Who says you can't go back in time? If you're three-time world champion Freddie Spencer, all it takes is a phone call from Honda and a few days later it's 1985 all over again. There you are, standing on pit lane at the Twin Ring Motegi circuit in Japan, blipping the throttle in preparation for a few hot laps aboard the NSR500 two-stroke Grand Prix bike on which you won that year's world championship.
This was where Spencer found himself this past Thanksgiving, when the Honda Racing Corporation (HRC) invited him to Honda Collection Hall to take part in a fan-appreciation day, where he would ride a handful of bikes he made famous in front of 31,000 very appreciative fans. The theme of this year's event was Celebration of the Eighties, and the plan was for Fast Freddie to make some laps on three historic motorcycles: the diabolical '80 CB900F Superbike that he rode in that year's AMA series; the high-tech '81 NR500 four-stroke on which he made his GP debut; and the aforementioned '85 NSR500 two-stroke. And, just so Spencer didn't get lost in a nostalgic fog, the RC211V that American hero Nicky Hayden used to win the 2006 MotoGP World Championship. Talk about a retirement perk
Thus sets the stage for this story (and the three that follow), where one of the greatest motorcycle racers ever burns some hydrocarbons on the most advanced motorcycle of this millennium and then indulges us in a little compare-and-contrast to the bikes he rode back in the day. There's probably no rider in the world better prepared for this task than Spencer. Even though he "retired" from the GPs in '87, he never left the paddock. Today he operates the Freddie Spencer High-Performance Riding School, where he probably does more laps in a week than we do all year. In addition, he maintains a working relationship with HRC, informally consulting with the engineers on racebike development and coaching Hayden and other Honda racers on the finer points of going fast.
Because he has maintained such close contact, Spencer is the only person in the world to have ridden every Honda GP bike made since the company returned to the sport in '79: the NR500, the NS500 two-stroke triple, every version of the NSR500 V-four, the first RC211V and the very last, Nicky Hayden's number-69 Evolution bike. Now, on the cusp of the next big change in the racing world, as the 990cc MotoGP racers are retired and replaced with (supposedly) milder-mannered 800cc racebikes in '07, it seemed the perfect time to check in with Spencer.
Start at the beginning: The NR500, developed in the late '70s to mark Honda's return to GP racing after a decade-long absence, remains even today the most exotic motorcycle the company has ever built. While the rest of the paddock was campaigning terribly fast but technologically crude two-strokes, the iconoclastic Soichiro Honda decided his company would develop a competitive four-stroke. Considering the NR's V-four engine with oval-shaped pistons and eight valves per cylinder packaged in a true monocoque frame with side-mounted radiators, an upside-down fork, 16-inch carbon-fiber wheels and more new-think technology, project head Soichiro Irimajiri dubbed this wild creation the New Racer (NR) 500. But after a series of disheartening performances, the complex, unproven machine earned the less-flattering nickname of Never Ready 500. Some of the world's most gifted riders (including Japanese GP star Takazumi Katayama and Brits Mick Grant and Ron Haslam) suffered their most miserable defeats on that bike.
It wasn't until '81-after Spencer had arrived on the scene-that the NR500 achieved anything that even resembled success. Freddie's first ride on the NR came at Suzuka, Japan, where he went 2 seconds per lap quicker than any other rider had ever gone on the bike and set a new lap record. Spencer went on to give the NR one of only two victories it ever earned, beating Kenny Roberts in a heat race at that year's Champion Spark Plug 200 at Laguna Seca.
The NR500 was the first bike Spencer was slated to ride at fan-appreciation day, but unfortunately it wasn't to be-an ignition failure earned the bike a spot in the Collection Hall's restoration line. Not that Spencer was terribly disappointed to avoid turning laps on what is regarded as one of the most difficult-to-ride GP bikes ever built. With a 21,500-rpm redline and a severe torque deficiency, the NR needs to be revved like a chain saw to make power. Couple that with a frame, fork and brakes that Katayama once described as "ridiculous," and you'll understand the NR was hardly a joy to ride.
Spencer was much more excited about riding the '85 NSR500, and having been restored two years ago for an appearance at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in England, that bike started up without problems. This machine was developed by and for Spencer himself, and he points to this as perhaps the most revolutionary GP bike ever built by Honda with regards to shaping the design of future bikes. Lessons they learned on the NSR about engine placement and how it influences handling stability and front-end feedback, and also about ergonomics and making the bike forgiving to ride (which was essential, as Spencer also competed in-and won-the 250cc world championship that season), are still being applied to Honda's race- and streetbikes today.
"Climbing on the NSR500 brought me right back," Spencer said. "I solely developed that bike, it was built just for me, and it feels so familiar, even now, to ride it." And ride it he did. "I was careful-it only had intermediate tires-but I ran it up. Even in museum form, it's not detuned at all. Maybe a little bit rich, but basically it goes just like it did back in '85."
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.