Tag Archives: Giacomo Agostini

The Yamaha YSK3 “Sankito”


When is a factory racer not a factory racer? The enigma of the “Sankito”.

The ascendency of the Japanese factories in Grand Prix motorcycle racing during the 1960’s brought with it a technical revolution that escalated at a breathtaking pace. The battle for supremacy in the different capacity classes between the advanced two-stroke racers from Yamaha and Suzuki to take on the might of the multi-cylinder four-stroke Honda’s forced the governing body of Grand Prix racing, the Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme, to act. 1969 saw new regulations that placed a restriction on the number of cylinders and gearbox ratio’s allowed as well as a new minimum weight for the different capacity classes. The aim was to allow European manufacturers to remain competitive by reducing the cost of developing new Grand Prix machinery.

Unfortunately, it saw an exodus by the Japanese works teams from the World Championships heralding in a new decade of the privateer, with Yamaha and Suzuki providing reasonably priced production racers to individuals and dealer teams, while their European importers received the latest factory versions. To a certain extent, it levelled the Grand Prix racing playing field; a good privateer could develop their production racer to be competitive against even the factory-supported teams.

However, what is uncommon for this period is a privately built racer to be adopted by a Japanese factory through its European arm and used to win a World Championship. The story of the “Sankito” (an amalgam of the Japanese words for three and cylinder) used by Takazumi Katayama to win the 1977 350cc World Championship is indeed an unusual one.

The engine was offset due to the additional cylinder.

The origins of the Yamaha triple lay with Swiss sidecar racer Rudi Kurth, an innovative and talented engineer. Kurth had built a 500cc three-cylinder engine based on the twin cylinder Yamaha TD3 by having special crankcases cast that would accept an extra cylinder. Built specifically for sidecar racing, it proved, in 1976 form, that with a bore and stroke of 64mm x 51.8mm and a capacity of 499cc, to be more powerful than the World Championship winning Konig engine and was on a par with the hybrid Yamaha TZ 500 four-cylinder engine (TZ 750 crankcase and heads using TZ250cc barrels) but was lighter and more compact.

But although the genesis of the Sankito belonged to Kurth, it was former Yamaha racing mechanic Ferry Brouwer that developed the concept to a point that Yamaha Motor in the Netherlands adopted it as an official project.

Brouwer had been the race mechanic and friend to rising star Jarno Saarinen. But after Saarinen’s tragic death at Monza in the 1973 Nations 250cc Grand Prix, he decided to leave the Yamaha race team and take a job as the head mechanic at a new motorcycle dealership in Amersfoort Holland called Ton van Heugthen Motors. Ton was a successful sidecar motocross racer, and besides developing an XS 650 Yamaha powered outfit for his boss, with which he won the European Championship, Brouwer was also given the freedom to set up a road racing team to compete in mainly Dutch road racing events with Kees van der Kruijis as there rider.

During his years at Yamaha Ferry had developed an extremely good relationship with Minoru Tanaka who had run the factory race team. When Tanaka heard of Brouwer’s plans to set up the Ton van Heugten Racing Team running 250 and 350 Yamaha’s, he spontaneously offered some help by supplying spare parts and tuning data. Tanaka later mentioned that he had been in contact with Rudi Kurth and suggested that they visit him in Biel, Switzerland. Tanaka’s idea was to see if Kurth could make some crankcases, cylinders and cylinder heads for Yamaha so that T.v.H. Racing Team could build a 500cc three-cylinder solo racer.

With the modified bodywork the YSK3 had its own unique look.

After receiving the parts Brouwer built up the 500cc triple using standard Yamaha components. The bore and stroke were 64mm x 51.5mm giving an engine displacement of 496.7cc. The only non-standard piece of hardware was a German Krober ignition and Brouwer even used a modified TZ frame for the chassis.

While working on the 500cc triple one night, Brouwer came up with the idea of building a 350cc triple. By using the standard 54mm cylinders bore of the TZ 250cc machine and the splined crankshaft of the TD2 that had a stroke of 50mm, it created a capacity of 343.3cc with the added benefit that the individual crankshafts could be set at a 120 degrees firing order. Ferry rang Tanaka who organised the TD2 crankshafts, which Yamaha in Japan still had in stock and within a week work began on the 350cc triple.

The first race meeting for the 350cc triple was a Dutch Championship round at Mill. Although proving to be fast the triple was also unreliable as the crankshaft was causing problems. Brouwer suggested to Tanaka that they ask Hoeckle in Germany to make crankshafts for the 350 and 500 triples. Hoeckle crankshafts were being used successfully on TZ250 and 350 Yamaha’s and it would also give them the chance to increase engine capacity slightly. With the new crankshaft, it enlarged the stroke from 50mm to 50.5mm taking the capacity from 343.3cc to 346.79cc with greatly improved reliability.

Meanwhile, Van der Kruijis was having success winning several international races and the Dutch 250cc Championship on a TZ250cc Yamaha as well as finishing 5th in the 500cc class behind the likes of Wil Hartog, Boet van Dulmen and Jack Middleburg on the 500 triple. This success prompted Tanaka to enter the 350cc triple in the World Championship for 1977. The “Sankito” now was an official Yamaha Motor NV project and put in the care of 1973 and 1974 125cc World Champion, Swede, Kent Anderson who would with Trevor Tilbury develop the project.

The triple produced 15bhp more the TZ350cc twin.

Hard-charging Japanese, Takazumi Katayama and the legendary Giacomo Agostini were named as the riders for the 1977 season. Brouwer and his team would carry on developing the 500cc version building a completely new machine with a strengthened clutch by adding two plates and larger diameter carburettors and different port timing that boosted power output to 98bhp at the rear wheel. Nico Bakker supplied the frame and the new 500 became a real threat to the RG500 Suzuki’s.

Bakker also supplied frames for the official “Sankito” 350cc project although a standard TZ frame would also be available. At the same time, Spondon Engineering in the UK was asked to build a chassis as well. Brouwer and his fellow mechanics, Jerry van der Heiden and Melvyn Frey continued to develop the 500cc triple trying out ideas that would help improve the official “Sankito” project. The T.v.H. Racing Team still had a workshop to run and could only work on the race bikes in the evenings and weekends. Their hard work though resulted in a 3rd place for Kees van der Kruijis on the 500 in the 1977 Dutch Championship behind Grand Prix regulars Will Hartog and Boet van Dulmen.

But it was the 350cc “Sankito” that would prove to be a world-beater. By now the triple was producing approximately 15bhp more than the TZ twin and on a rainy March weekend it was entered in a Dutch national meeting at Tilburg and immediately set the fastest practice lap. Race day dawned with pouring rain and Katayama elected to use his TZ 350cc twin as the ‘Sankito” had revealed some handling issues in practice. The TZ 350 twin did the job and Katayama notched up the win. The next outing for the triple was in April at Mettet in Belguim and its performance was sensational. With no 350cc class to compete in Katayama ran the machine in the 500cc class. On the first lap, the engine would not fire cleanly putting Katayama in18th place before the motor came on full song. By the end of the race, he had passed numerous RG500cc Suzuki’s to take third place while closing in on the leaders.

Meanwhile, the World Championship had kicked off in Venezuela without either Katayama or Agostini. It was left up to Venezuelan and Yamaha’s 1975 350cc World Champion to represent the Yamaha factory, which he did in style with a decisive win riding the TZ350cc twin. The second round of the championship was in Austria at the Salzburgring and things did not go well, with Katayama crashing the “Sankito” in Friday practice necessitating a major rebuild for Saturday’s qualifying. Katayama could only manage 3rd on the grid but a major pileup during the race, including one fatality and Ceccotto breaking his arm, saw the race abandoned with no points awarded.

Katayama hard at work on the “Sankito”.

Next in the World Championship was the West German Grand Prix at Hockenheim and the result vindicated Brouwer and Tanaka’s belief in the “Sankito”. Both Katayama and Agostini were entered on the 350cc triple, but it was Katayama that romped away to win by over 15 seconds from Agostini. “Ago” had got a poor start, but in fighting his way up to second place he had also set a new lap record. Katayama had used the standard TZ chassis but felt its weight and the bulkier engine was detracting from even more potential performance.

At this point Agostini decided to concentrate his efforts on the Yamaha TZ350cc twin and Katayama also used the twin for the next round at the Italian Grand Prix at Imola, picking up a third place podium. The TZ350cc twin was proving more suited to handle the tighter sections at some circuits. Next came Jarama in Spain and another 3rd place for Katayama on the TZ350cc twin. The sixth round of the championship was the high-speed circuit of Paul Ricard for the French Grand Prix. As if to underline the potential of the triple, Katayama won the Grand Prix by over 24 seconds and also set a new lap record. This “Sankito” used the Spondon chassis although Katayama still was not happy with the handling.

When the chassis was destroyed in a fiery crash at a race meeting at Chimay in Belgium the Nico Bakker monoshock was put into service for the rest of the season. Katayama had broken his collarbone in the accident but it did not hold him back from winning the Yugoslavian Grand Prix at the Adriatic coastal town of Opatija. Coming from behind on TZ350cc twin he set the first 100mph lap of the circuit and established a 30-point lead in the championship.

Katayama suffered his first DNF of the season with a broken gear lever at the Dutch TT at Assen after fighting his way up to fourth, again on the TZ350cc twin. The points gap now narrowed to 18 over title rival Michel Rougerie who finished second. The Finnish Grand Prix at Imatra was next on the calendar, a track well suited to the “Sankito” triple. Despite a mediocre start in damp conditions and on slick tyres, Katayama would not be denied, winning by over 3 seconds and taking the 350cc World Championship title. Known affectionately in the paddock as “Zooming Taxi”, Takazumi Katayama became first Japanese to win a World Championship. Of the eight rounds, he contested he claimed five 350cc Grand Prix victories two third place podiums and a DNF. Three of his five victories were on the adopted “Sankito” and two on the official TZ350cc twin. In fact, apart from the abandoned 350cc Austrian race, the “Sankito” won every Grand Prix it was entered in.

Katayama on his way to becoming Japan’s first World Champion.

Politics at Yamaha Japan now started to play out, as the factory was not interested in developing the 350cc triple. Their main focus was the TZ twin cylinder racers whose bloodline could be traced back to the road going models the company sold. The “Sankito” once again became a mainly private project for 1978. Separate cylinders were cast to replace the one-piece block of the previous year and Lectron carburettors, as well as a White Power monoshock, were used. It also had the expansion chambers reversed with two exiting on the right and one on the left.

This last version of the “Sankito” was shipped to Venezuela for the first 350cc Grand Prix of the 1978 season for Katayama to use but problems with the machine saw him revert to the TZ 350cc twin to win the first race of the season in his title defence. At this point, the “Sankito” project was abandoned, as Yamaha Japan had no real interest in developing this unique triple any further.

Words © Geoff Dawes 2017. Images courtesy of http://www.cml.blogs.editions-lva.fr, http://www.icpbrasil.wordpress.com, http://www.vk.com


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.

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.


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.


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.


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