“Francorchamps was great, because it was difficult and fast”
Giacomo Agostini will be one of the star atractions at this year's GP500 Parade at the Belgian Bikers' Classics. The Italian 'Maestro' won eight races at the long and treacherous Spa Francorchamps circuit and he will return to the track riding his beloved 1968 MV Agusta 500/3.
Although 'Ago', as he became known in the racing community, also gave Yamaha its first 500cc World Championship title in 1975, first and foremost he is remembered as MV Agusta's biggest icon. He won seven 500cc world championships and 62 GPs in the major class for the Italian brand as well as six 350 world titles. 'Il Magnifico' also sang MV's swan song by winning the 1976 500cc Grand Prix at the German Nürburgring; it was Ago's last win as well as MV's last hooray.
Ago's first Francorchamps win came in 1966, the year in which he also won his first 500 title. Now, 47 years later, he admits he cannot remember that first victory in the Ardennes. “When you've been racing as long as I have it is impossible to remember everything”, Ago smiles. But of course he does remember the track, which in those days was 8.7 miles long. “Francorchamps was also great to ride, because it was so difficult and fast. I'm sure for every rider Francorchamps meant an extra challenge, also because the weather could be bad or change quickly.”
Giacomo Agostini signed his first MV Agusta contract for the 1965 season, joining the team's number 1 rider and reigning 500cc world champion Mike Hailwood. The Englishman went on to win his fourth 500cc title, with his younger teammate Agostini gaining experience and speed every race. “It was difficult, because Mike was my teammate but also a very fast opponent”, says Ago. “He also had four more years of experience in Grand Prix racing than me. For me it was my first season. I had to learn a lot and Mike did not help me. That's normal; you have to do it by yourself.”
In 1966 the tables turned when Hailwood joined Honda and 24 year old Ago beat him. It was the beginning of incredible winning streak for MV's ambitious young main man who remained unbeaten in the 500cc championship until 1973. At the end of 1967 Honda turned its back on Grand Prix racing, leaving Agostini and MV in control. The champ had mixed feelings about Honda's decision. “In a way I was happy that Honda quit, because they were very fast and Mike was a great rider. But beating Mike always added some extra spice to a victory. For me personally he was the best rider I raced against. When I started to beat him I was at my best.”
For years MV Agusta put all its cards on the Italian superstar who, although dominant, admits feeling the pressure that came with the responsibility. “In a way it was fantastic. Being the only rider meant that everybody was working for you and looking after you”, says Ago. “But everybody expected me to win. Not only the fans did, but also the mechanics, teammanager Arturo Magni and the management at MV. I could understand that. If everybody focusses on you they expect something back, that's only normal.”
Forty years after his last win at Spa Francorchamps when he beat his 1973 teammate Phil Read by 1.15 minutes Giacomo Agostini will return to the circuit that brought him eight successive 500cc wins. “I will bring my own MV Agusta 500 three-cylinder from 1968”, reveals the 15 times 500cc and 350cc world champion. “In the 500 class the triple was my favourite bike. In 1966 we had a bigger version of the 350 and went up to 420 cc. We improved the bike every year and in the end it was a very good machine which gave me a great emotion to ride.”
Emotions will undoubtedly run high again at the Bikers' Classics from 5-7 July when Ago will be joined on track by former Francorchamps winners Wayne Gardner and Wil Hartog during the GP500 Parade.
Photos : Jan & Hetty Burgers