The first ever motorcycling World Championship took place in 1949 and was organised by the sport’s governing bidy, the Federation Internationale de Motorcyclisme (FIM).
Talk of a championship series had taken place in 1938, prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, and a European series took place that year comprising eight races and including the Isle of Man TT, Dutch TT and Grands Prix in Belgium, France, Germany and Switzerland.
It wasn’t totally representative but the titles were won by Germany’s Georg Meier (500cc) and Ewald Kluge (250cc) and Britain’s Ted Mellors (350cc). Kluge earned himself the title of Champion of Europe by scoring more points than any other rider in all three classes.
The following year saw Italy, through Gilera, follow Germany’s example in gaining sporting achievement whilst Norton withdrew from racing in order to concentrate on preparing machinery for military use. The European Championship was set to take place over nine rounds but it was ultimately curtailed to seven due to the outbreak of the war and motorcycle racing went into hibernation for six years.
So, when racing resumed in 1946, the seeds had been sewn for a championship series although it remains a mystery why the idea was abandoned in 1947 and 1948 with the races continuing to take place but this time as stand alone events.
However, in 1949, the FIM decided to reintroduce the idea of a series of series and added increased prestige to their decision by christening them the World Championship. It was the start of the Grand Prix World Championship we know today and it was a new era for international motorcycle road racing.
A new era of international racing
That first year of 1949 may have been a shadow of the World Championships of more recent times but it was a start with six races for the 500cc class, five for the 350s, four the 250s and just three for the 125s and sidecars.
The 1950s saw the British manufacturers dominate to begin with before the German and Italians took over but the 1949 500cc and 350cc titles went the way of British riders, Les Graham and Freddie Frith, and manufacturers, AJS and Velocette. The Italians were more successful in the smaller classes, which was an early demonstration of their future strength.
The British machines had ultimately succeeded due to their reliability but the speed of the Gileras was clear to see and Norton had to react to counteract the challenge. They succeeded initially with Geoff Duke giving them three titles in 1951 and 1952, the Brit also causing a stir when he raced in trimly fitting, one-piece leathers instead of the customary two-piece baggy outfits.
The riding of Duke and the technical brilliance of Norton’s Joe Craig, along with the ‘Featherbed’ design kept them on top but it was short lived and soon the Italian multi-cylinder machines from Gilera and MV Agusta took over. They poached the best British talent with Duke (Gilera) and John Surtees (MV Agusta) giving them 500cc World titles whilst Moto Guzzi enjoyed 350cc success with Bill Lomas.
As the British effort faded, the Italians took over and although the sport was rocked at the end of 1957 when Gilera, Mondial and Guzzi all withdrew, MV Agusta remained and dominated the World Championships with Surtees taking a 350cc-500cc double in 1958-1960 and Italians Carlo Ubbiali and Tarquinio Provini the class acts of the 125cc-250cc field. Meanwhile, BMW were the dominant force in Sidecar racing and would win every world title between 1954 and 1967.
Back to the solos and just when it looked like MV Agusta would reign supreme for the years ahead, and the World Championship lose some of its credibility, a huge challenge came along from a totally unexpected quarter – Japan.
Isle of Man TT
The Isle of Man TT in 1959 had seen the appearance of the virtually unknown Honda brand and it began a revolution that saw Japan dominate all but the 500cc category. That first year gave no indication of what lay ahead but Honda proved to be quick learners and they returned to Europe in 1960 with all new 125cc and 250cc machines.
Just like the Italians had done in the years before, they hired the best talent available and it was Australian Tom Phillis who gave them their first world title, the 125cc, in 1961. With Mike Hailwood, Jim Redman and Luigi Taveri on board they enjoyed great success and they were swiftly followed by Suzuki and Yamaha.
Honda were world championship contenders in all but the 500cc class with Suzuki’s hopes mainly confined to the 50cc and 125cc categories particularly when former MZ rider Ernst Degner defected from East to West Germany taking all of Walter Kaaden’s skills with him. Indeed, he gave Suzuki their first World Championship in 1962 when he won the 50cc crown.
Yamaha’s assault was mainly concentrated on the 125cc and 250cc classes and all of this meant that MV Agusta had just the 350cc and 500cc titles to compete for although Honda would continue to get the better of them in the 350cc division.
Golden era for racing
It was a golden era for racing with the likes of Hailwood, Redman, Taveri, Phil Read, Bill Ivy and Hugh Anderson in the ascendancy where they were joined, in 1965, by Italian ace Giacomo Agostini. With Hailwood on board, Honda tried to wrestle the 500cc crown off MV Agusta but Agostini came out on top in both 1966 and 1967 and by the end of 1968, all three Japanese manufacturers had withdrawn from the sport as the financial costs of competing spiralled out of control.
For the next few years, the World Championship lost some of its appeal as Agostini and MV Agusta dominated the 350cc and 500cc classes, often winning races by huge margins and sometimes lapping the entire field. The smaller classes continued to see close racing but by the 1970s, the start of the two-stroke challenge began to emerge and the next revolution in motorcycle racing take place.
MV Agusta dominate
MV Agusta increased their budget to stay at the front in the 350cc and 500cc classes but Yamaha had remained in the 250cc and 350cc classes, albeit in privateer status, and they stepped up their efforts in the early 1970s. With Finnish ace Jarno Saarinen on board, they won the 1972 350cc races in France and Germany, which was the first time Agostini and MV Agusta had been defeated in five years. The tide had turned.
Despite suffering the huge loss of Saarinen at the 1973 Italian Grand Prix, Yamaha continued and they poached Agostini away from MV and he gave them the 350cc title in 1974. Read had replaced him at MV and won the 1973 and 1974 500cc World Championships to continue the factory’s phenomenal run of success in the class but Ago and Yamaha then won the title in 1975 to bring to an end the dominance of four-strokes.
Yamaha were joined by Suzuki and Kawasaki and with Honda returning initially in 1979 with the ill-fated four-stroke NR500 but more successfully in 1982 with a two-stroke NS500cc machine, the 1980s and 1990s were the sole domain of the two-strokes and also for Americans and Australians.
Sheene vs Roberts
Barry Sheene was the last British rider to win the premier class (in 1977) before Kenny Roberts became the first American rider to win the 500cc World Championship in 1978, going on to win three years in a row. Italian riders Marco Lucchinelli and Franco Uncini won in 1981 and 1982 but American and Australian riders would go on to win every title from 1983 to 1998. Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz dominated for the USA with Wayne Gardner and Michael Doohan doing the same for Australia.
Their dirt bike background saw them ride the fearsome 500cc two-strokes in a totally different style than seen before and European riders were left trailing in their wake save for an occasional Grand Prix win. Alex Criville gave Spain their first 500cc title in 1999 before Kenny Roberts jnr got America back at the top. However, since then only Casey Stoner (Australia) has taken the title as the four-stroke era has seen European riders, namely Italians and Spaniards, the dominant forces.
The iconic 1984 race…
The 50cc class was replaced by the 80cc class in 1984, then the class was dropped entirely after the 1989 season, after being dominated primarily by Swiss and Spanish riders. The 350cc class was dropped at the end of the 1982 season whilst sidecars were dropped from world championship events in the mid-1990s (although they continued to run World Championship events elsewhere), reducing the field to 125s, 250s, and 500s.
The next radical change came in 2002 when 500cc two-strokes were phased out thus changing the sport again. Manufacturers could choose between running two-stroke engines of 500cc or less or four-strokes of 990cc or less and despite the significantly increased costs involved in running the new four-stroke machinery, given their extra 490cc capacity advantage, the four-strokes were soon able to dominate their two-stroke rivals. As a result, by 2003 no two-stroke machines remained in the MotoGP field.
In 2007, the MotoGP class had its capacity reduced to 800cc for a minimum of five years but this proved to be an unpopular move as close racing disappeared and for the 2012 season the capacity reverted back to 1,000cc. However, the writing was on the wall elsewhere and the final 250cc World Championship took place in 2009 when it was replaced by the Moto2 class, all bikes powered by 600cc Honda engines but able to use various chassis manufacturers.
The 125cc class and two-strokes lasted three more years before they too disappeared at the end of 2012. The two-stroke era had finally come to an end with 250cc four-strokes, provided by Honda and KTM primarily, taking over in the new Moto3 category.
Grid and race format
Like most things, the grid formation has changed over the years with some Grand Prix races in the 1970s and 80s seeing as many as eight riders on a row! Back then each rider on each row were level but the grids are now staggered with each position a few feet back from the one in front of it.
Grid size varies with between 20 and 24 in the MotoGP class and closer to 36 in Moto2 and Moto3 but each catgeory sees the grid line up with three riders per row, all positions having been determined, in descending order of speed, by a qualifying session on the Saturday afternoon of race weekend. The fastest rider lines up in pole position and races last approximately 45 minutes with all dry races being a sprint from start to finish without pitting for fuel or tyres.
Races which start in the dry but then see rain fall used to be stopped and run in two parts but in 2005 a flag-to-flag rule for MotoGP was introduced. When rain falls, at any part of the circuit, a white flag is shown, indicating that riders can pit to swap the motorcycle on which they started the race for an identical one, as long as the tyres are different (that is, intermediates or slicks instead of wets).
Besides different tyres, the wet-weather bikes have steel brake rotors and different brake pads instead of the carbon discs and pads used on the ‘dry’ bikes. The suspension is also ‘softened’ up somewhat for the wet weather.
MotoGP 2017 is here…
Over the years, the method of scoring points has been changed. In 1949, points were given to the first five finishers in each race – 10, 8, 7, 6 and 5, plus one point for the fastest lap if recorded by a race finisher. A year later, the reward for the fastest lap was abandoned and the points awarded to the first six finishers – 8 for the winner, then 6, 4, 3, 2, 1.
During this period, not all of a rider’s scores counted towards the World Championship. Under the rules of the FIM, only up to half the number of Grands Prix were counted, plus one (ignoring fractions). In a Grand Prix season of 12 rounds, for example, a rider’s seven best performances only would count towards his final World Championship placing.
The points system was retained until 1969 when points were awarded down to tenth position. The winner gained 15 points with the other nine finishers awarded 12, 10, 8, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.
In 1976, the FIM introduced yet another new system, taking a rider’s best three scores from the first five rounds and adding them to his best three scores from the remaining five rounds to calculate his overall points tally. The object of this was to reduce the number of races a rider could ignore. This system only lasted one year and from 1977 onwards all rounds have counted towards a rider’s total.
1988 saw another change though with points given to the first 15 finishers – 20, 17, 15, 13, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – and with the exception of 1992 when the system gave points to the first ten finishers, riders in the first 15 places have since received points. However, in 1993 the system was changed again with the first three finishers receiving 25, 20 and 16 points whilst fourth to 15th remained the same. This method remains in use today.
1949: Start of the world championship in Grand Prix motorcycle racing for 125cc, 250cc, 350cc, 500cc and Sidecar categories. Harold Daniell wins the first ever 500cc Grand Prix race held at the Isle of Man TT.
1951: Sidecars reduced in engine capacity from 600 cc to 500cc.
1956: 500cc World Champion Geoff Duke receives a six-month ban from racing.
1957: Gilera, Mondial and Moto Guzzi withdraw at the end of the season citing increasing costs. Bob McIntyre wins the longest ever Grand Prix race of 301.84 miles, held over 8 laps of the Isle of Man.
1958: MV Agusta win the constructors’ and riders’ championships in all four solo classes.
1960: MV Agusta retain all eight championships again.
1961: The 1961 Argentine Grand Prix is the first world championship race held outside of Europe.
1962: First year of the 50cc class.
1963: The Japanese Grand Prix is the first world championship race held in Asia.
1964: The United States Grand Prix is the first world championship race held in North America.
1964: Jim Redman becomes the first rider to win three GP’s in a day.
1966: Honda wins the constructors’ championship in all five solo classes. Jim Redman wins Honda’s first ever 500cc Grand Prix at Hockenheim, also the first win for a Japanese factory in the premier class.
1967: Final year of unrestricted numbers of cylinders and gears. Honda withdraws in protest.
1968: Giacomo Agostini (MV Agusta) wins both the 350cc and 500cc titles
1972: The death of Gilberto Parlotti at the Isle of Man TT causes multiple world champion Giacomo Agostini and other riders to boycott the next four events on grounds of safety.
1974: Phil Read becomes the first rider to win a World Championship in the 125cc, 250cc and 500cc categories.
1975: Giacomo Agostini (Yamaha) wins the 500cc class, his 15th World title in total, a record that still stands today. Yamaha was the first non-European brand to win the riders’ championship.
1976: Giacomo Agostini wins his 122nd and final Grand Prix with victory in the 500cc German GP. This total remains unbeaten today.
1978: Kenny Roberts (Yamaha) wins the 500cc class, the first American to do so.
1982: Last year of 350cc class
1983: The South African Grand Prix is the first world championship race held in Africa.
1984: 50cc class uprated to 80cc.
1985: Freddie Spencer becomes the first rider to win the 250cc and 500cc titles in the same season.
1987: Push starts are eliminated.
1989: The Australian Grand Prix is the first world championship race held in Australasia.
1989: Last year of 80cc class.
1990: 500cc grid switches from five to four bikes per row.
1998: 500cc switch to unleaded fuel.
2001: Valentino Rossi wins his first premier class title and becomes the final two-stroke champion in the premium series.
2002: MotoGP replaces the 500cc class; 990cc four-strokes can now race alongside 500cc two-strokes.
2003: Ducati makes its Grand Prix debut in the new four-stroke MotoGP class.
2004: MotoGP grid switches from four to three bikes per row while 250cc and 125cc classes retain four bikes per row in 2004 beyond.
2005: MotoGP adopts flag-to-flag rule, allowing riders to pit and switch to bikes fitted with wet-weather tyres and continue if rain begins to fall mid-race.
2005: Valentino Rossi wins his fifth consecutive MotoGP title.
2007: MotoGP engine capacity is restricted to 800 cc four-strokes. Ducati wins the riders’ championship with Casey Stoner and constructor’s title, the first European brand to do so in the premier class for 30 years.
2008: MotoGP runs its first night race in Qatar.
2008: Dunlop drops out of MotoGP.
2008: Scott Redding becomes the youngest ever rider to win a Grand Prix, taking victory at Donington Park aged 15 years and 170 days.
2009: Michelin drops out of MotoGP and Bridgestone becomes the sole tyre provider.
2009: the final 250cc World Championship is held.
2010: Moto2 replaces the 250cc GP two-stroke class. All engines are built for Moto2 by Honda and are four-stroke 600cc in-line four-cylinder producing ~125 bhp and rev up to 16000 rpm.
2010: For the first time, Spain hosts four Grands Prix in a single year.
2011: Suzuki withdraws from MotoGP at the end of the season.
2012: Moto3 250cc four-stroke single-cylinder class replaces the 125cc two-stroke class.
2012: MotoGP raises the maximum engine capacity to 1,000 cc and introduces claiming rule teams.
2013: Knockout qualifying style is introduced.
2013: Marc Márquez becomes the first rookie to win the championship in MotoGP’s current guise and is also the youngest ever winner of the premier class.
2014: Removal of the claiming rule teams and introduction of the Open Class category. Marc Márquez dominates the season by winning the first 10 races of the season.
2015: Suzuki returned to MotoGP as a constructor after a four-year hiatus.
2016: Michelin returns as tyre supplier after Bridgestone’s withdrawal.
2016: A record nine riders win races in the MotoGP World Championship.
2017: Marc Marquez wins the MotoGP title for the fourth time in five years and becomes the youngest ever rider to win four premier class titles.
2017: Joan Mir sets a record total of 341 points on his way to winning the Moto3 World Championship.
2018: Marquez wins the MotoGP title for the fifth time.
2019: Marquez wins the MotoGP title for the sixth time in seven years, his eighth world title in total, and sets a new record tally of 420 points. Brother Alex also wins the Moto2 world title.
2019: Five time world champion Jorge Lorenzo retires with a career total of 68 wins and 152 podiums, the sixth and fourth highest totals respectively in Grand Prix history.