World Champion Pecco Bagnaia and Ducati joined a very exclusive club on Sunday. A club that even Valentino Rossi is not a member of. A club that boasts members from just two countries since it was founded 74 years ago. A club that boasted just five riders until Valencia on Sunday.
That Italian passion and pride just flows like a gushing overflowing river when it comes to sport. Anybody in that sell-out crowd at Valencia on Sunday would endorse just what Bagnaia’s world title meant to a nation. A country starved of a MotoGP™ title for 13 long dark years. A country still reeling from Rossi’s retirement. A country that has not celebrated a World Champion riding an Italian motorcycle for 15 years and the longest wait of them all, an Italian rider riding an Italian motorcycle to a premier class title
How appropriate it was to see both Italian legends Giacomo Agostini and Rossi in the Ducati garage at the Ricardo Tormo circuit. Vale, the last Italian MotoGP™ World Champion back in 2009. Ago, the last Italian rider to win the premier class on an Italian machine 50 years ago. Yes, half a century ago way back in 1972. Vale tried but failed in his two seasons with Ducati. Stoner won Ducati’s only other MotoGP™ Championship riding the 800cc machine but of course, he is Australian. It is an amazing fact that just two countries have produced premier class World Champions riding machinery built in their country. Since Grand Prix racing began in 1949 only Italy and Great Britain have achieved such a feat. Others and especially Japan have tried but still wait to join the exclusive double club.
It will be no great surprise that Italy leads the way. The combination of superb innovative engineering and brilliant riders had brought them that unique double ten times before Sunday. The Italian membership of the club opened in 1950, just the second year of the World Championship, when Umberto Masetti brought Gilera the 500cc title. He was crowned Champion again two years later riding the magnificent four-cylinder 500cc Gilera. It was Gilera in 1957 with Libero Liberati taking the title.
Nine years later Ago and MV Agusta simply took over. For seven years between 1966 -1972, they dominated the 500cc Championship. His former team-mate Mike Hailwood and Honda tried to knock them off their perch but failed. MV continued to win but with Phil Read in the saddle. Ago went to Yamaha and brought them the first two-stroke 500cc title. The only rider to come close to the double during those 50 years before Sunday was Loris Capirossi. In 2006 the 125 and 250cc World Champion led the Championship going into the seventh round riding the Ducati in Barcelona. His Championship lead disappeared in a multi-bike first-bend crash and Loris eventually finished third in the title race behind Nicky Hayden and Rossi.
British success came a long time ago. The very first 500cc World Champion Les Graham won the 1949 title riding a British-built single cylinder AJS. Two years later Geoff Duke won on Norton before switching to Gilera and that was that.
When the two-strokes arrived and when the Championship returned to the four-strokes two decades ago it is Japanese machinery that have ruled the roost. Only Ducati broke the sequence in 2007 until Valencia on Sunday. The Japanese manufacturers have been desperate to find the Japanese rider who could match their engineers’ brilliance but they are still waiting. Tadayuki Okada came the closest in 1997 when he finished second behind Honda team-mate Mick Doohan. He was third two years later behind Alex Criville and Kenny Roberts. Hideo Kanaya was the first Japanese 500cc Grand Prix winner when he won the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix for Yamaha. Norick Abe, Makoto Tamada and Tohru Ukawa won 500cc Grands Prix but never really challenged for the title. Tragically Honda’s title challenger 250cc World Champion Daijiro Kato lost his life at the opening 2003 round at Suzuka.
So, can anybody join Italy and Great Britain next season? Looking at the 2023 entry list that was revealed last week the answer is no. As I said at the start Pecco Bagnaia and Ducati joined a very exclusive club on Sunday. Membership is extremely limited.