Tomorrow is the day: happy 75th birthday to MotoGP!


The first-ever world championship race took place on 13th June 1949. Four days later the first premier-class race was won by a rider who wasn’t allowed to fight in World War Two because his eyesight was so bad. Different times…

1949 Isle of Man TT 250cc lightweight start

The 1949 Isle of Man TT was motorcycling’s first world championship event. The faster categories featured staggered starts on Glencrutchery Road. Slower classes, like the 250cc Lightweight, got underway with massed starts

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Motorcycle world championship racing (MotoGP for the last quarter of a century) roared into action for the first time 75 years ago tomorrow: June 13, 1949.

Three-quarters of a century is an important milestone, which deserves remembering, because these were the men and machines that laid the foundations for today’s MotoGP world championship.

At 11am on that sunny Monday morning the first world championship race, for 350cc machines, got underway on the Isle of Man. The starters were waved off at the top of Glencrutchery Road to commence seven laps of the treacherous TT course: 264 miles (425 kilometres, almost four times further than a current MotoGP race!), lasting around two hours and 43 minutes.

“Boy Scouts carried international flags, while loudspeakers blared out March of the Gladiators

This race was historic because it wasn’t only the first event to count towards a world title. It was also the first world-championship race to record a fatality and the first TT to feature a staggered start, with riders starting at intervals, instead of the traditional massed start, for safety reasons.

“The weather was fine but blustery,” went the report in the TT issue of Motor Cycling, on sale three days later. “Retirements were remarkably few and the accident rate was low. Unfortunately one fatality occurred when Ben Drinkwater died from crash injuries.”

If this brief reference to a rider’s death seems somewhat casual, remember that Britain was less than four years out of the war, so riders that didn’t come back from races weren’t considered much different from soldiers, sailors and airmen who hadn’t come back from wartime missions.

“That’s how I used to look at these guys going out and not coming back – I used to call them Spitfire pilots,” Rita Perris, the wife of factory AJS rider Frank Perris, once told me.

Velocette KTT ridden by Freddie Frith to victory in first motorcycle world championship race

Freddie Frith’s factory Velocette KTT, which won the first-ever world championship race on 13th June 1949. The restored machine recently sold for £135,000


The 350cc grid was formed from 100% British metal – AJS, Norton and Velocette – mostly ridden by British riders, but there were a few that hailed from Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Spain and…

“No one seems quite sure if Southern Ireland’s representative, Ernie Lyons, should be called a foreigner.”

Different times.

Would the lap record, established at the 1938 TT, be beaten, wondered Motor Cycling. Probably not, because these were the post-war years of austerity, when the only available fuel was so-called pool petrol – of such low grade that Norton team manager Joe Craig called it, “Little better than paraffin”.

From the archive

The race was preceded by a parade of riders and machines along Glencrutchery Road, “With Boy Scouts carrying international flags leading the way, while loudspeakers blared out the traditional, March of the Gladiators.”

This was a jaunty little number by Czech composer Julius Fučík. Who said no one knew about promotion in the old days?

And yet some things never change…

“M Lockwood, who only passed the medical check this morning, after a practice crash, set off with a big white bandage around his jaw,” wrote Motor Cycling. Facial injuries were common before full-face helmets arrived in the 1970s.

Decorated WW2 bomber pilot Les Graham led the first lap but his AJS soon broke down. AJS team-mate Bill Doran took over the lead, only to have his gearbox break as he climbed Snaefell mountain for the final time.

“What rotten luck,” exclaimed Motor Cycling.

In fact AJS race bikes were renowned for their poor reliability because company management were a bunch of penny pinchers. This is what prompted Graham to leave AJS and sign for MV at the end of the following season.

Duke of Edinburgh waves off Artie Bell at 1949 Senior TT

The first ‘MotoGP’ rider to turn a wheel in anger! Factory Norton rider Artie Bell is waved off by Prince Phillip at the start of the 1949 Senior TT

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The benefactor of the AJS disaster was factory Velocette rider Freddie Frith, which made him one of the few riders to win TTs both before and after the war. He was joined on the podium by fellow Velo rider Ernie Lyons and third-placed Artie Bell.

Immediately after Frith’s victory the top finishers had their machines were stripped by scrutineers, a procedure which doesn’t continue today, much to the relief of Ducati’s Gigi Dall’Igna and other clever MotoGP engineers.

“Frith’s engine was found to be in excellent condition,” declared Motor Cycling. “If anything, it had run too cool – the combustion head, the huge inlet valve and the piston crown being covered in a thin film of oil. The sparking plug confirmed this impression, being a moist black.”

On the other hand, Bell’s third-placed factory Norton, “Was literally perfect – a nice dry combustion chamber, the thinnest possible skin of hard carbon on the piston crown”. But it didn’t win the race, did it?

“All the tokens promised clean roads, warm grass to sit upon and safe speeds. For what more could we ask?”

A few months later Frith – who had trained soldiers to ride motorcycles during the war – made more history when he became motorcycle racing’s first world champion. The 40-year-old and his 40-horsepower Velocette KTT single went unbeaten over the five 350cc rounds, so he was crowned before the season finale at Monza, Italy.

Four days after the Junior, the 500cc Senior race, the TT’s main event and forerunner of today’s 1000cc MotoGP category. This was seven laps: 264 miles (425 kilometres), three hours and two minutes for the winner!

Motor Cycling turned out its top scribe for the big one.

“During the night, no gales rattled the windows, no rain pattered on the roofs,” he wrote. “Snaefell wore a scarf of grey tulle [silk] around her head at dawn. But as the steamers double-banked at the Douglas quays to unload many thousands of unshaven passengers, out came the sun to warm their search for a café breakfast. All the tokens promised clean roads, warm grass to sit upon, safe speeds and a smooth homeward passage. For what more could we ask?”

Ted Frend follows Artie Bell in 1949 Senior TT

Factory AJS rider Ted Frend chases factory Norton rider Artie Bell through Quarter Bridge in the first ‘MotoGP’ race. Bell finished fourth, Frend withdrew with bike problems

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On that day there were 8000 spectators at Creg-ny-Baa alone.

The first premier-class world championship rider to turn a wheel in anger was factory Norton rider Bell, who plunged down Bray Hill after Prince Phillip had flagged him off at the start.

This time there was one foreign machine in the race – a factory-entered Moto Guzzi, ridden by Bob Foster, which set the fastest lap and led the way, until its clutch broke on lap six, 207 miles into the race.

From the archive

Graham took over the lead aboard his factory AJS ‘Porcupine’ twin and was within 1.75 miles of making history when he stopped at Hillberry on the final lap. The AJS’s magneto armature shaft had sheared – more penny-pinching and corner-cutting.

Victory was handed to Bell’s bespectacled Norton team-mate Harold Daniell, who had been turned down for WW2 military service due to his poor eyesight. Second was Norton team-mate Johnny Lockett, third was Lyons on a Velocette.

Graham pushed in his silent AJS to finish tenth, outside the points. And yet eleven weeks later (that’s how long the six-round series lasted!) he was crowned the first ‘MotoGP’ champ at Monza, taking the title from Gilera’s Nello Pagani by a single point.

He was lucky that Gilera hadn’t joined the Guzzi team on the long journey from Italy to the Isle of Man with its super-fast four-cylinder 500, which won eleven riders’ and ‘MotoGP’ constructors’ crowns over the next eight seasons.

Thanks to Dr Martin Raines and the Royal Automobile Club for their help with researching this story