Looking back to the first Challenge (pre-1989)
First Victory in 1982, the Rally's Fourth Year
As long as it is road legal, the vehicle could be anything. Starting in the cold mid-winter of France, over the Mediterranean Sea to Africa, through the Sahara Desert heading to the goal in Dakar, Senegal, was the original route of the first Paris-Dakar rally which took place starting on December 26, 1978.
Not only four-wheeled drive cars suited for the desert terrain but various cars participated such as common small-sized passenger cars, and there was also a class for trucks.
In the motorcycle class, off-road type vehicles with large fuel tanks fitted were the standard style, also equipped with a compass and a clipboard on the dash to pin the road book showing the route of the rally through the desert provided by the organizers. These uniquely modified motorcycles gathered at the start line in Place du Trocadéro, Paris and headed out for the first Paris-Dakar Rally.
As Holidays and the New Year approaches, all of the existing motoring events had finished their season and a new approach of a grand rally at this time of year appealed to many motor fans attracting amateur drivers and riders to take place. However, when the Paris-Dakar Rally was recognized as an official event by the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile) and FIM (Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme) in the third year in 1980, many manufacturers also started to compete along with professional drivers and riders, attracting even more excitement to the Paris-Dakar.
In Europe and especially in France and Italy, to modify popular dual-purpose motorcycles and to ride across borders, cultures, and to another continent was a new approach and gathered huge attention. Rally-inspired modifications became popular and customized dual-purpose motorcycles started to appear in motorcycle shops making this unique event even more popular.
The first victory for Honda in the Paris-Dakar was in 1982 at the fourth venue. The number of entrants had quickly grown to close 400 cars, trucks and motorcycles by this year and Cyril Neveu who had joined Honda the previous year rode the XR500-based machine to victory. This machine is known as the motif of the commercial model XL250R PARIS-DAKAR.
As the event matured, manufacturers started to make models more focused on winning the Paris-Dakar, resulting in a larger capacity and more powerful models competing, and Honda starts to drop out from the top contenders. By this time, the Paris-Dakar Rally had become so big that it was strongly influencing sales of street bikes in not only France but all of Europe.
Building the NXR750 Factory Machine to Achieve Victory
Honda made a decision in October 1984. They ordered HRC to build a factory machine that can win the Paris-Dakar, and the engineers hurried off to visit, inspect and research the 1985 Rally. They found a totally new character there, unlike road-racing, motocross, or trials and sought for the concept for a machine that can win in such extreme conditions. It shall be light, small, untiring, tough, easy to maintain, easy to maneuver at slow speeds and also have stability at high speeds, an easy to use engine character and fuel economy. On top of all this, it should have high potential to defeat the strong rivals. Also, the top priority is dependability. It must reach the goal line or victory will be far ahead.
The insights from HRC's investigation became the basis for Honda’s first Paris-Dakar machine, the NXR750.
In the early years of the Paris-Dakar, the support vehicles also took part in the race and had to travel the same distance as the competitors. Missing the course or getting stuck in the sand meant the support vehicle would not arrive at the bivouac on time. Each day of the rally starts in the morning and will travel from 500 to 1000km on long days. If the support vehicle is late and the time to maintain the machine becomes restricted, it can result in a huge loss in the long term. The Paris-Dakar is hard on the mechanics as well, and therefore, the dependence of the machine is very much part of the strength of the team.
NXR750 Achieves Victory in its Debut Year, 1986
Rallies are unpredictable unlike trying to achieve lap-times on a circuit, and especially at the Paris-Dakar where there are deserts and unstable weather, it can be complicated and demanding.
The NXR750 debuted in 1986 at the 8th Paris-Dakar, literally the most “complicated and demanding” Rally. The prologue runs to determine the starting order for the first Special Stage set in Africa took place in the snow. The route was said to be the hardest ever and although one of the attractions of the Paris-Dakar is the difficultness to reach the goal, many competitors were forced to retire in these conditions.
However, Cyril Neveu on the NXR750 managed the situation cleverly, climbing up the leaderboard into first place by January 8 and maintaining that position to the finish, achieving a victory for Honda and the NXR750 at the goal line. In second place was also teammate Gilles Lalay, which made the debut of the Honda team a huge success.
In the second year of challenge, Honda’s NXR750 factory machine had undergone some changes due to requests from the riders, such as a quieter exhaust system, a disk-brake at the rear for more controllability and a better layout for easy reading of the navigation system. The fairing and fuel tank were also redesigned for comfort.
Rivals were also highly competitive and Honda entered the latter half of the race behind them. Hubert Auriol riding for Cagiva had the experience of two victories and was one of the strongest riders, and was closing the 30-minute gap on Neveu quickly. When Neveu fell in a stage with deep sand and damaged the navigation system so seriously that he was not able to ride through the desert by himself, this gap was closed and Auriol took the lead. Neveu’s fightback was strong and by January 19 the gap between Auriol was down to 10 minutes, but the goal was in sight and not much more time to catch up. However, on the 21st, the day before the goal, Auriol suffers a fall and was injured allowing the NXR to grasp a narrow victory.
The following year 1988 was the 10th edition of the Paris-Dakar Rally. The number of entrants had reached 600 and the event was ever growing also in fame.
The third year of challenge for the Honda team, the NXR was further advanced and the team was also revised by adding the Italian Honda team to the existing France Honda team making the number of Honda riders on NXRs seven. The French team was unlucky this year with various troubles but the Italian team rider Edi Orioli was successful, finding a checkpoint in the latter half where many riders were not able to, and managed to come out on top, bringing the NXR to a three years consecutive victory.
Project Closed after Four Consecutive Victories
In to the fourth year of challenge, the rival manufacturers had built highly competitive machines to beat the NXR, which meant that although the winning machine, in the same title sponsor livery since 1986, had to be even stronger with a total renewal. The modifications and updates to the NXR had made this year’s NXR the strongest ever and Honda was seeking a fourth victory.
As always but especially this year, the Paris-Dakar was a hard challenge with a combination of the ability of the riders, the machines, the team, and without a doubt, luck. In this difficult situation, the Honda rider who took the NXR to the top of the podium was Gilles Lalay who had been with the Honda squad form the beginning. It wasn’t an easy race for Lalay being 53 minutes behind the race leader at one stage, but with surefooted riding, he gradually closed the gap and was leading the race on the 16th day. From there he pulled away from his rivals and built a 30-minute gap to the goal.
1989 was also a year to be remembered of the Africa Twin, the commercial vehicle inspired by the NXR, which entered the stock class and won the class title. The Africa Twin also went on to win in 1990.
Honda’s first era in challenging the Paris-Dakar as a factory team with the legendary NXR, which made a huge impression on the world and Honda fans, was closed in 1989.