This Friday, August 14, it will be 50 years since the two-stroke’s first MotoGP victory. And four weeks later, on September 12, it will be 50 years since Ducati entered its first MotoGP race.
Both these anniversaries are significant landmarks in the history of motorcycle grand prix racing, signalling a generational change in technology, just as we are currently seeing a generational change of riders in MotoGP.
The first two-stroke MotoGP success followed a decade of two-stroke victories in the smaller classes and signalled three decades of domination by 500cc two-strokes, the most demanding and downright dangerous grand prix bikes of all time.
The rudimentary Suzuki XR05 that made history in August 1971 therefore blazed the trail for machines like Honda’s NSR500, Suzuki’s RGV500 and Yamaha’s YZR500. These motorcycles will forever be legends of the sport, but we shouldn’t forget how many bones and riders they broke.
Ducati’s first MotoGP machine might have been more successful if it hadn’t been created at the very moment the two-strokes stormed the premier class. But the fact that Ducati decided to build the bike in the first place probably saved the Italian marque from extinction, so it’s another hugely important motorcycle.
Suzuki was the first Japanese two-stroke brand to make it in GPs – winning the 1962 50cc and 1963 125cc world titles – after stealing the secrets to two-stroke success from East German marque MZ. But the Hamamatsu brand didn’t take its first MotoGP victory (of 95, so far) with a high-tech GP bike.
The XR05 that Australian Jack Findlay rode to victory in the Ulster GP on August 14, 1971 was nothing fancy. It was basically a Moto2 bike in concept: a piston-ported twin-cylinder T500 road bike engine in a rudimentary race chassis. In other words, not much of an eXperimental Racer – the origin of the XR prefix.
The XR engine made around 70 horsepower – about 200 less than Suzuki’s current GSX-RR MotoGP bike – but that didn’t mean it didn’t scare the living daylights out of its riders.
When the XR05 made its debut at Daytona three years before Findlay’s breakthrough success, factory rider Dick Hammer was so shellshocked by the machine’s malevolence – top-speed tank-slappers on the banking and frequent piston and crankshaft seizures – that he parked the bike after qualifying and raced his old Triumph twin. Suzuki sacked him a few days later.
However, the fact was that if you wanted to succeed in this brave new age of grand prix racing there was nothing else to do than leave your plodding old four-stroke in the garage and risk life and limb on a fast but fragile ‘stinkwheel’.
Legendary grand prix privateer Findlay had been racing 500 GPs for a decade – on a Norton Manx, a Matchless G50 and a Seeley G50 single-cylinders. None of these motorcycles made much more than 50 horsepower, so he didn’t think twice when Suzuki Italia offered him XR05 engines for 1971.
The XR was nearly as powerful as the latest 500 from MV Agusta, which had won the previous 13 500cc world championships with its three- and four-cylinder racers, available only to the lucky few anointed by Count Domenico Agusta (and his mother). In 1971 it wasn’t even the few – Giacomo Agostini was MV’s only rider that year.
MV’s 1971 triple was good for 170mph, 30mph faster than the singles, but only 10mph faster than the XR05. From having no chance of beating MV, privateers like Findlay suddenly had a chance, even though that chance may’ve been as slim as a the XR’s powerband.
In fact Paris-based Findlay wasn’t the fastest XR rider in 1971. The biggest thorn in Agostini’s side was rough, tough New Zealander Keith Turner, who finished second to the Italian stallion at the season-opening Austrian GP and gave him a very hard time in the rain at Anderstorp, Sweden, where the pair lapped everyone up to third.
Ago won the first eight races, wrapping up the title at the sixth round. Usually he headed straight for the beach once he had secured the crown, but this time MV kept sending him to races, hoping he would win all 11 races, in honour of Count Agusta, who had died in February of 1971, 26 years after founding MV.
The privateers got their chance at Dundrod, home of the Ulster GP, just outside Belfast. MV decided to miss the race due to the deteriorating situation in the region, where that week the British army killed nine civilians in the Ballymurphy massacre.
Turner was confident he could win the race but a carburettor inlet rubber split and he was out, leaving Findlay to make history.
The following month Briton Dave Simmonds won the two-stroke’s second 500cc GP at Jarama, riding a Kawasaki H1R, a race version of the company’s evil H1 road bike.
A few weeks after Simmonds’ success a youngster by the name of Barry Sheene bought a half-wrecked XR05 for £36 from Suzuki GB. He housed the engine in a Seeley frame and made his 500 GP on the bike at Imatra, Finland, in July 1972.
While all this was going on, Ducati was also making history. The Bologna-based marque was on the brink of bankruptcy and had been taken into government control because it had fallen behind the rest of the world. While motorcyclists were falling in love with the first superbikes – Honda’s CB750, Kawasaki’s Z1 and Triumph’s Trident – Ducati sold nothing more exotic than a 450cc single.
That all changed at the end of 1970 when chief engineer Fabio Taglioni was instructed by Ducati’s government-appointed directors to build the company’s first superbike, the GT750 v-twin. At the same time he was told to engineer a 500 GP bike, to promote the 750, because there was no 750 racing in Europe.
The 500 was the great-great-great grandaddy of the 90-degree v-twin race bikes that dominated the first few decades of the World Superbike championship. The engine made slightly less than 70 horsepower, with two valves per cylinder and conventional valve springs; no desmodromics.
During 1971, Ducati’s 500 contested several Italian championship meetings, giving Agostini and MV a little but not much to worry about. Its big day was the Italian GP at Monza on September 12, when four-times world champion Phil Read battled for a podium finish with the Kawasaki of Simmonds and Italian Giampiero Zubani, until his gearbox went AWOL and he limped home fourth.
Read finished behind the two Kawasakis and ahead of two XR05s, with more two-strokes than four-strokes in the top ten. The writing was on the wall…
Ducati kept working on the 500 into 1972 – trying desmodromics and fuel injection – when the bike scored its first and only podium at the Italian GP at Imola, where Bruno Spaggiari finished third, a whole lap behind winner Agostini.
Joan Mir was struggling to retain his world title until a box of new parts arrived on Friday night. Plus Jorge Martin’s skills and Brembo’s Red Bull Ring brakes
And that’s where the first chapter of Ducati’s MotoGP story ended. The factory realised it had little chance of beating MV and the two-strokes, which were getting faster and faster. It was obvious that once the Japanese factories got serious about the premier-class – instead of entering pimped-up road bikes – the four-strokes wouldn’t stand a chance.
So Ducati took refuge in the new F750 class, created in the USA and imported into Europe by Checco Costa (father of famed MotoGP medic Dr Claudio Costa). In 1972, Costa hosted the 200 Miglia di Imola, inspired by the Daytona 200. Briton Paul Smart won the race aboard a GT750.
Smart – in fact his wife, Maggie – accepted the ride after 20-year-old up-and-comer Sheene had asked for too much money and Read found himself unable to accept Ducati’s offer of a rider because he had already signed for Norton. “The biggest mistake of my career,” he said later.
The Imola F750 victory convinced Ducati that its future didn’t lie in grands prix, but ironically F750 was also taken over by two-strokes – race versions of Suzuki’s GT750 and Kawasaki’s H2 road bikes and finally Yamaha’s TZ750.
Ducati never won another F750 race and stayed out of GPs for 399 races, returning at Suzuka, Japan, in April 2003, with the Desmosedici V4. Just ten weeks later Ducati won its first MotoGP race, when Loris Capirossi beat Honda’s Valentino Rossi at Catalunya, Spain.
And that might never have happened if Ducati hadn’t decided to build that first 500 half a century ago.
Let’s hope the Bologna factory team shows up at next month’s Aragon GP – exactly 50 years since its first MotoGP outing – with its factory Desmosedicis wearing silver metalflake bodywork to mark this major anniversary.