Archives | Giacomo Agostini
By Scott Rousseau
This Archives edition is reprinted from issue #17, May 2004. CN has hundreds of past Archives editions in our files, too many destined to be archives themselves. To prevent that from happening, we will be revisiting past Archives articles while still planning to keep fresh ones coming down the road. -Editor
Magnificent as was Valentino Rossi’s heroic victory aboard the factory Yamaha YZF-M1 at the 2004 MotoGP season-opening Grand Prix of Malaysia, it didn’t represent the first time that a man recognized as the sport’s absolute best had elected to abandon the safety of a team that provided a stable foundation for his success and travel into uncharted territory with a different brand. On March 10, 1974, 13-time (later 15-time) World Road Racing Champion Giacomo Agostini came to Daytona Beach, Florida, in an even more dire circumstance.
Following a season in which Agostini had repeated as 350cc World Champion but seen his seven-year reign as 500cc World Champion halted by his MV Agusta teammate, Phil Read—arguably the most disliked man ever to set foot in a GP paddock—Agostini made the shocking decision to leave the Italian factory and its blood-red four-stroke thoroughbred racers behind in favor of a new deal with Yamaha.
Still every ounce worth his salt but not getting any younger, Agostini’s first test would perhaps be his biggest, as the factory entered him in the Daytona 200 (the race was to be shortened to 180 miles due to the U.S. gas crunch) aboard a motorcycle with far fewer combat miles under its belt than Rossi’s M1, Yamaha’s inline four-cylinder TZ700 two-stroke.
Much of the R&D for the new machine had been carried out by American Yamaha race team manager and former 250cc World Champion Kel Carruthers, who upon first riding the machine had effectively pronounced it a two-wheeled shitbox. As delivered, the prototype TZ700 was basically a rocket engine mated to rototiller chassis.
“At anything over 160-about mph, the thing would start doing tank slappers,” Carruthers recalled.
After lengthening the swingarm and sorting out a few engine details, the TZ700 was to be Yamaha’s replacement for the venerable giant killer TZ350s that had won Daytona in ’72 and ’73. Despite the factory’s confidence that the machine had been sufficiently sorted, there were some reliability concerns, as preseason testing at Daytona revealed exhaust pipe breakage problems among other glitches. If things went well, then the TZ700 would be the class of the field. If they didn’t, Yamaha’s streak would be over.
The weight of this was certainly not lost on Agostini, who discussed the ’74 Daytona 200 with Cycle News on the 30th anniversary of the event.
“To me, it [winning] was very, very important,” the now-60-year-old Agostini said. “I had just left MV Agusta, and I was used to the four-stroke engine… I was scared when left MV, because that was my family… Daytona was my first time with the two-stroke, my first time with Yamaha, and my first time in the USA.”
The plot would thicken when Agostini qualified only fifth fastest—the last rider on the front row—behind Suzuki’s Paul Smart, fellow Yamaha riders Hideo Kanaya of Japan and Kenny Roberts, and Englishman Barry Sheene, on another Suzuki. All appeared capable of beating Agostini.
And if it went down that way, it would not go unnoticed on the radar. Just as the eyes of the motorcycling world were on Rossi at Malaysia in 2004, with over 45,000 spectators on hand to witness the event, so too were they on “Ago” at Daytona in 1974, where crowd count for the race was an estimated 48,000.
These were the conditions that Agostini faced when the green flag dropped to start the 33rd running of the Daytona 200. Once the clutch was let out on his number-10 machine, there was no turning back. He got off to a flying start, pulling the holeshot on the field and stretching his lead through the infield to build a 20-yard gap over Kanaya on the first lap. Ago kept upping the pace, turning 2:04s, then an incredible 2:03 on the fifth lap, the same one that saw Kanaya crash out of the race. Then Agostini slowed, and Sheene took over the lead on lap 10. Gary Nixon would hold the lead by lap 20, only to give it to Ago when Nixon stopped for gas. Ago gave it back when he stopped a lap later.
By lap 33, Nixon had 11 seconds on the second-running Ago, when the former AMA champ made his second stop. Four laps later, he would crash while exiting the infield to the West Banking, ending his bid for victory. Agostini pitted the lap after and returned to the track with his lead intact. According to the Cycle News account of the race, “From lap 39 to the 47th and final go-around, the only question hanging over Daytona Speedway was how far ahead of Roberts would Agostini be at the finish.”
In the end, Agostini won by over 30 seconds, Roberts electing to take a safe second place after suffering both the anticipated exhaust problem and engine overheating. Kawasaki’s Hurley Wilvert finished third. Against all odds the world champion had done it.
And among Agostini’s few quotes after the race was one that beautifully capped the emotion that undoubtedly must have been shared by Valentino Rossi in Malaysia all of 30 years later—indeed, it could just as easily have been uttered by him. It was a simple statement that spoke volumes.
“The first I ride Yamaha,” Agostini said, “I win.”CN