The History of Motorcycle Racing – From the Early Days to the Modern Era
MotoGP™ is the oldest of any motorsports World Championships, with the first competition held in 1949.
Motorcycle Grands Prix have been staged in several countries since the early 1900s. The forerunner to the present FIM is the FICM (Fédération Internationale des Clubs Motocyclistes), which declared a European Championship in 1938.
Nevertheless, the outbreak of World War II halted the competition, and it took some time after the war for fuel to become available before a genuinely international series could be established.
When the first formal World Championship was held in 1949, Grand Prix racing consisted of four solo classes, with British rider Leslie Graham on AJS machinery winning the inaugural ‘premier class’ 500cc title.
Another British rider, Freddie Frith (Velocette), won the first-ever 350cc World Championship, while Italians Bruno Ruffo (Moto Guzzi) and Nello Pagani (Mondial) won the first-ever 250cc and 125cc World Championships, respectively.
Brits Eric Oliver and Denis Jenkinson won the 600cc sidecar championship using Norton equipment in the same season, albeit the sidecar category was reduced to 500cc in 1951.
Throughout the 1950s, Italian manufacturers such as the aforementioned Mondial and Moto Guzzi, as well as Gilera and MV Agusta, dominated the World Championships, reflecting the prominence of the country’s motorcycle industry at the time.
MV Agusta was incredibly prolific late in the decade, earning a clean sweep of world titles across all four categories for three seasons from 1958 to 1960 – while their supremacy in the 500cc class was unbroken for 17 years from 1958 to 1974.
THE SIXTIES WERE SWINGING
During the 1960s, the Japanese motorcycle industry began to boom, and many of the modern-day MotoGPTM manufacturers, such as Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha, arrived to claim their first World Championship title wins in the 125cc, 250cc, and 500cc categories, as they established themselves in Grand Prix racing. Suzuki, in particular, had a lot of success in a new 50cc class that was created in 1962.
The late 1960s marked the beginning of the glory days for MotoGPTM Legend Giacomo Agostini, the most successful rider in World Championship competition history.
Riders used to race in two or three classes at the same time until the contemporary age, and Agostini won 10 of his 15 titles in five consecutive seasons as a double champion in 350cc and 500cc. This golden period began in 1968, riding for MV Agusta.
At this point, the rising costs of Grand Prix racing had driven several Japanese companies out of the sport, with just Yamaha remaining at the end of the 1960s. In response, the FIM imposed rules limiting bikes to single-cylinder engines in the 50cc class, two cylinders in the 125cc and 250cc classes, and four cylinders in the 350cc and 500cc classes.
LEVEL PLAYING ARENA
Following the fair playing field, manufacturers from Europe (Bultaco, Kreidler, Morbidelli, MV Agusta), Japan (Kawasaki, Suzuki, Yamaha), and North America (Harley Davidson) won titles, with the Japanese firms eventually ending MV Agusta’s monopoly on the top class by the mid-1970s.
After a nearly 12-year hiatus from racing, Honda returned to the World Championships in the late 1970s, and by 1983, they had changed their philosophy from using 4-stroke machinery to building the V3 500cc two-stroke, known as the NS500, on which Freddie Spencer won the 500cc World Championship – his first championship win and Honda’s first since their return to Grand Prix.
The previous season’s racing in the 350cc class had ended after 34 years of competition, leaving four classes in the World Championship – 50cc, 125cc, 250cc, and 500cc – with the 50cc category being replaced by an 80cc category in 1984. The 80cc World Championship was only held for six seasons, giving four titles to Derbi, three of which were won by Spanish rider Jorge “Aspar” Martinez.
The 1980s and 1990s witnessed some excellent racing in the premier class, with tough competition between Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha, as well as some spectacular fights amongst American stars like Eddie Lawson, Randy Mamola, Freddie Spencer, Wayne Rainey, and Kevin Schwantz.
However, in the 125cc and 250cc classes, European manufacturers such as Derbi, Garelli, and, subsequently, Aprilia competed for honors with the Japanese behemoths.
Sidecars’ lengthy history with Grand Prix racing ended after the 1996 season when the class evolved into the Sidecar World Cup in 1997.
In the late 1990s, Honda star and MotoGPTM Legend Mick Doohan dominated the 500cc class, winning five consecutive titles before a succession of racing injuries ended the Australian’s career in 1999.
THE MODERN ERA
Prior to the revision of regulations that resulted in the move to 990cc four-stroke competition in the premier class – in line with modern engineering and production trends – a young Italian rider named Valentino Rossi won the last ever 500cc title on Honda machinery in 2001, having won the 1997 125cc championship and the 1999 quarter liter crown with Aprilia.
Rossi went on to win four more straight titles once the World Championship was rebranded as MotoGPTM in 2002 and 990cc racing was introduced, two with Honda and two with Yamaha.
In recent seasons, young European riders preparing for MotoGPTM on Aprilia and Honda bikes have dominated the lower cylinder categories, with Dani Pedrosa exemplifying the trend with three consecutive titles – one in 125cc in 2003 followed by two in the 250cc class – riding for Honda before moving up to the premier class. Pedrosa shared the Repsol Honda pit box in his maiden season in MotoGPTM with American rider Nicky Hayden, whose aggressive but consistent riding earned him the 2006 title and ended Rossi’s annual procession to glory.
New rules limiting the number of tires used on Grand Prix weekends, as well as a reduction in engine size from 990cc to 800cc, leveled the playing field in MotoGPTM, with Bridgestone-equipped Ducati rider Casey Stoner emerging as the first standout rider of the new era, as the runaway 2007 World Champion. Rossi, on the other hand, returned to the peak in 2008, winning his sixth premier class title, with Stoner finishing a distant second.
The 2009 season featured the introduction of a single-tire rule, as Bridgestone was named the MotoGPTM class’s only supplier. Rossi won his seventh premier class title following a duel with teammate Jorge Lorenzo, bringing him one title short of Giacomo Agostini’s all-time record of eight.
The 2010 season saw the entry of a new name into the MotoGPTM class history book, as Jorge Lorenzo was elected World Champion after a thrilling season-long duel with teammate Rossi for the title. Lorenzo won the top class at the age of 23 after demonstrating exceptional consistency and maturity.
Casey Stoner made the switch to factory Honda in 2011, and it was a huge success. Stoner won the 2011 championship at Phillip Island, his ninth but not final victory of the season (he also won the last round in Valencia).
In 2012, the lineup was switched to 1000cc motorcycles, and Yamaha Factory Racing’s Jorge Lorenzo won the championship after placing second in Phillip Island. Dani Pedrosa of the Repsol Honda Team pushed him all the way, while Casey Stoner finished third in his final season after suffering a mid-season injury and retiring. Marc Marquez of the Repsol Honda Team shook the MotoGPTM World Championship in 2013, when he won his maiden premier-class title in his debut season, breaking multiple records along the road and going on to win it again in 2014.
Unfortunately, Marquez would be unable to compete for the title in 2015, which would be contested by Movistar Yamaha teammates Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi. The battle for the premier class title came down to the final race, with Jorge Lorenzo recovering from a points disadvantage to win his third title, while Rossi had to settle for second.
In 2016, Michelin replaced Bridgestone as the sole tire supplier, and a spec Magnetti Mareli hardware and software package was adopted, possibly the most technical rule revisions since the introduction of four-strokes in 2002. These improvements were implemented in order to level the playing field once more.