Motor sport

How was MotoGP 50 years ago?

The photo at the top shows the start of the 350cc Italian Grand Prix at Imola, May 1974, with bodies armed for the big push and all eyes on an official, just out of sight, who is about to drop the Italian flag to signal the start of the race.

The n°2 Finn Tepi Länsivuori started on pole, alongside factory Yamaha teammate Giacomo Agostini, who had recently defected from MV Agusta, then Frenchmen Michel Rougerie and Patrick Pons and Spaniard Victor Palomo.

Ago won the race en route to that year’s 350cc title, which he had won with MV four-strokes from 1968 to 1973. Note the Marlboro sticker on his helmet – the Italian stallion was the first GP rider to obtain the support of the tobacco industry. .

They all ride Yamaha TZ350cc twins, except Rougerie, aboard a Harley-Davidson, which earlier that year had bought Italian marque Aermacchi and rebranded Aermacchi’s GP motorcycles.

At that time, the 350cc and 250cc classes were the backbone of Grand Prix racing, largely because privateers had a better chance of making ends meet by racing two classes with nearly identical machines: a TZ250 and a TZ350.

Pons won the Formula 750 World Championship in 1979 and was killed during the British 500cc GP at Silverstone in 1980 when he fell and was run over by Rougerie, who lost his life nine months later when he crashed during the 350cc Yugoslav GP in Rijeka and was also hit by a trailing machine.

Palomo won the F750 title in 1976 – Spain’s first velo-bike world champion – and died in 1985, due to complications from injuries sustained in the 1979 24 Hours of Montjuic race.

British privateer Chas Mortimer during practice for the 1974 250cc Spanish Grand Prix at Parc de Montjuic, a deadly street circuit in the city of Barcelona where spectators could come within yards of the action.

Jan & Hetty Burgers

Chas Mortimer was the epitome of a 1970s privateer grand prix (although he did occasionally have factory Yamaha support). He raced everything everywhere and became the only rider to win 125cc, 250cc, 350cc and 500cc GPs and a Formula 750 world championship race. This unique achievement, in my opinion, makes him worthy of MotoGP legend status .

His father Charles was a star at Brooklands in the 1920s and 1930s. Dad also started Britain’s first motorcycle racing school, at Brands Hatch, which he gave to Chas, who soon sold it, so that he can afford to become a professional motorcycle rider.

In 1972, Mortimer claimed Yamaha’s first premier class victory when he won the 500cc GP at Montjuic, driving an overbored TR3, the air-cooled precursor to the water-cooled TZ350. The minimum displacement to participate in 500 races was 351 cc. Mortimer’s engine was 354cc, or at least until he seized a piston in the drive, damaging that 354cc cylinder. He didn’t have a spare overbored cylinder, so he installed a 347cc cylinder.

Many riders at the time didn’t even bother installing larger cylinders on their 350s to make them eligible for 500 races, simply swapping blue plates for yellow. So, was Mortimer’s winning engine legal or not?

“As I stepped onto the podium, Dave Simmonds [who had finished second on his Kawasaki H1R 500cc triple] asked me if my bike was really a 354,” he recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t know’, but I think it would have been a little over 350.”

Indeed, it would have measured 350.5 cm3, therefore above 350 cm3 but not above 351 cm3.

Jarno Saarinen and his wife Solii at the end of 1972

Jarno Saarinen and his wife Solii at the end of 1972, days after the Finn won the 250cc world championship.

Jan & Hetty Burgers

Jarno Saarinen started racing on ice and quickly rose to the top of road racing, thanks to his enormous racing talent and technical skills; he was an engineer by trade. It was Saarinen who inspired “King” Kenny Roberts to use the suspended riding style that soon had riders dragging their knees on the asphalt.

Roberts recalls, “I started hanging onto Ontario Motor Speedway in late 1972. There was this horseshoe on the right where I felt so uneasy, like I was going crush me. Saarinen came racing that year and I looked at him – he leaned over the side of the bike with his knee out, so I leaned into that horseshoe and all of a sudden I didn’t I didn’t have this bad feeling.

Saarinen is still considered one of the greatest motorcycle riders of all time, even though his star shone so briefly. He was leading the 1973 250 and 500cc World Championships when he was killed in the 1973 350 Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

Saarinen lost his life in a horrific first-lap pile-up, caused by Renzo Pasolini’s Harley-Davidson grabbing a piston as the peloton hurtled through the dreaded 140mph curve lined with guardrails. Fourteen riders crashed, several seriously injured, with Saarinen and Pasolini dead. The race was not stopped. The survivors kept running, fighting their way through Curve Grande’s carnage of shattered bodies, bicycles, and blazing hay bales, until they gave up on their own.

Two months later, the bikes raced again at Monza. Prior to this national meeting, Dr Claudio Costa – the founder of MotoGP’s Clinica Mobile – asked the promoters to place an ambulance at Curve Grande but his request was refused. Once again there was a pile-up around the corner. It took 20 minutes for an ambulance to get to the scene – too late for the three riders who perished.

Giacomo Agostini leads the 1974 500cc Italian GP at Barry Sheene's Imola

Giacomo Agostini leads the 1974 500cc Italian GP at Imola ahead of Suzuki’s Barry Sheene, who has yet to make number seven his own. Yamaha had lured Ago from MV, where he had been since 1965, winning 13 350 world championships and 500.

Jan & Hetty Burgers

The relentless rise of the two-stroke had convinced Agostini that he had to join the revolution; it was just a matter of when. Yamaha had been courting him for a while until he finally signed in December 1973.

“In 1971 I thought it was too early to race a two-stroke – they always seized the engines,” he recalls. “But in 1973 I could see that all two-strokes were getting faster and safer, when it was very hard to find more power with the four-stroke, so it was time for a change.”

And yet, Ago’s first season with Yamaha’s 0W20 500 four and TZ350 twin wasn’t easy—the bikes had tiny powerbands, vibrated, seized and guzzled fuel. The 1974 0W20 did 11 mpg, which is why it ran out of fuel at Monza. (Modern MotoGP bikes do around 17 miles per gallon.) MV retained his 500 crown in 1974, with Phil Read, but in 1975 the Yamaha was much, much better, allowing Ago to win the first two-man 500cc championship. time.

Monza 1974 was the third Grand Prix for the Suzuki RG500. Sheene had climbed fourth from the rotary valve to second place in his first GP a few weeks earlier in Clermont-Ferrand, France. He crashed at Monza, while chasing Ago, allowing MV’s Gianfranco Bonera to win the race.

Sheene won the RG’s first GP at Assen in 1975 and the bike dominated the premier class from 1976, when Suzuki sold production versions to privateers. The following season all but five of the 35 riders who scored 500cc GP points rode RG500s.

Riders on the grid at the start of the 1975 350cc Italian Grand Prix

Watched over by hills filled with tifosi, the 1975 350cc Italian GP is about to start at Imola. Beginners in the first row include (from the left) Ikujiro Takai, Johnny Cecotto and Walter Villa, who won the race on the factory Harley-Davidson.

Jan & Hetty Burgers

Johnny Cecotto was a 19-year-old Venezuelan rookie, who won the 350 world title that year, becoming the youngest world champion in the sport. Villa won a treble of 250 titles in 1974, 1975 and 1976. He also won the 350 crown in 1976

Rudi Kurth and Dane Rowe's sidecar and the Citroën Estate that transported it

The paddock wasn’t all gold and glitter in the 1970s, but rather populated with vans, caravans, tents and dingy awnings. It’s the paddock residence of Swiss sidecar racers Rudi Kurth and Dane Rowe – their modified Citroën estate carried their sidecar and became their hotel room at night. Note the curtains still drawn.

Laundry lying next to a motorbike in the paddock at a 1970s Grand Prix

The fact that the 1970s Grand Prix paddock looked more like a bustling travelers site than a racing paddock was no coincidence, as most GP racers of the time lived like gypsies, traveling from event to event in their vans, often driving day and night, if not sleeping by the side of the road, still struggling to make ends meet.

Jan & Hetty Burgers

These leathers and washes belong to eight-time GP winner Tepi Länsivuori and his wife Helena. The Finn was a factory Yamaha rider in 1974, when he finished third in the 500cc World Championship behind the MV Agustas of Phil Read and Gianfranco Bonera and ahead of teammate Giacomo Agostini.

Riders and teams are no longer allowed to wash in the MotoGP paddock these days. The clothes have also changed. When the weather was hot in the 1970s, it was only normal for riders to walk around the paddock in so-called budgie smuggler swimsuits, while wives and girlfriends wore bikinis.

Patrick Pons with Pekka Nurmi and Bruno Kneubuhler during the 1975 350cc Finnish GP

Patrick Pons again – eyes on fire – this time battling Finn Pekka Nurmi and Swiss Bruno Kneubühler in the 1975 350cc Finnish GP around the Imatra street circuit.

Jan & Hetty Burgers

Imatra was best known for its crossing, which had riders speeding out of a corner and onto the railway lines, taken out of service for the Finnish GP weekend. When ‘King’ Kenny Roberts first raced there in July 1978, he dropped out of the 500cc GP due to ignition failure. When asked if he was mad at Yamaha for the DNF, Roberts replied in typical style: he wasn’t upset, because the problem wasn’t that there was something wrong. wrong with Yamaha ignition systems, the problem was that Yamaha had no railroad crossing on its test track.

Imatra was withdrawn from the world championships after sidecar driver Jock Taylor was killed there in 1982.


You can buy Circus Continental 2 by clicking below

Buy now

Second-hand copies of Burgers’ brilliant premiere Continental Circus book, published in 2013, are widely available on the Internet.