Tag Archives: Giacomo Agostini

Vale Angel Nieto 1947 – 2017

 

Nieto on the 125cc Garelli.

2017 has been a sad year for the sport of Grand Prix motorcycle racing. The passing of the incomparable John Surtees in March and the tragic road accident that unexpectedly claimed the life of Nickey Hayden in May have left a void in the eras these two great former World Champions represented.

Now the recent death of Angel Nieto, again to a tragic road accident, has created another great loss. His achievements paved the way in a sport that is now dominated by his countrymen.

Nieto passed away as a result of brain damage caused by a car that hit his quad bike on July 26th. The 70-year-old hit his head on the ground while travelling at low speed while traversing a roundabout on the Island of Ibiza. He was placed in an induced coma but his condition worsened and he died on the evening of Thursday the 3rd of August.

Nieto was the first Spaniard to compete in the motorcycle Grand Prix. Over a career that spanned 22 years from 1964 to 1986 he achieved 90 wins and 139 podiums from 186 starts. He won six 50cc World Championships and seven 125cc World Championship for a total of 13 titles, second only to Giacomo Agostini with 15 championships in the 350cc and 500cc class. Nieto won his six 50cc World Championships with Derbi, Kreidler and Bultaco. His seven 125cc world titles came with Derbi, Kreidler, Minarelli and Garelli.

Nieto was also awarded the Knight Grand Cross in the Order of Civil Merit in 1982 and the Knight Grand Cross in the Order of Sports Merit in 1993.

Words © Geoff Dawes 2017. Images courtesy http://www.motogp.com and http://www.biogratiasyvidas.com.

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Two Titans

With Christmas 2016 upon us here are two books which any motorcycle racing enthusiast would like to find under the Christmas tree.

They say a picture paints a thousand words and these two photo-autobiographies “GIACOMO AGOSTINI A LIFE IN PICTURES” and “JOHN SURTEES MY INCREDIBLE LIFE ON TWO WHEELS AND FOUR” certainly do that.  Both are primarily photographic accounts of the lives of these two motor racing giants, beautifully presented on high-quality glossy paper as hardback coffee table size publications.

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Agostini’s book is co-authored by Italian Mario Donnino, a long serving reporter for well-known motorsport magazine Autosprint,  Donino’s  almost poetic narrative is combined with quotes provided by Agostini that reveal his highly competitive nature and a search for perfection in his racing.  This is hardly surprising for a man who has won eight 500cc (MotoGP) and seven 350cc World Championships accumulating along the way 122 Grand Prix victories.

It is the photographs however, most of which are from Agostini’s own collection, that enrich this book so much,  allowing the reader to look back in time to the late 1950’s and mid 1970”s, to an era considered to be “Golden” in the sport of Grand Prix motorcycle racing and sometimes also deadly to its participants. The photographs, such as the MV Agusta mechanics working in the factory workshop, and those of Giacomo socialising with his racing rivals are priceless.

Highly recommended.

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John Surtees’ book is co-authored by well-known journalist Mike Nicks who has contributed to specialist magazines such as MCN, Classic Bike among many others. The format is very similar to Agostini’s tome with the photographs accompanied by Surtee’s own description that gives an intimate voice to the book.

Surtees, of course, is the only man to ever win both the 500cc (MotoGP) World Championship (four times) and the F1 World Championship with Ferrari in 1964.  Surtees also won the inaugural CAN-AM series in 1966 and later became an F1 car constructor in 1970 with his cars winning the European Formula 2 title with Mike Hailwood in 1972.  But these are just headlines of a long and enduring career and this book reveals so much more.

Highly recommended.

Royalties from “JOHN SURTEES MY INCREDIBLE LIFE ON TWO WHEELS AND FOUR” go to the  Henry Surtees Foundation which was set up to honour the memory of John’s son Henry, who was killed in a freak accident at Brands Hatch in 2009.

The above books are available from the Book Depository.

Review by Geoff Dawes (C) 2016

Honda Celebrates 50 Years Of MotoGP

Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez pose with the 1966 Honda RC181 and the 2016 RC213V.

Dani Pedrosa and Marc Marquez pose with the 1966 Honda RC181 and the 2016 RC213V at Motegi in Japan.

It was perhaps fitting that Marc Marquez collected his third MotoGP World Championship at Honda’s own circuit at Motegi in Japan, as 2016 celebrates 50 years since Honda first entered the premier class of Grand Prix motorcycle racing.

What is also appropriate is the fact that Marquez achieved this on the recalcitrant 2016 RC213V. Although an improvement over the 2015 edition, a change to the new Michelin control tyres as well as the new control software, tossed in, even more, variables for the Repsol Honda team to equate. But the key this year to Marquez’s success has been his determination to finish every race and has shown the kind of maturity, at just 23 years of age, that no doubt is worrying to his rivals. Honda’s first foray into the 500cc (MotoGP) class with the RC181, coincidentally suffered handling issues as well.

Honda's weapon of choice to enter the 500cc war.

Honda’s weapon of choice to enter the 500cc war.

Honda, of course, were the first Japanese motorcycle manufacturer to enter into the Grands Prix in 1959 at the Isle of Man TT in the 125cc category. After considerable success in the lower capacity classes, Honda then took the plunge by entering a 500cc machine in the premier class for 1966. Although rumours in the paddock suggested that like the multi-cylinder four-strokes Honda had produced in the smaller capacity classes, the 500cc machine could potentially have a six-cylinder or even a V-8 power plant.

However, it was a more conventional transverse air-cooled four-cylinder engine, with twin overhead camshafts and four-valves per cylinder, that fronted the grid. The RC181 boasted a very competitive 85hp at 12,000rpm and weighed in at 154kg using the engine as a stressed member. It was entrusted to Rhodesian, Jim Redman, Honda’s six times world champion (two 250cc and four 350cc class titles) to take on the might of MV Agusta and the talents of its rising star Giacomo Agostini.

Honda used the engine as a stressed member for the chassis of the RC181.

Honda used the engine as a stressed member for the chassis of the RC181.

Redman took the RC181 to a stunning victory on debut at the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim and followed that up with a win at the next round in Holland at the Dutch TT. Honda had also enticed its former 250cc World Champion, Mike Hailwood, back to the fold, and although his priority was to be the 250cc and 350cc categories, Hailwood rode the new machine for the first time in Holland and was leading the race when a false neutral caused him to crash. Nonetheless, it appeared MV Agusta’s monopoly on the class was about to end.

The RC181 though flattered to deceive and Redman crashed in atrocious conditions during the next round at Spa in Belgium. He badly broke his arm and promptly retired from racing, leaving Hailwood to try and retrieve the championship challenge. Although Hailwood notched up three wins in Czechoslovakia, Ulster and the Isle of Man and a second place in Finland, mechanical problems at the other four rounds handed the riders title to Agostini and the new three cylinder MV Agusta. Honda was left with the consolation of winning the manufacturer’s trophy with a motorcycle that Hailwood could only describe the handling as, “Bloody awful!”

Hailwood's Honda wore the number 1 plate in 1966 after winning the 500cc crown for MV Agusta in 1965.

Hailwood’s Honda wore the number 1 plate in 1966 after winning the 500cc crown for MV Agusta in 1965.

Both Honda and Hailwood returned for the 1967 season with an updated RC181. The off-season saw the Honda now developing a healthy 93bhp at 12,650rpm with its weight reduced 13kg to 141kg with the extensive use of magnesium in the engine. Mike had flown to Japan during the off-season to test the 1967 machines and was horrified to discover the promised new chassis for the RC181 was non-existent and demanded to take an engine back to England to have a chassis built in Europe that might solve the severe handling problems.

The Japanese though refused to let Hailwood race the new chassis in the Grands Prix, but instead “beefed up” the existing RC181 frame which used the engine as a stressed member. Mike did enter the HRS (Hailwood Racing Special) at some non-championship races and even practiced on it for the first Grand Prix of the season at Hockenheim but reverted to the factory RC181 for the race and was leading when the crankshaft broke handing Agostini the win.

Hailwood (left) and "Ago" prepare to do battle on the starting grid.

Hailwood (left) and “Ago”on the starting grid as they prepare to do battle.

The next race was the TT at the Isle Of Man, a race that became one of the all time classics in Grand Prix racing history. During the course of their titanic struggle, the lead swapped back and forth for five of the six laps of the 37.5mile course (60.3km) until the chain broke on Agostini’s MV. Hailwood cruised to victory and had set a new outright lap record of 108.77mph (175kph), which stood for almost a decade.

The next weekend Agostini and the improving MV outpaced Hailwood and the Honda at Spa in Belgium, and at the Sachsenring in East Germany, gearbox problems forced Mike to retire with Agostini claiming victory. The Brno circuit in Czechoslovakia was next with Hailwood finishing 17.8 seconds ahead of his nemesis on the MV Agusta triple. But a fall at Imatra in Finland on a soaked track shifted momentum once more to Agostini.

The roles were reversed again at the Dundrod circuit in Ulster with ‘Ago” retiring and Hailwood winning. The whole season now pivoted on the penultimate race of the season at the Nations Grand Prix in MV Agusta’s own backyard at Monza in Italy. At last, it looked like Honda would achieve their ambition as Hailwood led Agostini by 16 seconds with three laps to go only to have a certain victory stolen from him by a gearbox that became stuck in top gear. Agostini flashed by to win by 13.2 seconds and take the title a second year in a row.

Although Hailwood won again at the final round at Mosport in Canada, beating “Ago” home by a massive 37.7 seconds it was of no avail. Both riders had accumulated five wins apiece but “Ago” took the title due to three second place finishes to Hailwood’s two. There was no consolation prize for Honda either as MV Agusta also took home the manufacturers title.

Hailwood chases "Ago" in 1967.

Hailwood chases “Ago” at the Dutch TT in 1967.

Honda withdrew from the Grands Prix at the end of 1967, but this was just a prelude of what was to come. The Japanese company returned to the premier class of Grand Prix motorcycle racing in 1979 with the ill-fated NR500 four-stroke racer and won the first of their many rider’s titles in 1983 with Freddie Spencer and the NS500 two-stroke.

Those frustrating seasons of 1966 and 1967 for Honda, must now seem a lifetime away. As this is written, the Japanese manufacturer has now accrued a staggering 279 race victories and 39 riders and constructors World Championships.

Words Geoff Dawes © 2016.Images courtesy of Honda and http://www.formulamoto.es.

YouTube Video courtesy of Pathe.

 

A Herd Of Goats

Valentino Rossi on his way to pole position at Jerez.

Valentino Rossi about to claim pole position at Jerez.

The recent return to form by Valentino Rossi since re-joining his former team at Yamaha has been quite extraordinary. After two seasons in the wilderness with Ducati (2012-2013) and a change of crew chief from Jeremy Burgess to fellow Italian Silvan Galbusera, Rossi is back once more to his winning ways. A single win and four third-place podiums helped Valentino clinch fourth place in the 2014 MotoGP World Championship, which by anyone’s standards was a great achievement. The momentum continued into the 2015 season with four wins and Rossi finishing off the podium only three times to take second place in the championship by a mere 5 points, in what became a contentious world title win for Jorge Lorenzo.

What makes Rossi’s performance even more remarkable is his age. Valentino turned 37 years old earlier this year showing his hunger for victory and love of the sport has not waned.   Yamaha must think so as they have agreed to a two-year extension of Rossi’s contract keeping him with the factory team until 2018.

Nonetheless, Rossi’s renewed competitiveness has swung the spotlight of public attention once more onto the subject of who is the greatest of all time (G.O.A.T.) in the sport of Grand Prix motorcycle racing.

Giacomo Agostini on his way to winning German GP at the Nurburgring.

Giacomo Agostini on his way to winning German GP at the Nurburgring.

There are of course the cold facts that statistics tend to present. The great Giacomo Agostini is still the most prolific Grand Prix winner with 122 wins to his credit while Rossi is still chipping away on 114 with the potential to equal or beat this record. Agostini has also won 8 MotoGP (formerly 500cc) world titles to Rossi’s 7 so far. “Ago” has also won 7 350cc world championships giving him a total of 15 world titles to Valentino’s 9 (a 125cc title in 1997 and 250cc title in 1999 with Aprilia). Agostini has also won 10 Isle of Mann TT’s, the only non-British rider to do so. Rossi though has won world titles in three capacity classes to ‘”Ago’s” two.

Detractors of Agostini’s accomplishments like to point out that during his domination of the Grand Prix that he had superior multi-cylinder four-stroke machinery of the MV Agusta factory team at his disposal with mainly outdated British four-stroke singles to contend with. That is to a degree is true but ‘Ago” still had to deal with the likes of Mike Hailwood, Jim Redman and Phil Read as either teammates or factory supported Honda riders along the way as well as the ever-improving Japanese two-strokes that were gaining traction in both the 350cc and 500cc class during his career. And indeed it was Agostini in 1974 that won the first MotoGP (500cc) riders title on a four-cylinder two-stroke; a first also for Yamaha and Japan. Interestingly it was Rossi that won the last two-stroke World Championship and the first for the new 990cc four-strokes with Honda in 2001 and 2002.

Both “Ago” and Valentino have similarly won championships in the premier class with two different manufacturers and are part of an elite group of five that has done so in the sixty-seven-year history of the championship. The others are Geoff Duke, Eddie Lawson and Casey Stoner.

Five times World Champion Geoff Duke on the Gilera.

Five times World Champion Geoff Duke on the Gilera.

It should also be pointed out that Giacomo’s 122 Grand Prix wins were accrued over thirteen years from 186 starts, while Rossi has been in the Grand Prix for twenty years and accumulated his 114 (as this is written) wins from 341 starts.

Another relevant point is the danger factor. Grand Prix motorcycle racing has always been a hazardous sport and even this year the paddock grieved another fatality when Luis Salom suffered a fatal crash in free practice for the Moto2 race in Catalunya. But during Agostini’s career in the 1960’s and early 1970’s fatalities were commonplace and many of the circuits were considered deadly. Surprisingly “Ago” was quoted as saying that his favourite tracks were the Isle of Man TT, the old Nurburgring, the old Spa, Opatija and the old Brno circuit, the five most deadly tracks in Grand Prix motorcycle racing history. Remember too, that it was during this period that the “pudding basin” helmet was considered standard “safety equipment”.

Greatness though is not necessarily statistics but perhaps the perception of the groups of fans who love the sport and have lived through different eras. Take Geoff Duke, for example, a six-time World Champion (two 350cc and four 500cc titles) during the sports infancy in the 1950’s, notching up a number of firsts. He was the first man to win two titles (350cc and 500cc) in the same season (1951), the first to win 3 consecutive 500cc titles (1953, 1954 and 1955) and also the first to win MotoGP (500c) titles with two different manufacturers (Norton and Gilera).

And what of John Surtees? Surtees won the premier 500cc Grand Prix crown on four occasions (1956, 1958, 1959 and 1960) and the 350cc G.P. title on three occasions (1958, 1959 and 1960) for a total of seven championships on two wheels, before he clinched the Formula One car title at the last race in Mexico in 1964, the only person ever to win the premier class on two wheels and four.

John Surtees rides his MV Agusta to victory at the 1958 Isle of Man TT.

Surtees rides his MV Augusta to victory at the Isle of Man.

But to many Mike Hailwood remains a true icon of Grand Prix motorcycle racing. Equal to Rossi with 9 world championships in three different classes (three 250cc, two 350cc and four 500cc) during a ten-year career with 76 wins from 152 starts in the late 1950’s and 1960’s that included 14 Isle of Man TT victories. Remarkably after an 11-year break from motorcycle racing, Hailwood returned to the Island and won the F1 TT in 1978 and the Senior TT in 1979.

The list goes on with names like Phil Read. A 7 times world champion in three classes (the 125cc in 1968, the 250cc in 1964, 65, 68 and 1971, and the 500cc 1973 and 1974) he accumulated 52 wins from 152 starts, again during the hazardous days of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

But if dominance was the criteria for being a G.O.A.T. then one needs to look no further than Mick Doohan. During a 10-year career between 1989 and 1999, Doohan won 54 500cc Grand Prix and achieved 95 podiums from 137 starts with five consecutive World Championships (equalled only by Rossi).  In 1997 Doohan amassed an amazing 12 wins and 2 second places from 15 races. This has only been surpassed by the youngest rider to win a MotoGP World Championship, Marq Marquez, with 13 wins, but from 18 races, on the way to his second World title in 2014. Add to this the fact that Doohan’s superiority occurred after he had sustained debilitating injuries to his left leg during practice for the Dutch TT at Assen during what should have been a dominant season and a convincing first world title.

So indeed the argument for the greatest of all time will continue between fans and journalists alike, on the Internet, in pubs and at racetracks around the world, revealing the genuine passion we all have for what is the greatest of all motorsports.

Words Geoff Dawes © 2016 Images courtesy http://www.crash.net, http://www.metzeler.com, http://www.theguardian.com.

50 Years of Grand Prix Legacy

Left to right: Masahiko Nakajima (President of Yamaha Motor Racing) Phil Read and Marco Riva (General Manager of Yamaha Motor Racing)

Left to right: Masahiko Nakajima President of Yamaha Motor Racing, Phil Read and Marco Riva General Manager of Yamaha Motor Racing.

Saturday the 13th of September represented a significant milestone for Yamaha Factory Racing. Exactly fifty years had passed since the Iwata based company attained its first world championship with the two-stroke 250cc RD56 when English motorcycle legend Phil Read won the Nations Grand Prix at Monza.

Read was on hand at the Misano World Circuit Marco Simoncelli to present Masahiko Nakajima (President of Yamaha Motor Racing) and Marco Riva (General Manager of Yamaha Motor Racing) with his original 1964 F.I.M. World Championship certificate. The certificate will now take pride of place at Yamaha’s Hall Of Fame in Japan. A copy of the certificate has been made that will be signed by all those present to mark the occasion and in return will be presented to Read.

Phil Read went on to win a total of eight world titles across four classes, 125GP, 250GP, 500GP and TTF1. His career is littered with impressive achievements, including eight IOM TT race wins, 121 Grand Prix podiums and four 250cc world titles which have only ever been equalled by Max Biaggi. Alongside Mike Hailwood and fellow Yamaha icon Valentino Rossi, Phil is one of only three riders to have won road-racing world championships in three or more classes.

Read receives the trophies and takes the 1964 250cc World Championship.

Read receives the trophies and takes the 1964 250cc World Championship.

Read was quoted as saying, “This special evening to celebrate my bringing Yamaha’s first world title to them after 50 years is like coming home to the happy team, the reception has been fantastic, it’s overwhelming for me to see I get this recognition. I’m lucky to be here after fifty years of racing! It’s also thrilling to be here in Misano with Jorge on pole and Valentino so close on the front row too. It’s a little different now, from 1964; I came to Monza with two factory 250 Yamaha RD56s in the back of my car with one English mechanic and a Japanese mechanic who came over for the race in Monza. I think we had our carburettor settings written on a postcard! I still feel as much part of the Yamaha family today as I did then, and feel privileged to have started a run of world championship success that has continued to this day.”

Marco Riva, Yamaha Motor Racing, General Manager responded, “Our success with the RD56 wrote a page in motorcycle history. It was very competitive for many years and is still, in my opinion, the best race bike. Our aim has always been to have the rider at the centre of our racing project, Phil and other Yamaha icons such as Giacomo Agostini, Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo are all still the most important factor. We are the only manufacturer that raced from the beginning of the world championship to now, we’ve never stopped and this is something very special. We are honoured to have Phil here with us to celebrate this anniversary. He is an icon in motorcycle racing, fourth in the all-time world rankings with eight world titles. We hold riders such as Phil in a special place in our hearts over these years for allowing us to win these titles together.”

Yamaha followed Japanese rivals Honda and Suzuki into the World Championship Motorcycle Road Racing Grands Prix in 1961. Since the inception of the F.I.M. World Championship Grands Prix in 1949, Yamaha has won 38 manufacturers titles and 37 riders titles that cover 125cc, 250cc, 350cc, 500cc and MotoGP.

Words Geoff Dawes © 2014. Images courtesy Movistar Yamaha Factory Racing.

Who The Hell Is Steve Baker?

When American Kenny Roberts invaded the European Grands Prix in 1978, the two times AMA Grand National Champion left an indelible mark on the World Championship.  Not only did Roberts become the first American to win a 500cc world title  (the first of three), he also brought to Europe an American dirt track style of racing that would change the face of the sport forever.   Not only that, Roberts was also instrumental in improving paddock conditions, safety and appearance money after ruffling the FIM and establishment’s feathers by proposing a breakaway “World Series” to compete with the Grands Prix.

The quiet achiever Steve Baker.

The quiet achiever Steve Baker.

It’s therefore somewhat understandable that when the question of who was the first American to win a 500cc Grand Prix, it’s assumed it was Kenny.

In fact, it was a fellow Californian, Pat Hennen. Hennen started racing in the 500cc World Championship in 1976 for Suzuki GB and won his and America’s first 500cc Grand Prix in Finland that year. He also finished a creditable third in the Championship.  Hennen performed the same feat the following year, this time winning British Grand Prix and placing third again in the Championship. In 1978 Hennen won in Spain but suffered a severe race crash at the Isle of Man TT, which ended his career.

So who was the first American to win an FIM road racing World Championship? Ditto, again it’s assumed to be Roberts.

It was, however, a diminutive, unassuming, and quietly spoken character by the name of Steve Baker. Born on the 5th of September 1952 in Bellingham, Washington State, Baker, like so many of the American World Champions that followed, started out a dirt tracker.   At age 11 he would spend hours riding the many dirt trails around his hometown and at 16 began to race on short track and the TT dirt tracks of the Pacific Northwest. By the early 1970’s Steve had become one of the top-ranked novices, and junior TT riders in America.  Baker was by now racing in events up and down the west coast of the United States and Canada.

Baker at work on Yamaha Canada TZ750.

Baker at work on Yamaha Canada TZ750.

Steve then turned his hand to road racing, mainly in Canada, competing in as many as five classes during a typical weekend. It wasn’t long before Baker had a hat trick of Canadian road racing titles to his name in the 500cc expert class, taking the number one plate in 1974, 1975 and 1976.  1976 was a good year for Baker who also took out the 250cc and unlimited expert class as well.

Baker had begun racing professionally in 1973 with sponsorship from Yamaha Canada’s Trevor Deeley, with Bob Work as his tuner. Baker’s debut in his first AMA national was at the 1973 Daytona 200 in which he finished 28th.  It was not until September that year that Baker showed his true potential with a creditable 2nd place to former 250cc World Champion Kel Carruthers at Talladega in Alabama.  Unfortunately, it was on the same circuit the following year that Baker crashed and broke his leg, leaving him sidelined for the rest of the year.

Bakers comeback ride was at Daytona in 1975 and it netted him a commendable 2nd place to Gene Romero. But it was in 1976 that Baker’s star really shone.  Now one of only five riders to receive a “works” OW31 TZ750 Yamaha, it proved to be an awe-inspiring combination.  Baker qualified 2nd to Kenny Roberts at the season opening Daytona 200, but during the race suffered mechanical problems after holding down third place.  Disappointment turned to success at the next two FIM Formula 750 Prize events in Venezuela and at Imola in Italy with Baker winning both of the 200-mile races.

Baker on the grid alongside future factory teammate Johnny Ceccotto.

Baker on the grid at Imola alongside future factory teammate Johnny Cecotto.

On the home front, he recorded his first AMA national victory at the Loudon Classic in June and backed it up with a win in the 250cc race.  Baker repeated this at Laguna Seca again winning both the national and 250cc race.  1976 was also Baker’s debut in the Trans-Atlantic Match Races, a series that pitted a team of America’s best riders against seasoned English racers on circuits in the UK. Baker won four of the six races finishing second and fourth in the other two and was top points scorer of the series.  This was against riders of the calibre of Kenny Roberts, Barry Sheene and former world champion Phil Read.  Baker followed this up later that year with a win in the prestigious Race of the Year at Mallory Park beating the likes of 500cc World Champion Barry Sheene and multiple World Champion Giacomo Agostini amongst others.

For 1977 the FIM Formula 750 Prize had been granted full World Championship status with the season starting Daytona 200 as the opening round.  Baker by now had been drafted into the official Yamaha factory squad to contest not only the new 750cc World Championship but the 500cc World Championship as well alongside Johnny Ceccotto while Giacomo Agostini was provided with “works” machinery through the Italian Yamaha importer.

Baker leads Roberts both on the OW31.

Baker leads Roberts both on the OW31.

Finally, everything seemed to come together for Baker at Daytona, qualifying on pole position and winning the race.  Baker also clinched the double by winning the International Lightweight 250cc race. The F750 World Championship consisted of eleven rounds most of which (unlike the Grands Prix) consisted of two heats. Six of the circuits Baker had raced on before and with the mighty OW31 at his disposal he was able to win five of the rounds, coming second in three and third in two. Baker never finished off the podium in the 10 rounds he contested. His nearest rival Frenchman Christian Sarron was 76 points behind.  America, at last, had its first FIM road racing World Champion.

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Diminutive Baker manhandles the OW31 through the infield.

But it was the 500cc World Championship that Yamaha was most eager to capture.  The Japanese company had first entered the blue riband 500cc class in 1973 with 1972 250cc World Champion Jarno Saarinen.  Unfortunately, Saarinen was killed in the 250cc race at Monza while leading the point’s table in the 500cc class. Yamaha withdrew for the rest of the season but returned in 1974 with the great Giacomo Agostini.  Agostini went on to win the title for Yamaha in 1975 giving them and Japan their first 500cc World Championship. But in 1976 rival Japanese manufacturer Suzuki with the talented Barry Sheene had taken the title away. Yamaha was required to save face.

In 1977 the 500cc GP’s were also contested over eleven rounds, but many of the circuits were new to Baker. Steve was reported to have said in a recent interview that he was “overwhelmed by Europe” when contesting the championship.  Not only were their new circuits to learn there was also the question of racing in the rain, something that did not occur in the United States.  On top of that, there was the culture shock of living outside of the states. Then, of course, there were the street circuits, which were part of the Grand Prix calendar.  Spa in Belguim, Imatra in Finland, Brno in Czechoslovakia and Opitijia in Yugoslavia all could prove deadly and finding the right place to make up time or take calculated risks could only come from experience. Let’s not forget that 1977 saw the British Grand Prix on the mainland for the first time (at Silverstone) after the top riders of the day vetoed that most deadly of all road courses, the Isle of Man TT.  Even the closed circuits at that time could not be considered “safe” by today’s standards and fatalities regularly took place.

It was with this backdrop that Baker contested the championship, taking on seasoned campaigners like World Champion Sheene and a flotilla of “works” or factory supported RG500 Suzuki’s, not to mention his own teammate Ceccotto and Agostini on the other factory Yamaha YZR500 0W35’s.

At the end of a tough season, Baker finished in a creditable second place to World Champion Barry Sheene.  He had scored second place three times, third place three times, fourth once and fifth once.  The second round of the 500cc Championship had been boycotted in Austria at the Salzburgring after an accident in the 350cc race that saw one rider killed and several others badly injured, including Baker’s teammate Johnny Ceccoto, who broke his arm. In the other two races that made up the series in Finland and Czechoslovakia Baker suffered mechanical problems which blunted his final points tally,  80 to Sheene’s 107.

Always fast.

Always fast.

With such a performance in his rookie year, a factory contract for 1978 might have been expected.  The only thing that Baker hadn’t achieved was winning a 500cc Grand Prix.  Unfortunately Yamaha top brass witnessed a domestic bust up between Baker and his fiancé Bonnie with his sister and Bob Work at the Dutch TT in Assen.  This seemed to seal Steve’s fate and a contract was not forthcoming.

The Gallina team signed Baker for the following season on a private Suzuki RG500, but against the factory machinery he could only achieve seventh in the championship, his best result a third place podium in Venezuela.  Baker also competed in the F750 World Championship for the Gallina team on a production Yamaha TZ750E although he was “allowed” to ride Yamaha Canada’s factory OW31 in North America.  Daytona was no longer part of the F750 World Championship in 1978, although it was still the most important road race in America. Baker suffered a DNF through mechanical failure while in second place chasing Kenny Roberts. The season turned out to be one of mechanical failures and risky strategy for Baker, desperate to try and compete with the “works” machines. To cap off a disastrous season, at the last round at Mosport in Canada, Baker was involved in another riders fatal practice crash. Baker escaped with a badly broken arm and leg.

Steve finished sixth in the Championship with his best results being two-second places at Imola and Laguna Seca and a third place at Paul Ricard. The following season, in 1979, Baker was set to race in the MCN/Superbike championship in the UK riding a Yamaha TZ750F for Sid Griffiths.  At the second round of the series, at Brands Hatch, Baker crashed entering Paddock Hill bend and sustained similar injuries to his Mosport crash of the previous year.

Bakers privateer Gallina TZ750D.

Bakers privateer Gallina TZ750E.

Steve Baker left the sport without having the chance to fully fulfil his enormous potential and returned home to open a Yamaha dealership in his hometown of Bellingham, which he runs to this day. Often overlooked as America’s first World Champion, Baker holds no grudges, and there is no bitterness, only a modest gratitude to have been able to enjoy the experience.

In recent years Baker has ridden for the Yamaha Classic Racing Team at numerous classic events around Europe, jogging peoples memories while attracting new fans, and reminding us all of the very special the talent that is, Steve Baker.

Words Geoff Dawes © 2014. Images courtesy http://www.global.yamaha-motor.com, http://www.aircooledrdclub.com, http://www.classicmotorcycles.net and http://www.ge-board.de

Life Without Rossi

It was not that long ago that the very thought of MotoGP without Valentino Rossi was almost heresy.  Although Rossi’s eventual retirement was an inevitable reality, there was some consternation about the future popularity of the sport and its existence as a saleable commodity without him.  Rossi’s ability to engage such a wide demographic of fans, from children to retirees has given Grand Prix motorcycle racing the kind of exposure that other forms of motorsport would dearly love to have had. His post race antics, charm and humility, coupled with an amazing ability to push a Grand Prix racing motorcycle to the very limit, using racecraft so ruthless it enabled him to regularly outwit his many opponents is legendary.

Rossi on his 2001 Championship winning NSR500 two-stroke.

Rossi on his 2001 Championship winning NSR500 two-stroke.

Rossi is arguably the greatest rider of all time, having won a record 80 MotoGP compared to the 68 of the great Giacomo Agostini.  But next month, on February 16th Valentino will celebrate his 35th birthday, and after three years with only one win, Rossi has given himself six races before he decides whether he will continue in MotoGP in 2015.  That sixth race will be his “home” Grand Prix at Mugello a race he has won a record seven times.

The surprise sacking of longtime crew chief, Jeremy Burgess, at the 2013 season ending race in Valencia, sent shock waves through the paddock.  As Burgess pointed out at a pre-race press conference “I’ve read many sports biographies and quite often the top sportsman in the latter part of his career will have a change of caddy or a change of coach and this is what we’re working on. We worked on fixing the problem for four years and this is part of that fix and this is the next step to try and get Valentino back on top.” But is there more to Valentino’s lack of form since his last championship in 2009?

Valentino on the 990cc RC211V Honda 5 cylinder four-stroke.

Valentino on the 990cc RC211V Honda 5 cylinder four-stroke.

Burgess has also mentioned the “survival gene” that kicks in when a rider reaches their thirties and can erode a competitor’s ability to push to the absolute limits on a Grand Prix motorcycle.  Micheal Scott, a longtime Grand Prix journalist and the editor of the authoritative annual Motocourse, had previously noted in his column, that during his long career Rossi had always possessed that bit of luck which saved him from serious injury when involved in a practice or race crash.  That was not the case however in 2010. Rossi suffered a pre-season Motocross accident that badly affected his right shoulder and was not rectified until after the season had finished. But more tellingly a practice crash at Mugello, a circuit that Rossi had so much success on, bit back, giving the Italian a broken leg and for the first a time in his career caused him to miss not just one race, but three. Was the magic waning?

Rossi after winning the 2010 Malaysian GP aboard his beloved 800cc four-stroke Yamaha YZR-M1.

Rossi after winning the 2010 Malaysian GP aboard his beloved 800cc four-stroke Yamaha YZR-M1.

Dealing with a recalcitrant Ducati in 2011 and 2012 did little to admonish the growing number of doubters that believed Rossi’s star was on the decline. Perhaps more tragically though was the effect that Valentino’s innocent involvement in Marco Simoncelli’s fatal accident in Malaysia may have had.  I for one cannot comprehend how difficult it must have been for Valentino to deal with.

The most reassuring thing about Rossi though is his love of racing and commitment to the sport. As the owner of a new Team Sky- VR46 Moto3 team, which he formed in a bid to help cultivate young Italian talent for the Grand Prix, there is no doubt that Rossi’s presence and star quality will thankfully be around the paddock for many years to come.

Words Geoff Dawes ©2013. Images http://www.sportrider.us, http://www.hdwallres.com and http://www.yamaharacing.com