When Giacomo Agostini announces his arrival in a MotoGP race, the paddock is suddenly in turmoil. His 15 world champion titles and 122 grand prix victories obviously have a lot to do with it, having been the absolute star of the circuits during his 14-year world championship career, a hero who has earned admiration for his exploits on the weekends and a fierce competitor, which few have managed to get off his pedestal.
But, at 80 (soon to be 81), Giacomo Agostini is also a precious witness to another era of motorcycle racing. If the championship has just passed the milestone of the 1000th Grands Prix since its inception in 1949, when King Ago retired at the age of 35 only just over a quarter had been contested. At that time, the sport was no longer in its infancy, but it still had great battles to give, in particular to become safer and to professionalize the profile of all drivers.
“The nice thing about today is that we had the same tension but we also had the thought of death,” recalls Giacomo Agostini in an interview with Motorsport.com. “Unfortunately, when we fell, it was more the serious damage than the little damage. Today, fortunately, you can fall, you get up, leave and go again. This has been the great evolution of safety for me”.
“I raced on the Isle of Man, where I won ten times, and to date there are 266 dead (on that race). Unfortunately that was the case, the tracks were those and if you wanted to race, you had to race like this”, he admits, for some time resigned to the reality of racing at the time. This was the reality when the Isle of Man roads were on the same level of calendar as a Grand Prix on a circuit, having remained on the championship schedule without interruption from 1949 to 1976.
Agostini, for his part, stopped at his last victory there, in 1972, definitively disgusted by the death of his friend Gilberto Parlotti. An act that was seen as a precursor to other boycotts that would take place later and that would lead to the elimination of this emblematic race from the championship.
For the pilots of the 60s and 70s, the decades of Agostini’s activity, the perception of risk was real and permanent. “We had this extra thought, death. Many times I left an hour after a friend of mine died. These are things that leave their mark”, he recalls.
Giacomo Agostini, MV Agusta
Photo by: Uncredited
Now that we have reached this “incredible” milestone of the 1000th Grand Prix, the championship has clearly changed a lot since the era of its most successful driver. “Progress does not stop, rightly so, it goes on. Many things have changed, above all safety has changed”, he underlines. “Today there is much more safety with tracks, breakaway spaces, overalls, full-face helmets. Even the airbag, which my friend Lino Dainese invented a bit, has been an incredible help for the riders in terms of to safety”.
Too much power and too much electronics
However, there is one point on which the Italian champion is much more reserved. “The bikes have also changed and I don’t really agree with having too much technology,” he explains. “Today, no rider is able to ride a motorbike if you remove the electronics, then it means that the rider is no longer needed as he was before. Perhaps I would stop this a bit because I would like to give the rider all the responsibility and skill for victory . (He would like) to say that it is he who wins with his bike. Today, however, there is a lot of electronics and it helps you to do many things”.
“I think it’s also the power we have today that isn’t needed”, continues Giacomo Agostini. “We want the show and the fight, and that’s not what electronics are for. Motorcycles today have so much power (…) In the past, when Mike Hailwood, Phil Read, Agostini, Kenny Roberts or Valentino Rossi only had 120 or 150 horsepower, the show was there. So it’s not because today there are more horsepower that there is more show. Indeed today, with so much power you take everything to the limit: the tyres, the brakes, the chassis, the chain and even the danger”.
For Giacomo Agostini, who earned hero status at a time when motorcycles were much more rudimentary than today’s technological monsters, this extreme development is not what the public is looking for.
“Everything is now at the limit, helped by technology. If this technology doesn’t work 100%, even the best driver can’t do anything. So I think it’s right perhaps to reduce all this, to have even more show”, he observes. “For the public, it’s a bit of a disappointment when you think you’re going to see your idols, the ones who do things that not everyone can do, (and can’t win).”
At a time when the organizers are looking for the best solutions to bring the public back to some circuits deserted by spectators, Agostini would like the man to regain control and for the great champions to distinguish themselves. “A Maradona or a Ronaldo in football, a Cassius Clay in boxing, an Eddy Merckx in cycling, an Agostini, a Mike Hailwood or a Valentino Rossi in motorcycles… People want to see this. They fall in love with the character”, he argues.
In addition to the space taken up by development, which can put major brands in difficulty as we are seeing today with Honda and Yamaha, there is also an extreme reduction in performance, obtained over the years thanks to technical regulations (single electronics and single tyres, in particular) and increasingly advanced technologies. For Agostini, this also contributes to the belief that it is easy for everyone to reach the top. “Instead it’s not easy. You think it’s easy because, as soon as he has something, the great driver, who you think can win, doesn’t succeed. And that’s a bit of a disappointment,” he regrets.
Today’s races still cover more or less the same distance as Agostini’s. Careers, however, are seen as increasingly strenuous, with an increasing number of Grands Prix and an ever-busier schedule at the weekends. However, at the time of the champion, even if there were fewer Grands Prix in the season, it was very common to race in several categories at the same time and therefore make several starts per weekend.
Fabio Quartararo, Yamaha Factory Racing
Photo by: Dorna
“At the end of the year I had done as many Grands Prix as they did today”, he observes, having dominated the 350 and 500cc classes at the same time. “The fact is that today they are prepared to do this but it’s not that it’s less difficult or more difficult, easier or less easy. It’s different because there has been evolution”.
Regular visitor to the paddock even today, Giacomo Agostini observes this evolution, sometimes critical, always passionate. His clear eyes follow with great attention the performance of those who succeeded him and who have in them the same “gift of nature” that allowed him to write one of the most admirable sports stories.