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Yamaha presented the perfect birthday cake to celebrate an amazing 60 years of Grand Prix racing: Cal Crutchlow’s iconic red and white livered YZR – M1 Yamaha which positively glowed in the Qatar pit lane sunshine before testing got underway last week.
Sunday, May 21st, 1961 heralded the arrival of another Japanese factory to shake the very core of European domination. Just two years after Honda appeared in the Isle of Man, five Yamaha riders prepared for battle around the Clermont-Ferrand circuit to compete in the third round of the World Championship at the French Grand Prix. Yamaha stepped into the World Championship arena for the first time with Fumio Ito and Taneharu Nogushi spearheading their efforts on the RD48 twin cylinder 250 two-stroke and RA41 single cylinder 125 cc two-stroke. It was tough unless you could get your hands on a four-stroke Honda or two-stroke MZ, but they were up for the fight.
Three weeks later Ito grabbed Yamaha’s first-ever World Championship point with a sixth place in the Isle of Man 250 cc TT. Two years later round the same TT circuit, Ito brought Yamaha their first podium finish in second place, with the first win coming two rounds later with Ito victorious in the 250 cc Belgian Grand Prix at Spa Francorchamps. Grand Prix racing was expensive for the factory but Phil Read convinced Yamaha to compete in all rounds of the 1964 250 cc Championship. His considerable efforts, their engineering skills and financial foresight resulted in Yamaha’s first World title and the first two-stroke machine to capture the 250-cc crown. Honda were desperate to hang onto the title. At the penultimate round in Monza, they produced a truly amazing six-cylinder 250 cc four-stroke machine but Read and Yamaha took the title from their great rivals with victory. The two-strokes ruled.
Where do you start with memories of these 60 years which have brought Yamaha 511 Grand Prix wins? When I saw Crutchlow’s YZR M1 shining in the Qatar pit lane, two immediately sprung to mind.
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Witnessing in 1968, while sampling a pint of the local ale at Union Mills, Bill Ivy scream past on the four-cylinder Yamaha rocket ship in a blur of red and white on route to setting the first 100 mph 125 cc TT lap.
Commentating on one of the greatest races I have ever witnessed at Welkom in South Africa in 2004. The Valentino Rossi/Max Biaggi head-to-head, wheel to wheel confrontation that simply fizzed and then exploded. Rossi’s first ride for the underperforming Yamaha team against his bitter rival Biaggi who left Yamaha to join Honda. After 28 laps they were separated by 0.210s. Both had gone well beyond their limits and more. Rossi cried with emotion as he kissed and thanked his M1 Yamaha at the finish.
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It was not only on track memories I recall having to thank Yamaha for, but a couple of vital decisions they made on choosing their riders.
Giving the honour of spearheading their first considerable factory-backed assault on the four-stroke dominated ultimate prize, the 500 cc World Championship to the brilliant Jarno Saarinen. Pulling out of that 1973 Championship when Saarinen was killed at the fourth round in the 250-cc race at Monza.
Returning to the 500-cc fray and giving Giacomo Agostini the opportunity to display what a truly great rider he was. Ago won his 15th World title in 1975 bringing Yamaha and a two-stroke machine their first-ever 500 cc World crown.
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This is not the first time that Yamaha have reverted to an iconic livery to celebrate a birthday. Sixteen years ago, Yamaha re-produced the Kenny Roberts yellow and black livery that had brought the legendary American three 500 cc World titles. Rossi and Colin Edwards competed in the American Grand Prix in Laguna Seca to celebrate Yamahas 50th year as a motorcycle manufacturer. Rossi completed the celebration by retaining the World title.
Thank you, Yamaha, for the last 60 years. Now It is over to you Fabio Quartararo, Maverick Vinales, Franco Morbidelli and Rossi to complete the celebrations by bringing back that MotoGP™ title to light those candles on the birthday cake.
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