MotoGP™ is the oldest motorsport World Championship; its first annual competition having been held in 1949.
From the early 1900s, motorcycle Grands Prix were held in various countries and in 1938 the predecessor to the current FIM, the FICM (Fédération Internationale des Clubs Motocyclistes), announced a European Championship. However, the start of the Second World War interrupted the competition and it took some time after the war for fuel to become available before a truly international series could be created.
When the first formal World Championship was held in 1949, Grand Prix racing comprised four solo classes, with the inaugural ‘premier class’ 500 title being won by British rider Leslie Graham on AJS machinery. Another Brit, Freddie Frith (Velocette) took the first ever 350 World title, while Italians Bruno Ruffo (Moto Guzzi) and Nello Pagani (Mondial) were the first 250 and 125 World Champions respectively.
A 600 sidecar Championship in the same season was won by Britons Eric Oliver and Denis Jenkinson with Norton machinery, though the sidecar category became a 500cc competition in 1951.
The Italian manufacturers, such as the aforementioned Mondial and Moto Guzzi firms - along with companies such as Gilera and MV Agusta - dominated the World Championships during the 1950s, reflecting the strength of the country’s motorcycle industry at the time. MV Agusta were particularly prolific late in the decade, taking a clean sweep of world titles across all four categories for three seasons from 1958 to 1960 – while their dominance in the 500cc class was unbroken for 17 years, from 1958 until 1974.
THE SWINGING SIXTIES
During the ‘60s, the Japanese motorbike industry began to boom and during that decade many of the manufacturers that participate in modern day MotoGP™ racing, such as Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha, arrived to pick up their first World Championship title wins across the 125, 250 and 500 categories, as they announced their arrival in Grand Prix racing. Suzuki in particular enjoyed great success in a new 50 class, wich was introduced in 1962.
The late ‘60s brought the start of the glory days for MotoGP™ Legend Giacomo Agostini – the most successful rider so far in the history of World Championship competition. Up until the modern era, riders regularly competed in two or three classes simultaneously and Agostini took 10 of his 15 titles in five successive seasons as double champion in 350cc and 500cc - a golden period commencing in 1968, riding for MV Agusta.
At this time the escalating costs associated with Grand Prix racing had reached such a level that several Japanese firms withdrew from competition - with only Yamaha left at the end of the ‘60s. In response, the FIM introduced rules that limited the bikes to single cylinder engines in the 50 class, two cylinders in 125 and 250, and four cylinders in 350 and 500.
LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
In the period that followed the level playing field saw title wins for firms from Europe (Bultaco, Kreidler, Morbidelli, MV Agusta), Japan (Kawasaki, Suzuki, Yamaha) and North America (Harley Davidson) – with the Japanese firms finally breaking MV Agusta’s stranglehold on the premier class by the mid 1970s.
After a break of almost 12 years from racing, Honda re-joined the World Championships in the late 1970s and by 1983 they had changed their philosophy from using 4-stroke machinery to build the V3 500cc two-stroke, known as the NS500, on which Freddie Spencer took the 500cc World title – his first championship win and the first for Honda since their return to Grand Prix.
The previous season racing in the 350 class had been brought to a conclusion after 34 years of competition, leaving four classes in the World Championship - 50, 125, 250 and 500 – with 50 subsequently replaced by an 80 category in 1984. A short lived affair, the 80 World Championship was contested for just six seasons, yielding four titles for Derbi, three courtesy of Spanish rider Jorge "Aspar" Martinez.
The 1980s and 1990s saw some superb quality racing in the premier class in particular, with fierce competition between Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha and some great battles between American stars such as Eddie Lawson, Randy Mamola, Freddie Spencer, Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz. Meanwhile in the 125 and 250 categories, European factories such as Derbi, Garelli and later Aprilia were fighting for honours with the Japanese giants.
The long association that sidecars had with Grand Prix racing came to an end after the 1996 season, when the class evolved into the Sidecar World Cup in 1997.
In the late 1990s, the 500 class was utterly dominated by Honda hero and MotoGP™ Legend Mick Doohan, who took five consecutive titles before a combination of racing injuries brought the Australian’s career to a premature end in 1999.
THE MODERN AGE
Before the revision of regulations which brought about the move to 990cc four-stroke competition in the premier class - in line with modern engineering and production trends - a young Italian rider called Valentino Rossi took the last ever 500 title in 2001 on Honda machinery, having won the 1997 edition of the 125 championship and the 1999 quarter litre crown with Aprilia.
After the re-branding of the World Championship as MotoGP™ in 2002 and the introduction of 990cc racing, Rossi went on to win four further consecutive titles, two with Honda and two after a sensational move to Yamaha.
In recent seasons the lower cylinder categories have been ruled by young European riders preparing for MotoGP™ on Aprilia and Honda bikes, with Dani Pedrosa epitomising the trend with three successive titles – one in 125 in 2003 followed by two in the 250 class before moving into the premier class. In his first season in MotoGP™, Pedrosa shared the Repsol Honda pit-box with American rider Nicky Hayden, whose aggressive but consistent riding earned him the 2006 title and ended Rossi’s annual procession to glory.
At the start of the 2007 season, new rules restricting the number of tyres used on Grand Prix weekends and a reduction in engine size from 990cc to 800cc again levelled the playing field in MotoGP™ – with Bridgestone-equipped Ducati rider Casey Stoner emerging as the first standout rider of the new era as the 2007 World Champion. In 2008, however, Rossi returned to the pinnacle, taking his sixth premier class title, with Stoner runner-up in the standings.
The 2009 season saw the introduction of a single-tyre rule, as Bridgestone were named the sole suppliers for the MotoGP™ class. Rossi took his seventh title in the premier class after a battle with teammate Jorge Lorenzo, taking him to within one title of equalling Giacomo Agostini’s all-time record of eight.
The 2010 season saw a new name enter into the MotoGP™ class history book as Jorge Lorenzo was crowned World Champion following an exciting season-long battle with teammate Rossi for the title. Lorenzo showed superb consistency and remarkable maturity to claim the premier class crown aged just 23 years old.
2011 saw Casey Stoner move to factory Honda, a switch that proved a resounding success. Stoner clinched the 2011 title with a win at Phillip Island, his ninth but not his final victory of the season (he also won the last round in Valencia).
In 2012 the grid switched to the 1000cc machines and it was Yamaha Factory Racing’s Jorge Lorenzo that took the title once again - pushed all the way by Repsol Honda Team’s Dani Pedrosa. Casey Stoner finished his final season in third, following a mid-season injury, before heading into retirement at the age of just 27. The MotoGP™ World Championship was then rocked by Repsol Honda Team’s Marc Marquez, who in 2013 claimed his first premier-class title in his rookie season, breaking numerous records along the way and going on to claim the title once again in 2014.
However, Marquez was unable to challenge for the title in 2015, and the crown was fought for by Movistar Yamaha teammates Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi. It was a year full of excitement and drama, with the battle going down to the final race and Jorge Lorenzo able to recover from a points deficit to clinch his third premier class title.
2016 saw perhaps the largest number of technical rule changes since the introduction of the four-strokes in 2002, Michelin replaced Bridgestone as the sole tyre supplier and a spec Magnetti Marelli hardware and software package was introduced. These changes were brought in to level the playing field once more. With a record nine different winners in the season - including three victories taken by Independent Teams, two by Ducati and one by Suzuki after long droughts – it was again Repsol Honda Team’s Marc Marquez who took the crown, reeling in his trademark aggression to sustain a controlled campaign that saw him crowned Champion in Motegi.
2017 saw in another host of changes in the premier class of Grand Prix racing. Jorge Lorenzo moved to the Ducati Team, Maverick Viñales to Movistar Yamaha, and many exciting new rookies made the step up – including explosive frontrunner Johann Zarco. With exactly half the grid switching teams, MotoGP™ also welcomed KTM as a full-time competitor in 2017 with Red Bull KTM Factory Racing.
2018 has seen less changes in the rider market, but even more questions. After a stunning season for both in 2017, what can Andrea Dovizioso and Johann Zarco do? Will KTM push forward from top ten to top five? Will Marquez take an unprecedented fifth premier class crown in six years? The only thing we do know is that the racing will be as close and hard-fought as ever – with 2017 already having broken records for the closest top fifteen finishes in the history of the sport.
2017 sees in another host of changes in the premier class of Grand Prix racing. Jorge Lorenzo moves to the Ducati Team, Maverick Viñales to Movistar Yamaha, and many exciting new rookies make the step up. With exactly half the grid switching teams, MotoGP™ also welcomes KTM as a full-time competitor in 2017 with Red Bull KTM Factory Racing, as the paddock prepares for another incredible year.