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.
Carbon-fibre MotoGP: it’s a long story
It’s almost 40 years since MotoGP’s first carbon-fibre chassis, so with Honda’s and Suzuki’s latest carbon-fibre frame coatings, how long before we see the next fully carbon MotoGP bike?
Back in the early 1990s when Kenny Roberts’ Marlboro-moneyed Yamaha 500cc and 250cc team bestrode motorcycle racing the ‘King’ walked into the paddock each morning carrying a shiny carbon-fibre briefcase.
The briefcase – paired with Ray-Ban Aviators and a big, fat Rolex – was the ultimate statement of racing intent: a man at the cutting edge of motorsport technology and with money to burn.
Carbon fibre became the standard chassis material in Formula 1 during the early 1980s, after McLaren engineer John Barnard designed F1’s first carbon chassis. But you can count on the fingers of your hands the number of motorcycle grands prix won by carbon-fibre chassis.
Carbon fibre arrived in bike racing grand prix paddocks in 1984, when Niall Mackenzie raced an Armstrong 250 with carbon-fibre chassis, fabricated by car constructor Reynard Motorsport.
The exotic aerospace material was first used in the premier class by Honda in the same year, when HRC equipped its first NSR500 with carbon-fibre wheels. Crucially these reduced unsprung mass to improve steering and handling.
Freddie Spencer and the carbon-wheeled NSR nearly won the 1984 Daytona 200 – a shakedown outing for the season-opening South African GP, where disaster struck. A rear wheel collapsed during practice, Spencer crashed and he was out of the race. What few knew at the time was that the American had noticed the NSR handling strangely as he flew around the Daytona banking at 180mph during the final laps of the 200. That’s when the wheel had started to fail.
Spencer’s accident taught HRC plenty and no doubt made bike people wary of carbon fibre. Indeed carbon-fibre wheels are now banned, but due to costs and concerns about rims getting damaged during frequent tyre changes.
The NSR’s carbon wheels came from Honda’s most exotic grand prix bike, the oval-piston, 32-valve, 21,000rpm NR500 four-stroke. The NR made its debut at the British Grand Prix in August 1979 (which made this year’s Silverstone event the 40th anniversary of Honda’s current participation in GP racing).
The NR never scored a world championship point against the all-conquering two-strokes, but it was a rolling laboratory for Honda engineers. In 1983, HRC built a futuristic NR500 with a full carbon-fibre chassis: carbon frame, carbon swingarm, carbon wheels, carbon brakes carbon fork sliders and a carbon silencer. The bike was never raced (by then HRC was winning with the NS500 two-stroke) but it pointed the way to the future.
Nowadays all MotoGP bikes have carbon brakes, most have carbon-fibre fork sliders and many have carbon-fibre swingarms.
Read the rest of Mat Oxley's blog on the Motor Sport Magazine website.