April 2023

Giacomo Agostini – The greatest of them all

Rossi? Hailwood? Doohan? Duke? Marquez? They may all have a claim of course, but, for many, Giacomo Agostini is the best motorcycle racer ever – his credentials underlined by 122 GP wins and 15 world championship titles.

Some will say that the only reason Giacomo Agostini has the statistics which back up his claim of the being the best motorcycle racer of all time is that, for some years, on the all-conquering and vastly superior MV Agusta he had little or no opposition.

That may be true to some extent – though he could only beat what was put up against him – but arguably his greatest ever achievement came when he switched to Yamaha and took two more world titles, the 1974 350cc crown and 1975 500cc title. In doing so he became the first two-stroke rider to win the premier class crown. And he’d only won all his titles because of the four-stroke MV, right?

Fittingly, he returned to MV and in 1976 claimed the marque’s last ever 500cc GP win, it also being the last four-stroke to triumph in the class and his own last GP victory. It was the perfect end to a largely perfect career.

Born in Brescia in central northern Italy in 1942 to a relatively well-to-do family, young Giacomo had to hide his motorcycle racing from his parents, though he was soon excelling in hill climbs and then road racing – clinching the important Italian national 175cc title in 1963, then the 250cc crown the year after, both times on single cylinder Moto Morinis. He also claimed two fourth places in 250cc GP outings, at Solitude, Germany and Monza, Italy.     

After years of ‘foreign’ riders wining world titles on its motorcycles, Count Domenico Agusta, boss of MV Agusta, maker of the dominant 350 and 500cc GP class machines, wanted an Italian rider to carry the flag and in young Giacomo, he recognised his man. In his first season, 1965, on the bright red ‘fire engines’ Giacomo was four times a GP winner (three 350cc and one 500cc) and finished runner-up in both classes.   

In 1966, Mike Hailwood had left MV Agusta to ride the fearsome 500cc Honda in the blue riband class, leaving Agostini as team leader; bested in the 350cc class again (by Hailwood’s Honda six) the Italian claimed his first 500cc world title, a feat he repeated in 1967; both times, Hailwood was runner-up. In the latter season, Hailwood and Agostini went head-to-head in what many regard as perhaps the finest ever Isle of Man Senior TT; after a fearsome high-speed battle, Mike won out, but only after Giacomo was reduced to tears on his 25th birthday when his chain broke.     

Then at the end of 1967, Honda withdrew from racing. From now on, for the most part, Giacomo’s tears were those of joy, as he raced to world title after world title; every year 1968-72 inclusive, he was a double 350/500 world champion and in 1968-70 he won every GP in which he raced. It was a remarkable record of speed and consistency – and testament to the MV’s reliability, it must be said. There were 10 TT wins, too.  

However, the applecart was somewhat upset when MV (with Count Agusta having died in 1971) hired the divisive Phil Read as Agostini’s teammate – the Englishman wrestled the 1973 500cc title from the Italian’s grip, with Giacomo suffering an unheard-of host of retirements early season. To the surprise of all onlookers, at season’s end Agostini quit, signing for Yamaha. Few saw that coming.

What he did next is perhaps the defining section of Agostini’s career – on his Yamaha debut he won the Daytona 200 in 1974, then in the GPs he won four 350cc rounds and retained his crown, while in the 500cc class he bagged two victories on the four-cylinder two-stroke TZ500, on his way to fourth in the title chase. Next year, although he lost his 350cc title (though he was still second) he scored the big one, besting MV and Phil Read to take the title. It was a defining moment for the sport – and Giacomo Agostini.

From there, Giacomo’s career was to tail off, albeit there were a couple of remarkable results in 1976, when he won the Dutch (Assen) 350cc TT and the German 500cc GP at the mighty Nürburgring. It was a fitting venue for MV’s, a four-stroke’s and Agostini’s last 500cc GP triumph.

‘Ago’ retired from motorcycle racing at the end of 1977, having endured a winless season back on Yamaha (though he still notched three runner-up GP finishes) and switched his attention to cars, driving up to F1 level in non-championship events. Then he turned to team management, steering numerous riders to GP success.

Giacomo Agostini

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