Before 1959, if you said the word “Honda,” you would probably be met with a look of confusion. However, after Honda made its World Championship debut, it wasn’t long before it was pretty much a household name amongst those in the motorcycle racing world.
Once Soichiro Honda decided that his company would become champions in motorcycle racing, there was no stopping them. Still, it’s doubtful that even the Honda Corp’s owner could have imagined the success his racing team would experience over the next six-plus decades. Today, to say that Honda Racing Corporation is a dominating powerhouse in Grand Prix racing would be an understatement.
Putting In the Time, and the Effort Shows
Prior to zooming onto the motorcycle racing circuit in 1959, Mr. Honda had hopes, dreams, and a clear vision: to be a real competitor in European bike racing and to show the rest of the world that Japanese innovation was up to par with the rest of the world’s greatest nations. In order to make that happen, much work had to be put in.
In the early to mid 50s, though there was an up-and-coming racing scene with a motorcycle focus in Japan, the bikes just did not have the power or, quite frankly, the style to compare with the bikes that were winning the big TT races. They were, more or less, glorified bicycles with small engines. Honda had his work cut out for him.
In 1954, a mere six years after he created the company, Honda had developed a single-cylinder, 220cc engine. While quite the accomplishment, this motorcycle was still no competition for the European bikes, as Honda soon found out. That year, he attended the Isle of Man TT, and he was taken aback by the huge 250cc engines that packed almost double the power of his new offering. It was back to work for Honda.
A few years down the road, Honda had developed two new motorcycles that were a vast difference from the ’54. These bikes came with a twin-cylinder engine that came with either 250 or 305 ccs. But he was still not ready to bring his new bike to the big times just yet.
By 1959, the time had come for Honda and his team to become the first from Japan to hit the European motorcycle racing circuit.
Making Their Mark at the ’59 Isle of Man TT
Team Honda made their debut at the Isle of Man TT, complete with five racers and five 125cc racing motorcycles capable of reaching up to a respectable 110 mph. They truly brought enough materials with them that they gave off the appearance of being a reputable team, even though many European teams and fans did not yet believe. By the race’s end, they absolutely would.
The team was met with adversity on a few different fronts:
- After spending a year reviewing video of the track so that the team’s riders would be familiar with its twisting, turning, close to 38 miles of track, the team was shocked to realize that a different course would be used during this race.
- The bikes that the team brought to compete on were equipped to race on dirt, but the track they were expected to perform on was made of asphalt.
- One of the team’s members, an American racer, slid, dropped his bike, and could not complete the course.
Regardless, the remaining team members finished with more than respectable results: 6th, 7th, 8th, and 11th place. Though the team did amazingly well, getting fans and riders alike excited about the newest competition on the scene, Honda was not ready to rest on their laurels. He found room to improve for the following season.
After witnessing the potential that the Honda racing team possessed, Australian racer Tom Phillis wrote to Honda and asked to be taken on as part of the Honda racing family. He soon helped team Honda in the quest to make a name for itself among the European racing elite.
From the 1960 season, when the team stood on its first podium, the snowball began gaining momentum, and they were an unstoppable force. In 1961, Grand Prix victories in the 125 and 250cc categories were checked off for Honda, and in 1967, just six years later, Team Honda had wracked up 137 Grand Prix wins in all five categories. Their Grand Prix domination was in full effect.
Moving Into the Winner’s Circle at Break-Neck Speed
Those in the motorcycle racing world were hard-pressed to believe just how quickly and efficiently Honda Racing moved from an unknown entity in racing to the dominant force it became in just a few short years.
Most will argue that Honda improved their technology and produced advancements that shook the industry not to show off but out of a necessity to be the best. And that is just what they were. If a machine rivaled them, it was not long until Honda was the clear forerunner in their class once again.
This spurred the rest of the manufacturers to engineer better technology for their bikes to keep up with Honda. This different sort of race to come out on top was ultimately won by the racing world across the board, as virtually all companies benefited from the new technology that arose.
And when they were on top of the motorcycle racing world, they decided to bow out.
In an almost unthinkable move, Honda Racing Corporation decided to move its focus from motorcycle Grand Prix racing to Formula 1 auto racing. Ironically, the engineers who developed the 250cc engine would use the same technology on Honda’s first Formula 1 cars.
It would be a dozen years before Honda found itself in the race for Grand Prix dominance again, and it would take another four years for them to become successful. While they have had an unbelievable run since, there has never been a time to compare to their rise to the top from ’59 to ’67.
Honda Racing Corporation - Grand Prix Dominance
Since entering the Grand Prix competition, Honda Racing Corporation has garnered close to 1,000 championships. They were the first team to win 500 titles. Their record speaks for itself.
A man, his dreams, and a clear vision were behind the momentum that propelled Honda Racing Corporation into Grand Prix Dominance.