Hiroshi Aoyama, the only Japanese rider in the premier class, has a special place with Honda. In 2009, in a solo effort against a field full of hitherto dominant Italian machines, Aoyama triumphed to claim the last ever 250cc World Championship, giving Honda final claiming rights on the intermediate category that had been part of the championship since its inception in 1949.
The following year, the new four-stroke Moto2 category took over, enshrining the final title in history for the Japanese marque. It was payback for Aoyama’s selection as the first ever “Scholarship Rider” for Honda in 2004.
Now the 32-year-old from the Chiba district north of Tokyo is back with Honda, riding one of four new-generation “Open Class” RCV1000R machines, in the respected Aspar team run by Spanish former champion Jorge Martinez.
That title was the high point in a varied career for a former Japanese national champion, whose full-time grand prix debut came after he had already made his mark as a rostrum-bound home-race wild card in 2003.
Typically among today’s stars, Aoyama first fell in love with bike racing at the age of five, when his father took him to a “Pocket Bike” track for the first time. The Chiba district was a hot-bed of youth racing, and he spent the next nine years polishing his talent and his race-craft before moving up to Minibikes at the age of 14. He won the Kanto District championship in 1996 and 1997 before moving to full-size 125 and 250 racing at the age of 17, making an immediate impression in the lively regional Tsukuba Championship, second in the smaller class.
Aged 18 he was picked up by the highly regarded HARC-PRO Honda team, finishing 11th at the first attempt in the 125cc All Japan Championship, then moving up to the 250cc class in 2000, where he finished second. He was runner up again in 2002 before winning the coveted national crown in 2003. That same year he finished a popular second as a wild card in the Japanese GP at Motegi.
This prowess won him the Honda-backed “scholarship” move to the World Championship in 2004, where he continued to impress, claiming two podium finishes in the first year, and the first of an eventual nine race wins in 2005, again at home in Motegi, cementing his popularity with the home fans.
Aoyama spent the next three years riding for the KTM team, then in 2009 was welcomed back to Honda, and his championship triumph. He took four race wins and three second places in a battle that went to the final round.
Success meant another promotion: Aoyama moved to MotoGP, riding a satellite Honda in the Interwetten team. His learning year went bad when he suffered threatening spinal injuries in a crash mid-season; and he was still regaining full strength when he joined the San Carlo Gresini Honda team for 2011, with a best of fourth in Spain.
Aoyama spent a difficult 2012 in World Superbikes, but returned to ride a BQR CRT machine in a one-off MotoGP ride, earning him a place in the Spanish team for 2013. He suffered yet more injury before claiming a best finish of 11th in Malaysia as he regained strength.
Despite the fairly anonymous comeback, Aoyama returned to Honda machinery with a Aspar Drive M7 ride (alongside Nicky Hayden) and looked far more comfortable on the new Open class RCV1000R.
A master of consistency, Aoyama finished every single race and failed to score on just one occasion. Peaking with two eighth place finishes.
Aoyama gave the new Honda RC213V-RS Open class bike its debut in the 2014 Valencia season finale, after which he retired from full-time racing to become an official HRC test rider.
Nevertheless, Aoyama was back on the MotoGP grid four times in 2015, as a replacement for the injured Dani Pedrosa at Repsol Honda, then Karel Abraham at Cardion AB.