Yamaha mark 60 years of GP racing as the second most successful manufacturer of all time

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Yamaha may not have won as many grand prix races as Honda, but the Hamamatsu manufacturer is arguably still the greatest racing brand of them all.

The company contested its first grand prix in May 1961 and since then has always featured in GPs, either with factory bikes or privateer machines, unlike GP racing’s other great marques, Honda and Suzuki.

During the last 60 years Yamaha has anointed some of motorcycling’s greatest world champions, including Phil Read, Jarno Saarinen, Giacomo Agostini, 'King' Kenny Roberts, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey, Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo.

Slow start and factory spies

Yamaha started out making musical instruments – hence the tuning fork logo – in the late 19th century and expanded into bikes in the 1950s.

Their first GP bike wasn’t even a Yamaha. The RA41 was made by rival motorcycle manufacturer Showa, which Yamaha bought in 1960. Yamaha engineers immediately set about transforming the two-stroke 125cc single into a bike that could challenge for grand prix honours.

Yamaha’s first GP riders back in the 1960s

But they failed. The RA41 was lapped by the Honda four-strokes and MZ two-strokes when Yamaha made their GP debut at Clermont-Ferrand, France, in May 1961. The same went for its 250cc stablemate, the RD48 twin, basically a doubled-up RA41.

Four-strokes were still dominant in GP racing at that time, but this soon changed, thanks to MZ’s two-stroke knowhow, which Suzuki stole in 1961. Just one year later Yamaha were also using this technology. How did this happen? No one knows for sure but most Japanese brands had spies working inside rival factories.

The result was an overnight power increase of almost 30 percent. When Yamaha riders and engineers arrived in Europe for the 1963 GP season they were immediately competitive – star rider Fumio Ito rode the RD48 to their first GP podium on the Isle of Man and their first victory four weeks later at Spa-Francorchamps.

At the end of the year the factory signed their first foreign star – Luton-born Phil Read – and beat arch-rivals Honda to the 1964 250cc world title. Yamaha had arrived. And they’ve never left.

Phil Read took the 1964 world title

Two-stroke v four-stroke

The 1960s quickly developed into a fabulous era of race engineering as Yamaha and Suzuki two-strokes fought for supremacy with Honda four-strokes. Six decades later the three biggest Japanese factories are still at it in MotoGP.

In 1965 Honda built its five-cylinder 125 and six-cylinder 250, so Yamaha fought back with two of the wildest two-strokes ever to grace a racetrack.

These miracles of miniaturisation were the RA31 125cc V4 and the RD05 250cc V4. The 125 (44m x 41mm) needed a nine-speed gearbox to keep the tacho needle between 15,500 and 17,000rpm, where most of its 40 horses were hidden. The 250 shrieked out more than 70 horsepower, through an eight-speed box.

Bill Ivy, Phil Read and Mike Hailwood in 1967

Both were tricky in the extreme to ride, with tiny powerbands and iffy carburation. If the engines ran too rich they oiled plugs and the bike stopped. If they ran too lean they seized a piston and ejected the rider over the handlebars.

Bill Ivy – bike racing’s first rock star – beat the five-cylinder Honda to win the 1967 125 title but it wasn’t until 1968, after Honda had withdrawn from GP racing, that the 250 won the championship.

Years of dominance

At the end of that season Yamaha also quit factory involvement in GPs, but in many ways this was the start of the company’s greatest years in racing. In 1973 Yamaha started selling the water-cooled TZ250 and TZ350, which went on to dominate grids, from grands prix to national events and club meetings, for a decade and more.

In 1973 all but five of the 58 points scorers in the 250cc world championship rode TZ250s. Ten years later the bikes still accounted for more than half the 250 GP grid. Yamaha sold many thousands of these machines, which were the blueprint of the legendary RD250LC and RD350LC road bikes.

Of course, things were different in the headline-grabbing 500 class, where factory involvement was vital. In 1973 Yamaha unleashed the first prototype four-cylinder two-stroke 500, the 100bhp 0W19. Two years later Agostini rode the 0W26 to Yamaha’s first premier-class crown, the first by a two-stroke.

King Kennny & Co.

King Kenny Roberts in 1980

Yamaha was now the greatest two-stroke manufacturer of them all and would remain so into the 1990s. Indeed, this was Yamaha’s golden age as a premier-class GP force. Between 1975 and 1993 they won 17 500cc riders’ and constructors’ world titles, while Honda and Suzuki combined won 20.

Best of all, ‘King’ Kenny Roberts won the 1978, 1979 and 1980 titles on water-cooled descendants of Yamaha’s first inline-four 500, but his winning streak ended when they started experimenting with square-four and V4 engines. Only when the reed-valve 0W76 arrived in 1984 did they start winning again, this time with Lawson.

Yamaha won their last 500cc championship in 1992, when Rainey wrapped up a remarkable title hat-trick. The factory didn’t get the chance to follow that up after Rainey’s career-ending accident because the world was changing. Increasingly tight emissions regs effectively banned two-strokes from the road and it was inevitable GP racing would go the same way.

The dawn of MotoGP

In 2002 MotoGP introduced 990cc four-strokes to take the place of 500cc two-strokes. That year both generations of premier-class bikes raced together. Of course the four-strokes had been given an extra 490cc to ensure their success, so the result was emphatic. The four-strokes won all 16 races.

By the first race of 2003 the 500s had disappeared and for a while it seemed like Yamaha might follow them because the factory’s first four-stroke GP bike – the YZR-M1 – was a complete disaster. Engineers had badly under-estimated what they needed to win a four-stroke MotoGP race. The inline-four M1 was quicker than a YZR500 but was a limping old dog compared to Honda’s five-cylinder RC211V. During the first two seasons, the M1 won two races to the RC211V’s 29.

Yamaha were making all the wrong kinds of headlines and there were rumours the company would quit to prevent further embarrassment. Two men saved the day: newly appointed race chief Masao Furusawa and the rider he signed for the 2004 season.

Enter Valentino

Valentino Rossi on the Yamaha YZR-M1

Even Valentino Rossi admitted his move was crazy. During 2003 the M1 scored just one podium finish from a possible 48, so no rider in their right mind would sign for them. But Rossi was up for the challenge and had a point to prove.

His arrival at Yamaha sprinkled fairy dust on the M1. Within the first few days of testing Rossi and his crew chief Jeremy Burgess turned the bike into a winner. Their pragmatic approach didn’t only transform the bike, it transformed the way Yamaha went racing, adding pragmatism to science.

In April 2004 Rossi became the first rider in history to win back-to-back premier-class races on different makes of motorcycle. At the end of the season he secured the championship and successfully defended the crown the following year. Almost out of nowhere Yamaha had become a dominant force in MotoGP.

Two more titles followed in 2008 and 2009, during which Yamaha swept aside huge efforts from Ducati and Honda. There was no doubt at this time that the M1 was the best bike on the grid – fast, rider-friendly and with the best electronics, by now a huge area of MotoGP R&D.

New blood

Jorge Lorenzo racing in 2015

However, Yamaha thought Rossi was coming to the end of his career, so they signed 250cc world champion Jorge Lorenzo for 2010. Rossi didn’t like his number-one status coming under threat, so he defected to Ducati.

This made no difference to Yamaha’s position, for a while at least. Lorenzo won the 2010, 2012 and 2015 MotoGP titles on the M1 and might have won more but for a major shake-up of technical regulations.

Since 2016, when MotoGP switched to Michelin tyres and Magneti Marelli spec software, Yamaha haven’t won any riders or constructors titles, because they’ve been unable to adapt the M1 to the latest kit although they have made a breakthrough in 2021 with Fabio Quartararo.

Yamaha in World Superbikes and EWC

A 1985 Yamaha FZR750

Yamaha’s first four-stroke race bike was appropriately named Genesis. The FZR750 Genesis used an FZ750 engine and would’ve won its debut race – the 1985 Suzuka Eight Hours, part of the endurance world championship – but for a dropped valve in the final minutes. They learned fast; two years later Yamaha won the Eight Hours, their first big four-stroke victory.

However, when World Superbikes was launched in 1988 Yamaha were hardly ready. While Honda had the RC30 and Ducati raced their booming 851 V-twin, Yamaha riders had to make do with the more basic FZ750. They waited five years for the arrival of the YZF750, which still wasn’t good enough.

In 1999 the R7 arrived, Yamaha’s first proper go at a WSB homologation special. The following year Noriyuki Haga and the R7 were fast enough to win the championship but the Sultan of Slide failed a doping test and ended up second.

Haga was super-fast on the R7

It was another decade before Yamaha conquered WSB, largely thanks to the knowhow they’d gathered by winning in MotoGP with Rossi. The latest YZF-R1 owed much to Rossi’s YZR-M1 and was good enough to take American Ben Spies to the 2009 WSB crown. It had only taken Yamaha 22 years to get there!

The closest Yamaha have got to more WSB title success was Marco Melandri’s runner-up finish in 2011 and two third-place finishes by Michael van der Mark and Alex Lowes, in 2018 and 2019.

Yamaha won their first four-stroke world championship in 2004 when David Checa and William Costes took the endurance crown, aboard an R1. Since then Yamaha have won the longest-haul title on a further three occasions.

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Mat Oxley

By Mat Oxley

Former MCN Staff Writer