In part one of the "Best Ever", we looked at the legends and circumstances of the 1960s and spilled over slightly into the early 1970s, as the era assessment for this topic tends to blend the two decades together a bit. Mike Hailwood, as you may remember, won my vote as the best of that era.
For Part II, we move from the glorious, yet sometimes tragedy-filled days of the early legends in the 50s and 60s, to the era that saw a wave of change in Grand Prix motorcycle racing and the beginning of the end for the European domination of the premier class. At the beginning of the decade, there were rumors coming from across the Atlantic that there were some talented American riders in the AMA series and on the dirt track scene. As the 70s developed, those rumors became the reality that the 'Yanks' were on their wayand they were fast!
As the 1970s began, we still had Italian legend Giacomo Agostini holding the 500cc class against the ropes on his all-conquering MV Agusta. There was a regular list of riders who kept Agostini honest even though his domination was still pretty emphatic.
There was the New Zealander Ginger Molloy, who gave Ago a run for his money in 1970 on his Bultaco single, followed closely by Italian Angelo Bergamonti riding a rare entry from Aermacchi. Molloy goes into the record books as the first-ever rider to gain a podium finish on board a two-stroke motorcycle in a World Championship Grand Prix, at the Spanish GP at Jarama in 1969.
Alberto Pagani, Dave Simmonds, and two other New Zealanders Kim Newcombe and Keith Turner were a thorn in the side of Agostini, and even the Husqvarna factory got into on the act of chasing Ago with Swedish rider Bo Granath.
In fact, Husqvarna was the first factory to race a two-stroke machine for a full season in the 500cc class during their rare foray into road racing during the 70s, and Granath finished a creditable fifth in the 1972 World Championship on that two-stroke twin. Not a statistic that often gets to see the light of day.
The British public had a new hero in the shape of Phil Read who would be the main opposition for Agostini during the three seasons between 1973 and 1975. Read was riding an MV Agusta, too, and suddenly Agostini's dominance was gone, although it did cement the theory that the MV was, by far, the best bike out there--at that stage anyway.
Read burst onto the 500cc scene in 1973 and won the championship in his first season in the premier class. Agostini was third behind Read and, more importantly, behind second-place Kim Newcombe, riding a miracle season on the Koenig. This defeat seemed to signal a change in attitude from Agostini. He wanted to win a title on another steed, and he was determined to prove he could make it happen on a bike other than the MV. For 1974, he left the MV Agusta fold and moved to Yamaha, much to the consternation of the Italian fans, and that gamble didn't deliver instant results.
1973 saw the fatal accident of Jarno Saarinen at Monza, an accident that robbed the 500cc class of a certain combatant for Agostini. Although Saarinen wasn't the first rider to be killed while racing--as it was an all-too-frequent occurrence during the era--it was these kinds of accidents that fueled the growing resentment towards the organizers who seemed more interested in counting the cash than providing a decent environment of safety, something we'll get to in more detail when we reach a certain Mr. Roberts.
In 1974, Read was awesome in defense of his title and was followed home by MV team-mate Gianfranco Bonera with another fast-developing Finnish hotshot, Tevo Lansivuori in third on his Yamaha. Lansivuori was another from the Jarno Saarinen mold, devastatingly quick and brave to boot. Ago finished fourth after finding the adaptation to the Yamaha a struggle at some circuits. 1974 was also the debut in the 500cc class by a certain Mr. Barry Sheene who finished sixth but was starting to make an impact both on and off the track.
As we moved into the second half of the 1970s, it was all change machinery-wise and talent-wise too. The four-stroke's dominance of the 500 series ended in 1975 as the two-stroke 500cc era began to take hold, and suddenly, we began to see the riders get their knees down in the corners.
1975 saw Barry Sheene again finish sixth on his Suzuki, but he was fast gaining a reputation for flamboyant performances and gritty determination--qualities that hadn't gone unnoticed by the established riders. As well as winning the Gps in Holland and Sweden, the "big star" status was being bestowed upon Sheene and he reveled in that role.
The mid 1970s also saw what was, at the time, the surprising emergence of a successful Japanese rider, Hideo Kanaya, who finished third in 1975 on his Yamaha. Tevo Lansivuori also put together a great season to finish fourth after switching from Yamaha to Suzuki.
Agostini, though, had gotten to grips with the Yamaha and endured a fierce battle with Read, only winning the title by eight points from the British star who was trying to keep MV Agusta a force to be reckoned with. In reality, it was only Read's excellent performances that got MV Agusta to second that year, as the MV was all but finished in the premier class.
1976 saw the vastly improved Suzuki 500 again in the hands of Barry Sheene. Suzuki was the bike to ride in the premier class that year and only Agostini, who had defected back to MV Augusta, stopped Suzuki from dominating the top ten positions of the championship points table.
Sheene was quick and was devastatingly effective all season taking five wins from ten rounds, and he was the first rider to really have the knack for riding the two-stroke 500cc bikes consistently. At that time, the regulations still selected the best six wins from the season, and Sheene's score sheet was near perfect at the end of the year. Sheene won the title in fine style, beating out Finnish star Lansivuori and in third place was Pat Hennen, the first of the US riders emerging onto the scene.
Hennen, also riding for Suzuki, became the first-ever American to win a 500cc Grand Prix when he beat Lanisvouri in front of the Fin's home crowd. Hennen, and fellow American Steve Baker, were the first to lay the US groundwork in the 500cc class and prove that Americans could be competitive on the world stage. Hennen can also be found in the record books of the Isle of Man TT, as he was the first rider to record a sub-20-minute lap in the 1978 Senior TT on a 500cc Suzuki.
Yamaha, by their standards, had a poor season, with their in-line four down on top speed compared to the Suzukis. Yamaha's star rider, charismatic Venezuelan Johnny Cecotto, found 1976 a frustrating season because of this power deficiency, but with Cecotto being joined in the series by the likes of Italian Marco Lucchinelli and Dutch legend Wil Hartog, we had an expanse of world talent making its mark on the series.
The following season, 1977, saw Barry Sheene take the second of his 500cc World titles and saw Hennen, also riding a Suzuki, again finish third, this time with Steve Baker beating him to second.
Baker was a busy man that season because not only was he competing in the 500cc World Championship in 1977 but he was also riding in Formula 1 aboard a YZR750, and he was a factory Yamaha rider in both series. He started the year off impressively by winning the rain-shortened Daytona 200 from pole.
The dominance of the Americans was to follow but, in 1977, it was Barry Sheene who was on top of the world. Those two titles for Sheene in '76 and '77 made him a household name in the UK, the first motorcycle-racing star to really make an impact on the British public.
Sheene would hold court wherever he went, flamboyant, glamorous, and some would say, flashy even. He was the first of the big "stars" of Grand Prix, had television coverage to cement him in the hearts and minds of the fans, and he had a massively magnetic personality. Sheene could mix with royalty, children, the fans at trackside, sponsors and, of course, the ladies with equal aplomb. He was a player all right, loved the social scene and had people like Cecotto to play off of.
Sheene could also be proud of the fact that he had injected some much-needed interest back into the sport, not only in the UK but all over the world. The series had been stagnating under the dominance of MV Agusta in the 350cc and 500cc classes, and the popularity had waned. Sheene and the arriving Americans had encouraged growth in attendance at the tracks and growth in television coverage and the factories were showing a renewed vigor to make their own marques successful.
For the record, the Venezuelan Cecotto finished fourth, the leading Yamaha, with Agostini trailed off in sixth and that was to be the last we saw of Giacomo Agostini in Grand Prix. The Italian legend retired at the end of the season. With a packed trophy cabinet and a huge portfolio of accomplishment, Agostini would forever be one of the biggest names in motorcycle racing history, but after 1977, with the surroundings changing quickly, it was time to go.
For me, 1978 was a pivotal year in Grand Prix.
It heralded the arrival of an American rider who would go on to have such an impact on Grand Prix that his actions both on and off track 25 years ago can still be felt within the sport today.
Kenny Roberts was a newcomer in 1978. He hailed from Modesto, California and was a multiple dirt track winner, a double AMA Grand National Champion for Yamaha, and he went on to dominate motorcycle roadracing in the U.S. He was the 1977 AMA Formula 1 Champion and three times a winner of the Daytona 200. Roberts' versatility was obvious to all who witnessed the man at work. A Yamaha factory man through and through, Roberts set about planning an assault on the Europeans.
He arrived in Europe armed with an aggressive attitude, precise riding style and undaunted determination to make himself a Grand Prix winner--plainly and simply, he was fast.
With the arrival of Roberts, after the success of Steve Baker and Pat Hennen, the European dominance of Grand Prix was about to come to a grinding halt. In fact, no less than three titles--in the 500cc, 350cc, and 250cc classes, were to go to non-European riders in 1978.
Kenny Roberts had the ability to stir the imagination of the fans and, together with Barry Sheene, they dominated the late 1970s in terms of attention from the watching public and for Roberts, domination of the 500cc class would land him three successive titles.
Roberts was an instant challenger for the 500cc crown in 1978 and he was no slouch on a 250cc machine either, but it was his professionalism and awareness for safety, as well as his on-track exploits, that made him a legend. Throughout his career, Roberts campaigned on behalf of himself and the other riders for improvements in the way the riders were treated. A few one-fingered salutes got the ball rolling, bringing attention to the cause.
His stance on safety and due respect for riders was never better illustrated than at the French Grand Prix where he stormed into the organizer's office to demand his money for winning and to convey his total disgust with the facilities and track safety. The exact words used cannot be printed here, but be assured, the message was heard loud and clear that afternoon in France.
This determination to "clean up" the series gained Roberts many friends and the respect of the paddock, but didn't always endear him to the organizers. However, as he became more influential politically, the changes to the Grand Prix infrastructure began to be implemented.
For the 1978 season, it was all about Roberts versus Sheene, and Yamaha versus Suzuki. The competition hardly got a look-in. Roberts won four races and had multiple podium finishes whereas Sheene could only manage two wins. Roberts' dirt track experience gave him an advantage in the days when tire technology had yet to catch up with the sort of power available from the two-strokes. He was becoming the master of controlling a spinning rear wheel; his bike control was simply stunning.
Third place went to the ever-hard-charging Johnny Cecotto and the rest of the field had deepened in terms of decent, fast riders and was now multinational and eye-catching. Dutchman Wil Hartog was impressing everyone on the Suzuki, and Takazumi Katayama, the new Japanese hot-shot on the Yamaha, was right there with him at most rounds scrapping for top points. Hennen and Baker were still in the 500cc class although not on the best spec Suzukis in the world. Finnish star Tevo Lansivuori and Italians Marco Lucchinelli and Virginio Ferrari were joined for the midfield dogfights by Britain's Steve Parrish and Frenchman Michel Rougerie, with all concerned making the odd excursion to the front of the field.
Roberts, though, was the man and landed the World crown at the first attempt. Sheene was deposed as the "King", and that trend ended up being a mainstay of the 500cc class for the next two seasons.
"King Kenny" also finished in fourth place in the 250cc World Championship in 1978, the title won by South African Kork Ballington.
In 1979, Roberts took the glory again but had ridden most of the season injured after a nasty accident in preseason testing where he broke his foot, hurt his legs and suffered a crushed vertebrae. It was thought for a time that he wouldn't even make the main bulk of the season but, in true Roberts style, although he missed the opening round, he rode around the injuries and once again beat Barry Sheene--the situation utterly demoralizing the British double World Champion.
At round two, after Sheene had won the opener, Roberts took the win against all expectation, and Sheene knew it was going to be a tough year. After all, if the American could beat the field even though he was injured, then it would take a season-long performance of "Roberts-esque" stature to beat the man himself.
It didn't work out that way though as Hartog, Ferrari, Cecotto and Sheene would all fall afoul of injury or mechanical failure, or in Sheene's case, mechanical ineptitude from his mechanics. Roberts soldiered on, though injured, and beat the lot of them.
The highlight of the season came at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix. Many will tell you that one of the greatest races of all time happened at the penultimate round that season and they wouldn't be far off the mark. Roberts and Sheene put on a masterful display and left the field in their wake as they swapped paint for the entire race distance. Roberts would lead one lap, then Sheene would lead the next, and that scenario played out right to the end of the race. Roberts took the win by just three-tenths of a second. The two legends gave the British crowd a memory not easily forgotten.
With Christian Sarron, Mike Baldwin, Franco Uncini and Randy Mamola strengthening the field still further, 1979 was a great season but not without controversy. Roberts won the title from Virginio Ferrari, with Sheene in third, but, as the era drew to a close, it was all change on the political front. The riders threatened to form a breakaway series if the FIM didn't start the wave of changes that the riders wanted in terms of prize money, safety and overall organization of Grand Prix weekends.
The 500cc class threatened a boycott of the 1980 season and made it clear they would breakout on their own and even got as far as getting several circuits on board their wagon of discontent, but, after the German circuits refused to join the "gang", so to speak, the whole idea fell through.
However, the political unrest and the clout that the riders appeared to carry did the trick, and the FIM started to implement many of the changes the riders wanted to see, slowly at first, but as we sit here in 2004, the series we see today and the way it is run, was influenced greatly by that proposed alternative to the official FIM-backed World Championship. The riders made it clear that, without them, you have no series and the fans were behind that ideal. The face of Grand Prix was to change forever--and for the better in my view.
The "club meet" feel had gone as we got to the 1980s, and Grand Prix was now a business, an international business that would make its mark on the sporting world. The political strong-arm tactics from the riders had woken the FIM up to itself and its deficiencies as an organizer, and the riders became respected for the talent they brought and their standing within the racing community also.
So now, to my pick of legend of the 1970s...
Well, it came down to a choice between Barry Sheene and Kenny Roberts, although Giacomo Agostini and Phil Read are in there, of course, as are Johnny Cecotto and Wil Hartog. Sheene will always be a legend, and his persona started a whole new wave of support for Grand Prix. His skills as a rider are beyond question as was his determination to win on track and in life. That determination was born out superbly in the way he battled to fight off the cancer in recent years, which eventually got the better of him in 2003. He will be missed by many for a long, long time to come.
But, I have to pick Kenny Roberts. His influence over Grand Prix forced such a sweeping move toward professionalism that it's hard to comprehend what might have been had he not come along in 1978. Couple that with his continual campaign to improve the surroundings for the riders in all areas of competition, his presence on the racetrack, as well as his sheer determination to be the best and I can't look anywhere else. His contribution to motorcycle racing at the highest level, both sporting and political, has left an indelible mark on the Grand Prix racing series and the sport in general. So, for me, King Kenny is truly King.
In Part III, we'll expound on this subject as Roberts moved his mastery into a new era, and we got the likes of Spencer, Lawson and Rainey on board the good ship "Grand Prix" while the Australians started making waves.