This article was originally published in the April 1995 issue of Sport Rider magazine.
Inside the HRC garage at the top of Suzuka’s pit row, the Beast awaits, poised on its well-muscled haunches like a hungry leopard ready to pounce. Its taut carbon-fiber skin is splashed with a red hue bright enough to scorch your optic nerve. Across its flanks in warpaint-style script are the most feared letters in 500 GP racing: NSR.
Viewed from any angle, Honda’s almighty NSR500 is intimidating, but looking at it from behind the bars makes my mouth go dry and my pulse pound into the red zone. Like a sequence from a dream, I watch my hands slowly, cautiously wrap around the rubber handgrips. Even with weeks to prepare for it, I still can’t believe I’m about to ride Mick Doohan’s world championship–winning bike. I’m surprised by the machine’s feathery low mass as I push it up to a quick jog, then hop onto the saddle and pop the clutch. The two-stroke V-four fires to life with a rather humble yet throaty drone; down pit row the Japanese factory test riders stare in envy as I roll past, switching from start-up sidesaddle to a proper riding position on the world’s ultimate race bike.
Remember, it’s just a motorcycle, I keep thinking to myself. Right, says my inner voice, and a hungry leopard is just a pussycat. Nice kitty…
Of course, the Beast is no more a mere motorcycle then the racer who rides it—Australian Mick Doohan—is a mere man. Both go far beyond the standard definition of their respective species, and together they took on the most highly evolved race bikes and supernaturally talented riders in the world and crushed them like insects under a boot. Doohan and the Honda crew won nine of 14 Grand Prix races last season, with a six-win streak that had everyone wondering if the Wonder from Down Under and HRC would ever stop winning. Even on his worst days, Doohan never finished off the rostrum.
Doohan’s domination may have looked effortless to many—that is, to those who weren’t looking closely. Take, for example, the color photo we ran of the ’94 USGP coverage (SR, Feb. ’95): Mighty Mick is crawling forward, helmet against the bubble, chin on the top triple clamp and body flattened against the tank, doing everything in his power to wrestle the Beast to the ground while cresting the rise approaching the Corkscrew. “It gets a good bit of air there, actually,” Doohan related to me later, as if amused by the Beast’s behavior. Just part of the “no worries” Aussie attitude of the new world champ, but talk to him long enough and you’ll find that even Mick takes the NSR500 deadly seriously.
Back in 1988, Yamaha gave the rising Australian Superbike star his first opportunity to ride a 500. “I got on the Yamaha and thought, ‘Well, now, this isn’t too bad.’ Then I crashed it. Come to think of it, I think I crashed the next time I got on it too.” Soon afterward, Honda gave Doohan a tryout and signed him. “It took me a full season to learn to respect it,” Doohan said of learning to ride the NSR500. “The thing is, you get off a Superbike and think, ‘This thing isn’t all that much faster,’ but it’s more than just that. If a Superbike starts spinning the rear, it’s more like ‘whoa’ and no problem. They’re a lot heavier so everything happens much slower. You can get away with a lot more. I rather like riding Superbikes.
“On a 500, the tire breaks loose at 8000 rpm; before you shut the throttle, it’s at 12,000. The way they make power with the torque of a two-stroke engine and with how quick they respond because of their lighter weight makes the 500s far more dangerous.” This from a man who makes snatching the world championship from Kevin Schwantz look like taking candy from a baby—a man who rides the most coveted bike in GP racing, a bike considered by most experts to be the quickest, fastest, best handling and most forgiving of the current crop of 500s.
In fact, Doohan has had the mount of choice since 1992 when Honda unleashed the greatest technological advancement in modern GP racing: the Big Bang engine. By compressing the firing order of the four cylinders into “very close to 70 degrees,” Big Bang technology was a significant step toward taming the ever-escalating horsepower of the brutish 500s by giving the tire approximately 290 degrees of crank rotation to hook up before the next power stroke.
HRC’s Shigeru Hattori took over as NSR500 project leader at the dawn of the Big Bang era and has held that position ever since. According to Hattori, the Big Bang configuration didn’t significantly change the power curve, midrange power output or even the peak power as seen on a dyno. What it changed was the way in which that power was delivered to the pavement—in this case, four pulses in rapid succession followed by a long pause. Though all the competitors have copied Honda’s Big Bang innovation, they have yet to match its performance. Aside from minor tuning variables and the need to adapt the engine to unleaded fuel regulations for ’94, the NSR500 engine has changed very little, although Hattori admitted that the engine output climbs steadily, if slowly (due to the new lower-octane, unleaded fuel requirements), upward.
Can the rider use any more power? It depends on whom you ask. “I think that there is an optimum power range and we are already across this line,” said Hattori. “That is why the 500s are not too much faster than the 250s.” Doohan sees it differently: “Yeah, we can always use more power as long as we can keep the engine character the same. Coming off a corner, it’s just like takin’ off from a stoplight where the guy in front always looks like he’s gettin’ away. We’re always asking for more acceleration.”
The ’94 NSR500 chassis, considered by most to be the best in the world and virtually identical to that of the ’91 version, has followed a similarly slow evolution. “From ’92, Mr. Mick Doohan is so satisfied with chassis that he doesn’t want to change anything,” admitted Hattori. Although they are constantly testing new engine positions, swingarm pivot heights and steering-head angles and positions, Mick-san seems to drift back to the same configuration to which he’s grown comfortable. “Basically, next solution is not chassis but suspension this year,” said Hattori. “Contact patches and braking traction are affected by suspension changes with different damping curves.”
Doohan was quite dissatisfied with the suspension during the first three races and HRC found they needed to switch back to their ’92 suspension baseline settings to put Mick back on the winning track this year. Once they did he won six straight. Doohan’s suspension theory differs from most other GP front-runners who set their suspensions stiff to control chassis pitch under braking and violent steering and throttle inputs. According to the team’s data-acquisition system, Doohan is remarkably smooth with all his control inputs, the throttle in particular. Hence, Smooth Mick gets away with much softer suspension settings than other riders. “I try to keep the suspension working on the springs and try not to bind it up with a bunch of compression and rebound damping,” said Doohan. “I think right now the big gains are going to be found in suspension; that’s where we’re going to find traction and handling gains.”
After a few years of guest riding top race bikes with suspension settings that ranged from taut to nearly rigid, and engines whose radical state of tune and narrow focus had them alternately spitting and barking at anything below race rpm, the civility of Doohan’s machine is disarming. I was expecting a beast, but as I roll down Suzuka’s pit row, pull in the surprisingly low-effort clutch and engage first gear (that’s up on a race shift pattern) I’ve yet to find it. The engine responds smoothly from well below 6000 rpm and pulls cleanly with none of the high-strung behavior you’d expect. In fact, the Big Bang engines are known for their droning engine notes sounding more like a big-bore motocrosser than the piercing high-pitch shriek of the previous engine.
The seating position is roomy with a wide saddle, relatively low footpegs and clip-ons that aren’t too radical. Combined with Doohan’s relatively plush suspension settings, the NSR is probably more comfortable than a Ducati 916 or Suzuki GSX-R750. Braking lightly for turn one, the carbon brakes offer very little bite until they’re hot, and at a cautious (or as Mick might say, respectful) pace it takes a full lap to get them up to operating temperature. A light input at the bars is all it takes to bank the NSR over onto my knee. It’s so low-effort that it almost feels like the bike falls in on its own, but with enough steering linearity to inspire confidence at the same time.
With the revs between 6000 and 8500 rpm, throttle response is superbly clean as I climb up through the left-right-left-right esses. Even the slightest throttle openings generate more acceleration than I expect, and I’m constantly finding myself in the next corner a little too hot, thinking, Whoa, how did that happen? No problem, just add a little more lean angle. Yeah, this thing’s just a big kitten.
Accelerating out of Spoon Curve, down the back straight, I’m feeling confident, like I’ve got a handle on things, so I give the right grip a hard twist.
That’s when the Beast awakens.
With the tach reading just over 9000 rpm in fourth gear, the NSR leaps forward, my butt slams back into the the carbon-fiber tail section and the bars shake side-to-side in my clenched fists as the front tire dances above the pavement. In the time it takes to find the tachometer, the needle is already into over-rev, so I stab a clutchless upshift and watch in disbelief as Mick’s monster eats up fifth gear, then sixth as quickly as you can read this sentence. Maybe quicker. Jeezus! How the hell did that happen? Who triggered the nitrous? Where’s the boost gauge on this thing? Okay, now breathe again.
Then I realize a few things: that I am in fact pulling 12,500 in sixth and that out of fear I inadvertently rolled out of the throttle a bit to keep the front end planted in fourth and then hadn’t whacked it full open again, but I couldn’t tell the difference. Up until the back straight, I thought I was using two-thirds to three-quarter throttle squirting between corners, when in fact I hadn’t even cracked the slides half open yet—more like one-quarter to one-third throttle and still getting more acceleration then I was ready for. As soon as the throttle is shut, the NSR becomes a docile pussycat again.
Even so, it takes me a full lap to recover and get my courage back, but next time down the back straight I’m twisting the grip in anger again. All right, I’m ready for you this time. You don’t scare me. The front end dances through the top of fourth. I grab fifth at 12,500 rpm, pin the throttle to the stop and it settles down. Ha! Take that you sumbitch!
Then the Beast teaches me lesson number two. At the top of fifth gear (surely over 150 mph) it catches a rise in the pavement and snaps the front wheel two feet in the air before I can back out of it. Okay, okay, okay, anything you want. Just don’t do that again, please.
Later, after Doohan tells me how much he enjoys reading how journalists describe the bike’s power, I relate the experience to him. He laughs out loud. "We’re into sixth way before the bump," Mick said with a chuckle (as if I needed further humiliation), "but if I don’t keep my head behind the bubble I have to roll out or it’ll come over backward." All the while with that amused tone in his voice again—strange sense of humor this Doohan character has. I wonder what scares him?
In the next few laps, the two long straights are the only places I’m able to pin the throttle wide open, and even then it’s with caution. The biggest problem is keeping the front tire in contact with the pavement. Twist the throttle even somewhat aggressively in the first three gears and the Beast wheelies ridiculously, as if it’s capable of defying the laws of physics. I can’t understand how Doohan gets around tight tracks like Laguna Seca when all the Beast wants to do is wheelie. Short-shifting has almost no effect except that it occasionally makes for larger, faster wheelies. Exploring my lean-angle limits is pure pleasure thanks to the tenacious side bite of Michelin slicks, yet I’m still a ways from Mick’s lean-the-bike-’til-yer-knee’s-pinned-between-the-fairing-and-the-pavement cornering attitude. The Beast is totally unintimidating to flick through anything Suzuka has to offer as long as the throttle is treated like the trigger of a gun: Squeeze it smooth and slow, and then only when it’s pointed in a safe direction.
Heading out of the final corner in fourth, leaned over hard enough that my knee is just inches from the ground, the Beast accelerates and hooks up hard enough to lift the front tire off the asphalt then set it back down again in a series of small skips toward the wall at what must be better than 100 mph. Brake markers rush up faster than in my worst nightmares. Long straights are but a quick blur with corners hurling at me, as if I’m watching a video tape that someone randomly fast-forwards every few seconds.
After just five overwhelming laps, I’m waved in and another salivating, hyperventilating, palpitating, sweaty-palmed journalist is awaiting his turn on the back of the Beast. Lucky guy. For me it is time to come down from an adrenaline pump that had my senses reading off the scale, needles pegged beyond the scope of their calibration. The world slowly comes back into focus.
The end emotion is humbling. I feel that I was taken for a ride rather than actively riding—I’m not worthy. Weeks later I get a call from Mick, and he sheds the light of experience on taming the Beast. “The less-experienced guys benefit from the Big Bang more because I only use the high rpm anyway—from maybe 9500 to past 13,000 rpm," says the champ. "Before the Big Bang, we used between maybe 11,000 and 12,500. At the higher revs the wheelspin is more controllable because you’re above the torque peak and you have a chance to catch it most of the time. At the lower revs [in the midrange] it will likely kill you."
And what about over-revving? "You can feel a point (above the horsepower peak) where it just isn’t going forward any more. Yeah, it’s still revving, but it isn’t going forward."
Maybe not to you it isn’t, but I saw nearly 14,000 rpm once and I couldn’t feel the power drop off. "Well, you just didn’t get enough time on it," Mick says with a chuckle. What are your three best pieces of advice for someone about to ride a 500 for the first time?
"Well, definitely respect it," Doohan said with an immediate reverence. "Keep the revs up high to stay safe...." Then after a long pause and some serious thought from the man who outrides the best 500 GP pilots in the world for a living and thinks nothing of it, "Just try to stay on the thing."
The Best Never Rest
What do you do after creating the most dominant Grand Prix race bike in the past 20 years? If you’re Honda’s NSR500 project leader Shigeru Hattori, you continue to push forward so that everyone’s cross hairs are tracking a moving target, not a stationary one.
Honda sent the competition’s engineers scrambling to catch up to the NSR’s Big Bang engine back in ’92; two seasons later, no one has succeeded. In ’93 the Big H introduced fuel injection to the 500 class, and at Hockenheim Shinichi Itoh became the first GP rider to break 200 mph. Again the paddock was abuzz with talk of the peak power advantages of fuel injection. But Hattori reveals other motives: “The benefit of fuel injection is an improvement in fuel economy of five to 10 percent, therefore we can reduce fuel weight carried at the start of race.” Hattori claims that the injection system didn’t yield a horsepower advantage. When questioned as to why Itoh’s bike was six miles per hour faster than Doohan’s carbureted bike at Hockenheim in ’93, he claimed that the smaller Itoh was able to tuck in tighter (due in part to Doohan’s leg injury as well). For ’94, Itoh ran fuel injection only during the first two GPs, reverting to carburetion thereafter.
Honda launched its PGM suspension system this season. PGM uses the bike’s data-acquisition system to monitor throttle percentage, rpm and gear-change points to determine which corner of the course the bike is approaching so it can adjust the compression- and rebound-damping rates on the shock accordingly. Doohan, however, prefers to leave this bit of technical trickery to his teammates and runs conventional suspension.
At the final round of the season, eagle-eyed observers may have noticed a new slit in the NSR’s nose. It was for cooling the water-injection system used to control the exhaust-system temperature and effectively alter the optimum rpm range for the expansion-chamber design and increase the torque output of the engine in the 6000-to-10,000-rpm range. It’s worth up to 10 horsepower in the midrange. Doohan confided later that he prefers not to use the system because it doesn’t mate well with his riding style and only makes the machine’s prodigious torque output more difficult to control. Still, the technology and possible applications are fascinating.
What effect does winning the championship have on Hattori’s job? Why, it makes it more difficult, of course. “This year is most difficult because every year that we lose the championship,” explained Hattori, “the target is clear.” And how much longer will Hattori continue to be the NSR500 project leader? “That depends on my boss, Mr. Oguma, and how happy he is with me,” Hattori answered with a smile. Based on what we’ve ridden and witnessed, we’d say that you’ve got very good job security, Hattori-san.
|1994 Honda NSR500 Specs|
|Price:||$1,000,000 to lease for one year; not for sale at any price|
|Engine type:||Liquid-cooled, transverse, 112-degree two-stroke V-four|
|Bore x stroke:||54.0 x 54.5 mm|
|Carburetion:||2, dual-throat 36mm Keihin carbs|
|Front suspension:||43mm Showa inverted; adjustments for spring preload, rebound damping and two separate compression-damping circuits|
|Rear suspension:||Honda Pro-Link with one Showa damper with titanium spring; adjustments for spring preload, rebound damping and compression damping|
|Front brake:||2, four-piston Brembo calipers, 290mm Brembo carbon discs|
|Rear brake:||1, 196mm HRC steel disc, HRC two-piston caliper|
|Front wheel:||3.50 x 17 in. HRC cast magnesium|
|Rear wheel:||6.00 x 17 in. HRC cast magnesium|
|Front tire:||120/ 60-17 Michelin racing slick|
|Rear tire:||180/67-17 Michelin racing slick|
|Rake/trail:||22.5 degrees/3.7 inches (95mm)|
|Wheelbase:||54.8 inches (1405mm)|
|Fuel capacity:||8.3 gallons (32 liters)|
|Weight:||288 pounds dry|
|Measured top speed:||196 mph at Hockenheim|