From world war to world title

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When World War II ended – 70 years ago on August 15 1945 – there were thousands of motorcycle racers, on both sides, whose thoughts turned to resuming their racing careers so rudely interrupted by the conflict.

Among them was Flight Lieutenant Les Graham, who spent his war years flying Lancaster bombers for the RAF. Before the war the Merseysider had raced OK Supremes with some success, though it wasn’t until after peace resumed that his career really took off.

Spotted by AJS race chief Jock West, who had ridden for the Nazi-funded BMW factory before the war, Graham found himself riding the company’s new E90 500cc Grand Prix bike. The AJS had been conceived pre-war as a blown 500 twin, but a post-war ban on superchargers demanded a switch to a naturally aspirated engine. Realistically, AJS should have started again from scratch, but they didn’t; they preferred to penny-pinch and compromise.

Designed as a low-rpm, high-boost engine, the AJS would have to make do with higher rpm and zero boost. Diligent work by Graham and a number of development engineers slowly but surely turned a sow’s ear into a silk purse. Graham wasn’t a trained engineer but he had a natural flair for all things mechanical. During the war he won the Distinguished Flying Medal for several heroic sorties, attacking German installations in France after D-Day.

Most unforgettably, he saved his plane and crew during a night-time raid when a blast flipped his plane onto its back and flung him out of the pilot’s seat; his right leg caught on the throttles; two now fully open, the other two fully closed, as the plane hurtled earthward. Somehow he managed to regain control with yards to spare.

Graham was also known for riding bikes on the edge of disaster – he had that uncanny ability to keep the throttle open where rivals would madden themselves by easing off.

By 1948 the AJS was getting there, with 49hp on tap. The bike had already gained the nickname Porcupine, on account of the spiky cooling fins sprouting from the cylinder heads, just one of many original features designed to cope with the much greater heat expected from a supercharged engine.

The following year perseverance paid off. In February 1949 the Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme announced motorcycling’s first world championships, giving AJS the chance to race the Gilera fours, Moto Guzzi twins and Norton singles. Graham won the Ulster and Swiss GPs and would have won in the Isle of Man, but for a mechanical failure two miles from the end of the 264-mile Senior TT. Finally he squeezed the title by one point from Gilera’s Nello Pagani.

However, during his championship defence Graham became increasingly frustrated with his bosses who were uninterested in spending money on development, an attitude that eventually would sound the death knell for the British bike industry. So when the call came from a nascent Italian brand he answered it.

Count Domenico Agusta had started manufacturing motorcycles in 1945 when Italy’s terms of surrender forbade him from continuing with his aviation business. MV Agusta’s first 500 GP bike of 1950 was woefully uncompetitive, so the Count brought Graham on board. It was one of Agusta’s first steps to greatness which culminated in 17 consecutive premier-class titles from 1958 to 1974.

Agusta was a tough, domineering boss who insisted on doing everything his own way. In due course Graham used his technical know-how, riding brilliance and diplomacy to convince the Count that he knew a better way forward. Out went shaft drive and torsion-bar suspension; in came a smaller bore engine to cure piston failures, chain final drive, hydraulic rear shocks and British-made Earles forks.

After failing to score a single world championship point in 1951, Graham and MV closed the 1952 season with wins at Monza and Montjuich Park, trailing Gilera’s title-winner Umberto Masetti by just three points. There was no doubt that MV were now ready to challenge for the crown.

It was not to be. Graham lost his life at the 1953 season-opening Isle of Man TT. A suspected mechanical fault on Bray Hill caused him to crash into a stone wall. He died instantly.

MV’s renowned engineer Arturo Magni, who later guided MV riders John Surtees, Gary Hocking, Mike Hailwood, Giacomo Agostini and Phil Read to world title glory, always insisted that Graham was the greatest of them all.

The battle for the 2015 MotoGP world championship looks like a straight duel between Yamaha team-mates Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo. The pair won seven of the first eight races after gaining a technical edge over Honda, who took a wrong turn over the winter.

The YZR-M1 machines used by Rossi and Lorenzo are identical, but the two riders have contrasting riding styles, so there are detail differences.

“Valentino uses his body to manipulate the bike while Jorge is more controlled on the bike,” explains mechanic Alex Briggs, who has worked with Rossi since 2000. “Valentino rides with the bike moving, so when he brakes it pitches forward and when he accelerates it pitches to the rear. Jorge rides with the bike a lot less active; it doesn’t pitch as much, so he has to set his bike more extreme, depending on the track.

“If a track needs more front load, you might see Jorge’s bike with more load to the front because he doesn’t move as far forward when he brakes or so much to the rear when he accelerates. Look at their seats: Valentino has a lot more room because he moves around.”