With Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo threatening to make the 2015 MotoGP season a two-horse race, Yamaha is on course to celebrate its 60th anniversary with another championship win.
Yamaha has a proud racing record that stretches back through every one of those 60 years to the firm’s debut model, the YA-1 Red Dragonfly (Aka Tombo) that won its first two races in 1955.
The firm then beat Honda and the rest in prestigious 125 and 250cc events in Japan in the mid-Fifties. But by 1959 Honda had begun competing with dedicated racing machines, rather than production-based models and took revenge in domestic races before heading off to conquer the Grand Prix circuits in the early Sixties.
Yamaha could not afford a Grand Prix campaign and continued to build production-based racers, notably the TZ250 and 350 twins during the Seventies. But the firm did make a less high-profile attack on Grand Prix in the mid-Sixties with two-stroke twins. It was rewarded when Britain’s Phil Read won the factory’s first world title in the 250cc class in 1964, beating Honda’s Jim Redman in the process.
Phil Read retained the title in 1965 and went on to win two more 250cc crowns for Yamaha. His team-mate Bill Ivy won the 125cc title in 1967 but was runner-up in the 250cc class a year later after Read, who had already won the 125cc championship, defied team orders to finish second. Yamaha started the Seventies by winning championships with its 250 and 350cc twins, riders including Rod Gould, Finnish star Jarno Saarinen, Germany’s Dieter Braun and Venezuelan Johnny Cecotto.
Saarinen was leading the world championship on Yamaha’s straight four 0W19 when he was killed at Monza in 1973. Instead, Giacomo Agostini captured the biggest prize of all for Yamaha two years later, when he won Japan’s first 500cc world championship.
Yamaha’s Grand Prix glory continued with three Americans – Kenny Roberts, Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey. Former US Grand National Champion Roberts arrived in Europe in 1978 with one straight-four works 0W38 and won the 500cc title, following it with two more championships. Lawson, too, won three championships for Yamaha. In the early 90s, Wayne Rainey took over the premier class with three titles before the Misano crash that ended his career.
In 2009 Ben Spies ended Yamaha’s long quest for the World Superbike championship, in which riders including Fabrizio Pirovano and Noriyuki Haga had come agonisingly close. World Supersport has been a more successful battleground, with British riders Cal Crutchlow, Chaz Davies and Sam Lowes each winning a world title in the last six seasons. And although Yamaha has had some problems in getting the new R1 up to speed, Josh Brookes is already a podium regular in BSB and the firm will be back with a full-blown World Superbike challenge next season.
The firm has had a spectacular last decade in MotoGP, inspired by Valentino Rossi, who was lured from Honda in 2004 and turned the four-cylinder YZR-M1 from no-hoper (just one podium finish in 2003) to championship winner. Rossi won three of the next four titles before departing for Ducati, then returned to ride alongside Jorge Lorenzo, who promptly won a second championship of his own. This season is likely to end with one of them winning Yamaha’s fifth title in eight years.
Phil Read, Yamaha’s First World Champion !
“It started with a telegram from Japan, asking me to ride in the 1963 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka. I was leading the race on the last lap when the bike went onto one cylinder so I finished third, behind Jim Redman who won the championship [for Honda]. For the next season they gave me full factory support for five races, but for the other six they just provided the bikes and spares, plus £5000 and for that I had to provide the transport.
“That first championship all came down to the Italian round at Monza. That was a big moment but Yamaha didn’t really get behind it in those days. They only sent one mechanic, who I had to meet at the airport then find him a hotel and so on. They didn’t realise how important it was.
“I was very concerned when I arrived at Monza because there was this incredible sound, which was the Honda 250-six. I thought I’d lost because it was so fast, but I did manage to beat Redman and win the championship. Then I went back to the hotel and had a bath. There were no press interviews and no TV in those days.
“Yamaha didn’t showmuch emotion but they gave me 50% more the following season. And when I went to Japan for the last grand prix at Suzuka they gave the factory a holiday and hired the town hall in Hamamatsu. We had a sort of celebration and they loaned me five geisha girls.
“The Yamahas were really fast, although the next year Honda got the six running really well, but Redman crashed halfway through the season and I won another championship. Then in 1968 I won the 125 championship and the 250 again. That was when Yamaha told me to let [team-mate] Bill Ivy win the 250, but without any consultation with me so I was very upset and said he’d have to race for it. They thought he was terrific and he was, but I beat him.”