It gets dark pretty early at this time of year in Japan, and dusk was already settling in the wooded hillsides surrounding the Motegi circuit in 2001 when the peace and tranquillity was suddenly shattered by a roar that sent the MotoGP fraternity running to the pit wall to witness history in the making.

Two amazingly small red and black motorcycles suddenly emerged into view and fittingly signalled the end of an incredible era for grand prix motorcycle racing. There was no high-pitched scream of two-stroke power but the growl of a four-stroke monster that was to change the face of racing forever - The RCV211V was born (pictured).

Three years ago on the eve of the Pacific Grand Prix at Motegi, Honda finally revealed the motorcycle they'd built to compete in the 2002 MotoGP World Championship. Regulations would permit 990cc four-strokes in the arena for the first time.

It was the end of the all conquering Honda NSR 500cc two-strokes and two riders who'd brought out the very best and a much more, from the screaming two-strokes were quite rightly asked to perform the task of handing over power to four-stroke engineering.

Five-times 500cc World Champion, Australian Mick Doohan, and two-times 500cc World Champion, American Freddie Spencer, blasted the V5 990cc four-strokes down the 760-metre main straight with the sound reverberating back off the thousands of seats in the towering grand stand. It was a sound and sight that was going to dominate grand prix results sheets for the next two years.

Speculation was rife once the change of regulations was verified. Honda had dominated grand prix racing in the sixties with range of multi-cylinder four-stroke machine in all classes. Never before or since had racing witnessed or heard such success and sounds.

They adapted to two-stroke success in all classes just as quickly, but deep down you always felt Honda's racing heart was in four-stroke engineering that had brought them onto the World stage over forty long years ago. After all they'd tried to take on the 500cc two-strokes in the late seventies with the NR 500cc four-stroke but the regulations were against them.

This time they knew they could do it but with what configuration and with how many cylinders?

Rumours circulated about a six cylinder engine but, typically, Honda chose something completely new. They opted for a V5 engine that had never been used in a motor cycle before.

The 990cc engine featured three cylinders forward and two up. With five main bearings, the outer cylinder pairs ran on common big-end crankpins, similar to vee-twins, with the central cylinder independent in between. The compact motor was housed in a conventional twin-beam chassis.

As was the arrival of the five cylinder 125 and six cylinder 250 and 350 cc machines in the sixties, the RCV achieved immediate success.

Valentino Rossi adapted to the more user friendly power of the four-stroke after winning his first and the last 500cc title riding the NSR Honda. He gave the RCV a winning debut in the pouring rain in the 2002 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka. While other factories struggled to adapt to the new four-stroke regulations, Honda and the RCV just disappeared into the distance.

In the first season of four-stroke racing the RCV won an amazing 14 of the 16 races in the Championship. Rossi on route to the title won 11, his team-mate Tohru Ukawa one while Brazilian Alex Barros grabbed his chance of riding the bike for the Honda Pons team in the last four races, by winning in Motegi and Valencia. The only rider to defeat the RCV was Max Biaggi riding the M1 Yamaha. A year later he joined the Honda ranks.

In was a similar story last season with only Loris Capirossi's maiden victory for Ducati in Catalunya preventing a clean sweep for the Honda four-stroke. After some early season skirmishes with Sete Gibernau, Rossi ran away with the title. He won nine grands prix with the impressive Gibernau winning four and finishing runner-up in the Championship. Biaggi enjoyed his return to Honda with the Camel Pramac Pons team and finished third with victories at Donington and Motegi.

This year the others have started to catch up. Rossi's move to Yamaha has galvanised the team into chasing their first World title since 1992. The Italian arrives at Motegi with a 29 point lead in the Championship having won six races. Gibernau is second, winning three races while the Camel Honda pair of Biaggi and Makoto Tamada have a win apiece.

Honda have not given up the fight with a maximum 125 points still available in the remaining five races starting at their Motegi home on Sunday. They will field no less than seven RCV machines to meet the Yamaha challenge head on in what promises to be the clash of the season.

Tohru Ukawa joins the six regular grand prix riders, Biaggi, Tamada, Gibernau, Colin Edwards, Barros and Nicky Hayden. There is speculation that Ukawa will ride the prototype version of the 2005 RCV machine.

Almost 40 years ago to the day, Honda shocked their rivals by arriving at Monza for the Italian Grand Prix with a brand new six cylinder 250cc engine. Jim Redman, riding the four-cylinder was losing the championship battle with the Yamaha two-stroke of Phil Read.

The new secret engine was flown in hand luggage from Japan by Redman and Race engineer Michihiko Aika. The first their rivals knew of the new arrival was when it barked into life before the first free practice.

Forty years later, would Honda do the same to meet the Yamaha challenge? Perhaps not, but keep the ears plugs ready for first practice on Friday morning and at least Honda would not have to pay for excess hand luggage this time...



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