Kenny Roberts Jr. rolled to a stop in the garage at Sepang with a million-watt grin. The 2000 500cc world champion hadn't had much to smile about lately. The Suzuki GSV-R he'd been flogging for the past five years was an also-ran for most of its life, and the constant switching of tire brands did little to help development. Except for a few brilliant rain rides last season, he's been the forgotten man.
Junior's father wasn't much better off. The three-time 500cc world champion found little success outside the cocoon of the Yamaha factory that he left at the end of the '96 season. When Roberts decided to build his own racebikes from scratch, it was the beginning of a nine-year slog that netted little in the way of results. After enormous effort, cost and far too much bad advice from Formula One "experts," Roberts learned the hard way that it's impossible to compete with the Japanese factories in engine development. The Proton KR V5 engine was never competitive, so in '05 he made a pact with KTM to fit the Austrian company's engines into his chassis. The deal, it was thought, would be mutually beneficial. KTM, which abandoned its MotoGP project on cost grounds, would have a presence in the most prestigious class in motorcycle racing without having to fund and build an entire motorcycle. Roberts could continue his program without worrying about developing an engine, especially in '07 when capacity would be downsized to 800cc.
The pairing was disastrous. It ended in acrimony when KTM suddenly withdrew its engines at the Czech GP, just after the '05 summer break (there's been talk of litigation, but it's not likely). Team Roberts was forced to pull old engines out of mothballs to make the grid. But the very expensive overseas races followed, and the team was forced to miss those rounds. They returned for the season finale in Valencia with Kurtis Roberts riding the Proton V5 in its swan song. By then the future was brighter.
When the KTM imbroglio began, Roberts went looking for engines. He spoke to all the key players and found the warmest reception at Honda, the factory of his old rival Freddie Spencer. When Honda came in, it "saved our ass," said Roberts, who had begun looking at a life outside of racing otherwise. He also credits Carmelo Ezpeleta, the CEO of MotoGP rightsholders Dorna, with convincing him that he should be on the grid.
The KR211V was fabricated...
The KR211V was fabricated in an unbelievably short 67-day period, from the day Team Roberts took delivery of the non-running mock-up Honda V5 engine in November '05, to the moment it touched the pit lane at Sepang in January '06.
"With your chassis and that engine, you will help the championship," Ezpeleta told him. Roberts hasn't regretted it. "I have to say I never had any negative feelings from anybody. In the paddock here, I've had team owners come over and want to look at the bike."
There were other pieces of the puzzle (tires, a rider, sponsorship and so on), but the team's long-time suppliers quickly signed on, and before long a deal was made to buy Michelin tires. Kenny Roberts Jr. was the natural to ride. Finding sponsorship hasn't been easy; there is a rumored collaboration among Red Bull, PJ1 and Parts Unlimited. But Roberts says he won't have anything to report until the first race.
A non-running Honda RC211V engine was delivered to the Roberts' team headquarters in Banbury, England, in November '05. The working deadline to complete the motorcycle, which would be named the KR211V, was the first of the '06 tests in Sepang in January. And before it could run in Sepang, the bike had to be sent to Honda Racing Corporation (HRC) headquarters near Tokyo for the company's blessing.
"We started it up at 6:30 Friday night and had to go to Japan the next day for them to approve the airbox and the way it ran," Roberts said at the Sepang test. "The only thing I was able to do was start it. I doubt there's many companies or people in the world that could get this done in 67 days and be within a second of [Honda's] lap time."
Rider Kenny Roberts Jr. gets...
Rider Kenny Roberts Jr. gets debriefed after his first ride on his father's Honda-powered racebike. "Awesome...Yeah, pretty amazing," said the 2000 World 500cc Grand Prix champion of the RC211V engine. After years of riding recalcitrant and non-competitive machines, Roberts Jr. reveled in the Honda engine's responsiveness, power and smoothness.
The job of making it all fit together fell to former Indy Car designer Barry Ward, an Englishman who joined Team Roberts at the advent of the four-stroke era. Engaging and forthright, Ward is a motorcyclist at heart, commuting the 40 minutes to the Banbury workshop on a '67 Triumph 350.
"You have to take a design that we believe was a good balance between stiffness, weight and geometry with the old bike, and try to either carry the good parts over or improve on the parts that we weren't too happy with around the new engine," Ward said. The biggest adjustment comes in chassis stiffness. "We're basing it on what we believe should be that sort of stiffness for that horsepower and that weight of bike," he said about the initial design. "You look ahead and you see what weight the bike should be and what sort of forces should go in, and you estimate or calculate what the stiffness changes should be. One of the things we're trying to do is give ourselves different things to try at the early tests. We're not just building one spec of chassis, we're giving ourselves an opportunity to test different [rigidities] as early as we can. As tires and traction control systems evolve, there's going to be a different optimal stiffness. And I'm sure everyone else is doing the same thing. There isn't one stiffness figure everyone's trying to achieve. This figure's moving all the time. You need to leave yourself the opportunity to achieve a different target as it moves." The team can test rigidity on a chassis rig in the Banbury shop and adjust it on the fly during testing. For the first test at Sepang, they had one chassis with several stiffness options. A second chassis appeared for the second test at Phillip Island in Australia.
After examining the KR211V, Honda felt that while the chassis rigidity may need some work, the overall design was sound. Keijiro Koinuma, manager of Honda's satellite teams, praised the project.
"I know the bike is a prototype, but it's looking good after this shakedown test," he said via e-mail. "Fundamentally, they must consider the rigidity of the frame. It looks not sufficient, but they know what to do. But the airbox is not so bad with the center duct. The current location is not so bad."
Koinuma wouldn't reveal how many engines the team would get or how many kilometers they'd run before replacement. The team does have some maintenance responsibilities, but the rebuilds will be done at HRC's European base in Aalst, Belgium, and back in Japan. An HRC technician will be available, but not dedicated to the team. Neither Koinuma, nor anyone at Team Roberts, would divulge the lease price for the engines.