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GP Week : Issue 140
MOTOGP FEATURE >> 1961 Australian Tom Phillis took the first title for the fast-improving four-stroke marque. But second place, by only two points, went to Ernst Degner ’s fledgling two-stroke MZ. And he might have won it, the first two-stroke title, had he not had to skip the final round, as a political fugitive. In motorcycling’s most notorious piece of skulduggery, Degner had defected from behind the Iron Curtain the next year, taking all Kaaden’s MZ secrets to Suzuki and winning the inaugural 50cc title on the resultant machine. It was a year later, in 1963, that the first 125 two- stroke title came, also to Suzuki. This heralded a period of mechanical adventure unlikely ever to be seen again, as the burgeoning Japanese factories strove to outdo one another. An era forcibly ended by cost-cutting new technical rules in 1969, which in turn precipitated the departure of the Japanese factories, led by Honda. The machines had been spectacular. Honda’s four-stroke resource was to seek higher revs, by using more cylinders. Thus the six-cylinder 250/350. The two- strokes followed suit. Honda fielded a howling rev-happy (20,000 rpm) in- line five-cylinder 125, based on the dimensions of their twin-cylinder 50cc machine. Just 25cc per cylinder. It won for Taveri in 1966, but was not enough to stem the two-stroke tide. Yamaha’s response was a V4 125 bristling with tubes and pipes, and a power band so narrow that it needed nine gears to allow Bill Ivy and Phil Read to take successive championships. The new-generation bikes had a maximum of two cylinders and six gears. The times made it an Italian/ Spanish charter, with independents like Morbidelli/MBA against Minarelli and Garelli from Italy; and Spain’s jewel like Derbis and independent and prophetic twin-beam-chassis JJ Cobas. There would be one more step to today’s simple little 125 racers: from 1988 another cost-driven simplification decreed a single-cylinder engine. Since then, with direct factory involvement increasingly discouraged, a particular breed of junior racer has evolved. Honda’s production racer was a long-ser ving staple; Yamaha’s attempts were less successful; more recently KTM moved into the winner’s circle. But the dominant force is Aprilia, which had taken over Derbi, and the Italian factory dominates the class. Even if Zarco was to take a surprise last 125 title on his Derbi over Terol’s Aprilia, it would still be a final win for Aprilia. Next year, they will be museum pieces. In the early years there were more small-bike specialists. In modern times, the 125 class has served as a training ground for almost all the MotoGP grid (Spies and Hayden being obvious exceptions). One has to assume that Moto3 will continue to serve the same purpose for the foreseeable future. But what about the unforeseeable future? The two-stroke has taken great strides in recent years, with direct injection and synthetic lubricants, and remains at the centre of some fascinating research products. Fashions change, and two-strokes might return. Perhaps we will see them racing again. And since two-strokes are not only light, simple and ideally suited to motorcycles but also produce more horsepower than an equivalent four- stroke ... perhaps they might even be 125 cc again. 43