Philip Island, Cowes, Victoria. 14th October 2001. Valentino Rossi crosses the line in 1st place to take not only the last independent championship, but the last premier-class two-stroke world title aboard his Nastro Azzurro Honda NSR500.
The 2001 NSR500 was a culmination of everything that had gone into 500cc bikes since racing has started in 1949, the ultimate exotica from Honda having tried everything on the road to this, from four-strokes with oval pistons to screamer engines that were more violent than an MMA bout. Honda knew the four-stroke era was just around the corner, having pushed for it themselves, and they had a V5 ready to blow the competition into the weeds. However, they also wanted that last two-stroke title, and saw fit to give Rossi a full factory machine in a different dress, similar to what manufacturers do in the current times, but unheard of at that point. They had been beaten to the title in 2000 by the Suzuki RG500 of Kenny Roberts Jr., and would not take it lying down.
What we saw at the end of the season, was an incredible 11 wins from Rossi, a title sewn up two races early and only 4 winners all year, such was the stranglehold of the Italian. Max Biaggi would be the best Yamaha rider by far, though with not enough in the locker from his machine (or himself at some points) to seriously compete with the Honda bikes, although he did manage 3 wins, Alex Barros took one win aboard the West Pons Honda, while Sete Gibernau took Suzuki’s lone win of the season at Valencia.
So what are your baseline specs for this incredible machine? Simply put, if you want to see just how far a two-stroke engine could be taken with 500ccs, this is it. 499cc to be precise, a liquid-cooled V4 two-stroke with around 185bhp, direct injection, no traction control apart from your right wrist, all slotted into an aluminium beam frame. Showa suspension products were used, as Honda wanted to use their in-house products and Ohlins did not have the monopoly of the class like they do today. The bike could touch 200mph, and incredible amount of speed and power from a 1/2 litre engine.
The NSR500 in all its glory. (Photo via Box Repsol)
Coming into 2001, Rossi had to feel confident. He had completed his rookie season in 500cc’s in the previous year having come up as the 250cc champion and took 10 podiums (including 3 wins) on his way to 2nd in the championship. Honda entrusted Rossi to take the title, and take the title he did. 13 podiums from 16 races, 11 being wins was an untouchable record. The only DNF was at home in Italy, taking a trip into the gravel after rain disrupted play.
This record meant Rossi would have a record nobody else could touch, the last ever 500cc world champion, and the start of an incredible top-class career that brought another 6 world titles and the biggest fan base a rider has ever been blessed with. But you shouldn’t forget the machine that started the story in the top class, the humble NSR500, dressed in the iconic yellow.
Featured images- www.motogp.com