Long distance races started at a very early stage - when the internal combustion engine was invented at the end of the 19th century - with races between big cities, such as Paris-Rouen in 1894, Paris-Bordeaux and others. Cars and motorcycles used to race together. In those early days, asphalt was almost unknown, and the difference between events was not whether they were on or off road, but whether they measured speed or time (regularity). Very soon, it became evident that racing on open roads was too dangerous - with the disastrous example of the 1903 Paris-Madrid - and this kind of competition moved more and more on to roads closed to normal traffic (considerably before the advent of real racing circuits). Long distance races became rallies, and cars and motorcycles became separated.
Although the French word “Endurance” was used at first for the Six Days’ Reliability Trial – held as early as 1903 -, the difference quickly came up, as this new competition was targeting the fastest rider over a (very) long distance or time almost without stops (only for refuelling or repairs) or changes of rider. One can also consider long distance world record attempts as endurance racing, as 6, 12 and 24 hour attempts differed little from Endurance events.
The best known Endurance race was the Bol d’Or, which was first organised in 1922 on the circuit of Vaujours, near Paris. This beaten-earth road circuit has been used since 1888 for 24 hour competitions for… bicycles! The idea came from Eugène Mauve, engine enthusiast and aeronautical components manufacturer. Only 17 riders entered what would soon become the most famous 24 hour event. Each machine had only one rider, and there were no stops except for refuelling - the rider ate and drank while riding! The winner’s name is Tony Zind, riding a 500cc Motosacoche, who covered 1’245.628 km at an average speed of 51.9 km/h.
After the Second World War, other events began to show up: the 24 Hour Race in Warsage (Belgium) in 1951, the 500 Miles of Thruxton in 1955, the 24 Hours of Montjuich in Barcelona in 1957, and the 24 hours of Monza (Italy) in 1959, among others. At the beginning, most races were held over 24 Hours, but soon shorter races were introduced, defined in terms either of distance (500 Miles, 1000 Miles, and much later even 200 Miles) or of time (12 Hours, 8 Hours or 6 Hours).
In 1960 the first FIM Endurance Cup was held with four races: Thruxton, Montjuich, Warsage and the Bol d’Or, the aim being to encourage the development of this sport. The decision was taken at the 1959 Congress in Barcelona by the International Sporting Committee of the FIM. At the 1960 Congress it was found that the rankings for the Endurance FIM Cup for this first year were problematic, as the competitors were generally qualified in one race only, and the races were of different lengths. Count Lurani, CSI President, was against the idea of giving more points for longer races, so only one points system was established, which would last for a long time.
The following rules were adopted: in order to be classified, a rider had to have taken part in at least two events. In the case of a tie, the rider who had won the longest races (in time or in distance) would be considered the winner. Nevertheless, there is no official ranking for this first Endurance season or for the ones that followed, for the same reason.
The Bol d’Or ceased to be organised between 1961 and 1968. Another race, the 1000 km of Paris, was held on the circuit of Monthléry for a couple of years. In the ‘sixties, events were held essentially in Great Britain, Italy and Spain – the three countries where most of the riders hailed from. While motorcycle sport was continuing its development and reaping increasing success (the ‘sixties are considered as the golden decade of Grand Prix), the market was suffering from depression. There was less interest from the public and little scope for extending the customer base, and at the same time the motorcycle manufacturers faced strong competition from car industry which was producing smaller and cheaper cars for a larger share of the market. This trend would change at the end of the ‘sixties with the arrival of the Japanese manufacturers, who would engulf most of the European production – and principally the British motorcycle industry.
But during the ‘fifties and ‘sixties, the difference between the factory machines used in Grand Prix and the motorcycles used in Endurance was gigantic. Many long distance races included small cubic capacity motorcycles, 125cc and 250cc. For example, the 1958 24 Hours of Montjuich was won by Italians Mandolini and Maranghi riding a 125cc Ducati at an average speed of 92.699 km/h. BMWs were barely faster, and in 1960 the Barcelona race was won by a 175cc Ducati.
However, Endurance racing would really start to grow in the early ‘seventies with the launch of big four-cylinder machines from Japan - Honda was first, immediately followed by Kawasaki. This period also saw the “last stand” of British manufactured motorcycles such as BSA, Triumph and Norton. Their time was over…
Modern times started with the Bol d’Or on the circuit of Linas-Monthléry in September 1969, and the victory of the Frenchmen Michel Rougerie and Daniel Urdich on the brand new Honda CB 750. It was a real benchmark, the starting flag for a new era which would turn Endurance into a discipline for passionate riders – and a time of fast development in France. Then followed the years of Frenchman Georges Godier and Swiss rider Alain Genoud, who raced first on a Honda equipped with a Swiss-made Egli frame, then on a racing-tuned Kawasaki with a frame they made themselves. After their title in 1975, they became constructors of racers with Kawasaki engines, building their own chassis.
In 1976 the Endurance FIM Cup became the European Championship, which saw the revenge of Honda: the first manufacturer had decided in late 1975 to come back to competition that year with the RCB 1000 (derived from the CB 750). Honda had stopped all its motorcycle racing activities in February 1967 and, with the exception of their participation in the 1970 Daytona 200 Miles – which they won - they did not return until early 1976 at the non-Championship race in Zandvoort (600 km). At the beginning, the engine was a 941cc (68 x 64,8mm), which was then bored up to 70mm and ended up with 998cc. They clinched four consecutive titles from 1976 to 1979 with Jean-Claude Chemarin and Christian Léon, and then the first World Championship in 1980 with Marc Fontan and Hervé Moineau. In 1978, the Bol d’Or emigrated from the circuit of Le Mans to the Paul Ricard circuit near Marseille, in the south of France. That same year two other classic races were created: the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Suzuka Eight Hours.
Then, from 1980 with the accession to World Championship status, the discipline continued to be dominated by French riders riding factory Kawasakis – first with Raymond Roche and Jean Lafond in 1981, then with Jean-Claude Chemarin who clinched a fifth title in 1982, teaming up with Swiss rider Jacques Cornu. Then came the Suzuki Endurance Racing Team managed by Dominique Méliand – still in charge today! - and the first title for Suzuki thanks to Hervé Moineau, with teammate Richard Hubin from Belgium. In 1984, the cubic capacity limit was reduced from 1000cc to 750cc, and Honda with its V4 machine, took three titles in a row thanks to Patrick Igoa and Gerard Coudray. Then Hervé Moineau hit back and won, on a Suzuki, the two following titles, which leaves him with four World titles.
The calendar included various events, up to ten, but then the discipline started to decline until only the four so-called “classics” remained: the 24 Hours of Le Mans, 24 Hours of Liège (held in Spa-Francorchamps), the 8 Hours of Suzuka, and the Bol d’Or, held on the Paul Ricard circuit from 1978 until 1999, and since then in Magny-Cours.
In some countries, races of long duration regularly meet with great success, essentially in France where Endurance is probably the most successful motorcycle sport, with two 24-hour races. But this is not the case everywhere, and history has demonstrated the difficulties of maintaining a Championship with events of a comparable level. At the end of the 80s, only three events were entered in the calendar, which, according to the Sporting Code, was not enough for a World Championship. The series was downgraded to the Endurance FIM Cup for two seasons. Then the Sporting Code rule was amended and it came back as a World Championship. The FIM then tried to invest in rounds overseas, for example in Malaysia and Australia, but financial problems did not allow the experiment to be continued. The Championship was then held with four classic events, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 24 Hours of Liège (Spa), the Suzuka 8 Hours and the Bol d’Or. Then, in order to try to give the discipline a new lease of life, an experiment was launched with a promoter, who started to include shorter events such as the 200 Miles, but three major events left the Championship. At the end of the contract in 2006, the FIM took back control of the series, and the classic events came back into the Championship, which is now growing steadily every year.
Let’s remember that the points scale for the World Championship is different depending on the total distance. The machines are 1000cc four cylinders (and some twins also), mostly from Japanese manufacturers, but also some from Italy and Germany.