MotoMatters.com is delighted to feature the work of iconic MotoGP writer Mat Oxley. Oxley is a former racer, TT winner and highly respected author of biographies of world champions Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi, and currently writes for Motor Sport Magazine, where he is MotoGP correspondent. We are featuring sections from Oxley's blogs, which are posted in full on the Motor Sport Magazine website.
The birth of modern motorbike Grand Prix racing: talking with Kunimitsu Takahashi
It’s very nearly impossible to speak to the dawn of modern racing. But it happened at Assen, with Kunimitsu Takahashi, the first Japanese rider to win a motorbike Grand Prix
To celebrate the 60th anniversary of its first world-championship race, Honda flew Kunimitsu Takahashi to the Dutch TT. Nineteen-year-old Takahashi joined Honda in late 1959, taking part in the factory’s first Continental campaign in 1960, after its exploratory visit to the Isle of Man TT the previous summer.
But why was this the dawn of modern Grand Prix racing? Because racing was never the same after the Japanese factories arrived in Europe: Honda in 1959, then Yamaha and Suzuki in 1960.
Until then, Grand Prix racing had mostly trundled along at tick-over speed. The MV Agusta four that won the 1959 500cc world title was designed by Piero Remor, the same man who created the Gilera four that won the 1950 crown. When Remor arrived at MV he basically copied his Gilera design. Most of the rest of the 500cc grid was populated by Manx Nortons, which used a single-cylinder engine first raced in the 1930s. In other words, technical development was slow.
That all changed when the Japanese got involved. Within six years Honda’s original 18-horsepower, twin-cylinder 125 had been replaced by a five-cylinder 125 that revved to 21,000rpm and made 250 horsepower per litre, about ten per cent less than a 2019 MotoGP bike. The five’s bore and stroke measured 35.5mm by 25.14mm.
The rate of technical development was at its maddest in the teeny-weeny 50cc class. Honda started the 1962 50cc season with a single-cylinder machine that shrieked out 9.5 horsepower at 14,000rpm through a six-speed gearbox. By the end of that same season, the single was replaced by an all-new twin that revved to 18,000rpm through a nine-speed gearbox.
Takahashi remembers all of this, but not as well as he remembers arriving in Europe in 1960.
“At that time we had lost everything due to World War Two, so we started from ground zero, with absolutely nothing in our hands,” the 79-year-old recalls. “Arriving in Europe was a total shock, because everything was different, everything.
“At that time Japan didn’t have paved roads, whereas in Europe the roads were paved and proper race circuits were available, so the level of racing was totally, totally different. It was a huge shock for me.”
Read the rest of Mat Oxley's blog on the Motor Sport Magazine website.