70 years of motorcycle racing championships: winning Italians

Author Vincenzo Bonanno contributor
Amount of Images 0 Immagini
Calendar 09/10/2019
Time passed Tempo di lettura 7 min

From the roar of petrol to the hiss of electricity: unimaginable 70 years ago, when the world championship was born.

And yet the electric motorbike world championship is a reality today. On September 15th, along with the MotoGP, the MotoE also took to the track: the Grand Prix of San Marino and the Riviera di Rimini took place at the Marco Simoncelli World Circuit in Misano. Bikes have been running on petrol since 1949. Now, after 70 years, a revolution, a turning point, which follows the path already taken in car racing with Formula E.


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Since their first appearance on the planet’s roads at the end of the 1800s, motorbikes have been the ingredient for organizing risk-based rides and adrenaline. An example? The first edition of the Tourist Trophy, the oldest two-wheeler competition in the world, on the Isle of Man, dates back to 1906. From then on, there were races almost everywhere: on the road, even on dust-tracks.There was a lot of improvisation involved before motorcycling became official in 1949, when it began to take the shape that it still preserves nowadays: the world championship was born with its various classes: 125 cc, 250 cc, 350 cc and 500 cc, which live on as today’s Moto3, Moto2 and MotoGP.


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From “Scarciole” to “Duke of Parma”: Masetti was the first motorcycling “star”.

The first Italian driver to triumph in the 500 class (the queen class) was Umberto Masetti in 1950. His father owned the Gilera dealership in Parma, and he grew up with rods and pistons in his workshop: “Scarciole” (so called for his lean body) knew how to make his Gilera fly like no one: the 200-plus races he won in his career prove this. His rivalry with the Englishman Geoff Duke, the “iron duke”, was also the first major “duel” in championship history. After winning the first title, Masetti became the “Duke of Parma”, but also the first “star” in motorcycling (his sporting endeavors, his friendship with Coppi and Bartali, his love affairs, like the one with Moira Orfei, conquered the newspapers).


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“Ago” won more than anyone: 15 world titles and 123 Grand Prix races.

Of the first 26 editions of the 500-class-championship, as many as 24 were won by Italian-made motorbikes (Gilera and MV Agusta). Giacomo Agostini, the star, shines: the “champion”, holder of 15 world titles (with 123 races won), because of which he is considered the greatest champion of all time in his sport.

Also known as Ago (his nickname), he beat people like Pasolini, Bergamonti, Hailwood, Saarinen, Read and Sheene, giving life to legendary duels. Riding his fast and reliable MV Augusta, he embodied the most winning combination in the history of motorcycling.


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Time never seems to pass for Rossi: now 40, whole stands still turn yellow for him.

If Agostini was the most successful, Valentino Rossi is the most cherished. The “Doctor” is the pop icon of motorcycling, the best sports sponsor, an atomic concentration of charisma. Counted among the most successful riders in the world championship by virtue of the nine world championships he has won (the first of which came at 17), he is the veteran in the paddock, the timeless hero who never seems to want to hang up his helmet. Anecdotes and legends gravitate around his figure, authentic pages in history equal to those written by the greatest sporting legends like Maradona, Pelè, Muhammad Ali, Michael Schumacher.

At 40, Rossi is still capable of “dying” entire stands yellow at every racetrack in the world, courtesy not only of his victories, but also of his ability to amuse and have fun and of his innate talent, which he also passes on to the young students at the VR46 Academy. The nickname “The Doctor”, the number 46, the yellow tinge, the lucky turtle, the rituals before and during the race are chapters of an epic story whose conclusion is not yet written, but which will remain in time.

In 2001 Rossi won the last title in the history of the 500 class: the following year the top class of the championship was renamed and became MotoGP. The rebrand came with important changes in the technical regulation. The results on the track did not change: Rossi carried on winning by adding 4 more titles from 2002 to 2005, always strictly on Japanese bikes. The second decade of the new millennium marked the end of his reign, having won 7 world championships from 2001 to 2009.

Dear Rossi, my enemy, what a challenge!

His rivalry with Max Biaggi is famous. The clashes between the two, on and off the track, have entered the history of motorbike racing rightfully. They didn’t love each other because they were two sides of the same coin: the introverted and taciturn “Corsaro”, the extrovert and exuberant “Dottore”.

The two could not stand each other and made no mystery of it. Max said in Suzuka “you should rinse your mouth before you say my name” and there was a brawl leading to the podium in Barcelona. Max still holds great records in the middle class: the only driver in the history of the 250-class to win 4 consecutive world championships with two different bikes (Aprilia and Honda).

Their rivalry was not a construct: it often became physical, but epic races also stemmed from it. The kind of races that maybe, in the future, we’ll see in MotoE. That, at least, is what we hope for.

Cover photo by Romano Gentile/A3/Contrasto: Italy, 1970 – Giacomo Agostini​, Italian motorcycle racer.

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