Motor Sport: Honda the island racers

Norman Fox explains why the Isle of Man TT is revered in Japan
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The Independent Online
FOR THE first time in more than a decade a grand prix rider is to risk his livelihood, and even his life, by competing in the Isle of Man TT races, which have long been considered too dangerous for the top professionals.

That Michael Rutter rides a Honda is no coincidence. This year's TT, starting on Saturday, will mark Honda's 40th year of competing on the island which made their name. They badly want to celebrate by seeing off the challenge of their Japanese rivals Yamaha.

In 1959 Honda, then virtually unknown name in Britain, sent their first bikes to the TT. They were reliable but not quick enough to win, which, for the time being, did not worry the company's founder, Soichiro Honda. If they could survive the bumpy 373/4 mile course, over a mountain and through the mist, his ride-to-work mopeds for the masses would have serious pedigree.

He had paid a secret visit to watch the 1954 TT races. It was the turning point for a company who went on revolutionise the previously British, Italian and German dominated motorcycle sport and have also won six Formula One car racing constructors' championships. Also in 1954 he sent his first racing team to Brazil, but it was the uniquely demanding TT course over which he knew his machines eventually had to succeed.

The claim at the time was that the Japanese could only copy rather than innovate. Though that argument has long since been overturned, in those days Honda's engines and suspensions were more or less replicas of those used by the German NSU company.

In the 350 and 500cc classes British machines were clinging on to the last glory days of Norton, AJS and BSA, while the Italian and German bikes con- firmed the winds of change on the mountain circuit. In 1960 Honda arrived with a four cylinder 250cc bike, but the challenge was still not taken seriously. Then in 1961 Mike Hailwood was contracted for the 250cc and 125cc events, and won both. Hondas took the first five places in both races. Suddenly these small racing engines could power bikes to average speeds of almost 90mph over the winding, stonewall-lined course,

In the later Sixties Japanese technology and huge ambition saw them prosper in the Senior race, Hailwood switching from MV to Honda,but finally the company withdrew following strenuous lobbying against the dangers of the circuit. Instead they put greater effort into Formula One. Nevertheless, Soi-chiro's pioneering means that Japanese bikes provide the backbone of motorcycle racing.

Rutter may not win any of the three events he is entered, the Junior, Production and Senior races, but as a feat of endurance his effort will be unrivalled. He begins practice on the island tomorrow and goes to Mugello on Thursday to prepare for Sunday's Italian Grand Prix. He flies back to the island for his first race the following Wednesday, followed by the Production and Senior races on the Friday. His main challenge in the Senior event will come from Yamaha's Phil McCallen who has 11 TT victories,and factory supported Honda rider, Jim Moodie.

Joey Dunlop, now 47 and with over a fifth of the wins Honda have achieved on the island, will be back. Why? "I just keep saying, one more lap," he said, before adding that as the machines get lighter and more powerful so the bumps - and the bruises - seem to get worse.

In spite of continually improving the course, it remains hazardous and unpredictable. Asked about his most frightening moment Carl Fogarty, who holds the lap record at 123.61mph, said: "Well, there was this sheep..."