So who's the Greatest?

Trying to pick the best rider of all time



The Greats


This is a can of worms! How the hell is anybody supposed to be able to pick the best rider of all time? For me there are just too many good ones to pick from, but I'll have a go. Every one has their favorites but to be able to objectively pick the best is another matter. How would we know anyway? We weren't on the track with them. I suppose you could say, "well just look at the results" and if you did, Agostini would be the clear winner with 15 world titles and Angel Nieto would be second with 13, but this gets a bit cloudy.

Giacomo Agostini won seven consecutive 500 titles from 1966 to 1972 and seven consecutive 350 championships from 1968 to 1974 on the all conquering MV Agustas and another 500 on a Yamaha in 1975. A record that will never be beaten. Ago also won 10 TT races at the Isle of Man, an incredibly dangerous test of a rider's skill and bravery. Agostini was a fantastic rider but some of his titles were won when the opposition was riding outdated and uncompetitive machinery. Ago was such a great rider that he may have won anyway and he proved he could when he made his timely switch to Yamaha but you have to wonder what the results tally would have been if the other riders had been on equal machinery. The MV was just too fast.



Roberts, Rossi, Agostini and Read at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.
One can only imagine the results had these riders been on the track in the same era
Image: Motorsports.com


Nieto was another great rider but all of his titles were in the smaller classes, a bit like Moto 3 today. His incredible talent is shown from the sheer number of titles he won and one wonders what he could have done had he chosen to enter the 500 class.



Winglets anyone? Photo taken in 1974


Phil Read was also from Agostini's era and won seven world titles. He became the first man to win world championships in the 125 cc, 250 cc and 500 cc classes. In 1973 Read got the better of Ago for the 500 title when they were both in the same MV Agusta factory team in what was a hard and sometimes bitter fight for the title. Agostini went to Yamaha in 1974 and Read won again.



Hailwood and Agostini were friends despite their rivalry on the track


Then there's Mike Hailwood. What a rider! Mike the Bike, possibly the best ever. Hailwood came from an era when motorcycle racers decided their own destiny and I think this is important. Their own choices in life would lead them to motorcycle racing, Roberts, Read and Agostini were similar. Although Mike had an early start when his wealthy father gave him a bike when he was seven, he didn't start racing until he was seventeen. Many of the later future champions were given a minibike when they were old enough to walk and groomed to become racers. This certainly doesn't detract from their achievements as they still wouldn't have been champions if they didn't have the talent and determination, but it illustrates how times have changed.

Hailwood could race a 125, 250, 350 and 500 in one day and win on them all. He won a total of nine world titles including four consecutive 500s from 1962 to 1965. Many of his titles were won on the fast but evil handling Hondas but this didn't make much difference to Mike, he could win on almost anything.

After years of dominating two wheels, Mike looked to new challenges on four. He became European Formula 2 Champion and began his Formula 1 career. In time he might well have added a Formula 1 World Championship to his list of achievements, but his motor racing career ended abruptly in 1974 when he crashed his McLaren on Germany's daunting Nurburgring.



In a sensational comeback, Hailwood won the 1978 IOM TT on an 860 Ducati and a year later won again on an RG500 Suzuki


In 1978, after 11 years away from motorcycle racing, Mike made a comeback at the Isle of Man TT on an 860 Ducati. He stunned the world by winning and setting a new lap record at the age of 38. A year later, he went back on a Suzuki RG 500 and won the Senior TT bringing his total Isle of Man victories to 14. He retired for the last time in 1979. In 1981, Hailwood and his daughter, Michelle were killed when they crashed into a truck who's driver was doing an illegal turn.

Jarno Saarinen was a rider who could have had it all. Many say he was the fastest they had ever seen but his untimely death in an accident at Monza in Italy in 1973 along with that of Renzo Pasolini cut short a career that was blossoming into superstardom. His aggressive sliding style, born in his ice racing roots, won him the 250cc title in 1972 and he was the fastest rider in the 500cc class on the new Yamaha at the time of the accident. He had the sheer riding talent to have won multiple championships but we will never know.



Roberts could ride anything. On the TZ 700 powered flat tracker


Many would choose 'King' Kenny Roberts as the greatest of all time and I'm very close to going with it. Roberts could ride anything. After winning just about everything there was to win in the US, he took Europe by storm when he won the 500 title at his first attempt in 1978 becoming the only rider in history to achieve this. It wasn't until 2013 that another rider (Marc Marquez) was able to manage to do the same thing. Roberts went on to win three 500 titles and as a complete rider he has no equal.

Freddie Spencer and Eddie Lawson were the American successors to Roberts although neither had the extensive dirt track background that Roberts had. That didn't stop Spencer from riding sideways though. 'Fast Freddie' was very fast. Freddie won the 500 title in 1983, up against Roberts and in 1985 decided to contest both the 250 and the 500 in the same year, something that the top riders had long since given up doing, and won them both. He was the last person to do this. Unfortunately Spencer's career was marred by a series of half-hearted comebacks and mystery non-appearances, but he was one of the fastest ever.

Eddie Lawson was a thinking man's rider and despite the 'Steady Eddie' nickname, was extremely fast. In 1984 he won his first 500 title, the first of three he was to win for Yamaha before he shocked everyone by switching to Honda and winning another one, becoming the first rider to win back-to-back championships on machines from different manufacturers. Eddie was a rider's rider who made few mistakes. When he retired from Grand Prix racing in the early 1990s, he ranked third on the all-time 500GP Grand Prix wins list with 31.

Wayne Rainey, like Lawson, was a class act, fast, smooth and stylish. Many including myself, believe that the period when Doohan, Rainey, Lawson, Gardner and Schwantz were on the track together, was the era of the toughest competition in the 500 class. Each one had been, or was to be, world champion and they were all on top of their game. It was a time when different tyre manufacturers were allowed and it was usually only the tyre choice that separated them. Rainey was an astute rider and he won three 500 titles in a row from 1990 to 1992 and was leading the 1993 championship when disaster struck at Misano, Italy. Rainey was high sided from his bike and landed badly on his back, the injuries rendered him permanently paralyzed from the chest down.



Kevin Schwantz


Tyres and bikes have had nearly 30 years of developement since these photos were taken


Mick Doohan had not won a championship and in 1992 he crashed in practice for the Dutch TT. He suffered permanent and serious damage to his right leg due to medical complications and, at one stage, faced amputation of the leg. He was leading the championship race by 65 points and it was thought he would never ride again, let alone win the title. He returned eight weeks later for the final two races but could not prevent Yamaha rider Wayne Rainey from winning his third consecutive title by four points.

In an unbelievable display of grit and hard-nosed determination Doohan went on to win five consecutive world 500cc championships from 1994 to 1998. Doohan utterly dominated the competition in a way that few before or since have been able to do and in 1997 won 12 out of 15 races, finished second in another two, and crashed out of the final race of the season at his home GP while leading by more than six seconds. In 1999 Doohan had another accident, this time in a very wet qualifying session for the Spanish Grand Prix. He again broke his leg in several places and subsequently announced his retirement. Two more titles would have almost certainly been added if not for the terrible injuries, probably more.



Mick Doohan rode the NSR500 like no one else could


Casey Stoner, for me, is up there with the greats because he is so damned fast! Casey's ability to wring every last ounce out of a bike is a sight to behold. Stoner won his first world title in 2007 on the Ducati which was very fast but handled so badly he looked like a perpetual accident waiting to happen. Other Ducati riders were lucky to finish in the top ten. When the late Nicky Hayden rode the Ducati for the first time he couldn't believe that Stoner could ride it so fast. He said that he deserved a medal just for being on it! Rossi has rated Stoner as his most respected rival. Rossi was interviewed at the beginning of 2009 regarding his challengers for the upcoming season. He said, "Lorenzo is dangerous (meaning dangerous to his title chances) but Stoner is incredible". Quite a compliment! Stoner moved to Honda for 2011 and took the championship again winning ten Grand Prix and sealing the title by winning his home race with two races remaining.

Marc Marquez and Jorge Lorenzo have been the outstanding riders of the current era. There probably hasn't been a rider who can push a bike to such incredible limits as Marquez and still stay on. At the age of 25, he has already won 7* world titles, 5* in the MotoGP class and is trying his best to beat Rossi's tally of 9. He may well succeed. Marquez and Kenny Roberts have been the only riders to win the premier title at their first attempt. He has been fortunate enough to escape any serious injuries despite his numerous crashes, let's hope that it stays that way. He is up there with the best.

Lorenzo is the only rider who has been able to bring a 250 like riding style to MotoGP and make it work. His high corner speed and inch perfect riding style is a joy to witness. On his day he is unbeatable. He has won two 250 and three MotoGP world championships and if he can adapt his style to the Ducati or the bike can be made to turn better, I think there's more to come.

The early riders were able to contest more than one championship and it was possible to win two or more world titles in one year but as far as I know nobody won three. The pressures on a modern rider make trying this today impractical. Even in Freddie Spencer's era it was uncommon and he was the last rider to do it, winning the 250 and 500 titles in 1985.

The best any modern rider is going to do is win one title in a year, which makes it incredibly difficult for anyone to accumulate totals like Agostini or Nieto. It's for this reason that riders like Lorenzo and Marquez need to be considered and neither rider has yet to finish his career. Marquez has achieved so much with youth still on his side, so who knows what he can do?

And then we get to Valentino Rossi. There aren't enough superlatives to describe what he has done. A career that started in 1996 and is still going today. Rossi has changed the face of motorcycle racing and his countless fans are seen as a sea of yellow at Grand Prix the world over. Rossi's talent and charismatic personality have made him a legend in his own time and after 22 years at the top level, he is still winning races. There probably will never be another rider who will be missed as much as Rossi when he finally decides to hang up his helmet. His achievement of 9 world titles, 7 in the premier class, is an amazing tally particularly when he has never contested more than one title in any given year.

Rossi has been able to maintain his commitment and passion for an incredible length of time, far longer than what is considered normal in top-level motorcycle racing or any other sport for that matter. Most riders seem to go through three stages, firstly there is the young and reckless stage where their talent and sheer bravery will see them going fast. It's the "I don't know how fast I can go until I fall off" stage, usually it's a period of intensive learning and frequent crashes, hopefully not serious ones.

The second stage is where the rider is refining his technique and is getting extra speed because of it. It's towards the end of this stage that he hits his peak. He is probably also thinking, "maybe I don't know how fast I can go until I fall off, but I don't need to keep reminding myself". The third stage likely involves an ultra refinement of the technique that sees him riding very smoothly. This is however, the period in which the years of tireless work and one hundred percent commitment start to take their toll. The passion that drove the rider in the first place slowly starts to fade and with it, so does the speed, the edge.

This is a completely normal series of events for any racer, but Rossi is not normal, not by any stretch of the imagination. The way he has maintained his commitment and more importantly, his passion, defies any realms of normality. Yes, Rossi is much more than a rider, he's a phenomenon. He may or may not be the best rider, with Hailwood, Doohan, Lawson, Roberts, Spencer, Marquez, Rainey and Stoner in there, this one's pretty hard to pick, but I'll go with Hailwood with Roberts being the best all round rider. For me though, the greatest is Rossi, just because he is Rossi.





Written by Paul Harmon 2-4-18 *Modified 5-11-18

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