May 19, 2008 Could history be about to repeat itself? In 1959, a small Japanese team of three riders entered the famous Isle of Man (IOM) Tourist Trophy (TT) races on a motorcycle previously unheard of at world championship level - Honda. Though the team all finished, with the best result a courageous sixth place to Naomi Taniguchi, the establishment greeted the newcomers with polite amusement. They did not laugh for long. Last week in Shanghai, a Chinese motorcycle manufacturer announced its intention to follow an almost identical path – exactly a half century later, there’s an eerie similarity.

The expeditionary Japanese riders of 1959 must have wondered what they had encountered. The IOM mountain circuit is a natural road course of 37.7 miles (60.7 km), comprising over 200 corners and is the oldest racing circuit still in use, having been first raced on in 1907 when average speeds were under 40 mph.

By 1959, the winning 125 MV Agusta of Tarquinio Provini was lapping at an average speed of nearly 75 mph amidst the curbs, stone walls, and unique terrain which stretches from sea level to an altitude of over 1,300 ft (396 m). With completely different weather conditions experienced regularly on different parts of the circuit during the same lap, the IOM TT races are the most lethal motor sporting event in modern history having claimed somewhere between 175 and 200 competitors in its 100 year running. It’s not the most dangerous – that dubious honor must go the Dakar Rally which averages two competitor deaths and an unknown number of spectator deaths (thought to be more than one) per event – but the IOM runs a close second and the inexperienced Honda contingent more than upheld its honor.

The company also learned its lessons well. It recognized that to conquer racing at world championship level with the unique cultural, language, experience and skills necessary, it needed faster bikes and seasoned riders and went about providing both for the 1960 season.

Just twelve months later Honda had redesigned many aspects of its machinery, produced a lot more horsepower, and had hired some of the best riders in the world. Suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, Honda machines were beginning to take podiums in both 125 and 250 World Championship events and the Honda name was introduced to the world via the reliability and speed of its machinery at the highest level. Just two years after its debut, it won both the 125 and 250 world titles, and five years later, it swept to victory in ALL classes.

The well-worn motto of “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” proved true for Honda on an entirely new level to that enjoyed by the European marques previously. In 1959 when it first announced itself to the world at the IOM TT, Honda sold 285,000 motorcycles in the entire year. By 1961, it was selling 100,000 units a month, and went on to become the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer in short order.

Though the company’s 1959 race machines were ungainly looking, if engineers had been able to look inside the motors, they wouldn’t have laughed even at that stage. The tiny DOHC twin engine internals were already technologically advanced compared to their 125 rivals of the day and would continue to push the technological edge until they became dominant in all classes.

Take a look at these images of the the internals of the sole remaining machine from the 1959 IOM Honda expedition and you’ll see why – and remember this was 50 years ago.

The technological prowess of Honda well surpassed its rivals over the following years and after winning the 50, 125, 250, 350 and 500 titles in 19966, it had achieved its goals and scaled back its racing program, pulling out of the 50cc and 125cc classes of racing at the end of 1966. Honda’s 125 (model RC148) by then had five-cylinders and produced 38 bhp at 20,500 which isn’t all that bad considering that the current KTM and Aprilia machines, and hence Maxtra’s target horsepower for 2009, is only 46 bhp. To achieve that remarkable figure in 1966, with a four-stroke no less, the five cylinder, eight speed machine was more akin to a Swiss watch than a traditional GP engine. The bore/stroke were 33 x 29 mm and the pistons weighed just 34 grams each.

The head diameter of the inlet valves were just14.5 mm with a stem diameter of 3.8 mm for an all up weight of just 9 grams. Legendary tuner and engine builder, Nobby Clarke, at that time in Honda’s employ, used tweezers to put the Honda valve gear together. The entire machine, sans liquids, weighed just 85 kilograms.

Despite its technological prowess, the Japanese motorcycle industry took a long time to shake off the fundamentally racist sneers and “Riceburner” remarks that were common in the unenlightened sixties and seventies, despite a clear performance and reliability edge.

The “Made in Japan” tag that was initially perceived as inferior and cheap, eventually meant the exact opposite as Japanese industry’s superior design and manufacturing processes left all but a handful of prestige marques in its wake.

From the mid-sixties through the mid-nineties, Japan’s motorcycle industry remained dominant in sales too, though the Chinese manufacturing collossus was by then beginning to make its presence felt in Asian markets.

The output of the Japanese motorcycle industry (Honda led the charge, but Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki all followed suit in creating products which demanded and achieved global recognition) was surpassed several years ago as the world’s leading producer of motorcycles and more than half the world’s annual motorcycle production is now produced in the Chinese provinces of Chongqing (the new motorcycle capital of the world), Guangdong and Zhejiang.

Quoting the excellent report “Modularization in the Chinese Motorcycles Industry” available online from ICMR Case Studies and Management Resources (IMCR) for just INR 500 (US$11.80) : “In the 1990s, China's motorcycles production grew at an average annual rate of 46 per cent … from less than 50,000 units in 1980 to 10 million in 1997.” The vast majority of motorcycles produced in China are to this day clones of Japanese motorcycles. The aforementioned ICMR Case Study addresses this in detail: “The Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry statistics indicated that China produced about 11 million motorcycles in 2002, nine million of which were imitations of existing Japanese products.”

It is now commonly acknowledged that both Japan and Korea evolved their world standard manufacturing industries by initially copying existing products, then developing their own designs once their expertise had reached world class. The development of the strategy of Chinese industry to copy existing products and indeed, steal Intellectual Property wholesale, is covered in extraordinary detail in this Popular Science article by Dan Koeppel – extraordinarily well researched, the article is worth a read because Haojue’s strategy, at least via Maxtra, is clearly now focussed on achieving world class using designs it has paid for, at the same time as developing the knowledge to go forward under its own expertise.

Put simply, the Maxtra Project portends a fundamental change in the global motorcycle industry. With China possessing the cheapest skilled labour force in the world, and an almost endless supply of human labour available for the coming decades, the Japanese motorcycle industry is set for a massive battle to retain its mantle.

The rise and rise of Haojue

China already has some 400 motorcycle manufacturers, 40 of significant size, and five or six leading players. Haojue is the largest, employing 9,000 people and offering a full range of motorcycles and scooters manufactured primarily for the Chinese domestic market and sold through a network of over 12,000 Chinese motorcycle sales outlets.

Haojue has been China’s fastest growing motorcycle factory for the past five years, with production climbing from 1-million motorcycles in 2003 to 2.7-million in 2007, with projections of 3.5 million motorcycles this year. The company has an on-going partnership with Japan’s Suzuki Motor Corporation for the production of a number of key world market models for the famous Japanese company. A new joint venture with Suzuki will see a further 2.8-million machines produced each year by 2010 – the combined total of 5.5 million units should see it reach more than 10% of global motorcycle sales in 2010 – quite some feat for a company founded in 1991. It’s still a long way from world leader Honda’s 2007 production of 13.658 million motorcycles, but it is giving away a head start of almost half a century.

The company’s production plants are ultra-modern, spacious and Haojue was awarded the international ISO9000 certification for quality by the internationally recognized German TUV standards organization in 1997.

Having consolidated its Chinese market position, the company began developing plans to extend its product range for the world market and its Maxtra press conference in Shanghai at was the first sign that at least one Chinese manufacturer is pursuing a legitimate route to world competitiveness.

There was an eerie “déjà vu” to the press conference, where the wraps were pulled off a new Maxtra 125 GP racer. Unlike Honda’s initial international racing venture, Maxtra is a well-supported and high-level challenge to the European factories (Aprilia and KTM) currently in control of the smallest class of motorcycle Grand Prix racing. Though it may have far tougher competition to tackle, it has the financial support of one of the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturers.

Hajoue is already massive and has enrolled some very big names and unquestionable expertise to deliver a prototype ready for an intensive test programme before making a full GP debut in 2009 – half a century after Honda made its international debut, and we suspect, equally as significantly.

The official unveiling saw motor racing legend John Surtees take to the stage, along with engine and chassis designers Jan Witteveen and Steve Harris, new Haojue Racing Team managing director Simon Wei and team consultant Garry Taylor.

John Surtees

Surtees is without doubt the foremost exponent of motorsport in history. Motor racing buffs will argue that Fangio, Senna or Schumacher are the best ever racing drivers, while motorcycle aficionados might list Agostini, Doohan or Rossi as the greatest motorcycle racer of all time, but Surtees went one better than all of them. John Surtees won world titles in both sports – seven motorcycle titles followed by a World Formula One title.

Surtees is one of the rare breed of racers to possess excellent mechanical knowledge and a rigorous technical discipline. In motorcycle racing he rode for the Norton factory team, then the all-conquering Italian MV Agusta concern, winning his first 500 (now MotoGP) title in 1956, but his glory bike years were unquestionably 1958, 1959 and 1960, during which he won 32 races from 39 starts including the Senior TT at the Isle of Man TT three years in succession.

Just to top it off, his Formula One debut came during his final year of bike racing when he drove a Lotus in the Monaco Grand Prix., subsequently driving for Cooper, Lola, Honda, BRM, and the two biggest names in F1 history, Ferrari and McLaren. In 1970 he turned to construction of a machine bearing his own name, driving his own car until 1972. One of the few personal ambitions which escaped him was to win in his own car, with two fifth places the best results he achieved. Team Surtees’s greatest success came in 1972, when his successor as serial World Motorcycle champion, Mike Hailwood, drove a Surtees to win the European Formula Two championship.

Since that time, Surtees has remained actively involved in motorsport, fostering junior motorsport programmes whilst also acting as consultant for various racing projects. He assisted Sheikh Maktoum Hasher Maktoum Al Maktoum of Dubai in establishing the A1 Grand Prix series and even into his seventies can be regularly seen riding his extensive collection of factory exotica at classic race meetings.

As a founding member of the Maxtra project, Surtees gives the Chinese factory absolute credibility in its endeavours.

How it came together

The Maxtra Racing Project came about when two perfectly suited partners found each other.

Haojue had conceived a plan to go racing at the highest level in the 125 class, with the 125 road class being the mainstay of Chinese motorcycle sales, and was contemplating ways of joining the sport in line with its market status.

At the same time, John Surtees and Garry Taylor had decided that with their respective skills, they were able to offer elite racing expertise, and were seeking a Chinese factory with just such an interest. “We were looking for a company in China that wanted to promote itself internationally through racing, and to take advantage of the short-circuit we could offer with shared technology,” said Taylor.

Their respective needs coincided perfectly. Haojue and the English faction agreed firstly that they had no interest in racing except to become fully competitive. Haojue did not want to take an easy short-cut, simply leasing complete machines from another manufacturer as is often the case – several of the manufacturers who have been at the forefront of racing in recent years are essentially running rebadged Aprilias. Haojue was clear from the outset that it wanted a fully original project that would develop and demonstrate the company’s dedication to new technology and progress.

Gary Taylor

While Surtees is extraordinarily well connected, Taylor has been a professional MotoGP team manager for three decades, presiding over two world MotoGP title-winning efforts. Most importantly, he is well versed in the key aspects of marketing and sponsorship in addition to current knowledge of running an elite championship team.

Taylor filled the role of team and general manager for the Suzuki factory from the 1970s until 2004, becoming the longest-serving team manager in MotoGP. Taylor’s first work in GP racing was as a marketing consultant to Suzuki GB in the 1970s. There he was part of the publicity revolution surrounding Barry Sheene, racing’s first true global superstar. With a co-ordinated publicity effort leveraging Sheene’s racetrack exploits, extrovert personality and supermodel girlfriend (subsequently wife), Sheene became a household name world-wide. Taylor’s commercial nouse was pivotal in bringing some of the biggest-name sponsors to the Suzuki team included Pepsi, Rizla, Skoal Bandit, Lucky Strike and Telefónica MoviStar.

After retirement as team manager, Taylor found the lure of racing too strong to resist, and remained involved behind the scenes at the highest commercial levels of the sport. Taylor has been involved with the Maxtra project from the inception, and has agreed to lend his expertise to the team for the next three years.

The man who runs the company owns the company

As with Honda half a century earlier, the driving force behind the racing project is company founder (and current factory CEO) Mr Taiwai Wong. Wong founded GRG, and has guided it to its present prominence. “I believe we are now ready to put ourselves to the ultimate test of world racing,” he said. “This is the first step towards a full world championship racing programme. I have been thinking about the MotoGP series for some time, and now, as the company moves forward into the world market, we must have the courage to challenge at the highest level of motorcycle racing.

“We begin by sharing technology with our experienced western consultants and we will then introduce our own engineers to the project. The eventual aim is for full factory participation in racing and the integration of the new technology from racing into our products,” said Wong.

“Having achieved the highest standards for our current domestic range, Haojue decided to look to international racing to extend our technical knowledge and experience, and to bring our company and our engineering quality to international attention,” said the CEO of GRG.

The team evolves

During the following two years, operating as consultants to the Chinese project leaders, the England-based partnership assembled the components and personnel for a serious World Championship challenge. Witteveen was enlisted to design the power unit and British motorcycle construction specialists Harris Performance Products were commissioned to do the same on the chassis side. Chassis manufacturer and racing supplier Harris Performance Products is an internationally renowned specialist racing and performance company, with long roots in MotoGP, as well as every other form of motorcycle racing. The initial bodywork has yet to be wind tunnel tested, so major revisions are likely as the bike evolves.

Jan Witteveen – the Engine Designer

The expertise behind the engine design is possibly the most exciting part of the all-star cast assembled for the project. The Dutch engineer has been intimately involved with the development of the racing two-stroke engine for more than three decades and is unquestionably one of the masters of two-stroke engine design. His is the foremost name in two-stroke engine design and development in the world, having won 40 world championships (off-road and road racing) including the machines that still currently dominate the 125 and 250 classes of world championship level racing. Witteveen was technical director of road racing at Aprilia from 1989 until 2004.

Aprilia was then making a name for itself, and Witteveen became a key component of subsequent success, designing parallel and V-twin 250 engines and single-cylinder 125 engines that have in turn been a mainstay of the rostrums and championship tables of the smaller classes.

Witteveen brings both experience and a yen for fresh thinking to the Maxtra project, and promises that his engine will find new solutions to old problems in the most exacting class of all.

The new machine has an innovative engine architecture, with the single cylinder pointing downwards at about 45 degrees. This previously untried layout offers, according to Witteveen, new opportunities to improve both intake and exhaust. There is more space for an airbox, enhancing the effectiveness of the ram-air intake system. The exhaust also has a free run to the rear of the machine.

Though the two-stroke single-cylinder liquid cooled specifications yield little information other than a basically square 54 X 54.5mm bore and stroke and a 38mm carburettor, it is interesting that Witteveen has chosen reed valve induction, accepting a trade-off in top-end power for better overall responses. “I think it will be a good solution,” he said.

The first full season of 2009 will be “a learning year”, according to Taylor, with the aim of rostrum finishes by year two, and a full championship challenge in the third year. “The 125 class is no picnic, but our aim is to challenge for wins in the second year and the championship in the third,” he said.

The Maxtra engine has already undergone successful bench tests. A track test programme begins in the coming weeks with shake-down tests in Britain, followed by a full development programme onEuropean circuits.

Where the company goes from here is seemingly quite fluid, and will largely be dictated by the results achieved. Maxtra’s answers to various journalist questions indicates it is already considering the possibility of building customer machinery once the results are there to create a demand, and there’s even the possibility of a road bike based on the GP bike.

Most exciting is the long-term aim is to create a technology flow from racing to the Chinese factory engineers and onto the road. “Bringing top racing technology to the new Chinese team will short-cut this process, giving the factory engineers a fast-track course in race engineering,” said Taylor.

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