The spirit of Soichiro Honda will put them back on track

Former MotoGP™ commentator Nick Harris takes a dive through Honda's history to see how they can overcome their modern problems

The results at COTA on Sunday simply compounded what we already knew, Honda are desperately trying to dig themselves out of a very deep hole. Maverick Vinales re-wrote the history books for Aprilia and there were three separate manufacturers on the podium while Hondas’s last premier class win came in Texas a year ago. Since then, there have been just two Tissot Sprint races and one Grand Prix podium for Marc Marquez, before he departed at the end of the season. It is going to be a long, hard and painful journey back to the top step of the podium, but they will make it. When, rather than if, is the question. They have been here before and always come out the other side because the spirit, determination and desire of their founder will never die.

Seventy years ago, a certain Soichiro Honda arrived in the paddock at the second round of the 1954 World Championship in the Isle of Man. He left a week later announcing he would return one day with motorcycles capable of beating the best in the world, and a suitcase full of carburettors, chains and tyres. 72 constructors' world titles and 821 Grands Prix wins later, were proof Mr Honda was a man who could always be trusted to keep his word.

Tom Phillis, 1961
Tom Phillis, 1961

He had been shocked by the speed and engineering prowess of the manufacturers competing at the TT, especially the German NSU factory’s 125 and 250cc machines. Five long hard years passed before he returned to the Isle of Man. Not alone this time but with a team to start a dream that climbed heights even Soichiro Honda would never have believed.

In 1955 the Honda team started racing at the Mount Asama Volcano race located in a village at the foot of an active volcano on the Island of Honshu, Japan. The riders started in pairs around the 19km track on the compressed volcanic ash surface. Their main challenge came from Yamaha and Suzuki. A battle that started around a Volcano soon switched to the world stage.

I was only 12 years old in 1959 but I can still remember those pictures from the TT races. Not the bikes of riders in action, but those Japanese riders far from home sitting on those uncomfortable so-British stripped deck chairs outside the TT prize giving at the Villa Marina on the Douglas seafront. They had won the 125cc prize for the Honda team with the most finishers in their first World Championship appearance. Three Japanese riders who had never competed on a complete tarmac track. Their RC142 machines featured a bevel-drive DOHC engine with four valve heads. They were down on horsepower to the Italian and East German opposition, and lack of practice on a road surface resulted in poor handling. Typically, they stuck to their task.

American Bill Hunt was the liaison officer but also competed in the 173.650km race around the Clypse course. He was joined by Japanese riders Giichi Suzuki, Junzo Suzuki, Naomi Taniguchi and Teisuke Tanaka. The team was managed by Kiyoshi Kawashima, who later became the President of the Honda Motor Company. Not only did Honda collect the team prize for most finishers, but Taniguchi’s sixth place brought their very first World Championship point. The journey had started. Two years later the floodgates opened. Australian Tom Phillis brought Honda their first Grand Prix win in the 125cc 1961 Spanish Grand Prix at Montjuic Park.  Three weeks later at Hockenheim in West Germany, Kunimitsu Takahashi became the first Japanese Grand Prix winner with victory on the 250cc Honda. The season ended with Mike Hailwood and Phillis bringing Honda the first two of their 72 constructors world titles. Phillis also became the first Honda World Champion, winning the 125cc title.

Tom Phillis, Mike Hailwood, Assen, 1961
Tom Phillis, Mike Hailwood, Assen, 1961

Rather like the first Honda racetrack challenge round that Volcano, there have been plenty of bumps in the road en route to those 821 Grands prix wins. Ill-fated four-stroke projects in the two-stroke age, withdrawing from racing because of engineering restrictions, tragedy, the defection of Valentino Rossi to Yamaha and domination by other Japanese factories, have all been overcome.

Honda will return to winning ways and Soichiro Honda will be looking down checking every move.

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