Tag Archives: MV Agusta

From Russia With Love – The Vostok Racers

Endel Kiisa aboard the 500cc Vostok four-cylinder S-565.

At the end of the Second World War former allies, the United States of America and the communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics entered into a period that was aptly described as “the cold war”. Both superpowers, armed with ideological distrust and a large arsenal of atomic weapons, knew that a direct confrontation would only bring about mutually assured destruction.

Each side fought the other indirectly by trying to influence foreign countries politically and economically while also aspiring to claim global prestige on the high ground of advanced technology – in particular, what became known in the 1960’s as the “Space Race”.

It was no doubt a rude shock to America when in 1961 the Soviets put the first man into space to orbit the earth in the spacecraft Vostok 1. Vostok (meaning Orient or East) became a household name around the world and one that was adopted by the communists for a little-known foray into World Championship Grand Prix motorcycle racing.

Although the former eastern block countries of Czechoslovakia and East Germany are better recognised for their motorcycle production and Grand Prix prowess, thanks to CZ, Jawa and MZ, it was in the town of Serpukhov 99km south of Moscow that these not so widely known Russian racers were built.

In 1942 the Central Construction and Experimental Bureau were established in Serpukhov with the aim of providing research and development for the numerous mass production motorcycle factories dotted around the USSR, in a bid to help the Soviet war effort during the Second World War.

Single cylinder engine of a 125cc S-157 racer.

At the end of the conflict German motorcycle manufacturer, DKW fell into the hands of the Soviets. In the1930’s DKW had been the largest manufacturer of motorcycles in the world. The Russians plundered the Zschopau factory confiscating its technology and taking it to the Serpukhov Bureau,

Unsurprisingly this spawned blatant copies of the two-stroke DKW racers. The S1B, the S2B and the S3B were all reproductions of pre-war DKW’s with capacities of 125cc, 250cc and 350cc while the “S” (sometimes referred to as “C” which translated from the Russian Cyrillic alphabet stands for “S”) in the acronym stood for the town of Serpukhov.

Motorcycle competition and record-breaking took place post-war in the USSR but there was no participation in international events. The Soviet motorsport governing body the URSS was not affiliated with the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) but by 1954 the communists became interested in competing on the international stage. The Central Automobile and Motor Cycle Club of Moscow joined the FIM two years later on the 1st of January 1956.

But in 1954, in preparation for entry into international road racing, the Serpukhov Bureau designed (believed to be by Evgenij Mathiushin) a new series of four-stroke racers simply designated “S” for Serpukhov. The classification of these racers was quite simple. The S-154 had a 125cc capacity represented by the “1” and “54” was merely the year it was designed.

Its architecture was double overhead camshaft driven by shaft and gears on the right-hand side. The single cylinder was slightly inclined with a “square” bore and stroke of 54 x 54mm giving a capacity of 123cc and an output of 12.5hp. The chassis resembled a smaller version of the Norton Featherbed frame while the overall weight was approximately 80kgs with a top speed around 140kph.

S-254 was designed as a 250cc twin cylinder four-stroke racer with the same “square” dimensions of 54 x 54mm as the S-154 and also used double overhead camshafts, this time driven by an inclined shaft on the right hand side of the engine to the inlet camshaft which in turn on its left hand end used gears and a pinion to turn the exhaust camshaft. Ignition was by coil while twin carburettors supplied the fuel and final drive was by a five-speed gearbox. Weight was 126kg and with 23bhp available, at 8,200rpm it boasted a top speed of 150kmh. For the chassis, a Featherbed type frame with earls type front forks was utilised and initially, a dustbin fairing was supplied.

Serpukhov’s 350cc machine was the S-354 and of the same design as the S-254 but with the bore and stroke taken out to 60 x 61mm for 348cc. Power was initially 33bhp at 8,200rpm and with a weight of 144kg was capable of 165kph. It used a duplex cradle frame was best described as a cross between a Manx Norton and a BSA Gold Star design and utilised earls type fork. A “bikini” fairing provided the aerodynamics.

The twin cylinder engine of the S-254 250cc racer.

Then came the S-555, a 500cc version basically a bored out version of the 350cc S-354. With a bore and stroke of 72 x 61mm giving short stroke engine a capacity of 498cc with a claimed power output of 47bhp at 7,400rpm and a top speed of 190kph.

There was also a 175cc machine simply designated the S-175. This was not a bored out S-154 or half of the 350 twin and had a bore and stroke of 64 x 54mm for 174cc. It utilised a vertical cylinder like the later version of S-154, the S-157, and also boasted a twin-plug cylinder head, which became a feature of the S range in 1960. Although it was not an eligible capacity for international racing, a 175cc category was introduced into Soviet national competition.

With no official factory based team running on a permanent basis the Bureau loaned the “S” racers to preferred motorcycle clubs in the major cities. These machines were made accessible to promising road racers as they were well in advance of the out-dated two-strokes and altered road bikes that were available to the majority of competitors in national events.

Although these machines competed with a certain amount of success in race meetings mainly in the USSR, it was the Czechoslovakian manufacturer Jawa that in 1957 appeared to have a machine capable of competing at an international level bringing a halt to the development of the Serpukhov factories middleweight DOHC racers the S-257 and S-358. Czech racer Franta Stastny had ridden a Jawa 250cc racer to 12th place in the 1957 Lightweight TT on the demanding Isle of Man Mountain Course. This brought about a closer collaboration between the Serpukhov Bureau and Jawa. It effectively saw replicas of the Jawa 250cc, and 350cc racers re-badged as S-259 and S-360 Serpukhov machines, although a number of components were made in Russia.

These two “S” racers used twin overhead camshafts driven by a vertical bevel shaft positioned behind the two cylinders, driving the inlet camshaft and a horizontal shaft across the top of the engine to drive the exhaust camshaft. The cylinders were inclined at 10 degrees and a heavily finned wet sump held the engine oil. The cylinder head sported two valves per cylinder and twin spark plugs with a battery and coil ignition. A pair of Amal carburettors provided the fuel and final drive was via a six-speed gearbox.

The frame for the two racers was conventional tubular construction either diamond or Featherbed with 19-inch wheels. The 248cc version had a bore and stroke of 55 x 52 mm and produced 38bhp at 11,000rpm. With a weight of 128kgs, a top speed of 190 km/h could be reached. It’s thought the 350cc version had a bore and stroke of 62 x 57.6mm and approximately 46bhp 10,300 rpm with a weight of 130kgs. 210 km/h was thought to be the top speed.

Endel Kiisa aboard the S-360 350cc racer.

The Jawa replicas were a step in the right direction for the Serpukhov Bureau. Russian rider Nikolai Sevostianov on the S-360 claimed third place in May 1961 at the Djurgardslopper international race meeting held at Helsinki in Finland.

It should be noted that the Jawa 350cc “version” did considerably well over the course of the 1961 Grand Prix season with factory riders Franta Statsny and Gustav Havel claiming a double 1st and 2nd places in the German and Swedish Grand Prix’ eventually finishing 2nd and 3rd in the 350cc World Championship

More progress came when the Soviet team made their debut in the World Championships at the East German Grand Prix at the Sachsenring in August 1962. By now the “S” racers were sometimes entered as CKB or on occasion as CKEB in reference to the Central Construction and Experimental Bureau in Serpukhov. Again it was Russian rider Sevostianov that provided the results finishing fifth in the 250cc class and in the 350cc category a fine sixth place.

The team returned again in 1963 to the East German Grand Prix taking fifth place for Sevostianov riding the S-360 in the 350cc class. Sevostianov accomplished an even better result at the Finnish G.P. held at the Tampere circuit coming home in fourth in the 350cc category, although there is a side story to this result as the outcome may have been a Podium. The following is the doyen of motorcycle journalists Chris Carter’s recollection of the event published in his book “Chris Carter at Large.”

Carter, “Mike Hailwood was there on his 350cc and 500cc MV Agusta’s, and there was a Russian guy on one of these Russian four-cylinder Vostoks (authors note: in fact a twin cylinder S-360). Down the straight, he kept looking across at Hailwood, and he wouldn’t brake for the first-right hander until Hailwood did. Hailwood became furious with this man, so in the end, quite deliberately, he didn’t brake at all. They both shot up the slip road, and then Hailwood … put his foot on this man’s petrol tank and shoved. The poor Russian and his Vostok went crashing to the ground.” Hailwood went on to win the race. Sevostianov was also entered in the 500cc class and took sixth place on a bored out S -360 twin.

Cutaway drawing of the Vostok S-364 350cc four.

As the results of the “S” racers in the World Championship improved the head of the Serpukhov Bureau, Ing. Ivanitsky, and the Deputy Director of Laboratories at the Vniimotopram Institute, V Kuznetsov, decided it was time to take on the European and Japanese factories at their own game with a completely new design. The 1964 S-364 was a 350cc four-cylinder four stroke and the first from the Serpukhov Bureau to be entered as a Vostok. The ambitious project also included a 500cc version to challenge for the blue riband class but was still on the drawing board.

The Vostok’s engine architecture took its design cues from the Italian multi’s and the Honda’s with double overhead camshafts being driven by a central gear train. Bore and stroke were oversquare with dimensions of 49 x 46mm for a capacity of 347cc. Ignition was by magneto and coil while four 30mm carburettors supplied the fuel and the final drive was via a dry clutch and six-speed gearbox. The first Vostoks used the frame and suspension units of the Jawa/CKB racers. Weight was around 130Kgs with a top speed of 230km/h.

It was at the East German Grand Prix in July 1964 that the Vostok S-364 made its international debut. causing a flurry of interest, as these were the most technically advanced Grand Prix racers to come out of the Soviet Union. It was not to be the introduction though that the Serpukhov Bureau would have hoped for as both the entries of Sevostianov and Estonian rider Endel Kiisa retired with mechanical problems after holding third and fourth place behind Jim Redman on a Honda and Gustav Havel on a Jawa. Sevostianov also raced in the 500cc class on a bored out version of the CKB S-360 twin and managed a fourth-place finish.

In August at the Finnish Grand Prix Endel Kiisa recorded the Surpokhov racers best result in the World Championship so far with a podium third place behind Redman and Beale on Honda’s. But it was not on the Vostok four but the CKB S-360 twin cylinder.

However, the Vostok four did appear again in September at Monza in the Nation’s Grand Prix. Unfortunately Sevostianov and Kiisa both retired with mechanical problems, which was said to be with the ignition, but in reality, the S-364 was destroying its pistons as it had done on debut in East Germany.

Cutaway drawing of the Vostok S-364 crank conrod pistons and overhead camshafts.

The four-cylinder reappeared again in 1965 at the first round of the championship, the West German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring. The Soviet team arrived a day late and Endel Kiisa could only manage one practice session. On the starting grid for the mandatory push start the Vostok refused to fire, but once he got on his way, Kiisa managed to fight his way through a pack of privateers to finish in fifth place. In a field that included riders of the calibre of Agostini and Hailwood on factory MV Agusta’s, it was a promising result. Only a week later at the non-championship Austrian Grand Prix, he very nearly gave the Vostok its maiden international triumph only to retire a just a kilometre short of victory.

Before the East German Grand Prix later that year major changes were made to the Vostok S-364. A new frame based on the Norton Featherbed design was employed and the power unit was modified with a new cylinder head and an oil cooler mounted in front of the engine.

Unfortunately, both Vostoks retired from the East German race but only a week later, at the Czechoslovakian Grand Prix in Brno, Sevostianov took the honour of a 3rd place podium behind Jim Redman on a works Honda and Derek Woodman on an MZ. This was the best result so far for a Russian rider on a Russian designed and built racer in the classics.

The Vostok did compete at the Nations Grand Prix at Monza in Italy in September with Kiisa finishing in eight spot, and again later that month for a meeting organised by the Automobile Club of Milan as an Italy vs USSR match race series. Italian riders filled the first six places of both races, and sadly this was also the last international event for the Vostok S-364.

Endel Kiisa at the 1965 Austrian Grand Prix on the Vostok S-364 four.

There was to be however one last hurrah for the Vostok racers. A 500cc version of the four-cylinder machine had been built with the designation S-565 presumably making it a1965 design although it was based on the 350cc model. With a bore and stroke 55 x 52mm for a capacity of 494cc the engine produced a reputed 80bhp at 12,400 rpm. Weighing in at 155kgs it was good for 250 km/h. There were some minor visual differences to the 350cc version with more fins to the cylinders a deeper sump and more fins on the front of the crankcases.

In 1968 the Vostok team turned up for the Finnish Grand Prix just over the Soviet border at Imatra. With Honda and Mike Hailwwod’s withdrawal from the World Championship, it was assumed the race would be a cakewalk for Agostini and the MV Agusta triple. As expected “Ago” took the lead with Kiisa and the Vostok glued to the back wheel of the MV. Three laps in, and to the amazement of the crowd, the Vostok accelerated past the 500cc World Champions out of a slow corner. This was the first time a Soviet machine had led a 500cc Grand Prix. It was not to last with Kiisa experiencing ignition problems and retiring from the race. Sevostianov saved some face for the Vostok team by finishing in fourth place.

For 1969 some improvements were made to the S-565 Vostok, with a new four-valve head and huge drum brakes fitted that were developed originally for the Jawa V-four 350cc two-stroke.

Jewel like Russian engineering on Vostok S-365 four.

The upgraded machines were entered in the East German Grand Prix at the Saschenring. It was not to be a good meeting for the Vostoks. During the wet race, Kiisa returned to the pits to change a spark plug finally managing tenth place, while his teammate fellow Estonian Juri Randla had held third place but a misfire and carburettor problems forced him to retire. Seven days later at the Czechoslovakian Grand Prix, both Vostoks retired on the second lap. It was a humiliating conclusion to an endeavour that held so much promise but was defeated by lack of an adequate budget to fully develop these fascinating Grand Prix racers.

Words © Geoff Dawes 2018. Images courtesy http://www.b-cozz.com, http://www.cold-war-racers.com, http://www.fim-live.com, Twitter.

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Vale John Surtees

Surtees in discussion with “Il Commendatore” Enzo Ferrari.

John Surtees has passed away in hospital on the 10th of March 2017 at the age of 83. Surtees was the only person to win World Championships in both the premier Formula 1 car and the 500cc (MotoGP) motorcycle Grand Prix categories.

The Surtees family announced the news in a statement, which read: “It is with great sadness that we announce the death of our husband and father, John Surtees CBE.”

“John, ‪83, was admitted to St Georges Hospital, London in February with an existing respiratory condition and after a short period in intensive care he passed away peacefully this afternoon.”

“His wife, Jane and daughters, Leonora and Edwina were by his side.”

“John was a loving husband, father, brother and friend.”

“He was also one of the true greats of motorsport and continued to work tirelessly up until recently with The Henry Surtees Foundation and Buckmore Park Kart Circuit.”

“We deeply mourn the loss of such an incredible, kind and loving man as well as celebrate his amazing life.”

“He has set a very real example of someone who kept pushing himself at his peak and one who continued fighting until the very end.”

“We would like to thank all the staff at St George’s Hospital and The East Surrey Hospital for their professionalism and support during this difficult time for us.”

“Thank you also to all of those who have sent their kind messages in recent weeks.”

Below is a piece I published on MotoVue in 2014 celebrating the 50th anniversary of John’s outstanding achievement.

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Fifty years ago, on the 25th of October in 1964, John Surtees secured the Formula One World Championship for Ferrari, becoming the first and only man to win a Grand Prix World Championships on two wheels and four. Surtees had already 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 World Championships on two wheels. He then went on to achieve the impossible by clinching the Formula One title in 1964 at the last race of the season in Mexico.

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

It’s interesting to note that Surtees won his World Championships on two wheels and four with Italian racing royalty, MV Agusta and Ferrari. But remarkably, Surtees had never raced a car until a non-championship meeting at Goodwood in 1960. Surtees put his F2 Cooper-Climax on pole and finished an incredible second to Jim Clark in a Lotus. In only his second F1 Grand Prix at Silverstone, Surtees, driving a Lotus, finished second to World Champion Jack Brabham. It was just his eighth car race.

At the Portuguese F1 Grand Prix, he put the Lotus on pole giving the team their very first pole position. This was all in 1960 while he was on his way to winning both the 500cc and 350cc World Championship on two wheels with MV Agusta.

Other examples of John’s versatility was to win the inaugural 1966 Can-Am SportsCar Championship in America driving a Lola T70 while another was taking Honda’s second F1 win in 1967 by driving the Honda Racing RA 300 to a fantastic victory on its debut at Monza in Italy.

In today’s world of specialisation in Motorsport this type of versatility is unheard of. Surtees, like most riders in the 1950’s and 1960’s, also rode in more than one Grand Prix class during a championship race meeting: a concept that would be alien to today’s MotoGP heroes. Yet there is still even more to Surtees’ accomplishments.

Surtees pushes the Ferrari 158 to second place behind Jim Clark’s Lotus at Zandvoort in Holland 1964.

Surtees also became a racing car manufacturer in 1970 forming the Surtees Racing Organisation with his cars competing in Formula 5000, Formula 2 and Formula 1. Surtees most significant success as a manufacturer came with another former motorcycle multi-world champion, Mike Hailwood, who won the European F2 championship for Surtees in 1972.

 The prodigious talents of John Surtees have created a unique chapter in the history of Motorsport and one that is unlikely to be repeated. Although Surtees has already been awarded an M.B.E. and O.B.E. (in 2016 he was also awarded a C.B.E.) in the Queen’s honours list, many feel that a Knighthood would be a more appropriate recognition of this great man’s contribution to Motorsport and charity.

© Words Geoff Dawes 2014/2016. Images http://www.commons.wikimedia.org, http://www.ilpost.it, http://www.performanceforums.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.

9788879115841

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,. It allows the reader to look back in time, from the late 1950’s to the 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, was 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 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 wet 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 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 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 have 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 times (1958, 1959 and 1960) for a total of seven championships on two wheels. Surtees then 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 dangerous 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 astounding 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.

A Legendary Champion

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Perhaps the only surprise surrounding World Champion Marc Marquez securing his second MotoGP championship was the fact that he did not accomplish it with a win at Honda’s own circuit of Motegi. After dominating the class from the opening round in Qatar to notch up ten consecutive wins by Indianapolis, which equalled the great Giacomo Agostini, it was quite clear that the 2014 championship trophy already had his name partially engraved upon it.

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Marquez celebrates his back to back MotoGP World Championships.

The 21-year-old became the youngest rider to win back-to-back Premier class championships since Mike Hailwood achieved it as a 23-year-old in1964. Marquez is also the first Spaniard to accomplish this feat. After finishing fourth in Czechoslovakia to the winner and Repsol Honda teammate, Dani Pedrosa, Marquez won again in England at the British Grand Prix. But mistakes at Mugello in Italy and Aragon in Spain kept the title tantalisingly out of reach until a tactical 2nd place to Jorge Lorenzo in Motegi secured the crown.

After a crash in Australia, Marquez still has two more races, in Malaysia and Valencia, to equal or beat Australian Mick Doohan’s record of 12 victories in a premier class season.

But although Marquez continues to set and break records, there is, maybe, one record he will be unable to achieve.

Fifty years ago on the 25th of October this year, John Surtees O.B.E. secured the Formula One World Championship for Ferrari, becoming the first and only man to win a Grand Prix World Championships on two wheels and four. Surtees had already won the premier 500cc Grand Prix crown on four occasions (1956, 1958, 1959 and 1960) and the 350cc G.P. title on three times (1958, 1959 and 1960) for a total of seven World Championships on two wheels. Surtees then clinched the Formula One title at the last race in Mexico in 1964.

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

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

It’s interesting to note that Surtees won his World Championships on two wheels and four with Italian racing royalty, Ferrari and MV Agusta. But remarkably Surtees had never raced a car until a non-championship meeting at Goodwood in 1960. Surtees put his F2 Cooper-Climax on pole and finished an incredible second to Jim Clark in a Lotus. In only his second F1 Grand Prix at Silverstone Surtees, driving a Lotus finished second to World Champion Jack Brabham. It was just his eighth car race.

At the Portuguese F1 Grand Prix, he put the Lotus on pole giving the team their very first pole position. This was all in 1960 while he was on his way to winning both the 500cc and 350cc World Championship on two wheels with MV Agusta.

Other examples of John’s versatility was to win the inaugural 1966 Can-Am Sports Car Championship in America driving a Lola T70 while another was taking Honda’s second F1 win in 1967 by driving the Honda Racing RA 300 to a fantastic victory on its debut at Monza in Italy.

Surtees pushes the Ferrari 158 to second place behind Jim Clark’s Lotus at Zandvoort in Holland 1964.

Surtees pushes the Ferrari 158 to second place behind Jim Clark’s Lotus at Zandvoort in Holland 1964.

In today’s world of specialisation in Motorsport this type of versatility is unheard of. Surtees, like most riders in the 1950’s and 1960’s, also rode in more than one Grand Prix class during a championship meeting: a concept that would be alien to today’s MotoGP heroes. Yet there is still even more to Surtees’ accomplishments.

Surtees also became a racing car manufacturer in 1970 forming the Surtees Racing Organisation with his cars competing in Formula 5000, Formula 2 and Formula 1. Surtees most significant success as a manufacturer came with another former motorcycle multi-world champion, Mike Hailwood, who won the European F2 championship for Surtees in 1972.

Surtees in discussion with "Il commendatore" Enzo Ferrari.

Surtees in discussion with “Il Commendatore” Enzo Ferrari.

The prodigious talents of John Surtees have created a unique chapter in the history of Motorsport and one that is unlikely to be repeated. Although Surtees has already been awarded an M.B.E. and an O.B.E. in the Queen’s honours list, many feel that a Knighthood would be a more appropriate recognition of this great man and his ongoing contribution to Motorsport. Surtees turned 80 this year.

Words Geoff Dawes © 2014. Images http://www.commons.wikimedia.org, http://www.ilpost.it, http://www.performanceforums.com and the Repsol Honda Team.