900 MotoGP races – a quick history of the class of kings

MotoGP

Sunday’s Styrian Grand Prix was motorcycle racing’s 900th premier-class world championship GP. Time for a little history and a few memories

Miguel Oliveira Jack Miller and Pol Espargaro on the MotoGP podium at the Red Bull ring ater the 900th premier class motorcycle grand prix

Miguel Oliveira, Jack Miller and Pol Espargaró on the 900th premier-class podium last Sunday

Pramac Ducati

I wasn’t around for the first premier-class GP, which took place on the Isle of Man in June 1949. The winner of that race was bespectacled Londoner Harold Daniell, who had been turned down for military service during the war because his eyesight was too poor.

Things have changed a lot since then. Daniell was overweight, smoked and drank, and took his only exercise while riding his factory Nortons or walking to the pub.

He retired from racing at the end of the 1950 season and did what most racers of the time did when they put away their leathers: he opened a motorcycle dealership and did a bit of car racing.

World championships weren’t as big a deal then as they are now. Seven or eight races were enough for a season, most of them around lethal street circuits, because purpose-built circuits weren’t yet a thing. During the first decade of world championship racing the TT alone claimed the lives of 14 riders.

When Mike Hailwood won the 100th premier-class GP at Sachsenring in 1962 he was still mourning the death of his friend Tom Phillis who had been killed at the TT a few weeks earlier. The 5.5-mile Sachsenring street wasn’t much safer than the Isle of Man, sending riders hurtling through villages and across one part of the circuit that was still paved with cobbles, not asphalt. On race day Hailwood rode 244 racing miles, in the 500cc, 350cc and 250cc classes.

That year’s East German 500 GP was the usual MV Agusta walker. Hailwood and his 75-horsepower MV four took the chequered flag one minute and 37.3 seconds ahead of second-placed Alan Shepherd, riding a 50-horsepower Matchless G50 single. Hailwood’s MV was good for 150mph on the straights – 15mph quicker than a G50 or Norton Manx.

Going to sleep carried a serious risk of being run over by one of the hooligans that spent the night doing wheelies through the campsite

One hundred races later MV Agusta was still in charge. Giacomo Agostini – Hailwood’s successor in the Italian stable – won the 200th 500cc GP at Assen. But the world was changing. The two men that joined Ago on the podium rode two-strokes, a Suzuki twin and a Kawasaki triple.

Dutchman Rob Bron finished the race in second place on Suzuki’s first premier-class GP bike, the XR05, built around a T500 road bike engine. A few weeks later Suzuki made GP history, when Jack Findlay and an XR05 scored the two-stroke’s first premier-class victory at the Ulster GP.

Five years later something really, really important happened. A spotty youth and his mates turned up at their first grand prix, the 1977 British GP at Silverstone, the 258th premier-class GP.

I was 18-years-old and rode my Honda CB250K4 to the track, where we pitched our tiny tents in the circuit camping ground, near Stowe corner. Then we rode into Silverstone village, where hundreds of like-minded souls were getting very drunk outside the pub and frightening the locals.

Back at the campsite conditions were primitive to say the least. So bad in fact that in the middle of the night the campers rose up and burned down the warden’s shed. None of us went to bed, because going to sleep in your tent carried a serious risk of being run over by one of the many hooligans that spent the night doing wheelies through the campsite, flattening tents and triggering frequent punch-ups.

The following day we watched everyone’s hero Barry Sheene win the British GP to crown his second 500cc championship. At least that was the plan. Instead Sheene crashed out of the lead on the final lap when rain began falling.

Forty-two races later – the 300th – Sheene won his last GP victory, aboard Yamaha’s 0W54 at Anderstorp, Sweden. No one knew it at the time but it would be 35 years before another Brit won a premier-class race.

Rainey Schwantz and Criville at Jerez in 1993 which was the 450th premier class motorcycle grand prix

A golden era: Rainey, Schwantz and Crivillé, Jerez 1993, the 450th premier-class GP, halfway to 900

Yamaha

Something else important happened the following season, when a callow young journalist and struggling club racer ventured across the English Channel to attend his first foreign GPs, the 1982 Austrian and French GPs, the 302nd and 303rd.

I travelled with British 500cc privateer Chris Guy, working as his gofer – cooking, washing-up, fetching tyres, cleaning his Suzuki RG500 – and writing a story about being part of the Continental Circus.

It snowed at the Salzburgring, where we kept warm in the paddock restaurant, which sold beer and sausages and little else. In the caravan we ate mostly tinned food and scrimped and saved our way around Europe. On the outward and return ferries Chris had me hide in the caravan toilet, to save the price of an adult ferry fare.

“The toilets are disgusting. And if anyone tries to tell me anything different I’d like to drop him in one.”

The French GP at Nogaro turned out to be an historic race. The track was too dangerous and the paddock facilities were worse than the Silverstone campsite – I clearly remember blood and faeces smeared over the walls of the toilets.

On the Thursday I watched fascinated as circuit staff painted the grid, in the midst of a practice session. The workmen had placed several bollards so they could do their thing, while the world’s fastest bike races rode past at full throttle, restricted to the outside two metres of the track.

The riders had been in increasingly rebellious mood for several years, trying to organise themselves into a trade union to fight for safer tracks, better living conditions and more money.

Grand prix promoters knew that all the top riders had to ride at GPs, firstly to compete for world championships and secondly to improve their status for non-championship races where they earned much better money. The promoters had the riders by the balls and knew it, so they paid them pitiful start and prize money, keeping the mountains of ticket cash for themselves.

At Nogaro the top riders got their act together and went on strike. They left the circuit following a final meeting with the organisers, during which ‘King’ Kenny Roberts was on point as always. “The toilets are disgusting,” he said. “And if anyone tries to tell me anything different I’d like to drop him in one.”

I watched Sheene leave the paddock in his Rolls Royce, then went back to cooking lunch for Chris and his mechanic. Just the three of us. As usual when the top riders went on strike the privateers stayed to race, to earn much-needed points and, even more importantly, some prize money.

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On race-day morning there was a riot. I went to see what was going on. Hundreds of fans were at the circuit gate, refusing to pay for admission because none of the stars were riding. Fair enough, but the security men weren’t having it. I watched as the crowd pushed forward, finally overcoming the security contingent and flattening the circuit gate and fencing. They were in.

There was much excitement in our own camp. We were confident that Chris and his Suzuki RG500 had a good chance of finishing on the podium with the factory riders absent. But he ran into problems in the race and came home eighth. The race was won by Swiss Michel Frutschi, who lost his life 12 months later during the French GP at Le Mans. Frutschi died when he hit a catch-fencing post, ironically there to increase safety. His girlfriend was pregnant with their first child.

Frutschi was the second rider to lose his life that weekend. Japanese rider Iwao Ishokawa died following an accident in practice, when he was T-boned by Loris Reggiani, whose brakes had failed. There was no medical helicopter at the track and when the ambulance eventually left the circuit it took Ishokawa to the wrong hospital. He died hours after the accident, without having received hospital treatment.

In 1988 I got my first full-time job in the paddock, covering GPs for Motor Cycle News. My first GP as a full-time reporter was that year’s Japanese GP at Suzuka, the 375th, which heralded the arrival of Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz on the scene, the start of another golden era. Schwantz won the first race of his full-time GP career, beating reigning champion Wayne Gardner, who ran off the track and onto the circuit helipad during the height of their duel for victory.

Painting the grid lines at the 1982 French motorcycle grand prix

Men at work: painting the grid at the 1982 French GP while Carlos Lavado accelerates past and Roland Freymond wanders back to the pits

Oxley

Twenty-five races later, the 400th, Eddie Lawson won his first GP for Honda, the 1989 Spanish GP at Jerez, the first success in a historic season that made him the first rider to win back-to-back 500cc titles with different manufacturers.

And 50 races after that Schwantz beat Rainey at the 1993 Spanish GP, halfway to 900 premier-class GPs and eight races before Rainey’s career was ended by that horrible crash at Misano.

Now we’re getting into the modern age, which we’ll save for later, but just to complete the centenaries: Mick Doohan won the 500th 500 GP at Imola in September 1996; Sete Gibernau won the 600th at Le Mans in May 2003, beating Valentino Rossi by 0.165 seconds; Jorge Lorenzo won the 700th at Motegi in 2009 and the 800th at Aragon in 2014; and Miguel Oliveira took Portugal’s first MotoGP win on the occasion of MotoGP’s 900th.

Here’s looking forward to the 1000th, which should happen in the summer of 2025 or thereabouts. Covid permitting.

Remembering all those who lost their lives in grand prix world championship racing, from 1949 to now:

Ben Drinkwater, Edoard Bruylant, David Whitworth, John O’Driscoll, John Wenman, Chris Horn, Dario Ambrosini, Gianni Leoni, Sante Giminiani, Dave Bennett, Ercole Frigerio, Frank Fry, Norman Stewart, Thomas W. Swarbrick, Harry L. Stephen, Les Graham, Geoff Walker, Ernie Ring, Laurie Boulter, Simon Sandys Winsch, Gordon Laing, Dennis Lashmar, Rupert Hollaus, Ricardo Galvagni, Derek Ennett, Charlie Salt, Josef Knebel, Roberto Colombo, John Antram, Desmond Wolff, Adolfo Covi, Peter Ferbrache, Bob Brown, Marie-Laure Lambert, Ralph Rensen, Ron Miles, Tom Phillis, Colin Meehan, Johan Schuld, Brian Cockell, Laurence-Peter Essery, Roland Föll, Karl Recktenwald, Vernon Cottle, Norman Huntingford, Toshio Fuji, Brian Duffy, Alf Shaw, Werner Daubitz, Ian Veitch, Johan Attenberger, Josef Schillinger, Rolf Schmid, Arthur Lavington, Bill Ivy, Frantisek Bocek, Rob Fitton, Les Iles, Mick Collins, Dennis Blower, Santiago Herrero, John Wetherall, Brian Steenson, Maurice Jeffery, Christian Ravel, Günther Bartusch, Gilberto Parlotti, Hans-Jürgen Cusnik, Renzo Pasolini, Jarno Saarinen, Billie Nelson, Phil Gurner, Rolf Thiele, Otello Buscherini, Paolo Tordi, Walter Wörner, Les Kenny, Hans Stadelmann, Giovanni Ziggiotto, Ulrich Graf, Malcolm White, Patrick Pons, Michel Rougerie, Sauro Pazzaglia, Alain Béraud, Jock Taylor, Iwao Ishikawa, Michel Frutschi, Rolf Rüttimann, Peter Huber, Norman Brown, Kevin Wrettom, Alfred Heck, Ivan Palazzese, Noboyuki Wakai, Simon Prior, Daijiro Katoh, Shoya Tomizawa, Marco Simoncelli and Luis Salom.