Fifty-four years ago, Grand Prix racing history was being made on the Adriatic coast of Yugoslavia, although nobody would have believed it at the time. It was only after another Ducati-dominated MotoGP™ race at the Sachsenring on Sunday that it really emerged just how much the tide had turned into an Italian job. Unbelievably there were just three Japanese machines on the starting grid for the 30-lap race on Sunday. It was over half a century ago on September 7th 1969 that fewer Japanese motorcycle lined up for the start of a premier class Grand Prix. It was only a year ago the then World Champion Fabio Quartararo brought Yamaha their last MotoGP™ win at the Sachsenring.
Alex Rins kept the Japanese flag aloft with wins for Suzuki at Phillip Island and Valencia. Suzuki stepped down from the rigours of MotoGP™ but Rins continued to fly the flag bringing the LCR Honda team victory in Austin, however, that was that for the Japanese factories who had dominated Grand Prix motorcycle racing for six long decades.
Twelve months ago it would have been unthinkable that just three Japanese machines started a MotoGP™ race. Injuries to key players Marc Marquez, Joan Mir and Rins kept them off the grid but you still have to go back those 54 years to find less Japanese machines preparing to start a premier class Grand Prix. At the final round of the 1969 500cc World Championship, Australian Terry Dennehy was the only rider on the grid for the Adriatic Grand Prix riding a Japanese motorcycle. Fresh from a fourth place at the penultimate round at Imola, he arrived at the infamous 6.00 kms cliff-top road circuit at Opatija for the 29-lap race riding the Honda he’d converted from a CB450 cc road bike housed in Drixton frame. Unfortunately, he retired from that race in Yugoslavia but still finished a credible 12th in the final World Championship standings. Not only was the pioneering Australian the only Japanese starter but he was also the only rider to score points in the 12-round World Championship riding a Japanese machine.
Ironically the 174 kms race produced the end of an era. British rider Godfrey Nash secured his one and only grand prix win riding a single-cylinder British built Norton. It was the last Grand Prix victory for the British factory and the last time a single-cylinder machine won a Premier class grand prix. Norton had won 41 350 and 500cc Grands Prix and played such a massive part in developing the World Championship in those early days. Their time was up, as the Japanese factories moved in.
In 2003 Honda, led by Valentino Rossi, took the first five places in the Rio Grand Prix. Twenty years later it was Ducati that produced a similar result for the first time since Rio, led by Jorge Martin in Germany. For the last 33 MotoGP™ races a Ducati has been on the podium and they have already won six Grands Prix, which is half the total they won last year. Throw in a couple of Tissot Sprint wins for Brad Binder on the Austrian-built KTM and you realise just what the Japanese factories face in their fight to return to the top.
No way do Honda or Yamaha find themselves in a similar position to Norton half a century later. It is not in their culture or history to throw in the towel. They will return to starting grids and the top step of the podium but there are signs they could be in for a long wait.