2002 marked a pivotal year for Grand Prix motorcycle racing. For decades, race teams turned to two-stroke race machines for their compact construction and favorable power-to-weight ratio. Emissions standards all but killed street-legal two-strokes by the mid-’80s, but Grand Prix racing clung to tradition until the 2001 season.
In 2002, organizing body Dorna Sports adapted to the changing consumer landscape by transitioning the premier class away from 500cc two-strokes and toward 990cc four-stroke machines. Dorna marked the four-stroke era by rebranding the top category as MotoGP and allowed manufacturers to produce the 990cc engines with three- to six-cylinder configurations.
Many Factory teams such as Repsol Honda, Marlboro Yamaha, Suzuki, and Aprilia converted to four-strokes in 2002, while most satellite squads remained on two-stroke machinery. Among the Factory outfits, four-cylinder layouts (inline-four and V4) remained popular. Honda opted for a different direction. Instead, developing a water-cooled, DOHC, 20-valve, V-5 mill to power its legendary RC211V.
Valentino Rossi seized the final 500cc Grand Prix title aboard Honda’s two-stroke NSR500 in 2001, and 2002 marked the Doctor's first year with the Repsol Honda team. The RC211V’s introduction forced the 23-year-old budding superstar to adjust his style to the new four-stroke platform, but the race steed also improved Rossi’s shot at back-to-back championships.
In sixteen races, number 46 won 12 and finished runner-up in the remaining four. Rossi easily retained his crown with a 140-point advantage over his nearest competitor, Marlboro Yamaha’s Max Biagi. Repsol Honda rider Tohru Okawa claimed one victory that season as well, securing Honda and the RC211V 13 victories and a constructor’s title in 2002.
The V-5-powered racer only improved its imperious record in 2003. Aside from Rossi’s nine victories, Telefónica Movistar Honda’s Sete Gibernau and Camel Pramac Pons’ Max Biagi also contributed with four wins and two victories, respectively. The RC211V’s 15 wins dominated the field in 2003, with only Ducati nabbing a lone victory with Loris Capirossi.
However, everything changed when Rossi transferred to Yamaha in 2004. Big Red repeated as Constructor’s Champions that season, but the Doctor captured his fourth consecutive MotoGP title with the YZR-M1. The RC211V enjoyed its swan song in 2006, though, when Nicky Hayden and Honda reclaimed the MotoGP rider and constructor’s titles.
New premier class regulations forced Team Red to engineer an 800cc V-4 for the RC212V and the manufacturer maintains that V-4 configuration with its current RC213V race machine. However, with a 58.5-percent win ratio (48 wins out of 82 starts), three rider world championships (2002, 2003, and 2006), and four constructor's crowns (2002, 2003, 2004, and 2006), the V-5-bound RC211V will always remain a fan favorite.