Tracing the lineage of Honda’s MotoGP four-stroke machines
The three motorbikes built by Honda for the premier class - RC211V , RC212V and RC213V - have won more races and titles than any other manufacturer, mostly due to the combination of Honda engineering and the most talented riders. In the 18 seasons since 2002, the advent of the four-stroke era in MotoGP, Honda has won a total of 22 Riders and Manufacturers Championships, as well as 153 Grands Prix.
Racing has always been of great importance to Honda and the work done by the company on the track has had a significant impact on motorcycling. From the very beginning, company founder Soichiro Honda insisted his engineers prove the company’s technological capabilities and accelerate development by testing their creations in the heat of competition. Initially, Honda’s racing efforts were run from within the Honda Motor Company, but in the early 1970s RSC (Racing Service Center) was established as a separate division to look after the company’s racing programme, which in 1982 became the HRC (Honda Racing Corporation) we know today.
About the motorcycles
The RC211V , RC212V and RC213V continue the nomenclature adopted by Honda for its first competition bikes which dominated the World Championship in the 1960s. These include the 1966 250cc inline-6 RC166 (which made a staggering 60bhp), the 1966 125cc inline-5 RC149 and the 1967 500cc four-cylinder RC181, which had a top speed in excess of 260kmph.
Now, in case you were wondering, RC stands for Racing Cycle, 211 indicates that the RC211V was the first Honda GP motorcycle of the 21st century and V stands for the V configuration of the five-cylinder engine. The 212 was Honda's second MotoGP bike of the 21st century, the 213 the third.
When MotoGP went four-stroke in 2002, Honda took the opportunity to build an amazing series of motorcycles still revered in the MotoGP paddock and beyond. The RC211V was equipped with a 990cc 75.5-degree V5 engine inspired by the V4 from the RVF750R RC45, winner of the 1997 World Superbike Championship. Both engines sharing similar combustion chamber, as well as bore and stroke measurements.
The RC211V with three front and two rear cylinders, ran a big-bang timing (derived from the NSR500 race bike, where all the cylinders fire in quick succession) imparting maximum grip for the rear tyre. Also, the compact design of the frame gave the rider maximum confidence in the corners. Consequently, riders like Alex Barros, Max Biaggi, Toni Elias, Sete Gibernau, Nicky Hayden, Marco Melandri, Dani Pedrosa, Valentino Rossi, Makoto Tamada and Tohru Ukawa went on to win a combined 48 MotoGP races in the five-year period of 2002-2006, netting Honda three Rider titles and four Manufacturer titles.
Initially the RC211V did not express its real potential: the maximum power was “only" 220bhp and the optimal setup was not always easy to find. The fastest RC211V of that season (the first with the name MotoGP) was that of Ukawa, which recorded the 324.5kmph at Mugello in June 2002. Having reached the last season of the 990cc, in 2006, the power had increased significantly compared to 220bhp four years earlier. Casey Stoner's RC211V was the fastest motorbike at Mugello that year, at 334kmph!
The first chassis and the first engine designed for the MotoGP followed the same fundamental idea: mass centralisation. This entailed the concentration of the latter around the central body of the motorcycle to improve its agility, driving and handling.
An important aspect of this concept was the displacement of the tank. The "unusual" design of the RC211V carried a third of the petrol under the pilot, to bring the fuel load closer to the center of mass. For the riders it was a particular advantage in the initial stages of the race, given that in the past they had had difficulties with the huge amount of fuel housed in the upper part of the bike . According to the Honda Racing Department, if the NSR500 was at 70 per cent of its potential in terms of performance in the first laps of the race, the RC211V was between 80 and 90 per cent.
In addition to the uncommonly designed chassis, what really made the difference on the RC211V , both with new and used tires, was its "flat" torque curve. This allowed the riders to better maintain control of the bike, as the revolutions per minute increased but the torque remained the same, allowing the tyre to regain grip without problems.
After the first RC211V Riders titles conquered by Valentino Rossi in 2002 and 2003, the fastest Honda rider was America’s Nicky Hayden, who joined the Repsol Honda team in 2003 after winning the AMA Superbike championship riding a Honda VTR1000 in 2002.
Hayden's driving technique, learned on the flat tracks, allowed him to use the rear brake wisely. In 2006 Hayden won the MotoGP championship at the last race, on one of the most spectacular days in the history of the world championship. The memory of Hayden, of the RC211V and of that day in Valencia will always remain alive.
The technical regulations of the MotoGP were rewritten for the 2007 season, reducing the engine capacity from 990 to 800 cc, ostensibly to keep a track on the spiralling top speed stakes. HRC returned to work, creating a new race bike for the next era of MotoGP. The resultant RC212V put many of the experiences of the RC211V on track but it was a completely new motor , powered by a V4 engine. With the start of the 2007 season, it was soon obvious that the 800s were very different from their 990cc predecessors.
Smaller engines generated less power and less torque, so a different driving style was needed, which gave priority to high cornering speeds rather than sideways exits. The narrower-angle V4 between the banks turned over 18,000 rpm, 2000 more than its larger-capacity predecessor, and was equipped with pneumatic springs for better control of valve lift at higher engine speeds. The steeper power curve of the 800 required the use of more advanced electronic aids, including Anti-Wheelie, Traction Control and Launch Control. The evolution of electronics was the most important advance of the era of 800 cc engines.
Incredibly, the 800s immediately recorded faster lap times than the 990 on most of the tracks, as the higher cornering speeds better compensated for the slight reduction in terms of acceleration and maximum speed. Even on the Mugello circuit, where Pedrosa's RC212V scored 317.6kmph, his fastest lap was only 0.037 seconds slower than the 1:48:969 minutes lap record set by the Marco Melandri in 2006.
Despite that, the RC212V did not have the same immediate success as the RC211V . The initial difficulty lay in delivering rider-friendly power, even though the lower cubic capacity engine had a lower peak performance than the 990cc. HRC engineers had to work hard, leveraging all their know-how and working on the engine, chassis and electronics. Honda introduced two important technologies borrowed from its commitment to Formula 1. In 2010 the torque sensor arrived, mounted on the secondary shaft of the gearbox. The so-called Torductor measured the power transferred to the rear tyre, and the electronics, intervening in real time on this data, helped the pilot to use the maximum power available at any time of the race. The following year, the seamless gearbox was introduced, allowing riders to change gears much smoother and faster. This gave a slight advantage during straight-line accelerations and a greater advantage in curves, as the drivers could now change gears at high lean angles.
HRC also designed several frames for the RC212V, for the best combination of low speed response and high speed stability. Starting with a normal aluminium frame built with CNC-machined sections, engineers tested a composite chassis in aluminium and carbonfibre, moving simultaneously to the Öhlins suspension in 2010. When Casey Stoner won the MotoGP 2011 , his RC212V had a full aluminum chassis.
RC213V (2012-present day)
With the decision to move to litre-class, the Honda engineers planned for the MotoGP 2012 with a brand new engine, opting for a clear detachment from the RC212V , building a new V-4 characterised by a 90-degree angle between the banks, wider than the previous models. The RC213V was not the first 90-degree V4 built by Honda. The engine of the oval piston NR500 (also the inspiration behind the RC211V) was powered by a 90-degree V4, as were road-going bikes such as the VF750, VFR750, RC30 and RC45 from the eighties and nineties.
The 90-degree V4 has significant advantages: the balance makes it smoother, more reliable and easier to fine-tune, especially when engineers need to adjust the timings to seek maximum power and torque. That said, the 90-degree V4 is not as compact as a narrower-angle V-engine. However Honda were able to make up for that by redesigning components such as the chassis, airbox, exhaust and tank, reducing the overall size.
When the 1000 raced for the first time at Mugello in 2012, Dani Pedrosa bettered the lap record recorded in 2002 by 4.9 seconds, scoring 342.9kmphour on the main straight, a good 18.4 kmph faster than the RC211V!
The following year saw the emergence of a dominant force in MotoGP which came down to two components: the RC213V and Marc Marquez. With his aggressive riding style and late braking strategy, the young Spaniard became won the MotoGP title in 2013, the first debutant to do so since ‘King’ Kenny Roberts in 1978.
Come 2014 and Marquez proved even stronger, winning 13 out of 18 races, equaling the record of Mick Doohan, set astride the NSR500 in 1997. In 2015, though Marquez and Pedrosa won seven races overall, Honda was unable to win the Championship . But the setback was only temporary, as the following year, with Marquez in the saddle, he won all the Riders’ and Manufacturers' titles.
In 2016 there was a small change in the rules: Michelin took over from Bridgestone as the tyre partner, and the identical make of ECU was introduced, replacing those made by individual manufacturers, levelling the playing field. As a result, the RC213V’s engine was subjected to several important redesigns in the following years, including the decision to reverse the direction of rotation of the crankshaft and modifying the timing to make power delivery more manageable. Aerodynamics also gained increasing importance, thanks to new fairings that increased the aerodynamic load on the front of the RC213V to increase stability and further reduce wheelies.
Despite all this, Marquez went on to win six titles. In 2019, the Spanish rider, already a winner of the world title in the 125 cc (2010) and Moto2 (2012) classes, again bagged 13 GP wins in one season. At the 2019 Mugello GP, the fastest RC213V was that of Cal Crutchlow, rider of the LCR Castrol Honda team, which recorded 354.7kmph, over 30kmph faster than the RC211V.
Marquez did not win the 2019 GP of Italy - he crossed the finish line with a gap of 4 hundredths of a second from the Italian Danilo Petrucci - but it is worth comparing their race time with the inaugural season of MotoGP : their overall times in the 2019 Mugello GP were two minutes and seven seconds faster than the 2002 race!
Marquez ended 2019 by winning the last GP of the season in Valencia. This victory marks his 56th success in MotoGP , the 81st for the RC213V in eight years and the 145 races run in the 1000 cc era.
Now, though the 2020 Season has been cancelled due to Coronavirus, that hasn't stopped Honda and Alex Marquez, with a victory (albeit the virtual kind) at the inaugural 2020 #stayathomeGP.