Giacomo Agostini: the man not even Valentino Rossi could beat


Giacomo Agostini has won more motorcycle Grands Prix and more World Championships than anyone else. The Italian just celebrated his 80th birthday, so now is a good time to honour him

Agostini at his home in Bergamo, Italy, with his trophies, one of his MV Agusta 500s and a brand-new MV Superveloce Ago

Agostini at his home in Bergamo, Italy, with his trophies, one of his MV Agusta 500s and a brand-new MV Superveloce Ago

MV Agusta

It would be very, very wrong to let the 80th birthday of the most successful grand prix rider of all time pass without some sort of acknowledgement.

Giacomo Agostini won 15 world championships and 122 grands prix between 1965 and 1976. No one else has got close, apart from Valentino Rossi, who won 115 GPs between 1996 and 2017. Perhaps if Rossi hadn’t walked out of Yamaha at the end of 2010 he might have broken Ago’s record. But that’s all ifs and buts.

Agostini was at Sachsenring on Sunday, still looking better than most 60-year-olds have a right to look, let alone an octogenarian. He strode around the MotoGP grid, bestowing good wishes here and there, the top few buttons of his shirt undone against the heat, revealing the gold FIM world championship medal that he always wears around his neck. As he should.

Agostini leads Yamaha team-mate Hideo Kanaya on his way to French GP victory at Circuit Paul Ricard, 1975

Agostini leads Yamaha team-mate Hideo Kanaya on his way to French GP victory at Circuit Paul Ricard, 1975


“I liked the wind rushing towards me, the fast-scrolling road under the wheels,” said Ago of his love for motorcycles and racing. “And what it means to be in front, doing things others can’t do. Not to have that number one on the fairing, but to do a job I love.”

You could argue that Agostini was the first modern grand prix rider, the man who blazed the trail for today’s MotoGP stars.

In 1975 Ago became the first rider to win the MotoGP world championship (500cc in those days) aboard a two-stroke, the engine that went on to dominate GP racing for the next quarter of a century and would still be leading the way if MotoGP hadn’t introduced four-strokes in 2002, with a 98% engine capacity advantage. (Yes, 98 per cent!)

From the archive

In the early 1970s Agostini became the first to attract the not-inconsiderable financial backing of cigarette manufacturers who wanted to promote their products. Marlboro didn’t only fund Ago because he knew how to race a motorcycle but also because he was a part-time movie star and a full-time member of the jet set, so he exuded glamour, like a real-life James Bond.

Motorcycle racing never stops changing but perhaps we can make an overly simple contrast between the 1970s and now, which goes like this: in those days it was bravery, talent and mechanical sympathy for your engine and chassis. Now it’s talent, bravery and looking after your front-tyre pressure.

Motorcycle racing was certainly more romantic in those days. During the 1960s, when Agostini was winning everything on his all-powerful MV Agusta, American journalist Bob Ottum described Ago’s job thus: “to race and skid and crash and then make love and drink wine”. Ottum’s story was headlined, “Viva! But hide your women”.

Motorcycle Racer Giacomo Agostini in Action (Photo by Jean-Yves Ruszniewski/TempSport/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Ago flirts with the hay bales at Brno on his way to the 1974 350cc world title – there was never any doubting his bravery

Jean-Yves Ruszniewski/TempSport/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Which of today’s MotoGP youngsters – dazed and confused by hours and hours gazing at squiggly lines on computer monitors, pressing the flesh with sponsors and herded from here to there for autograph sessions, media debriefs (with idiots like me!), selfie sessions and everything else – wouldn’t sign up for Ago’s job?

But for better or worse, that life is no longer available to today’s motorcycle racers.

The wine, women and song must’ve been great, but Agostini did race during a hideously dangerous era, when grand prix racing routinely killed three, four or five riders each season.

From the archive

“At Spa-Francorchamps in 1971 I saw flags waved and hay bales scattered everywhere at Blanchimont [Spa’s scary 150mph left],” Ago recalled. “And as I rode through there I saw a head on one side of the track and a body on the other. It was not easy to go racing like this.

“At that time we only dreamed of covering the trees with hay-bales, we didn’t even ask for the trees to be cut down. We couldn’t even imagine tracks with run-off areas, leathers with armour and airbags…”

During much of Ago’s GP career his machinery enjoyed a huge technical advantage over the rest of the grid. The MV Agusta factory belonged to dour aristocrat Count Domenico Agusta, who bankrolled his racing ventures with the fortune made by his aviation business which built helicopters under licence to American manufacturer Bell. Hugely profitable contracts with the Shah of Iran’s air force and other dubious regimes were fundamental to Agusta building its exotic three-cylinder and four-cylinder machines that were in a different league to the Matchless and Norton singles used by the rest of the grid.


A famed Italian film director wanted Agostini to become a full-time movie star, but Ago turned him down


Therefore many of Ago’s 122 victories were more like regal processions than races, often beating many of his rivals by a lap or two.

But sometimes Ago had to fight and when he did he fought like a lion. In 1966 and 1967 Honda entered the premier class with Mike Hailwood, still rated by many as the best rider of all time.

Agostini beat Hailwood in 1966 and again in 1967. Both years the pressure was immense – the world’s two greatest riders against the world’s two greatest race teams.

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The two were friends but that didn’t stop them being utterly ruthless when the flag dropped and the race started.

Hailwood’s junior team-mate Ralph Bryans, who passed away in 2014, recalled an incident during the 1966 East German GP at Sachsenring.

“Mike’s bike had broken and Ago was running away with the race when, lo and behold, he crashed on the last lap,” Bryans told me some years ago. “Mike was in his caravan in a foul mood. I went in and said, ‘Hey Mike, Ago just crashed’. And what did Mike say to that? ‘F**king good!’ No, ‘Is he all right?’ or anything.”

In 1974 Agostini quit MV after nine years, because he believed the team’s new boss Count Rocky Agusta (Domenico’s nephew) favoured new team-mate Phil Read. He signed with Yamaha, which was still developing its first MotoGP bike, the four-cylinder 500cc two-stroke OW20, which was still a tricky ride, to say the least.

Yamaha had been courting Ago for several years but the Italian didn’t trust the early two-strokes, which were prone to seizing pistons or crankshafts, which locked the rear wheel and hurled the rider to the ground. Not good when the tracks were super-fast with no run-off.

Ago parades his MV Agusta 500 at the Goodwood Festival of Speed

Ago parades his MV Agusta 500 at the Goodwood Festival of Speed


“In 1971 I thought it was too early to race a two-stroke – they were always seizing engines,” said Ago. “But then I could see that they were getting faster and safer, while it was very difficult to find more horsepower with the four-stroke, so it was time to change.”

The man who finally got Agostini to sign a Yamaha contract was the factory’s 1970 250cc world champion Rod Gould.

“Primarily Ago knew it was over for the four-strokes,” said Gould. “But also he didn’t like Rocky, who was just a playboy. Rocky didn’t know anything about anything, all he was good at was spending money.”

When Count Rocky got married he chartered a plane to fly 68 guests from Italy to the USA for his wedding. Or as one reporter noted, “68 beautiful people attached to 136 beautiful kneecaps”. He later moved to South Africa, where he was convicted of bribing government officials and became close friends with fugitive mafioso Vito Palazzolo.

Agostini’s first year with Yamaha was far from easy. The 500 still wasn’t right. It guzzled so much fuel – 11 miles per gallon – that the bike needed an extra eight-litre tank in the seat hump to supplement the 35 litre main tank to finish the Belgian GP at Spa. That’s 42 litres of fuel (weighing 31 kilos), almost double today’s 22-litre MotoGP limit.

Ago’s 1974 Yamaha 350 twin was even worse. The engine vibrated so badly that mechanics had to weld the crankshaft before each race and weld the cracked frame after each race. No wonder two Yamaha mechanics, so exhausted by hard work and all-nighters, got pleurisy, a nasty lung condition. Despite all that Ago won the 1974 350cc crown.

By 1975 the 500 was ready and the battle for that year’s 500cc world title – Ago on the OW26, Read still on the MV – was even more highly charged than those Ago/Hailwood duels. At Yamaha’s race shop in Amsterdam, mechanics stuck a Read sticker inside the toilet bowl, so every time they went to the toilet…

Agostini worked harder than ever to get the Yamaha right and rode harder than ever to overcome its deficiencies. He won four races to Read’s two, enough to win him the last of his 15 world titles.

He is one of the sport’s all-time greats and may forever remain its most successful exponent, so we should never forget to salute him.