The 990cc, V-five-powered RC211V literally rattled the paddock when it debuted in the fall of '01, and Valentino Rossi went on to dominate the '02 season and win the world championship. Of 82 races waved off since its release, the RC211V has won 48, including two world titles with Valentino Rossi in '02 and '03 and a third with Hayden in '06. You might think that, save for the fact that both have two wheels, Hayden's 250-plus-bhp, 319-pound RC-V would have nothing in common with the 185-bhp, 286-pound NSR from '85. You would be wrong. "Nicky's bike felt so similar to my '85 bike in a lot of ways," Spencer said, lending credence to his claim about the influence of that particular machine. "Obviously, if you compare the speed and acceleration of the NSR500 to the RC211V there is no comparison-certainly it's much faster on the 211. Feel-wise the two-stroke is more severe, a lot less polished and refined, and you immediately feel the stability of the modern MotoGP bike. But the actual act of riding and turning the new bike versus the old is not as different as you might think. Once you get in a corner it feels similar, the general feeling of direction change."
Spencer didn't just do parade laps on the RC211V; the morning after fan-appreciation day he took Hayden's bike back out on Motegi's road course for "at least 25 laps" at what he reckons was maybe 5 seconds off race pace. The last time Freddie had ridden the RC-V was in October of '01, when he and Mick Doohan introduced the bike to the world at Motegi. Not surprisingly, five years on, the bike felt completely different to him.
"The first thing I noticed was huge, huge improvement in the electronics, and how seamless the traction control is combined with the other electronics to make the bike very rideable," Spencer said. "It's almost intuitive, the way the newest system reacts. It almost seems to anticipate situations before they happen." To illustrate this, Spencer recalled a videotaped segment of Doohan and him turning laps on the '01 RC211Vs: "You can see the rear end of my bike come around in one corner and you can watch the traction control catch it-react to it-when the front end of the bike just comes up and goes down for an instant. Now, the new system anticipates a problem like this-it's not reacting to a problem, it's preventing one. You feel the rear end coming around, but you can keep accelerating and keep riding through it and it doesn't even upset the chassis. I immediately felt the difference with that."
During his career, Spencer distinguished himself as a racer who could go fast on bikes no one else could go fast on ( la the NR500). He was that rare talent who could regularly ride beyond the limits of the machine and live to tell. Does traction control erase that advantage and make it easier to ride a modern MotoGP bike like the RC211V than it does something less refined, like the NSR500?
"When you were on the edge on the 500, you were the only one in control," Spencer related. "The traction control was in your right hand, and your margin of error was very narrow. Certainly the 211 is more forgiving than the 500, and that certainly helps a rider that's not quite as smooth, especially in lower gears."
Spencer stopped short, however, of saying the modern four-stroke MotoGP racer is easier to ride than the two-stroke screamers of yore. He is quick to point out that traction control isn't so much a crutch; with 250 bhp on tap, it's a necessity. "There's so much power now that these bikes would be virtually unrideable if you didn't have the electronic controls in place," he said. "The front wheel would literally never touch the ground, ever. You couldn't move far enough forward."
Spencer is also quick to point out that even though the electronics eliminate some challenges, they cause new ones. "The RC211V is so much faster than the NSR500 that it creates different problems," he explained. "It accelerates so hard, stops so hard and turns so hard ... it is so physically demanding to ride that bike at the limit that it takes an incredible amount of talent to win. You've got to give credit where credit is due, and to ride a bike with that much horsepower, and to know exactly what to do and when to do it to be consistently fast, is real skill. No matter how 'wired' your bike is, it's still the rider who has the touch, who has to anticipate situations and respond without losing time."
In the end Spencer says, electronically or not, the RC211V translates that massive power into forward motion better than any other GP bike Honda has ever made-any other bike out there, perhaps, as evidenced by Hayden's 2006 world championship. "I've always been a big fan of horsepower, the more the better," Spencer said, "and the RC211V just accelerates sooo hard. You feel throttle response-on the banking at Motegi's oval, for instance, fourth gear up to sixth, it just drives. And it turns, too: Nicky's bike had geometry and other changes (relative to teammate Dani Pedrosa's bike) to move the engine forward, so it's more stable on corner entry, with noticeably better front-end feel as you're turning in and maintaining brake pressure. It was a really comfortable bike to ride fast."
Spencer was hoping to turn a few laps on the next-generation 800cc RC212V, but bike availability kept that from happening. We have no doubt, however, that Fast Freddie will get that opportunity sooner than later-he's ridden every other modern Honda GP bike, after all, so why stop now?
We just hope he invites us along for that ride, too.