to pull the plug on their MotoGP involvement, any day now. But a company as large as Honda must take evasive action to avoid such a drastic move.

Racing has changed with astonishing pace in recent times. The new financial imperative now colliding with previous racing ‘normality’ may be reason enough for Honda to make sure it improves its results in MotoGP and other forms of racing in 2009 and beyond. But the only guarantee in these times is this: there are no guarantees anymore. In MotoGP, Honda has new people in places of power again this year. Key to that is the adoption of Andrea Dovizioso into the factory squad, and a rejuvenated bunch of young talent in the satellite teams. Crucially, Honda will soon have another new challenge to show its prowess in. In 2011 the 600cc GP2 four-strokes will replace the 250 two-stroke class Honda is already long out of.

Racing is cyclical. People come, people go, technology advances, the rest catch up. Honda are winning less championships now than they were in the past; but we’re so used to them winning everything that the impact seems greater. But the fact is, the racing world needs companies like Honda to be at the front of the grid.

We need Honda to take their turn at winning big again for a multitude of reasons, none more important than the fact that a manufacturer-led sport like motorcycle racing without the Honda Racing Corporation in the vanguard is a half-empty vessel. And not only in terms of sheer numbers of bikes on the grid. Honda bring massive money and professionalism into a sport that has always been that way in the past.

The good news is that even if things have changed, the desire to win at Honda and a corporate belief that they can overcome any problem are as strong as ever. The kind of attitude that saw them evolve into the biggest, hungriest bear in the first place...

Honda Europe Racing Manager: Carlo Fiorani

Q: Has there been a change in mentality within Honda that winning is important but not as important as it was?

A: In reality, no. The competition is part of Honda, part of Honda DNA, and this everyone understands. We still use racing as the flagship. From a strategy point of view, in the past we had a series of circumstances that we had to analyze class-by-class. There is not any one general reason.

In World Superbike Colin Edwards was the last works rider in 2002, for many, many reasons. But not least budget reasons, because at that time Honda got divided up into different areas, Japan, Honda Motor Europe, American Honda and in that time the situation became more clearly defined. Internally, Honda decided that Honda Motor Europe would be responsible for Superbike. So we decided that the investment and exposure had to be well balanced, and the factory machine and a works team costs a lot. Too much.

So our philosophy must be on a production bike series. Really, we decided to race with a basic HRC kit, on a mass production bike, and we gave the task of racing to satellite teams. Also in World Supersport. This was to reduce costs and to have a more balanced situation and I think honestly we have achieved our goal. We won Superbike with Toseland and now we are fighting to do that again. It should be quite easy for Honda Japan to make a factory bike and to win again. But this is not the philosophy of Superbike. The philosophy is not to spend £8 million and win the title. It does not make sense to make a factory bike again. The philosophy is to make a very good base bike for daily use, and be ready to tune the bike, modify the bike for racing and race in the World Championship. This is our strategy at the moment.

Q: And why have you not had similar success in motocross?

A: In motocross it was different, because around 2000 we had many problems with the internal teams. One team won the title then went bust. Then there was another team, a satellite with the factory team, that went bankrupt. So we decided to stop altogether because the finance situation was so bad.

But now we have decided to come back. We have decided that motocross is very good value, especially for young people, young customers, because it is fun. It is very good for the Honda brand, so the plan is now to have two satellite teams, running factory bikes, and to win again. We started with one team last year and now we have top riders like Stijbos and four bikes.