Before two strokes became the predominant technology in motorcycle Grand Prix racing, and before the Japanese aggressively attacked the high displacement classes, there was really only one name in the 500 cc motorcycle Grand Prix World Championships - MV Agusta.
The Italian motorcycle builder was truly in a class of their own. They won 18 world championships in the 500 cc class between 1956 and 1974. You'll notice that is only one year during that span– 1957 – they did not win. As if that weren't enough, in 1956, 1958, 1959, and 1960, they won the 125 cc, 250 cc, and 500 cc classes collectively. Outright dominance.
In the early years, John Surtees, who we wrote about here, was providing MV Agusta with their first four championships. After Surtees moved over to Formula One, Australian Gary Hocking provided the manufacturer with their fifth championship. Then the legendary Mike Hailwood provided four more between 1962 and 1965.
By the time Hailwood had provided his fourth championship in 1965, the Japanese had fully arrived, and the Honda team was becoming increasingly competitive. The four cylinder 500 cc MV Agusta engine that Hailwood utilized was becoming less competitive relative to its Japanese counterparts. The MV Agusta engine did not lack for power, but was very heavy, relatively speaking.
Count Domenico Agusta himself proclaimed his ultimate ambition was to have an Italian rider win the 500 cc Grand Prix World Championship aboard one of his motorcycles. But he knew in order to achieve that success, he would need two things - an incredibly good rider, and to provide that rider with a better engine.
Giacomo Agostini was born in Brescia, Italy. The oldest of four brothers, Agostini initially had to conceal that he was racing, first in hill climb events and then in road racing. His father did not approve of his son's motorcycle racing career and did everything he could to persuade him not to race. Eventually his father came to terms with his racing, and young Agostini won the 1963 Italian 175cc championship aboard a Morini. He got his break when Morini factory rider, Tarquinio Provini left the team to ride for Benelli. Count Alfonso Morini hired the young Agostini to ride for him. In 1964, Agostini won the Italian 350cc title and proved his ability by finishing fourth in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.
These results caught the eye of Count Agusta, who signed Agostini to ride as Mike Hailwood's team-mate. Agostini fought a season-long battle with Honda's Jim Redman for the 1965 350cc world championship. He seemed to have the title in hand going into the final round at Suzuka, but his bike failed him, handing the title to Redman.
At the end of the 1965 season, Hailwood left to join Honda, tired of working for the notoriously difficult Count Agusta. Agostini immediately became the top MV Agusta rider.
Then Count Agusta himself helped design a three cylinder, four-stroke engine architecture that could be utilized in both the 350 cc and 500 cc classes, with the hope of keeping ever increasingly competitive Honda racing team at bay.
Details of the engine were kept in extreme secrecy. Occasionally, the team would even intentionally leak misinformation, just to throw off their competition. Even items such as the bore and stroke (62mm x 55mm) were hidden from the public until years later.
The combination of the new three cylinder engine and Giocamo Agostini made MV Agusta just about unbeatable. Agostini won the 500cc title seven years in succession for the Italian factory from 1966 to 1972.
Even after Agostini's reign, Briton Phil Read provided two more championships for MV Agusta in 1973 and 74.
Like all things, time marches on in motorcycle technology, and the era of the two stroke Japanese bike came into power, ending MV Agusta's unprecedented string of championships. What an incredible ride.