Racers with the precise touch of a surgeon

Two names struck a chord with me last week reminding me of the most difficult to ride Grand Prix racing motorcycles ever built. Stefan Dorflinger was rightly inducted as a MotoGP™ Legend at the Sachsenring while ‘Mr Suzuki’ Mitsuo Ito passed away in Japan.

Dorflinger won eighteen 50 and 80cc Grands Prix en route to two 50cc and two 80cc World titles in the eighties. Ito is the only Japanese rider to have won a TT race on the Isle of Man legendary mountain circuit when he brought Suzuki success in 1963 50cc race before playing a massive part in Suzuki Grand Prix participation and especially Kevin Schwantz’s 1993 500cc World title.

Two heroes in a class of racing that produced truly remarkable tiny racing motorcycles that needed the delicate touch of a surgeon to ride to the limit. The 50cc ‘tiddler’ class started in 1962 and switched to 80cc 22 years later before leaving the Grand Prix scene in 1989. Don’t be fooled by their size, these machines were mechanical masterpieces ridden by a unique breed of riders.

This was not just a case of wind open the throttle to obtain maximum revs through a six-speed gearbox helped by traction control, rev limiters and other electrical aids but a balancing act of precision while keeping the tiny engine buzzing at well over 20,000 revs per minute through a gearbox that often had 12 selections. Keeping those revs within a 500 rpm band was the touch of the master. Let it drop below that vital red line on the rev counter and the power would drop away like an electric plug had been pulled out of its socket. Going above that red line and it likely the overworked motor would cry enough and seize. While completing this delicate balance of throttle control with eyes glued to that red line rev the riders also had to race at top speeds over 100mph on skinny tyres and tiny drum brakes.

No wonder it produced legendary World Champions such as Angel Nieto, Jorge Martinez, Heinz George Anscheidt and of course Dorflinger. In Great Britain, it also provided the racing starting point for many a champion in the making including the likes of Mike Hailwood and Bill Ivy cutting their racing teeth on 50cc single cylinder Italian Items. Barry Sheene is the only rider to have won a 50cc and premier class (500cc) Grand Prix. Short of money to fund his 125cc title bid in 1971 he rode the Kreidler to 50cc victory round the old Brno road circuit in Czechoslovakia.

Two–strokes dominated apart from one year when Honda build an amazing twin-cylinder four-stroke 50cc machine. They were rewarded with the 1965 World title on a machine that was reported to have a 22,500 rev limit. The year Ralph Bryans won the title I went to the Isle of Man to watch my first ever World Championship race. It was day trip to the Island and the highlight was the first 500cc clash between Hailwood and Agostini riding the MV Agustas on the mountain circuit. Before the main event was the three lap 50cc race and it was a sight and sound I will never forget. I lost count but I reckoned the riders changed down eight times racing down the mountain to Creg Ny Baa before disappearing towards Brandish changing up eight times to reach maximum speed – riders with the precise touch of a surgeon.