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GP Week : Issue 121
What comes around goes around. But in a rather different form. Am I the only one to have noticed that the new Moto3 class for GP beginners has some important things in common with the original premier World Championship class? Or, more precisely, how much the new Moto3 motorbikes have in common with those that formed the backbone of the top class, from the dawn of the championship in 1949 for almost the next 20 years. In fact the first title of 1949 was won by a parallel twin, Les Graham’s AJS; the second by a four-cylinder Gilera. But the third, in 1951, went to a dashing young Englishman in skin-tight leathers called Geoff Duke, riding a droning single- cylinder Manx Norton. The Manx only won the title that once, out-powered by the multi-cylinder opposition. But with low weight, a slender profile and fine handling, a good rider could often spring some surprises on a Norton. The bike remained the backbone of the class for privateers for years to come. Real men rode 500s, and most of them – those without any factory support – rode Manx Nortons, right up until the end of the 1960s. Now a bike similar in several crucial respects, and certainly faster overall, is considered kids’ stuff. The new-generation Moto3 four-strokes, with very restrictive regulations to ensure simplicity, are typified by the NSR250R Honda launched two races ago. You might not think, looking at this neat and well-considered little production racer, that it has much in common features with the antique-looking Manx. You’d be wrong. For one thing, it has a similar power output, of around 50 horsepower. The modern version is significantly lighter. Add the advantage of two extra gears, modern tyres, suspension and brakes, and you have a bike that should beat the Manx quite easily. This means that if a time-travelling GP novice could flip back to 1964, for example, he would have a machine capable of finishing second in the World Championship. He’d be a long way behind Mike Hailwood’s MV Agusta, but he’d certainly have the legs on runner-up Jack Ahearn’s Norton. He’d need a bit of courage of skill, of course, and permission from his parents to race on public- road circuits like the Isle of Man, Spa Francorchamps and the old Sachsenring. What Moto3 does is simultaneously update Manx Norton specifications, while halving the size of everything. And doubling up specific horsepower, and the number of valves, and almost the rev ceiling. In this way, it gives a snapshot of motorcycle engineering progress over 50 years. 32