Mat Oxley: MV Agusta's last hurrah

Forty years ago: MV’s last hurrah

MotoGP four-strokes were introduced in 2002 to replace the 500cc two-strokes that had dominated GP racing since the ’70s. To make sure the four-strokes were successful, they were given a 98 per cent advantage in engine capacity, at 990cc. They did beat the 500s, but not by much. Two-strokes were banned a few years later.

The last four-stroke to beat the two-strokes in the 500cc era was an MV Agusta, ridden by Italian legend Giacomo Agostini in 1976.

MV Agusta’s final win was momentous and historic in all kinds of ways. Between 1966 and 1973 Ago won 13 350cc and 500cc world titles for the aristocratic Italian marque, but he was no romantic. Once he understood the unstoppable force of the two-stroke he defected to Yamaha, for whom he made history by winning the two-stroke’s first premier-class title in 1975. However, when Yamaha announced its withdrawal from GP competition he returned to MV. He was quickly reunited with Count Corrado Agusta, the younger brother of Domenico, who had established MV at the end of the Second World War, because under the terms of the armistice Agusta wasn’t allowed to continue with its core business: military aviation.

MV had no firm plan to continue racing in 1976, because the company’s engineers knew the two-strokes would only get faster. However, when Ago waved a few million pounds of Marlboro money in the face of Rocky Agusta, the family playboy and MV team manager, Rocky agreed to loan him a brace of 1975 bikes, barely updated.

The MV had 103bhp and weighed 155 kilos; about 10bhp less and 15 kilos more than the two-strokes. “I wanted to try again with MV,” says Ago. “But I understood that the two-strokes were getting stronger every year, while the MV mechanics couldn’t find any more power. We all knew it would be difficult.”

For most of that long, hot summer Ago and MV wished they’d left the bikes under their dust covers at the Cascina Costa workshop, next door to Milan’s Malpensa airport. The MV was unceremoniously swamped by the two-strokes, its glorious 15,000rpm howl drowned by a grid full of chainsaws. The man and the machine that had dominated GP for more than a decade were reduced to struggling home, a minute or more behind the winner – a sad sight.

By round three Ago had had enough. He borrowed a couple of RG500 two-strokes [see Motor Sport, September 2016] from Suzuki and raced them instead, but was beset by ill luck. And all the time his team travelled across Europe with the MVs strapped in the truck, in case the time came for their renaissance.

That time came at the last of the campaign’s 10 races, at the Nordschleife on August 29. Agostini practised on both bikes and, unsurprisingly, was faster on the RG. But on race morning threatening clouds rolled across the Eifel mountains. Ago knew a wet track would make the more rider-friendly MV a serious proposition, so he chose the four-stroke, although this wasn’t merely a pragmatic decision.“For sure the MV would be better in the rain,” he says. “But also I knew this was almost the end of my career and my last chance to win with an MV Agusta, so it was also an emotional choice.”

Ago bumped the MV into life and led the pack into the first corner, cheered all the way by fans delighted to see a four-stroke back out front. And he was never headed, the MV’s gentler power delivery easing him through the Green Hell’s ample curves well ahead of the chasing two-stroke horde. 

“During the race there was only a little rain and that’s always more difficult because you don’t know exactly how fast you need to go,” says Ago, who beat Marco Lucchinelli’s RG by almost a minute. “That day I tried very, very hard because I wanted to win the race. I was so happy because to win again with the MV at the end of my career was very good and very emotional. That day everything was 100 per cent: the engine, the handling, the braking and also the rider, so altogether this is why we had a very good performance.”

The victory wasn’t only the last four-stroke Grand Prix success in a quarter century, it was also the last of MV’s 275 wins and the last of Ago’s 122 wins, a record that stands to this day (although Valentino Rossi is edging closer). It was also end of an era – the sunset of racing’s romantic age.

MV Agusta stopped making motorcycles shortly afterwards, although the name was later revived by the Castiglione brothers, who had earlier saved Ducati from the very jaws of bankruptcy. Otherwise the Agusta name has faded from the headlines and been mired in scandal. The helicopter business was merged with Westland in 2000 and the following year Corrado’s widow was found drowned after going missing at the family mansion in Portofino on the Ligurian coast.

Earlier Francesca Vacca Agusta had been convicted of laundering millions of euros in bribes for a former Italian prime minister. At the time of her death she was fighting a bitter dispute over the count’s rumoured £170 million inheritance with Rocky, the count’s son from his first marriage, and others. Police believe she was murdered but have never named a suspect.