‘The oth­ers might have had NSR500S but they still had to beat me’

Classic Racer - - FRONT PAGE - Words: Stu­art Barker Pho­tos: Don Mor­ley

Honda’s NSR500 was the most suc­cess­ful bike of the 500cc Grand Prix era that ran from 1949-2001 and no­body was more suc­cess­ful on it than Mick Doohan. The Aus­tralian took five con­sec­u­tive 500cc world ti­tles on the V-four in the Nineties and was re­spon­si­ble for de­vel­op­ing it from a wild, high-sid­ing, tyre-smok­ing beast into the most suc­cess­ful 500cc GP bike of all time. Here, in Mick’s own words, is how he did it.

Mick Doohan and the Honda NSR500 formed the most for­mi­da­ble and suc­cess­ful part­ner­ship of the 500cc era of Grand Prix rac­ing that ran from 1949 un­til 2001. The NSR scored a to­tal of 133 GP wins be­tween its in­tro­duc­tion in 1984 and Valentino Rossi’s last win on the bike in Rio in 2001, af­ter which the four-stroke Mo­togp mis­siles re­placed the 500 two-strokes. Doohan was re­spon­si­ble for more than half of those wins, prov­ing that he was the key player in the devel­op­ment of the bike that be­came the most suc­cess­ful GP racer of all time. Doohan raced at a time when GP bikes were at their most fe­ro­cious and when the level of com­pe­ti­tion was as­tro­nom­i­cally high. While hav­ing to fight off the tal­ents of Wayne Rainey, Ed­die Law­son, Kevin Sch­wantz and Wayne Gard­ner, Doohan and the NSR man­aged to rack up five con­sec­u­tive world cham­pi­onships be­tween 1994 and 1998, and 54 race wins be­tween 1990 and 1998. But that was only part of the story; it was the way in which Doohan and the Honda dom­i­nated the com­pe­ti­tion that re­ally marked them out as the orig­i­nal ‘aliens’. The pair­ing held the record for most wins in a sea­son (12), most pole po­si­tions in a sea­son (12), most suc­ces­sive pole po­si­tions (12), and most points ever racked up in a sea­son (340). All th­ese records were set dur­ing the 1997 sea­son when mighty Mick and the NSR were at their most dom­i­nant, but it wasn’t al­ways like that. Doohan first threw a leg over an NSR500 Honda in Jan­u­ary 1989, at Honda’s Suzuka race­track in Ja­pan. The bike had al­ready won two 500cc world cham­pi­onships, first with Fred­die Spencer in 1985 and then with Wayne Gard­ner in 1987, but the 1988 ma­chine that Doohan first tested was an evil beast with too much power and way­ward han­dling, and it wasted no time in show­ing him who was boss. Within a hand­ful of laps, the fickle NSR threw off its rider and, just to make sure its would-be rider got the mes­sage, fol­lowed him into the bar­rier with a sick­en­ing thump, break­ing his crash hel­met in two. It would be the first of many crashes to come be­fore Doohan fi­nally tamed the bike. “The en­gine was great but the chas­sis was ter­ri­ble so it didn’t do any­thing you wanted it to do and the thing would just spin up all over the place.” Doohan says of his first ride on the NSR:

“It was ex­cit­ing to ride, with it be­ing a new bike for me. I’d just had a test on the Yamaha [YZR500] and it was a fan­tas­tic thing. It wasn’t that far re­moved from Yamaha’s Su­per­bike and F1 bike, other than the en­gine, of course. But the Honda’s power felt con­nected to the throt­tle, whereas with the Yamaha you had to crack it open and then feed the power in. “In the end I didn’t sign for Yamaha be­cause the deal was bet­ter at Honda and, at that time, Yamaha was world cham­pion with Ed­die Law­son and they also had Kevin Magee, Wayne Rainey, Chris­tian Sar­ron – there were about eight Yama­has that were all do­ing good and Honda re­ally only had Wayne Gard­ner and a cou­ple of satel­lite bikes so it just seemed the more log­i­cal choice to sign for them.” Al­though he re­alised the NSR needed some re­fine­ment, Doohan is the first to ad­mit that, at the time, he wasn’t ex­pe­ri­enced enough to know ex­actly what to change. “Two years prior to test­ing the NSR I was rac­ing a 250cc pro­duc­tion bike, so my knowl­edge wasn’t re­ally that big or that broad. My first year on the bike in 1989 was a lit­tle bet­ter but it was a phys­i­cally big­ger bike than the 1988 ma­chine, so in some ar­eas it was bet­ter but in oth­ers it wasn’t any good. You’d lean it over and it would still go straight ahead – and it would spin up in the cor­ners like you wouldn’t be­lieve. But once I did get my head around what we needed and what I liked.... “The good thing was that Ed­die Law­son had moved over to Honda in a team with Erv Kanemoto and it was good to know that what he wanted from the bike was the same thing that I did, so we were both on the same page there. Ed­die brought the bike along in leaps and bounds. I think that year he went through about 10 or 12 chas­sis – at the end of the year I was still on about num­ber four. But it wasn’t un­til about the mid­dle of 1990 that I started de­vel­op­ing a few more things with Honda, rais­ing the steer­ing head and stuff like that, and we started get­ting a dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter into the chas­sis. Then pr retty much from the end of 1990 the di­rec­tio on of the ma­chine was go­ing my way.” Honda’s rac­ing di­vi­sio on, HRC, has not al­ways been famed for lis­ten­ingl to its rid­ers – es­pe­cially un­proven on nes. So did Doohan strug­gle to get the chan ges made that he wanted? “Ini­tially, yes. Like I sa aid, I had come from nowhere, rid­ing 250cc streets bikes around Aus­tralia, and th en Honda put me on their fac­tory bike so I couldn’t re­ally dic­tate te rms to them. But once I started d to get the re­sults there wasn’t too much they could say, so they were happy to go with me. Then af­ter that I’d pretty much do any­thing I wanted, so we had a great re­la­tion­ship.” The most fa­mous change to the NSR, in­sti­gated dur­ing the Doohan era, was the in­tro­duc­tion of the ‘big bang’ en­gine in 1992. Hav­ing fi­nally man­aged to con­vince his Honda bosses that out­right power wasn’t ev­ery­thing and that he’d be happy to sac­ri­fice some top end for a bike that had more use­able power, the fac­tory’s an­swer was the big bang en­gine. It bunched the fir­ing or­der of the cylin­ders to­gether, al­low­ing the rear tyre more time to find trac­tion be­fore the next pulse. This also cured the NSR’S ter­mi­nal wheel­spin prob­lem. Fit­ting a counter-bal­ance shaft to the

bike’s sin­gle crank mo­tor also solved long­stand­ing is­sues with the NSR’S han­dling, so for the 1992 sea­son Doohan fi­nally had a bike he could use to fight for the world cham­pi­onship. And fight he did. Five wins and two sec­ond places in the first seven rounds saw him build a huge cham­pi­onship lead be­fore his now in­fa­mous Assen crash which al­most saw him lose a leg. Dutch doc­tors were ready to am­pu­tate but Dr Costa smug­gled Doohan out of the lo­cal hospi­tal and stitched Doohan’s good leg to the bad to help ‘feed’ it. Doohan even­tu­ally re­cov­ered and came back to rac­ing more de­ter­mined than ever. He won the 500cc world cham­pi­onship for the first time in 1994 on the big bang NSR and re­peated the feat for the next two years. But in 1997, he shocked the pad­dock when he fired up the lat­est gen­er­a­tion NSR for the first time dur­ing test­ing. Gone were the sub­dued tones of the big bang mo­tor and back came the howl­ing strains of the un­fet­tered ‘screamer’ en­gine. Doohan had gone back to the fu­ture. “I felt that the ad­vances with elec­tron­ics had come along so far that we could tame it a lit­tle bit,” he says of his de­ci­sion to re­turn to a screamer en­gine when ev­ery­one else (in­clud­ing other man­u­fac­tur­ers) were run­ning big bangs. “Ini­tially we went away from that en­gine to the big bang, just to try and get a lit­tle bit less wheel­spin, which did work. Then you reach the point where you couldn’t get a great deal out of the ma­chine and felt you wanted to get a lit­tle bit more to make it a bit more lively, and you couldn’t do that with the big bang en­gine. So we just tried it. We thought, ‘Well, why don’t we go back to what we had a few years ago, but with the elec­tron­ics we now have – not that we had any trac­tion con­trol or any­thing like that – and the way that the en­gine had de­vel­oped, maybe it would be a lit­tle bit more for­giv­ing’, and that’s ex­actly what it was. “Some of the other guys, who were a lit­tle bit less fluid with the throt­tle, didn’t want to ride it. I don’t know if they found it ex­tremely hard but a few of the boys crashed – I know Alex Criv­ille had a cou­ple of big crashes on it and he didn’t want to ride it, so I think the other guys thought they would just stick with the

big bang en­gine and I don’t think Honda re­ally wanted to risk giv­ing it to the other guys.” It was a huge psy­cho­log­i­cal blow to the rest of the field. Doohan’s throt­tle con­trol was ap­par­ently so sub­lime that he was the only man on the grid ca­pa­ble of tam­ing a full-on screamer en­gine. As a re­sult, he dec­i­mated the field in 1997, set­ting a new record of 12 wins in a sea­son to take his fourth world ti­tle. De­spite his huge suc­cess on the bike, Doohan doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily be­lieve that his par­tic­u­lar rid­ing style made him an ideal match for the NSR. “I think rid­ing styles are just some­thing that you have and then you adapt your­self to the bike,” he says. “Most bikes I rode I gen­er­ally went fairly well on, so I didn’t feel that it was a hin­drance or a ben­e­fit re­ally.” And for all its strong points, Doohan is quick to point out that the NSR wasn’t with­out its faults: “It def­i­nitely had some weak­nesses,” he says: “It wasn’t that great un­der brakes. Un­der brakes and turn­ing it didn’t re­ally like that too much. Its strength ob­vi­ously was the en­gine; it was al­ways a good, tractable en­gine and it was re­li­able. Honda are very con­ser­va­tive in the way they do things so if we thought we had some prob­lems then things were re­placed all the time.” Be­cause of his run­away suc­cess on the NSR, Doohan’s com­peti­tors of­ten found their only de­fence was to state that they too could win the ti­tle if only they were on a Honda. It’s some­thing that clearly still riles the Aus­tralian: “All those guys, whether it be Max Bi­aggi or Luca Cadalora or who­ever, could win races but they’d al­ways have an ex­cuse why they cou ldn’t do it [win the cham­pi­onship]. Cadalor ra was a lovely guy but I think he though ht that if he had a Honda then he’d win the t cham­pi­onship. But when he got one (in 1996) the re­sult at the end of the yea ar was the same – he still had to beat me. Yo ou didn’t just have to beat the Honda, you had to beat the rider on it too.” Un­like Cadalora, Doohan be­lieves the t NSR’S com­peti­tors were per­fectly ca­pa­ble of o win­ning in the right hands: “The Suzuki was quite q good. Daryl Beat­tie was do­ing good things on o it in 1995, and the Yamaha wasn’t too bad d ei­ther. In fact, the Yamaha was win­ning up unti il Wayne Rainey crashed (the triple world cham mpion for Yamaha was paral­ysed fol­low­ing a crash at Misano in 1993), and then all of a sud­den s peo­ple are say­ing it’s the worst bike i n the world. I think Kenny Roberts Se­nior was the t e one who started bag­ging the Yamaha about be­ing such a bad bike, but it was win­ning ti­tle af­ter ti­tle – the rider al­ways looks a lot bet­ter when you bag the bike, you know?”

Doohan won his fifth and fi­nal world cham­pi­onship in 1998 but suf­fered ca­reerend­ing in­juries dur­ing a crash at Jerez the fol­low­ing year, three rounds into the cham­pi­onship. It was his 11th year of rid­ing and de­vel­op­ing the NSR, so how much dif­fer­ence was there be­tween the bike he first rode in 1988 and the ma­chine that he ended his ca­reer on in 1999? “Oh, huge – the 1999 model was a much tamer beast than the 1988 bike. In fact, the 1998 model was just like a big 250; it took me quite a while to get my head around how to ride the thing be­cause we had gone back to un­leaded fuel and lost a lot of power and a lot of the sav­age­ness out of the bike, so you could ac­tu­ally have the bike leant over and open the gas, which was some­thing new to me com­pared to the bikes of the late Eight­ies. So it took a while to get back into that 250 style of rid­ing.” If there’s one thing that still makes Mick Doohan an­gry it’s the sug­ges­tion that he didn’t de­velop the NSR as much as he might. It’s of­ten been writ­ten that he re­fused all kinds of gizmos from Honda – from anti-wheelie launch con­trol to fuel in­jec­tion – but he de­nies th­ese ac­cu­sa­tions ve­he­mently: “No, no, no,” he says, laugh­ing when the ques­tion is first put to him be­fore turn­ing gnarly: “I don’t know where you get your in­for­ma­tion from. We tested ev­ery­thing, it’s just that if it wasn’t work­ing... I mean, I was there to win races, I wasn’t a test bed for Honda.” So he wasn’t of­fered anti-wheelie con­trol for race starts then? “No, we never had any of that type of stuff. Ap­par­ently we had fuel in­jec­tion too but that didn’t work ei­ther – all that did was break my wrist. You know, they said we tried wa­ter in­jec­tion too. There was a

lot of gizmos we did try but they didn’t im­prove the bike. “We could have per­sisted with them but we’d be los­ing races, but the bike was al­ways evolv­ing. Yamaha had a lot of gizmos too but they ended up pulling them out be­cause it was too much of a test bed. For ex­am­ple, ac­tive sus­pen­sion wasn’t like it is to­day. You’d map in the cir­cuit so if there was a bump you’d pro­gramme in the sus­pen­sion to ex­pect that bump. But if you weren’t on that ex­act line then the bike would re­act dif­fer­ently. “It was all re­ally in its in­fancy so it wasn’t re­ally ben­e­fi­cial other than for the man­u­fac­tur­ers to jus­tify the bud­gets they were spend­ing. A lot of the things that I wouldn’t waste my time on was to re­build the bike and make it a new bike ev­ery year. I would just want to fix the bad things, I didn’t want a new sheet of paper ev­ery year. I was like, ‘Well, why get rid of all the good stuff we’ve got? Let’s just get rid of the bad stuff and try and make the good stuff a bit bet­ter.’ “So my fo­cus was on mak­ing the whole pack­age bet­ter; the pack­age from A to B rather than just the top speed like Honda used to fo­cus on. I’d try to get the thing to han­dle, to stop, to do this and that. I’ve read those sto­ries as well – that ap­par­ently I didn’t like de­vel­op­ing the bike, and I find that hard to be­lieve. “I’ve got five of them sit­ting in a mu­seum at my house here (a model from each of his cham­pi­onship-win­ning years) and they all look very sim­i­lar, but if you look deeper they’re a hell of a lot dif­fer­ent from each other. And that’s where it comes back to peo­ple say­ing we didn’t want to de­velop the bike. Well, that wasn’t the case – we just didn’t want to de­stroy the bike.”

1990 Bri­tish GP, Don­ing­ton.

Dutch500gp,1990. Stu­art Shen­ton on the grid in Por­tu­gal with Sch­wantz and Doohan. It’s 1989.

1991 Bri­tish GP, Don­ing­ton. Don­ing God­dards, minding the bump 1989. Early days (note the Pol­lock-es­que hel­met de­sign and whip-like wheelie).

The 1989 Bri­tish Grand Prix. The greats line up with Ed­die Law­son wear­ing the num­ber one plate on the Roth­mans NSR500. 1991 and Roth­mans Honda team­mates Wayne Gard­ner and Mick Doohan share the podium. Note the miss­ing man­gled lit­tle Doohan fin­ger. 1990 Bel­gian GP. 1993. Kevin Magee Wayne Rainey

The 1994 Honda NSR500 Grand Prix bike made more than a big bang in the hands of the Aus­tralian.

1995 and the Rep­sol colours ar­rive.


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