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Eddie Lawson’s Honda NSR500

 
Photo by Phil Aynsley

Eddie Lawson’s epic back-to-back titles for rival manufacturers in 1988-1989 was a world first. On his way to victory he also defeated two young rising stars of American roadracing, while taming a motorcycle many thought unwinnable.

Much has been written about the mercurial and complex character that is four-time world 500cc champion Eddie Lawson. He’s been described as a calculating collector of race points, not wins; a master of mind games on the starting grid; introverted and arrogant; distrustful of journalists and hangers on but happy to use them to unsettle his rivals; and a perfectionist with a clinical approach to both life and racing.

Very little has been written about how Lawson’s single-minded determination to achieve greatness, coupled with a love of riding the world’s fastest motorcycles at their limit, was the driving force behind his greatest achievement.

Basic instrumentation gives a window into a simpler world before sophisticated engine management systems. 

Photo by Phil Aynsley

And exactly what was the motorcycle he rode into the history books that year? A combination of cutting-edge carbon-fiber/aluminum wizardry and carbureted 2-stroke technology based on half a decade of development, it was now a Frankenstein. And only Lawson was the freak rider who could tame it.

In 1989 Eddie Lawson became the first rider to win back-to-back world 500cc championships on two different makes of motorcycle. Lawson left Giacomo Agostini’s Yamaha team for Honda, taking a pay cut in the process and moving from a bike praised for its all-round rideability to one later described by the 1988 runner-up Wayne Gardner as “evil”. Even Mick Doohan, the tough guy of the 1990s who would go on to win five world 500cc titles, has described how he had to summon up the courage to actually ride the 1989 Honda, let alone race it.

Only Lawson seemed to be able to survive race after race without frequently crashing while quietly pocketing points and the occasional race win to end up a most unlikely 1989 champion.

But Lawson was under-rated. Often overshadowed in the 1980s by Freddie Spencer, Lawson came to Honda as America’s most race-winning rider, having surpassed Kenny Roberts’ total with his 23rd career victory in 1988.

Two American heroes

Lawson and Spencer were the two American heroes of GP racing in the 1980s. Lawson had won the 1984, 1986 and 1988 500cc titles with Yamaha while Honda’s Spencer had also won three, the first as a 21-year-old in 1983, the youngest ever winner of the 500cc class.

Photo by Phil Aynsley

He achieved the seemingly impossible in 1985, starting the season by winning the Daytona 200, then taking out the 250cc and 500cc Grand Prix titles. Then Spencer burnt out, finally retiring after finishing 20th in the 1987 points table.

Lawson left Yamaha because the perfectionist side of his personality couldn’t cope with a pattern of having a winning bike one season, then his team appearing to be unable to help him repeat the effort the following year.

Photo by Phil Aynsley

The results speak for themselves: champion in 1984 but second in 1985 to Honda’s Spencer: champion in 1986 but third in 1987, just one point behind second-placed Randy Mamola (Yamaha); then champion again in 1988, displacing Honda’s 1987 champ Wayne Gardner. Would Yamaha break the cycle for 1989? Lawson didn’t hang around Giacomo Agostini’s team to find out. In an 11th-hour announcement he joined Gardner and Mick Doohan at Honda, stunning his new teammates and the entire race paddock alike.

Now Honda had a dream team. The reigning champion was teamed with the 1987 world champ and a much heralded newcomer. If this was potentially a winning team, so must be the motorcycle.

An “evil” motorcycle

Honda’s 1989 NSR500 was the most powerful and fastest Grand Prix bike of that era. It pushed out over 160 horsepower and weighed just 285 pounds. To put that into perspective, a typical 250cc production racing 2-stroke, such as Suzuki’s RGV250, weighed 305 pounds and had an engine producing around 60 horsepower. The big problem with Honda’s NSR500 was an instant throttle response from down low in the rev range all the way to peak power at 12,000rpm. This compared to rivals such as Yamaha’s YZ500, which had a slight lag when the throttle was first opened. Remember that these cable-operated handlebar throttles were quarter-turn and similar to a motocross throttle.

The front cylinders point downwards, allowing the carburetors to peek out from under the radiator into a fresh air flow (left).

Photo by Phil Aynsley

Honda’s razor-sharp acceleration combined with the underdeveloped tire technology of the day to create the huge issue of highsides. A Honda rider would get into a corner OK, but as the throttle was wound open the instant hit of horsepower would overwhelm the type of tire compounds available at that time. If the rear tire started spinning up at 8,000rpm, the revs would have risen to 12,000rpm before the rider could react and ease the throttle back.

Riders of that period said the NSR500 engine was best controlled by keeping the revs higher than peak torque. This involved the bravery no mere mortals possess of keeping the engine near peak power output.

In 1989 only Lawson seemed capable of doing this without crashing regularly when things went wrong.

Photo by Phil Aynsley

As their riders struggled, Honda’s race teams tried to tame the powerful engine by fitting it to a series of modified chassis. Lawson would use at least 11 during 1989, commissioned by his crew chief, the legendary Erv Kanemoto. Although run as an independent team under the same Rothmans colors as Gardner and Doohan, Kanemoto had a direct line to the Honda factory.

Honda’s founder Soichiro Honda once famously said: “Success represents the 1% of your work which results from the 99% that is called failure.”

That certainly looked the case for Lawson and Kanemoto after preseason testing opened up a Pandora’s Box of problems. Lawson suffered a series of uncharacteristic crashes as he tried to come to terms with an entirely different beast to the Yamaha.

American trio at the top

As the season opened at Suzuka, Japan, on paper Gardner was the main threat. However in reality two Americans, each with just one full GP season of experience, quickly emerged as the men to beat.

Suzuki’s Kevin Schwantz won a brutal race-long duel with Yamaha’s Wayne Rainey, with Lawson third, ahead of Gardner.

The second round at Phillip Island was the first time Australia had hosted a round of the world championship. Gardner rode his luck and the crowd’s emotion to beat Rainey, with Lawson fifth.

The U.S. GP followed at Laguna Seca, where Rainey beat Schwantz, with Lawson third for the second all-American podium of 1989.

Over to Jerez, Spain, and Lawson was on a mission. The previous season he had won at this venue, denying Rainey his first GP win. Now Rainey was on pole and looking ominous. However, Schwantz pulled out an early lead while Lawson battled Rainey for the first time this season.

Eddie Lawson looks quietly determined at Phillip Island, Australia, in 1989. Already the conventional front fork has been changed to an upside down unit.

Photo by Phil Aynsley

With a handful of laps to go Schwantz crashed out and Lawson was handed his first win of 1989. It would take another six rounds for Lawson to win again, but four podiums kept him in contention.

Back to back wins at Belgium’s Spa-Francorchamps and Le Mans in France were followed by a second place at Donington in the U.K. before another win at Sweden’s Anderstorp circuit. With Rainey crashing out and Schwantz retiring with a mechanical issue, Lawson now held the championship points lead.

A second placing at Brno, Czechoslovakia, set Lawson up for an epic title win at the final round at Goiania, Brazil. Rainey had to win while Lawson could afford to finish as low as 10th and still win the 1989 championship.

Rainey set pole but Lawson led into the first corner and the race soon developed into a war of attrition between these two and Schwantz. Eventually Schwantz prevailed on a very slippery surface with Lawson second and Rainey third. An epic season win for Lawson and the ninth all-American podium of the season was a fitting end for 1989. Rainey and Schwantz had arrived and their rivalry would dominate the championship the following year while Lawson’s return to Yamaha ended in a disappointing seventh overall.

Lawson’s incredible year for Honda in 1989 is best revealed in the points table. The closest Honda rider to the American was Italian Pierfrancesco Chili in sixth overall with Doohan and Gardner back in ninth and 10th.

The NSR500 pictured here

This NSR500 was gifted by Soichiro Honda to a personal friend, Austrian Honda importer Josef Faber, sometime in the 1990s.

It went from Faber’s estate to a German collector, where Phil Aynsley photographed it.

With so many chassis and technical changes made during 1989 it is probably safe to say it contains the DNA of Honda’s 1989 season, rather than being the exact machine Lawson finished the season on.

For example, Lawson switched to upside-down forks early on in the season. Photographs of him racing at the second round at Phillip Island show he has already made the switch.

Our subject NSR500F wears chassis number 9803.

Photo by Phil Aynsley

The huge number of changes during the season was an attempt to find a balance between chassis flex and rigidity along with an optimal weight distribution to harness Grand Prix’s most powerful engine. Eventually the engine configuration would be changed in the early 1990s to create a “big-bang” effect to improve traction and rideability.

One big area of experimentation was the use of carbon as a brake disc material, rather than steel. Most riders abandoned them in 1989 because of their lack of “feel” until fully hot.

Lawson appears to have persisted with the rear carbon disc, whereas other Honda riders, such as Mick Doohan, quickly went back to steel discs.

Interestingly, Eddie ran his No. 1 from 1988 all through 1989. The No. 9 here is actually the position Doohan finished in 1989 and Doohan used this number the following season. Also, Lawson ran with the name Eddie on his fairing screen, not his full name.

Photo by Phil Aynsley

Despite these minor inconsistencies this NSR500 is a rare beast, as Honda sent most of its race bikes to the crusher at the end of each season.

Certainly it is a minimalist work of art, with the gull swingarm crafted to allow clearance for the exhausts and the instrument binnacle providing only the most basic information.

A few years ago respected MotoGP reporter and ex-racer Mat Oxley gave a layman’s perspective of what a 1989 NSR500 was like to ride.

He tweeted a photograph of himself riding a version of Eddie Lawson’s Honda at an end-of-season media event. “Testing Eddie Lawson’s NSR500 at Suzuka, November 1989. Scariest bike I ever rode: top-speed tankslapper, so I came into the pits, where the HRC mechanics wound up the steering damper to full. And that’s how Lawson rode it to that year’s 500cc world championship.” MC

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Published on Apr 1, 2021
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