After Marc Márquez’s 13th win of the year at Valencia last month I tweeted that el fenómeno had broken Mick Doohan’s 12-wins-in-a-year record.
Not long after, Casey Stoner came right back, with a good-natured tweet reminding me that Doohan had won his 12 victories in a 15-race season, while Márquez had won 13 out of 18.
“Sorry Mat,” he wrote. “But I think we both know Mick’s record still stands 😉 He had about three to four fewer races when he was around.” (NB: Stoner haters – this wasn’t a moan, that was a smiley face and a wink there.)
Stoner’s point is valid. I’m no mathematician (in fact I’m borderline innumerate), but Doohan had a higher percentage win rate in 1997 than Marquez in 2014, 80 per cent against 72 per cent. So, looking at it that way, Doohan is the more successful rider.
But there have been better, on a percentage basis. When I replied to Stoner, telling him that two riders – John Surtees and Giacomo Agostini – have ridden an entire championship season without getting beaten he was bowled over. “I didn’t even know that mate, that’s bloody impressive!!”
These two legends will never, ever be beaten. In 1959 Surtees won seven out of seven races and in 1968 Agostini won all ten races. They are GP racing’s only ‘100 per centers’ and they won’t ever be beaten, not even by today’s riders who like to tell us that they’re going out there to give it 120 per cent.
Ago would surely have repeated his 1968 full-house, but he was easily bored, so after securing the title in subsequent years he preferred to hang his leathers in the wardrobe, leave the also-rans to fight over the laurels at the final few races and jet off on holiday, arm in arm with a beauty. Ladies and Caribbean beaches understandably held more attraction for him than repeating his full-house ad infinitum.
Even so, in 1970 the Italian hearthrob won 90 per cent of the races and in 1972 he won 84 per cent. Mike Hailwood is up there too. In 1963 and 1965 he was 87 and 80 per cent victorious. And the year before Surtees went unbeaten he took 85 per cent of the winner’s silverware. Next on the list is Doohan.
So there you have it, these are the most successful premier-class riders in history, using percentage statistics. But didn’t someone (it was either US writer Mark Twain or British PM Benjamin Disraeli) once say that “there are lies, damned lies and statistics?” Because percentage statistics can used to support your argument whatever it may be. Just ask a politician.
Surtees and Ago (above in a Ferrari 312T2 in 1977) rode their unbeaten seasons in unusual times. In 1968 Ago was MV Agusta’s only rider and MV were the only factory contesting GP racing. In 1959 MV were also the sole factory on the grid, though Surtees had Italian Remo Venturi as back-up rider. In those days the rest of the grid was populated by impoverished privateers who could barely afford enough petrol to get to the next event, let alone a new piston for their Norton Manx. If the four-cylinder MV was the Ferrari 275GTB4 of that time, then the Norton was a Morris Minor.
Then again, Surtees and Ago raced dangerous racetracks that usually claimed a rider or two on every visit – from the warp-speed terror and rusting Armco of the original Spa-Francorchamps to the mist and mortality of the Isle of Man’s Mountain circuit and from the Green Hell of the old Nurburgring (Jackie Stewart’s words) to the greasy cobblestones of the Sachsenring.
And they rode around these tracks on fragile racing machines, with racing engines, suspension, brakes and tyres still in their infancy. Just nursing the machine to the finish line was a minor miracle, let alone getting there before everyone else.
Doohan rode around safer tracks on (slightly) safer motorcycles and wearing much better riding gear, but he was surrounded on all sides by similar factory bikes ridden by Kevin Schwantz, Wayne Rainey, Eddie Lawson and Wayne Gardner; almost certainly the most competitive period in Grand Prix history. And he beat the lot of them, frequently.
But by 1997 Doohan was racing alone, hence his famous “racing is boring as shit, right now”. The other Superheroes had retired, most of them hurt or scared of getting more beaten up than they already were. In 1997 his main rivals were Tadayuki Okada and Nobuatsu Aoki – heroes but not superheroes. Alex Criville would’ve been up there too but he mangled a thumb at Assen.
And what of today? Without doubt it is one of the most competitive periods in almost 70 years of Grand Prix racing. Most races are won by two or three seconds and the pace is pitiless. Márquez has to deal with Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, which is a tougher job than dealing with Venturi or Okada, but not as tough as dealing with Schwantz, Rainey, Doohan, Lawson and Gardner.
I could go on arguing with myself on this subject for hours, but I’ll stop now. Hopefully you’ve got the picture.