Returning to Formula 1 in 2015 will be different from Honda's first shot in the 1960s. A splendid record in motorcycle racing prompted Denis Jenkinson of Motor Sport : “The 4-cylinder Honda motorcycle made a big impression and its production sports and mopeds continued its good name in racing. But we must not forget that Honda racing motorcycles started inconspicuously and progressed as the seasons went by. They did not appear on the scene and win immediately.” Above: Celebrating Honda in Formula 1 at Goodwood, below CDX 6 cylinder 1047cc

Jenkinson noted that Honda began on bikes by contesting classes where the opposition was weak, but this was not an option in Formula 1. Lotus, BRM, Brabham, Ferrari, and Coventry-Climax were well established. There was no weakness here and grand prix racing was full of team with recent world championships, such as Cooper. Even Porsche found it difficult to keep up, winning only once before pulling out at the end of 1965. Soichiro Honda radiated confidence in an interview with Günther Molter in 1962: “It is too early to talk of horsepower as the project is still at the development stage. Our grand prix car will have an engine performance unequalled by any of the others.”

Soichiro was up against V8s from BRM and Coventry-Climax, V6s, V8s, and flat12s from Ferrari, and an air-cooled flat8 from Porsche. Honda produced a radical little V12, with needle roller crankshaft bearings, revving to 11,500rpm. It was a jewel of an engine in a semi-monocoque chassis using suspension that owed something to Lotus and BRM, with tubular rear sub-frames and inboard springs. The transverse engine owed nothing to anybody however, and lived up to Soichiro's assurances with 20bhp (quite a big margin in 1962) more than any rivals, including the Ferrari flat12. The little V12 was a triumph for designer Tadashi Kume, a mechanical engineering graduate who had been assigned to racing motorcycle engines even though relatively inexperienced. 1966 RC149

“Nobody at Honda really expected the car to shatter the racing world at its first appearance but such was the publicity accrued from motorcycle racing that the grand prix car was preceded by almost fanatical expectations from Europe rather than Japan,” according to Jenkinson. The reason for established teams' apprehension was the proficiency Honda showed at high-revving engines with large numbers of small cylinders and four-valve heads. Ferrari was notably successful with V12s, and Coventry-Climax, also an acknowledged master of racing engines, had a 16-cylinder under development. Honda was half-expected to have a roller-bearing 16 of its own with prodigious power. John Surtees drive RA 300 at Goodwood.

Jenkinson's admiration for Honda was not shared throughout Europe. Italians complained that Kume's masterpiece resembled an engine designed by Giulio Alfieri for Maserati in 1961, test-bedded in 1963, but only made public in 1964 following the Honda. 1965 RA 262

Yet if the prevailing teams overestimated Honda's prospects, team manager Yoshio Nakamura probably underestimated. Honda's 1964 offensive lacked the refinement and style of its motorcycle racing department. The cars were a year late and never had the polished finish of a Lotus, nor the glamorous appearance of a Ferrari. It was 1965 before they gained a competitive edge, an achievement that had eluded Porsche, but given the expectations raised by the exquisite motorcycles, it was no less than expected.
1989 Brazil Grand Prix, Ayrton Senna McLaren Honda RA 109E


More on MG history (TC above). Successive managements were probably right curbing MG works racing teams. Research recalled the follies of the British motorcycle industry of the 1950s, which believed all it had to do was win TT races to secure customer loyalty. Manufacturers like Norton were profligate on racing, penurious over developing new models, and while creating the best racing motorcycles in the world neglected road bikes. BSA, Triumph, AJS, Matchless and Norton made machines that vibrated and leaked oil. The Japanese produced better, faster, well-equipped designs that ran smoothly and looked great with oil-tight exquisitely cast engines. The British firms were bankrupted in the space of a few years.

The British refused to believe that the Japanese were ever going to make anything except small-capacity machines. A book by Bert Hopwood, “Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry?” published in 1981 by Haynes was a work of what seemed at the time an endangered species, an articulate motorcycle engineer. Hopwood spent a lifetime designing amongst other successful machines the Ariel Square Four and Norton Dominator. He recalled vividly how the management of Norton, Triumph, BSA, and Associated Motorcycles sat back complacently as their industry collapsed.

“By the early 1960s,” wrote Hopwood, “Honda and other Japanese manufacturers, having dominated world motorcycle markets in the small capacity classes, were adjusting their sights and marketing excellent machines of medium capacity. I shall never understand the attitude of Jack Sangster, chairman of BSA, and Edward Turner, the Triumph designer (Turner's great vertical twin, below), to the threat. They were sought after by the press for their reactions to the growing strength of our Japanese competitors. Turner made statements many times, that the British motorcycle industry could count itself fortunate in having the Japs selling large numbers of very small machines, for they were training young riders, many of whom would graduate to larger ones, which he made so well. They formed a lucrative market that had become the backbone of our industry. He said there would be no profit in very small motorcycles so there was no point in entering that market.”

Hopwood warned Turner, whom he disparaged, that any industry that could make small bikes profitably was clearly capable of making more money out of big ones. “I had bitter arguments with Turner. I could not understand why members of the Board did not challenge him.” Hopwood blamed the Triumph management for “foggy” product planning and a total failure to acknowledge the perils.

The analogy I was drawing was how the Japanese had been quick to spot a gap in the US sports car market when Lord Stokes rather stupidly axed the Austin-Healey (above), and refused to spend money at MG. Along came the Datsun 240Z and its successors to grab the dollars we seemed to be turning our backs on. The same went for the splendidly successful Mazda MX-5 following the collapse of MG.

Hopwood’s view on Turner was probably unfair. He was deeply admired by the astute Sir William Lyons, who proposed a partnership in 1944, and designed the V8 engine later adopted by Jaguar.

Velocette Viper

Number One daughter with stepfather’s Velocette. The Velocette Owners’ Club magazine thought it a bit racy for elderly members, so here it is in Dddy’s Blog. Stepdad Roger has a collection of good motorcycles and his 350cc Velocette Viper, first registered in the West Riding of Yorkshire on 12 June 1961, is restored to original specification. It has the larger and shapelier Clubmans’ fuel tank and Hagon shock absorbers. Charlotte’s crash helmet (below) is Roger’s 1979 Griffin Mark II Clubmans and the riding jacket and trousers are original Lewis Leathers (for women) which R believes are becoming collectable, “ but then isn't everything?!”

She looks better in leathers than he does.

Velocette, says Roger, was the first to manage 24 hours at 100mph on a production machine with a 500cc Venom, beating BMW to it at Montlhéry. The Viper was less successful and failed due to mechanical trouble. In 2001 Roger went to Montlhéry for the 40th anniversary of the occasion, riding another Velocette, and watched the record breaking 1961 machine race round at the top of the banking, - breathtaking he says. It was destroyed in the fire at the National Motorcycle Museum in Birmingham a few months later, although it has since been restored.

Montlhéry had a very tall banking. I drove there a few times at Paris Motor Show test days and while I was accustomed to the modest bankings at MIRA, this was something else. It was not as steep as the Mercedes-Benz one at Stuttgart-Unterturkheim, built in 1956, where you can find yourself sharing the space with a large bus. There wasn’t room for a long track in the space available so they built the 90 degree banking at one end. Provided you stay above the yellow line and get the speed exactly right (it’s only about 80mph) you can take your hands off the steering. Scary the first time you do it though.

Charlotte was here at New Year, and I rehearsed her young man’s approaching Institute of Advanced Motorists’ (IAM) observed drive. He drives nicely and shouldn’t have any trouble but it set me thinking there is nothing like riding a motorcycle for teaching road observation. Riders see cambers, surface joins, manhole covers, oil spills, standing water and catseyes when their life depends on it. Car drivers scarcely notice.

Derbyshire last week

Well, not quite. Jorge Lorenzo, Moto GP Yamaha, is looking carefully where he is going
Motorcycling teaches observation. Riders pay more attention than drivers. Bikers look for changes in the road surface; they look for drains, manhole covers, cambers, ridges, painted lines and oil stains. They develop an acuity others rarely achieve. On two wheels your life depends on wisps of wind, flecks of rain, the smell of wet grass. Jackie Stewart once told me how he could sense when a race crowd’s attention was not on him (as it usually was) but on the accident round the next corner.

Motorcycling is like that. Your senses are heightened; there is intoxication – literally – in the adrenalin. I motorcycled as a teenager. You watch
other road users carefully when so much depends on reading their body language.
Girder forks and single cylinders. Ex-WD machines were affordable

I was drawn to motorcycling. I had no hope of a decent car, but a bike was almost within reach and even a modest 250 had a decent turn of speed. Years later, I went to a Guild of Motoring Writers’ test day on the Chobham track, cheerfully riding BMWs and memorably a Honda 400 Four, far and away the fastest bikes I had handled. In my teenage years anything over 60mph induced double vision. Bikes were harsh, vibrated and their guidance was imprecise. At Chobham, engines were silky smooth, handling was transformed with oleo struts and better tyres, and a hundred and twenty miles an hour was a dawdle. I was spellbound.

Common sense prevailed. I knew that I would go ever faster, much as I had done with cars, and accidents would hurt. You can’t have a small accident on a fast motorcycle. It’s possible but unlikely. In a car you could have quite a big accident and get away with it. I abandoned the idea of a motorcycle. I rather envied those astride high-revving masterpieces, getting the adrenalin rushes and thrills those oily and clattery British vertical twins had inspired all those years ago.

Well, I don’t feel like that now. Bikers should get ASBOs and be banished.

Take noise. You can tell it's the weekend by engines revving to 7,000 on the bypass. It is like living within earshot of a grand prix.

It was mayhem in Derbyshire last week. There are 50mph limits everywhere thanks to bikes. Lines of traffic amble along decent undulating open roads, with good sight lines and gracious curves while bikers swerve round them. A traffic officer told me the limits are to try and reduce motorcycle casualties. Notices proclaim motorcycle danger areas. Yellow and black placards entreat drivers to Think Bike! Of course the adrenalin junkies take no notice. They gather in villages, bikes gleaming in chromium, resplendent in glossy paint, riders in coloured leathers and artworked helmets.

But these are not keen bright-eyed youngsters. They are white-haired, balding overweight born-again bikers, who can now afford machines three times as fast as the Triumph Thunderbirds and Norton Dominators they couldn’t run to as teenagers. They ride at weekends, they ride badly, and their observation is poor. You don’t need to be a traffic officer to see how unsafe they are so we suffer speed limits, notices and scary manoeuvres.

Born-again bikers should be restricted to what was in series production when they were sixteen. No more Suzuki, Honda, Kawasaki and Yamaha multi-cylindered howling monsters. No more racy coloured leathers. They should act their age with a Barbour suit and a Corker helmet, on a Francis-Barnett, James Captain or BSA Bantam. LE Velocettes were quiet. Four-strokes should be bolted to Watsonian sidecars and American V-twins utterly forbidden.
Magnificent machinery. Norton Dominator