You Meet The Nicest People On A Honda
After years of struggling with wayward engine designs built from scratch and the KTM engine debacle, Kenny Roberts Sr. finally obtains what he hopes will be the missing link in his quest to build a world-beater: Honda power
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.
"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."
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.
Kenny Roberts admitted he was nervous when his son took the KR211V on the track. "We've been a long time out of the ball game without a lot of confidence that we're going to nail it the first time out," the usually supremely confident Roberts revealed. "It would've been a little embarrassing if it wobbled around and was eight seconds off the pace. Obviously, that's not the case. Although it's not perfect, it's not a disaster yet either." Quite the opposite. Junior's times at the Malaysia test were more than respectable, given the quick fabrication time.
"We built the bike in a very, very short time, and saying running down pit road was the first time it ever was in gear makes me a little nervous," Roberts continued. "I'm responsible for that project. It's a lot of pressure. For us, no more engine excuses. We have to perform. The whole thing is a little bit nerve-wracking and, of course, with him riding it, you want the best of the best. No doubt having your kid on it is, of course, another pressure or any rider who has that kind of relationship like Wayne [Rainey] and I did. You always have that kind of nervous tension building. And I don't think that's going to go away."
Junior's best lap was a 2:03.37, which put him 16th out of the 19 riders. He was two seconds slower than the fastest riders, but that was deceiving because the top riders all used qualifying tires. On race tires, he was closer to a second off the pace. And the fastest riders were on Bridgestone tires on a track that favors the Japanese brand.
What made the time more impressive was that he only had one motorcycle, which meant considerable downtime for adjustments. A second chassis materialized for the follow-on test at Phillip Island. The geometry was no different, but the air box placement was. Junior preferred the original chassis, and the team had an entirely new frame for the Barcelona tests in early March.
One of the elements that most energized Roberts about this project was the chance for Junior to ride a bike that suited his style. "He's not a corner-speed rider, he's an acceleration rider like I was. If my bikes had to depend on corner speed, I couldn't ride them. So I had to engineer them or help Kel [Carruthers] or whoever make it the way I could ride it.
"Kenny [Jr.] was never comfortable on the Suzuki. The Suzuki has always, in my opinion, depended too much on mid-corner speed to make it work. I'm just happy to see him ride something that has that kind of bottom power that you can use. For me to ride what he had over [at Suzuki], I couldn't have done it either."
With so much to test and only one machine, Roberts said the team lost its way on the final day of the Sepang test. Junior's times were the same at the beginning and the end of the day. "It's not right, but it's not that far off either," he said. "If you just look at the lap times and go you're fifth or sixth or whatever or you're only 2:03, it's just hard to relate to unless you actually build motorcycles. I didn't really think we'd come here and blow Honda off. I think they've had a little more experience building these things than we have."
What the tests confirmed was that chassis stiffness was a concern.
"We felt coming here we weren't ready yet in stiffness and that has come out of the test," he said. "Everything that we thought we were going to have trouble with, we had trouble with. It's kind of depressing, but it's also reassuring that our figures off of our test rigs are accurate. It's a lot for [Kenny Jr.] to run through. And it was a lot of downtime for us. But we have to do it. There's really no other way to shortcut it."
Junior's first impression was that the engine was "Awesome...Yeah, pretty amazing." Chassis issues overshadowed the brilliance of the engine, however. "Just from the time I roll off the throttle until the time out of the corner and getting ready for the next one, that all needs to be a 10th of a second quicker," Junior said during the break between the Phillip Island and second Sepang tests. "That means everything needs to speed up. If I'm braking too fast for the bike and I'm flicking it in too quick, the thing's not all together. I have to ride it at its own pace. If you flick it in really hard and the thing's not in the right area, the weight and the mass doesn't go with you as quick as you need it to and it just upsets everything.
"We can do it," he added, confidently. "In Malaysia I was quick as anybody right from the start, if not quicker in that first run of 2:03. I actually thought the lap timer was a mistake because the lap time was so quick right away. The Honda engine makes it so nice around that place, just doesn't wheelie, you're able to accelerate hard off the corners. That's a tremendous amount of lap times right there."
The first chassis was better, Junior said after the Phillip Island test. "The basic thing from Malaysia to Australia was rotating the chassis to get the weight and balance a little better and also possibly that this circuit suited the problems we were having a little better than Malaysia did because Malaysia, the more grip you have, the better it is."
Right now, Junior doesn't want to force the KR211V to do things it doesn't want to do, "Because the more I try to force the bike and try to take wider lines and be aggressive on the throttle, it just ends up spinning. The good thing is I can envision what I need it to do and it's what the other guys are doing. Warren [Willing, Kenny Jr.'s crew chief] is extremely confident that once we get the chassis set up and all the other odds and ends of things that are making it difficult, we're going to be right there. That's our goal anyway."
Despite its early teething problems, Roberts Sr. says the KR211V is the best motorcycle to wear his name "By quite a long ways. We never really had one that I was happy with. I was happy with the two-stroke in the end, but we were racing against four-strokes. We never had a world-beater, in my opinion. We always sort of kicked ourselves off in the wrong way. Let myself get talked into going around the corners faster. I think the moon and the stars all lined up together this time and said, 'now it's time for you to have a decent motor."
Roberts' agreement with Honda is for one rider for one year, but he would like it to continue.
"We have always said we would really like to work with a company that wanted to work with us, that wanted to go places. I would love to continue this relationship with Honda and have it work for both companies. We don't really want to be a problem to Honda, we want to be a solution. I think the way that we're doing this project is a solution in some ways. And so I hope that they see it the same way."