You won't believe the grid for Rossi's dad's 500GP debut

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It was a big day for more than one big name when Rossi Snr first lined up on a very crowded 500 GP grid – and prepared to show his future son the right way to make a premier-class debut.

he 30-strong grid of two-strokes in the second photo above is the one among which Valentino Rossi’s dad, Graziano, made his 500cc GP debut – in the 1977 Italian GP at Imola. If you think it looks crowded here, bikes jostling for position four and five abreast, bear in mind at the previous race at the Nurburgring there were 45 starters.

Of course, it was dead-engine starts back then: that tingling moment of silence, the pitter-patter of feet, the clatter of clutches engaging… an explosion of ear-splitting noise as 120 two-stroke cylinders fire into smoky, angry life… heads under the bubble, legs dangling behind, front wheels kicking skyward, collisions avoided by mere inches as the pack hurtles towards Imola’s infamous Tamburello curve.

There are some legendary names here: reigning world champ Barry Sheene on pole, alongside champ-to-be Marco Lucchinelli (also pictured with Graziano in the first picture), ex-MV man Franco Bonera, the USA’s first world champ Steve Baker and French privateer Michel Rougerie on his tiger-striped Suzuki RG500.

Square-four RGs were the mainstay of the 500 grid at the time and cost £12,000, which is £62,000 in today’s money. Makes modern-day MotoGP sound like a rip off, doesn’t it? On row two is Giacomo Agostini, the most successful bike racer of all and blessed with the number-one plate for his home race, even though he wasn’t the champ. Ago must be deep in thought, for this was his last Italian GP at the close of a 14-year GP career.

At the top of the third row is Virginio Ferrari, who chased winner Sheene all the way in the race. Alberto Torraca (46) came in a close third, two seconds down on Sheene.

At the bottom of row three, dear old Aussie privateer Jack Findlay bravely resists the fashion for those new-fangled full-face helmets. Findlay started his GP career on a Manx Norton way back in 1961! He won his final GP just a few weeks before Imola, after the top riders walked out of the Salzburgring following a fatal pile-up. Findlay probably needed the petrol money to get to the next race. Look even further down the grid and you’ll spot Graziano and Britain’s Steve Parrish.

Sheene would win the race from Virginio Ferrari with Rossi in 13th – a little better than his son would manage on his 500cc debut 23 years later. Valentino DNFd in both his first 500 races.  

Front row (from the top)

Barry Sheene (Suzuki, 7)

Marco Lucchinelli (Suzuki, 4)

Franco Bonera (Suzuki)

Steve Baker (Yamaha, 32)

Michel Rougerie (Suzuki, 15)

Row two

Armando Torraca (Suzuki, 46)

Giacomo Agostini (Yamaha, 1)

Pat Hennen (Suzuki, 3)

Philippe Coulon (Suzuki, 6)

Row three

Virginio Ferrari (Suzuki)

Christian Estrosi (Suzuki, 20

Boet Van Dulmen (Suzuki, 24)

Nico Cereghini (Suzuki, 27)

Jack Findlay (Suzuki, 8)

Row four

Toni Mang (Suzuki, 26)

Max Wiener (Suzuki, 44)

John Newbold (Suzuki, 5)

Row five

Giovanni Rolando (Suzuki, 10)

Graziano Rossi (Suzuki, 36)

Tepi Lansivouri (Suzuki, 2)

Stu Avant (Suzuki, 12)

Alex George (Suzuki, 23)

Row six

Wil Hartog (Suzuki, 21)

John Williams (Suzuki, 9)

Unknown rider (Suzuki, 17)

Steve Parrish (Suzuki, 19)