Clone bikes bring closest-ever MotoGP racing: Mat Oxley

“The first six bikes at Silverstone all came from different manufacturers”

This year’s British motorcycle Grand Prix at Silverstone created MotoGP history: the first six bikes past the chequered flag all came from different manufacturers, the first time that’s happened in 49 years. First over the line was Fabio Quartararo’s Yamaha YZR-M1, the Frenchman joined on the podium by Suzuki GSX-RR rider Álex Rins and Aprilia RS-GP rider Aleix Espargaró. A fraction of a second behind the Aprilia came the Ducati Desmosedici of Jack Miller, then the Honda RC213V of Espargaró’s younger brother Pol and the KTM RC16 of Brad Binder.

A good mix of machinery is always liked by fans, but what kind of a mix was this? During the last decade MotoGP rights-holder Dorna has created closer, more TV-friendly racing by writing technical regulations that essentially make all the bikes the same: same 81mm cylinder bore, same tyres and same electronics.

The result of clone racing is inevitable – the closest racing ever. This year’s Doha Grand Prix had the first ten riders finish within 5.4sec of each other, a difference of just two tenths a lap.

Racing was very different in 1972, when the Yugoslav 500cc GP was won by Alberto Pagani on an MV Agusta four-stroke triple, with the first six riders home on different brands of bike.

Pagani finished 1min 40sec ahead of Chas Mortimer, riding an over-bored Yamaha 350cc two-stroke twin, followed by Paul Eickelberg, riding a König, powered by a four-cylinder two-stroke outboard motor.

The fourth, fifth and sixth finishers were all lapped: Guido Mandracci aboard a Suzuki XR05 two-stroke twin, Bo Granath on a Husqvarna two-stroke twin, engineered from two 250cc single-cylinder motocross engines, and Charlie Dobson, on a Kawasaki H1R two-stroke triple, basically a pimped-up road bike.

These last three motorcycles had interesting stories but the König was something else. Half-litre two-strokes had dominated hydroplane racing during the 1960s, so it was only a matter time before someone had the notion of bolting one into a racing motorcycle, because surely a two-stroke 500 could beat a four-stroke MV 500? The 500cc title was there for the taking!

The man with the idea was Kim Newcombe, a motocross rider from New Zealand who was working for a marine business in Australia. The moment he spotted a König outboard motor in summer 1969 his life changed. One call to Dieter König in Berlin and he was on a boat to Europe to build a 500cc grand prix bike.

You probably don’t need to be told that this wasn’t a straightforward project. The König flat-four was effectively two 250cc twins sharing the same crankshaft. For marine use the engine was mounted on its side, with the vertical crankshaft driving the propeller from its lower end, each pair of cylinders pointing towards bow and stern. Newcombe rotated the engine 90 degrees, so the König became a horizontally mounted flat-four, with all four cylinders fed by a twin-choke downdraught carburettor that delivered fuel/air mix through one huge rotary valve, driven by a toothed belt that turned 90 degrees off the crankshaft.

“While a hydroplane doesn’t need a gearbox, a racing bike does”

His next problem was the transmission; while a hydroplane doesn’t need a gearbox, a racing motorcycle definitely does.

Newcombe used a Schaffleitner six-speeder, but here was another problem. The gearbox was bolted to the rear of the engine, driven via open primary chain, which made the motorcycle longer than desirable.

For several years Newcombe toiled endlessly and mostly alone on his creation: think, design, fabricate, test, develop, race, maintain and repeat. Step by step, against all the odds, he transformed the König into a competitive 500cc grand prix bike.

Eickelberg’s third place at Opatija in June 1972 was the machine’s first GP podium. A year later Newcombe returned to the deadly street circuit on the Adriatic coast to score König’s first grand prix victory, which took him into the championship lead, ahead of MV Agusta’s Phil Read. This was the world turned upside down: the mighty Agusta marque, winner of every 500cc world title since 1958, humbled by a contraption that had more than a hint of the Heath Robinson about it.

Newcombe rode brilliantly, spending every other waking moment fettling his masterpiece, still mostly alone. After all, this was a two-stroke, so its appetite for pistons, piston rings and crankshafts was exhausting.

Further podiums at Assen and Anderstorp kept Newcombe in the title chase. However, grands prix paid atrociously low prize money, so between each round privateers had to contest non-championship events. With no points up for grabs, these meetings attracted riders by paying decent start and prize money.

In August Newcombe travelled to Silverstone for a big international event. Before practice he asked the organisers to place hay bales in front of a wall of railway sleepers on the outside of Stowe corner. His request was refused. During the race Newcombe crashed at Stowe, hit the railway sleepers and died three days later from head injuries. The 1973 500cc World Championship ended six few weeks later at Jarama, Spain, Newcombe the posthumous runner-up to Read. (The story of Newcombe and the König was recently brought to life in the excellent documentary Love, Speed Loss.)

Dieter König lost interest in two-wheel racing after Newcombe’s death, but his engines were hugely successful in sidecar racing, where packaging was less of a problem.

Mat Oxley has covered motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner
Follow Mat on Twitter @matoxley.