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GP Week : Issue 128
31 MOTOGP FEATURE >> Mike the Bike had left behind. Today, Jorge Lorenzo fills the same role in Valentino’s world. Stoner and Pedrosa on the Hondas are an added complication, making the task still harder. Not to mention Ben Spies. The first rider to win the title on different bikes was the first household name in motorbike racing, long before the term superstar had been dreamed up. Geoff Duke was debonair and personable. And a very serious racer. It was Duke who introduced skin-tight one-piece leathers: an aerodynamic advantage over the flapping belted garb worn by his rivals. Duke had humbled the multi-cylinder Italian opposition with a series of stylish on- the-limit rides on the slow but lithe single- cylinder Manx Norton in 1951. In 1952 though the four-cylinder Gileras and MV Agustas plus two AJS twins were ahead of him. “Norton weren’t developing anything to improve the situation,” he told me. He switched to the four-cylinder Gilera, and managed to persuade them to adopt the Norton Featherbed twin-loop chassis style – a factor Ducati engineers might like to remember. He was pretty much invincible from 1953 to 1955. The feat proved unrepeatable for two decades, in spite of Hailwood’s best efforts on the Honda in the late 1960s. Funnily enough, he also had to prevail over that company’s engineers for a very similar chassis redesign: he had his twin-loop chassis built in Britain for the factory four-cylinder. The next one was Giacomo Agostini. Dominant on the MV Agusta 500 for seven straight years, he too had seen the writing on the wall. Two-strokes were going to take over. They already had in the smaller classes, and when Jarno Saarinen joined the 500 class on the new factory Yamaha stroker in 1973, he was unbeatable. Tragically, he was killed in a Monza 250 horror crash early in the season, and Yamaha withdrew, giving MV Agusta one more chance. So Ago quit MV, whose corporate affections were now shared with 1972/3 champion Phil Read, and moved to Yamaha ... and in 1974 became the first two-stroke World Champion, as well as the second to succeed on two different makes. Fast forward to the 1980s. Since 1984 Eddie Lawson had exchanged the title year by year, the Californian on a Yamaha, Hondas ridden first by Freddie Spencer and then Wayne Gardner, Australia’s first 500cc champion. Then, for 1989 the defending champion made a sensational switch ... to Honda. In a year of prolonged tension, Eddie managed to prevail over new Yamaha rival Wayne Rainey. To do so, working independently from the factory with Spencer’s old tech-guru Erv Kanemoto, Lawson and his crew ... modified the chassis. The technology was cruder in those days, and chassis flex still a development for the future. Kanemoto simply welded another section on top of the existing extruded twin- beam chassis, and made a bike that could beat the official factory machines. Lawson was the first to do it back-to- back on different bikes. There has been only one other two-makes champion, and he achieved the same feat. It was of course Valentino Rossi, when he switched from Honda to Yamaha in 2004. He will not repeat it with Ducati: his eyes must now be on next year. He will surely not be unaware of the similarities of his current situation to those of his predecessors in this elite category. The response was common: to change the chassis. Which is just what he wants to do with the Ducati. Either that, or do what Lawson did: to acquire a full factory Honda along with the independence to develop it on his own. Which is exactly what the rumour mill is grinding out back home in Italy right now. Left and above: Rossi’s Ducati time has yet to provide a victory – but there has been a podium. Right: Ago and Valentino. Below: It’s Yamaha versus Honda so far in 2011 ...