In the early decades of motorcycle grand prix racing, circuits weren’t designed for maximum safety with loads of run-off. Road circuits like the Isle of Man and the Czech grand prix at Brno were littered with stone walls, hedges, and lamp posts. Safety gear was rudimentary at best: pudding bowl helmets and barely padded leather suits. And by the 1960s, the bikes, though old-fashioned by today’s standards, were brutally fast, capable of reaching speeds more than 160 mph on hard rubber tires less than a few inches wide.
In those days, to be champion meant having unwavering self-confidence, fortitude, and an indomitable will to win in the face of certain danger. In the ’60s and ’70s, Giacomo “Ago” Agostini had that and more. He personified the Italian campionissimo: Hollywood good-looks, charm, and guts.
I began thinking about the era of Ago after watching Marc Márquez’s recent performance at Jerez—complete with YouTube-inspired celebration dance. Unless you’re a total Márquez fan, it’s a bit disappointing to see him exert his will on the championship only four races in. I consoled my inner racing nerd by remembering Agostini’s dominance was on a whole other level.
Fifty years ago, Ago stamped his authority on the grand prix paddock in a style Márquez can only dream about—unless Márquez starts racing Moto2 for good measure. In 1968, Agostini won every 500cc and 350cc race he entered, for his first double championship-winning season.
Agostini has a record 15 grand prix titles, including seven consecutive 500cc titles and five consecutive 350cc titles. His dominance made him the first Italian racing legend and an international celebrity, blazing the trail for the likes of Valentino Rossi. He was the man to beat. And still is. His 122 total grand prix wins has yet to be eclipsed (though in the premier class—500cc/MotoGP—Valentino Rossi has 89 wins to Ago’s 54). When you talk about the GOAT (Greatest of All Time), Ago’s is among the first names to be mentioned.
However, those incredible statistics belie the fact that for much of his career, Ago was on machinery that far surpassed that of his competitors. And for many modern spectators—to say nothing of the popolo giallo, the yellow-clad legion of Rossi fans—when it comes to Rossi’s status as GOAT, it’s not easy to ignore bias, having witnessed his incredible displays of brilliance for the past 20-plus years. Still, none of that really tarnishes Ago’s record. Rossi himself admits in an interview with European press, “I am on the podium of history. But it is impossible to say if I am better than Ago or Mike [Hailwood].”
Over the course of his 17-year career, Ago beat the best in the world (like Márquez is doing today)—Mike “The Bike” Hailwood, Phil Read, “King” Kenny Roberts, and Barry Sheene. In that time, as technology advanced and two-strokes replaced four-strokes, he proved he could adapt his riding style to remain on top. Decades before Rossi traded in his Honda for the Yamaha, Agostini left MV Agusta for the Yamaha 500cc two-banger. In his American debut at the Daytona 200 in 1974, he beat Roberts and Sheene in his first race on the Yamaha 500 before going on to win the world championship in 1975.
Whether he’s the GOAT or not, he is perhaps the first GP star whose success made him a national hero, broadening the reach of motorcycle racing, and embodying its pursuit for glory.
While I started thinking about Ago to keep Marquez’s whole-other-league performance at Jerez in perspective, I ended up asking myself another question. How deep is Márquez’s sense of history? Could he eclipse both Rossi and Ago? We’re already talking about him when we discuss the GOAT.
The important thing is, there will only ever be one Ago.