From Spencer to Marquez: Honda’s top MotoGP riders

As the most successful MotoGP manufacturer in the sport’s history, Honda has plenty of superstar riders to pick from across the decades.

With multiple star-studded line-ups from across the years coming up with the Honda dream team isn’t so straightforward, ignoring the difficulty in comparing different eras and generations for the time being, but here is a run through of Honda’s all-time best MotoGP riders.

Freddie Spencer, Honda, MotoGP, 1983 French GP, Le Mans,
Freddie Spencer, Honda, MotoGP, 1983 French GP, Le Mans,
© Gold and Goose Photography

As the most successful MotoGP manufacturer in the sport’s history, Honda has plenty of superstar riders to pick from across the decades.

With multiple star-studded line-ups from across the years coming up with the Honda dream team isn’t so straightforward, ignoring the difficulty in comparing different eras and generations for the time being, but here is a run through of Honda’s all-time best MotoGP riders.

Marc Marquez (2013-Present): 6 MotoGP world titles, 56 wins, 127 starts

To no surprise given the very recent MotoGP history, statistically Marc Marquez comes out on top for Honda with his six MotoGP world championship crowns and 56 wins from 127 premier class starts.

There’s also no doubt his record will continue to increase heading into 2020 as reigning MotoGP world champion as he closes in on the all-time records held by the likes of Valentino Rossi and Giacomo Agostini.

Marquez has remained a one-brand rider so far in his MotoGP career, stepping up to the factory Repsol Honda team in 2013, and going on to break almost every record for a rookie in the premier category.

With just one title miss across his seven seasons for Honda, the infamous 2015 campaign, Marquez has been the class of the field and equipped with the RC213V. The Spaniard has become an irresistible combination even during the rule tweaks to standardised electronics and switch from Bridgestone to Michelin tyres, with over the past few years Honda has formulated the bike around his exact needs and riding style – even at the expense of its other riders.

All focus remains on the future, but with Marquez signing a fresh four-year contract extension with HRC, the Spaniard looks set to further cement his legendary status with Honda.

Mick Doohan, Repsol Honda, Alex Criville, 1996 Spanish Grand Prix, Jerez, MotoGP,
Mick Doohan, Repsol Honda, Alex Criville, 1996 Spanish Grand Prix, Jerez,…
© Gold and Goose Photography

Photo credit: Gold and Goose Photography

Mick Doohan (1989-1999): 5 500cc world titles, 54 wins, 137 starts

Marc Marquez only recently surpassed the previous greatest Honda rider, statistically speaking, having effectively matched Mick Doohan’s record across the last 12 months.

After a promising 1991 season as runner-up to Wayne Rainey on the Yamaha, Doohan’s 1992 title charge was wrecked by a nasty practice crash at Assen which almost resulted in the Australian losing his right leg.

Despite a stunning comeback at the final two rounds Doohan lost out to Rainey again but by just four points.

1993 was a season plagued by injury recovery, while he made the adaption to a left thumb-operated rear brake and coupled with Honda improvements he went on to dominate the premier class for the next five seasons.

Five consecutive 500cc world titles and a win success rate of 62% between 1994 to 1998 made Doohan untouchable in partnership with crew chief Jeremy Burgess.

Sadly, his dominance was abruptly ended during the third round of the 1999 season when he crashed in a wet qualifying session at the Spanish round and suffered a badly broken leg plus numerous other injuries which called a premature finish to his career.

Valentino Rossi (2000-2003): 3 500cc/MotoGP world titles, 33 wins, 64 starts

Despite greater fame and success as a Yamaha rider, Valentino Rossi remains a huge part of Honda’s history in the premier class by winning three world titles in the space of four years with a win success rate of almost 52% in that period.

Thanks to his stunning record coming up through the smaller classes as 1997 125cc world champion and 1999 250cc world champion, Rossi slotted into an ultra-experienced team at Honda led by crew chief Jeremy Burgess.

A solid first year as a rookie saw him finish runner-up to Kenny Roberts Jnr with two wins to his name which laid the foundations for his dominant era which followed in the 2000s.

Winning his maiden premier class world title with the outgoing Honda NSR500, the MotoGP rebranding saw the launch of the Honda RC211V in Grand Prix racing. As Rossi has later confessed, he wasn’t confident the new bike could live up to the success of its predecessor but was immediately proven wrong in 2002 when he claimed 11 wins, 15 podiums overall and seven pole positions to streak to the world title and his first in Repsol colours.

Despite another romp to the 2003 title, Rossi and Honda split at the end of the season. Numerous reasons were speculated as the cause of the rift, from Honda’s bike seen as the reason for his success rather than rider, to the mindset and control the team wanted to place him under.

Regardless of the reasons, Rossi made his move to Yamaha from 2004 and never returned.

Freddie Spencer (1981-1987): 2 500cc world titles, 20 wins, 48 starts

Synonymous as part of the great American revolution in Grand Prix racing, Spencer’s greatest success all came with Honda despite starting and ending his career on Yamahas.

With two premier class world titles, in 1983 and 1985, plus his 250cc crown also secured with Honda in 1985, Spencer become the youngest-ever GP winner (until Marc Marquez took the record off him 30 years later) when he claimed victory at Spa-Fracorchamps in 1982 to introduce himself to the world.

Just one year later Spencer took on ‘King’ Kenny Roberts to win his maiden world crown by just two points at the final round.

While Honda’s issues with the V4 NSR500 in 1984 stalled his charge, things all came together for Spencer in the perfect 1985 season when he claimed the 500cc and 250cc world title double – a feat which hasn’t been pulled off since.

Injuries eventually curtailed his racing career and time with Honda.

Wayne Gardner, Honda, 1988 MotoGP,
Wayne Gardner, Honda, 1988 MotoGP,
© Gold and Goose Photography

Photo credit: Gold and Goose Photography

Wayne Gardner (1983-1992): 1 500cc world title, 18 wins, 102 starts

Nobody could ever question Gardner’s commitment to Honda as he spent his entire Grand Prix career racing for the Japanese manufacturer from his days starting out with Honda Britain in 1983 to his final year at Rothmans Honda-HRC in 1992.

After catching the eye on privateer machinery and in the British championships, the Australian rider secured a spot at the HRC squad for 1985 alongside Freddie Spencer and after a solid first year learning the ropes, the Australian quickly climbed the ranks to launch a title attack in 1986, missing out to Eddie Lawson on the Yamaha by 22 points.

But in 1987, teaming up with Spencer’s previous engineer Jeremy Burgess, Gardner charged to the 500cc world title for the factory Honda squad beating both Randy Mamola and Lawson in the process.

His title defence came up short as Lawson and Yamaha regained their dominance, but the Australian was still able to beat Wayne Rainey to the runner-up spot as Honda’s leading charger.

In 1989, Gardner saw chief rival Lawson join him at Honda and subsequently beat him to the title again as he suffered a serious leg injury at Laguna Seca which forced him to miss six races.

Despite two wins in 1990 at Jerez and his home round at Phillip Island, Gardner’s season was stalled by injury again which saw him miss three vital rounds and drop to fifth place in the final standings.

Injuries eventually curtailed his career but as Australia’s first world champion Gardner was seen as a trailblazer for future generations. He did enjoy one final triumph with victory at the 1992 British Grand Prix at Donington Park before bowing out two races later at the end of the season.

Alex Criville (1992-2001): 1 500cc world title, 15 wins 139 starts

While Criville is best remembered for living in Mick Doohan’s shadow of success as his Honda team-mate, the Spaniard’s record puts him firmly in this list on his own merits.

As the 1989 125cc world champion, Criville stepped up to the premier class in 1992 initially riding for Pons Honda and caught the attention of the paddock as a rookie winner by beating the likes of John Kocinski and Alex Barros at the Dutch TT – becoming the first Spaniard to win a 500cc race.

Further success for Pons Honda in 1993 led to Criville joining the factory Honda squad in 1994 riding alongside Doohan and Shinichi Ito to deliver him a solid sixth place in the standings.

With major Spanish oil company Repsol putting sponsorship backing to the factory Honda squad in 1995, Criville delivered a maiden home win in Catalan at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya at the final round of the season.

That set up Criville for a 500cc title challenge in 1996 that often led to him coming to blows against Doohan, famously at the final corner of the Spanish Grand Prix when he high-sided off dramatically.

The Spaniard would end up having to play second fiddle to Doohan for the following three seasons which remained the case until the Australian was forced to retire after a horrific accident during a wet qualifying session at the 1999 Spanish round.

Criville duly picked up the lead role at Repsol Honda and delivered the team another world title with his maiden 500cc crown thanks to six wins and four further podiums that season.

But as defending champion he struggled with the updated NSR500 and put together just one win and another podium on his way to ninth place in the final championship. He also struggled in 2001 before calling time on his career due to medical problems.

While Criville’s ultimate success was short but sweet, it did inspire the rise of the Spanish domination in the premier class over the 2010s. Despite not winning a top category world title, Dani Pedrosa remained an ever-present figure at the front, while Jorge Lorenzo has gone on to win three MotoGP crowns before the ongoing Marc Marquez supremacy resulting in six MotoGP world championships and counting.

Casey Stoner, Repsol Honda, 2011 Australian MotoGP, MotoGP,
Casey Stoner, Repsol Honda, 2011 Australian MotoGP, MotoGP,
© Gold and Goose Photography

Photo credit: Gold and Goose Photography

Casey Stoner (2006, 2011-2012): 1 MotoGP world title, 15 wins, 48 starts

Casey Stoner made his MotoGP debut with LCR Honda who picked up as the previous year’s 250cc runner-up and despite a largely low-key rookie season, with a second place podium in Turkey the highlight, Stoner’s ability was truly demonstrated when he moved to the factory Ducati squad.

But his time with Honda didn’t end there as the factory squad secured the Australian’s signature from 2011 which ignited the perfect partnership as Stoner stormed to his second career MotoGP world crown and Honda’s first since Nicky Hayden in 2006.

Honda had been planning its long-term future with Stoner as its lead rider, that was until he shocked the motorsport world by announcing his retirement at the pre-event press conference at the 2012 French Grand Prix.

A love loss for racing and the political turmoil was partly to blame for his decision, along with the desire to spend more time with his young family, but in the subsequent years his chronic ill health have also surfaced as factors behind his call to stop racing in his mid-20s.

Eddie Lawson (1989): 1 500cc world title, 4 wins, 15 starts

A name better connected with Yamaha through his racing career, Eddie Lawson contested just one season for Honda but in it he delivered the 1989 500cc world title.

“Steady” Eddie came to Honda as a three-time reigning world champion following his first stint at Yamaha and adapted to the NSR500 almost instantly by taking a podium on his debut at the Japanese Grand Prix before going on to win on his fourth attempt at the Spanish round.

Taking on major rival Wayne Gardner at Honda, Lawson’s opportunity to become the first rider to win consecutive world titles for two different manufacturers opened up when Gardner broke his leg in a crash at Laguna Seca meaning he missed six races in total.

Lawson duly profited to clinch the title for Honda ahead of fellow American Wayne Rainey on the Yamaha by 18.5 points.

From Spencer to Marquez: Honda’s top MotoGP riders

Photo credit: Gold and Goose Photography

Nicky Hayden (2003-2008, 2014-2016): 1 MotoGP world title, 3 wins, 132 starts

As AMA’s youngest ever champion, Honda duly snapped up the Kentucky Kid to bring him to MotoGP in 2003 to join alongside Valentino Rossi at the Repsol Honda squad. It set Hayden a tough learning curve in his rookie year understand new bikes, tracks, teams and rivals but he still secured a pair of podiums.

After a tricky 2004 season, Hayden made a breakthrough in 2005 at Laguna Seca, profiting as one of very few riders on the grid with experience at the track, as he duly went on to seal his maiden MotoGP win. It gave the American much needed momentum going into the latter part of the 2005 season, taking four consecutive podiums at the end of the year, before repeating the same feat at the start of 2006.

The year would turn into a special season for Hayden as he fought off Rossi to seal a historic world title, highlighted by wins at Assen and Laguna Seca, as he delivered Honda’s first MotoGP crown since Rossi did back in 2003.

Hayden was unable to mount a solid defence of his MotoGP title in 2007 while adapting to the new Honda RC212V as he secured just three podiums all season on his way to eighth place in the championship.

The American’s relationship with Honda deteriorated rapidly in 2008 when team-mate Dani Pedrosa began to supersede him in the pecking order, with the Spaniard allowed to switch to Bridgestone tyres mid-season while he struggled on the Michelins.

Hayden duly ended a 10-year partnership with Honda to leave for Ducati in 2009.

In 2014, Hayden did return to Honda by riding for the Aspar team using the open-specification RCV1000R but spent the season competing for the lower-end points places. In 2015 Hayden stayed at the team switching to a Honda RC213V-RS open-specification bike but endured an even worse season with just five points finishes all year.

While competing for the factory-supported Honda World Superbike squad, Hayden made two final Honda outings in MotoGP in 2016, firstly at Marc VDS to fill in for the injured Jack Miller at Aragon before taking up the same task standing in for Dani Pedrosa back at the Repsol Honda squad at Phillip Island.

Finally, an honourable mention must go to Dani Pedrosa who notched up 31 wins from 236 starts for Repsol Honda in his MotoGP career, but a premier class crown eluded the diminutive Spaniard on multiple occasions.

While his 2010 title charge was cruelly stopped by injury, forcing him to miss the pivotal three round flyaway stint in Japan, Malaysia and Australia, his best opportunity came in 2012 when he missed out by 18 points at the end of the season to Jorge Lorenzo.

But a nod must go to Pedrosa having spent his entire racing career in the top class with Honda and only trails Marc Marquez, Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi for most Honda MotoGP race wins.

Read More