An intense few years of racing
In the late sixties and early seventies, the motorcycle market, which had been fairly dormant since the fifties, suddenly woke up and literally shot off in all directions. New sports classes were introduced based on higher cubic capacities, particularly in Road Racing. The Grand Prix classes were topped by 500cc prototypes, while Endurance, where the limit was first set at 750cc, was finally opened up to 1000cc’s. But in 1973 a new class was introduced to do justice to the growing presence and development potential of the new, high-performance motorcycles in pure Road Racing. It was called Formula 750cc, but for want of a clear definition, its “spirit” led to its premature demise in 1979.
In September 1969, the motorcycle world was rocked by a revolution. The first modern in-line four-cylinder engine was launched on the market, mounted in a two-wheeled vehicle made for the road and the traffic. All previous four-cylinder machines had enjoyed a fairly confidential presence on the market. At that moment, the Japanese manufacturers were experiencing a period of real break-through – at a time when European manufacturers, and the British in particular – were still active. The British motorcycle industry capitulated around 1976, while Italian production was limited to small-cylinder bikes – with a few exceptions - for some years to come. At FIM level, 1970 was the watershed. Two years after their withdrawal from Grand Prix racing at the end of 1967, Honda launched the CB 750, which sent ripples through the whole world. The bike showed its potential very quickly with victory at the 1969 Bol d’Or and at Daytona in March 1970, heralding a significant change in the world of motorcycle competition. Other big-capacity motorcycles then followed such as the Kawasaki 750 H2 three-cylinder, two-stroke in 1972, soon followed in 1973 by the Suzuki 750 GT 2-stroke – which was transformed into a racer.
The Americans were already using 750cc motorcycles – basically street-bike twins, adapted for dirt and short track racing. But then four-cylinder machines gradually started appearing at sporting events. Early in 1971 the ACU and the AMA – which had finally become affiliated to the FIM that year – drew up a formula based on 750cc production machines. But one problem would come up: the accessories did not match up to the high performances these machines could deliver. The obvious problem was tyres, but there were also issues with secondary transmission chains, brake pads – or drums - and even shock absorbers. Handling was not always ideal either, as the frames did not meet the minimum standard for stability.
At the FIM, the Technical Commission finally accepted the Formula 750, but given the power of these machines, the proposed formula was that the race distance would be limited to 200 miles, which were eventually split into two races per event. The rules were established at the 1972 Spring Meetings in Geneva. The basic rules for the Series were series production, sale to the public, homologation of the manufacturer or dealer by the respective National Federation, and a minimum of 200 machines manufactured/on sale through usual commercial channels (later lowered to 25 units). The following characteristics could not be changed: engine type, number of cylinders, piston stroke, cylinder (four-stroke); cylinder, cast alloy and number of lights (two-stroke); alloy and shape of crankcases, cylinder head and gearbox, intake and exhaust system, primary transmission and number of gears.
The first season - 1973 - was held over six rounds, as the race scheduled in the United States in May was cancelled – the AMA asked for a change of date, but according to FIM rules this could not be accepted after ratification of the calendar. Things have changed a bit since then! The first race was held in Imola and won by the late Jarno Saarinen. The next round played out at the Paul Ricard circuit, a week after the disaster at Monza. Barry Sheene won ahead of John Dodds, but many riders did not show up at the event. In Anderstorp (Sweden), Barry Sheene finished in third place while Jack Findlay won. A week later in Ahvenisto (Finland), home rider Teuvo Lansivuori took victory; Sheene was second and Findlay third. In Mosport (Canada), Paul Smart was the winner in front of Jack Findlay, John Dodds and Mick Grant. In Hockenheim, the victory was for Stanley Woods ahead of Barry Sheene, John Dodds, local hero Dieter Braun and Jack Findlay. The last event took place in Jarama, Spain, with a win by John Dodds, in front of Barry Sheene who became the first winner of the F-750 FIM Prize.
At the 1974 FIM Spring Meetings, the Technical Commission decided to authorise the participation of the Yamaha TZ 750 OW 31. Although this machine was in fact a racing bike, over 200 units had been built, but the question was whether this motorcycle was in keeping with the real spirit of the competition. The rule stated that motorcycles had to be produced in a minimum number of units, but there was no mention of homologation for street use. At that time, Yamaha was producing large numbers of the famous TZ 250 and 350, so why not a motorcycle made up of two 350 engines together? Only three events counted for the Prize that year. In Jarama, John Dodds clinched the win in front of Jack Findlay and Victor Palomo. In Ahvenisto, Finn Pentti Korhonen won the event, in front of Patrick Pons – John Dodds finishing in fifth. The last race took place in Silverstone, where Paul Smart pulled off a brilliant win ahead of Yvon Duhamel, Patrick Pons, Stan Woods, John Dodds, Tony Rutter and Jack Findlay. John Dodds took the crown ahead of Patrick Pons and Jack Findlay. The Formula was still looking for its real take-off.
Big progress was made for the following year. The 1975 F-750 FIM Prize was to be held over nine races, with the five best results counting for the title. Races were still separated from the Grand Prix, and took place over a minimum distance of 200 miles, divided into two races, with the results added together. This meant that a rider who won one race but failed to finish the other would not be classified. At a time when there were many more mechanical failures than today, this was not exactly the best solution; the system was finally corrected for what was to be the last season, in 1979.
The first race was held in Daytona, over 200 miles with refuelling, and possible change of tyres. Victory went to Gene Romero, ahead of Steve Baker, Johnny Cecotto, Giacomo Agostini, Warren Willing and Steve McLaughlin. Almost all riders were competing with the OW 31 750 Yamaha, in its first incarnation. One month later, in Imola, Johnny Cecotto won the event ahead of French rider Patrick Pons and Steve Baker. Then, at the end of June, the French event was held in Magny-Cours. Barry Sheene finished first, with two Frenchmen, Christian Estrosi and Christian Bourgeois, behind him. A week later a round was held in Mettet, Belgium, where Patrick Pons won in front of Dave Potter, Jack Findlay and Chas Mortimer.
Anderstorp hosted the next F-750 races at the end of July. Barry Sheene clinched the victory, followed by Finn Teuvo Lansivuori and Patrick Pons. A week later in Ahvenisto, Finland, an unknown local rider called Tapio Virtanen scored wins in both heats and won the event in front of Victor Palomo, Teuvo Lansivuori and Olivier Chevallier. One more week and it was the turn of Great Britain on the very fast track at Silverstone: Barry Sheene, at home, won the event in front of Teuvo Lansivuori, Barry Ditchburn and Swiss Philippe Coulon. A round in Assen was introduced into the calendar that year in September. The first winner was French-Canadian rider Yvon Duhamel on the three-cylinder Kawasaki. Jack Findlay finished second, John Newbold third. At the end of September, there was another fast circuit on the schedule: Hockenheim. The season ended with a victory (in both heats) for Patrick Pons, ahead of John Williams and Jack Findlay.
Jack Findlay was the F-750 Prize winner – although he had not won any race that season, he had more points than Barry Sheene – who had three wins.
1976: Palomo, Nixon and confusion
The traditional Daytona event also hosted the opening round of the 1976 season. There was a sense that something odd was going on even before the start of the season. At the end of 1975, Yamaha decided to withdraw from competition, the first reason being – obviously – the costs of racing, but another reason was a decline in the American market, leaving stocks of new motorcycles building up in California and waiting to be sold. Yamaha was quickly followed by Suzuki and Kawasaki. But in reality the Yamaha OW 31 had already been tested in Japan and was ready to race. Four factory bikes were waiting for Steve Baker, Kenny Roberts, Johnny Cecotto and Giacomo Agostini. The Italian withdrew his entry owing to insufficient start money and because of the claiming rule, introduced in order to maintain the original status of the 750 OW 31, which had to be derived from the standard machine and not cost as much as a real racing bike.
Despite having no new model, Kawasaki decided at the last minute to enter the race with four top riders: French-Canadian Yvon Duhamel, Australian Gregg Hansford and Americans Gary Nixon and Ron Pierce, all on a factory/privateer basis (bikes at disposal, but riders had to pay for them…). Suzuki also entered some old “official” bikes for Barry Sheene, John Williams, John Newbold and Pat Hennen. The problem was that they could not match the top speed of the private OW 31’s ridden by Pat Evans, Michel Rougerie, Patrick Pons, Gene Romero and Skip Aksland.
Johnny Cecotto, a prodigious Venezuelan rider who surprised everyone in 1975 by winning the 350cc World title, started the 1976 season by winning the Daytona 200 Miles. It was a hectic race at that time because of problems of tyre wasting, as well as the matter of the traditional refuelling spot. Gary Nixon on the three-cylinder Kawasaki, finished second ahead of Pat Hennen (best Suzuki rider), Gene Romero, Patrick Pons and Michel Rougerie. Kenny Roberts, delayed by a tyre change, ended up in ninth position.
San Carlos was the venue for the second event of the 1976 season. It was Venezuela’s first experience of staging an FIM event at this level, and was a direct consequence of Johnny Cecotto’s title in the 1975 350cc Grand Prix class. The circuit was located in a very hot region of Venezuela, which lies in a tropical area near the Equator. Despite a few minor problems, the new venue was a success. The event was run over two races. The first was easily won by Johnny Cecotto. Steve Baker was indicated as taking second place ahead of Gary Nixon, John Newbold and French rider Michel Rougerie. But as he had entered the pit lane on the fourth lap in order to fix a carburettor, many people considered he had lost one lap and should not be second. The second race was held in a temperature of almost 40 °Celsius (110°F). Johnny Cecotto was well in the lead when he suddenly went back into the pits: he was almost fainting, and decided not to take the risk of crashing and injuring himself at the very beginning of the season. Steve Baker inherited the lead and kept it until the chequered flag went up, followed by Gary Nixon, Pete McDonald, Pat Hennen, John Long and John Newbold. At the chequered flag, Gary Nixon was first declared the winner, then Steve Baker. Nixon lodged a protest, as did Newbold and Baker, and this was to result in a major problem.
The following round was run on the Jarama circuit, near Madrid. French rider Michel Rougerie won the event ahead of Victor Palomo and Patrick Pons. But many top riders did not attend. Then came Spa-Francorchamps, featuring in the calendar for the first time, and Gary Nixon won the day ahead of Dave Potter, Mick Grant, John Newbold and Brazilian Edmar Ferreira. The French round, held in Nogaro (in the south-west of France), was won by Christian Estrosi, followed by Philippe Coulon, Giacomo Agostini and Gary Nixon. Victor Palomo was seventh, but he triumphed at the next event in Silverstone, with Jack Findlay and Dave Potter in his wake. In Assen, in early September, Victor Palomo won again in front of Dutch rider Boet Van Dulmen and veteran Phil Read, still active and well up with the best. And the Spaniard finished the season in great style by winning his third consecutive event in Hockenheim, in front of his archrival Gary Nixon. The outcome of the season, however, was decided at the FIM Congress in Bruges. As it was impossible to come to a conclusion regarding the protests (did Steve Baker lose one lap while in the pits or not?), the San Carlos race results were declared cancelled – Gary Nixon would score neither 12 points – not enough – nor 15 points – just enough to beat Palomo and take the Prize. Victor Palomo was confirmed as winner of the 1976 Formula 750 FIM Prize.
At that same Congress, the Technical Commission once again reviewed the Series. The motorcycles were deemed to be too powerful, for the riders and for the equipment and accessories – essentially the tyres. Some suggestions were floated such as a reduction of the diameter of the intake ducts or even the cylinder capacity. But in the end no decision was taken except that the Formula 750 was “upgraded” from a FIM Prize to a real World Championship as from the 1977 season.
1977: A World Championship
At the Daytona event in early March, there were two serious problems: the tyres, which were not expected to last for 200 miles in one go, and the weather forecast, which was not really optimistic during the week before the event and even on the Sunday…
After many discussions, things were eventually settled by circumstances. The event would be run in two heats of 100 miles each, like the other events (Daytona was usually run in one race with fuel stops). There were three favourites to win the event: Steve Baker, Kenny Roberts and Johnny Cecotto. The first heat confirmed the tips for just two of them. Johnny Cecotto dropped out after four laps with an oil leak, but Steve Baker won the race, 28 seconds ahead of Kenny Roberts. Japanese rider Takazumi Katayama finished third. The second race was cancelled due to heavy rain.
At Imola, 39 riders were entered – 36 of them riding a Yamaha, and only 3 a Kawasaki. In the end 15 were classified after both heats. Kenny Roberts kept his cool and clinched two heat wins, ahead of Steve Baker, Giacomo Agostini and a young French rider called Christian Sarron. The next event was Jarama and Steve Baker carried the day – in front of Sarron. The American-Canadian rider was on track for the title. The French event was held on the racetrack of Dijon-Prenois in early June, and saw a win by Frenchman Christian Estrosi, with Swiss rider Philippe Coulon and Steve Baker in his wake. In July, the British round was held in Silverstone and once again Steve Baker dominated the competition. A young rider called Ron Haslam finished second in front of John Newbold. In August, the F-750 went to Austria for the first time to race on the very fast Salzburgring, but the situation remained pretty much unchanged. Baker was still in control and after a good fight against Giacomo Agostini he won the event ahead of the 15-time World Champion. Sarron was a constantly a well-placed third, in front of the future 500cc World Champion Marco Lucchinelli. The Belgian round was held in Zolder this time, and once again Steve Baker showed his form, ahead of a surprising Lucchinelli, and Katayama in third. Johnny Cecotto was invited to race and finished fourth. A week later in Assen, Lucchinelli made a show of his skills and clinched his first 750 victory, ahead of Baker, Sarron and Agostini.
A second United States round was run in California, on the Laguna Seca Raceway. Few European riders attended this event, and only one, Christian Sarron (eighth) scored points. The victory went to Skip Aksland in front of Steve Baker, Gregg Hansford (on a surprisingly punchy Kawasaki), Gene Romero, Dave Aldana, Mike Baldwin… The Kawasakis also put in really good performances a week later in Mosport (Canada) with factory riders Hansford and Yvon Duhamel taking first and second. Baker, Sarron and Baldwin make up the first five. The last event in Hockenheim took place without any riders from outside Europe. Steve Baker was already Champion, 76 points ahead of second-placed Christian Sarron. Giacomo Agostini won the German event, his only victory outside 350 and 500cc Grand Prix. With those 15 points, he achieved third place in the Championship. A lot of good riders took part in the Championship but each one in only very few rounds, except at the top level, with Baker (first) and Sarron (second).
At the Congress, the main subject was the inclusion (or not) of the F-750 in the Grand Prix events. Opinions were very much divided among the CCR members, the members of the Board, and also the organisers. A meeting had been held on July 15 in Geneva attended by CCR members and representatives of the FMNs/organisers. Some members of the Commission were worried about the calendar and considered that there were too many events, resulting in time-consuming and expensive travel for the riders.
At the next Spring Meeting in Geneva, in March 1978, opinions were still divided, with some delegates in favour of stopping the F-750 Championship, arguing it was a failure, while others defended it and its too-short life, claiming that it deserved another chance. Some people would also go on to say that the creation of the F-750 Series was premature, and others that it was the FIM’s best initiative in recent years.
One question is still worth asking: was the Series as it was in 1977 living up to the expectations that had surrounded its launch? If the target was a 750cc class based on REAL street bikes, the aim went astray almost from the beginning, as no one would consider a 750cc OW 31 Yamaha a real street bike, even if more than 200 units were manufactured each year. The cases of the two three-cylinder machines, the Suzuki T 750 and the Kawasaki H3 750, were never discussed but obviously their performances were not at the same level – with the exception of the real factory machines.
By the same token, the idea of including the F-750 in the Endurance Championship, albeit not really convincing in the end, was based on the same idea of a return to four-stroke racers based on street machines. The TT rules would be enforced for Endurance as from its first World Championship year in 1980, resulting in quite a lot of confusion. By that time the F-750 as raced in the previous years had already been forgotten.
1978: Cecotto and Roberts lock horns
Problems started before the beginning of the season. The tense relationship between the FIM and Daytona management led to the event being run as an international non-championship open race. Kenny Roberts won a straight 200 Miles event – only with pit stops – ahead of Johnny Cecotto.
The Championship really started in Imola at the beginning of April, with all the top riders present. This time Kenny Roberts was not having a good day and Johnny Cecotto took the win ahead of Steve Baker, Christian Sarron and Gregg Hansford. The same riders were still at the top. The following race, known as the Moto Journal 200, was held at the Paul Ricard circuit, and it was another win for the flying Venezuelan, who beat Kenny Roberts and Steve Baker, the Japanese rider Ikijuro Takai, and Frenchmen Patrick Pons and Christian Estrosi. At Brands Hatch, Roberts finally seized the advantage over Cecotto (second), with Patrick Pons ending in third place. On the very fast Salzburgring, Roberts and Cecotto went head to head again, and once again it was Roberts who emerged the winner, but Cecotto in second spot had enough points to stay in overall lead of the Championship. Gianfranco Bonera finished a very good third ahead of Pons and Sarron. The same scenario was repeated in Jarama, where Roberts won the event ahead of Cecotto, followed by Sarron, Estrosi and Bonera. Baker was only seventh; apparently his title the previous year was not enough to earn him full support from the factory, unlike Roberts and Cecotto.
Hockenheim was a disaster for Cecotto in the fight for the title. In the first race, the Venezuelan stopped after two laps with throttle problems. The conditions were wet and Christian Sarron went on to win the race, ahead of Hansford on his underpowered three-cylinder Kawasaki. Roberts was only eighth. The Californian won the second heat ahead of Sarron (who won the event), but Roberts’ second place overall brought him just one point behind Cecotto in the Championship.
Unfortunately for Roberts, fate slammed back at the next event in Nivelles (Belgium). In the first lap of the first heat, the chain tensioner broke. Roberts was out of the race, and scored no points in that round. Cecotto won the event (ahead of Hervé Moineau, Bonera and Sarron), and was back with a 16-point lead in the Championship. In Assen, the last round in Europe, Cecotto finished third overall – while Roberts did not score. The event was won by Bonera ahead of Katayama.
The last two events were held in the US and Canada. In Laguna Seca, Roberts won both heats and closed from 26 to 11 points behind Cecotto. Steve Baker and Mike Baldwin were 2nd and 3rd. Finally in Mosport, Mike Baldwin won in front of Kenny Roberts and Yvon Duhamel. With a sixth place, Johnny Cecotto was World Champion, five points ahead of Kenny Roberts. So ended a great battle between the two greatest riders of that year in this 750 class, which, considering this 1978 season, could have been one of the best series of events in the world. But for no very clear reason it did not. The 1979 season was to be the last…
1979: end of the story – and a French World Champion
For this very last season, the FIM decided to award Championship points for each heat effectively held – and not only for the sum of both heats in each event. A logical move, although a bit late in the day. Anyway the decision to stop the Series was taken and notified – turning down the presence of various top riders.
Things got started in Italy, on the Mugello circuit in early April. The first race was won by Christian Sarron, followed by Virginio Ferrari (on a XR 23 Suzuki – only four units of this bike were built but the homologation quantity requirement of 25 units had been dropped for this last season), Johnny Cecotto, Gregg Hansford and Patrick Pons. In the second race, Virginio Ferrari won his home race ahead of Cecotto, Japanese rider Sadao Asami, Switzerland’s Michel Frutschi, and Pons. Roberts was no longer present, busy defending his 500cc title. The second event was held in Brands Hatch, where Johnny Cecotto was on top form, winning both races in the grand manner, the first ahead of the surprising Finnish rider Markku Matikainen, Sarron, Hansford and Frutschi, the second to beat Mike Baldwin, Asami, Hansford and Frutschi. The French round was held again in Nogaro (the track in Rouen was the original venue but works on the circuit could not be carried out). The first heat saw a victory for Patrick Pons, ahead of Christian Estrosi and Gianfranco Bonera, while Greg Hansford won the second in front of Pons and Estrosi.
At the Paul Ricard, the Swiss Grand Prix saw a win by Michel Frutschi, followed by Johnny Cecotto and Sadao Asami. The Venezuelan Champion won the second heat in front of Asami and Pons, and was still in overall lead of the Championship despite his absence from Nogaro. The Austrian round was held on the Österreichring this time. Local rider Werner Nenning surprisingly won both heats, the first in front of Swiss rider Jacques Cornu and Patrick Pons, the second in front of Pons and Australian rider Gary Johnson. Results like this one could raise questions about the level of riders in this Championship, but also of about the Championship points system itself. The fact that top riders took part in only a few events but scored big points ahead of most regular riders gives rise to another question: was it really worth organizing what was supposed to be the top series - 750cc was the biggest cubic capacity and the fastest motorcycle at that time, as Endurance was a different kind of competition in those days - but racing on less prestigious tracks than the Grand Prix?
The answer was apparently already forthcoming and the last rounds of the 1979 series were to be the final draw, as 1980 would see World Championship status for Endurance as well as the development of the TT Formula Series. Another question is whether a TT Series was really a better idea than the F-750.
The riders left Europe for North America for the “usual” California and Ontario rounds. Mosport saw a win by Patrick Pons in the first heat and Michel Frutschi in the second heat followed by Pons. A week later in Laguna Seca, American riders made the show, headed by Kenny Roberts (two wins), Richard Schlachter (2nd and 4th), Dave Aldana (3rd and 5th), Gene Romero (second in the second heat), Randy Mamola (fifth in the first heat). Among the Europeans, Michel Frutschi was third in the second heat, and Patrick Pons fifth in the first.
After two races in the USA and Canada, the riders came back to Europe for the last three events – as the race in Spa had been cancelled. In Assen, local hero Boet Van Dulmen obtained the best results, winning the first heat and ending second in the other. Johnny Cecotto finished sixth in the first race and won the second. Gianfranco Bonera was second and fifth, Michel Frutschi third and fourth, and Will Hartog third in the second race, while Pons did not score points, but was back at the top in Hockenheim winning both races, taking the title with one event still to go. Frutschi scored one point and Cecotto none. The other riders on the podium were Sarron and Asami in the first heat, and Sarron and Roche in the second. Frutschi and Cecotto shared the victories and second places in the last event in Rijeka, Yugoslavia, while Pons, twice in the third place, was able to celebrate this last F-750 World title. Pastrick Pons was the first Frenchman to clinch a Road Racing World championship title. His riding skills were recognised by everyone but his career – and his life - came to a tragic end in 1980 following a crash during the 500cc GP race in Silverstone.
There appear to be two main reasons for the lack of a clear definition of the philosophy behind the F750 Series. Was it supposed to be a Grand Prix, a “true” road racing competition for prototypes, or a competition based on the large-production street motorcycle? This question is directly linked the definition of the 750 TZ OW 31, which was obviously a racing motorcycle produced on a large scale, as it was the case in those days. The philosophy of Yamaha – who in a way donned the mantle of the British single-cylinder manufacturers in providing racing bikes for privateers from 1970 onwards – was applied to the F-750, but curiously what worked in the 250cc and 350cc series failed when it came to the 750cc class. No other manufacturer followed the trend. Kawasaki concentrated on the 250 and 350cc classes which would become so successful between 1978 and 1982, and Suzuki built up its famous square-four 500cc. Not even the XR23 was produced in quantities of up to 25 units, and it raced only in 1979, when the Series was already dying and the 25 units minimum rule had been dropped. Suzuki was probably not interested – and the bike was quite a way short of perfection, according to the riders who raced with it, even with Ferrari’s win. The fact is, at that time, two-stroke technology was being developed for smaller capacity motorcycles, but slowly abandoned for bigger displacement engines, two reasons being the enormous fuel consumption and pollution problems. It was now obvious that the 750cc class and anything larger were destined to be four-stroke classes. Maybe the natural lifespan of the F- 750 could only coincide with that short period (from 1972 to 1979) when big two-stroke engines were dominant.
In 1976, the AMA Superbike started its career with four-stroke engine motorcycles, leading to the creation of the FIM Superbike World Championship in 1988. Production Series motorcycles, by then all four-stroke engines, were finally on the road to success.
1. Canadian rider Steve Baker won the first F-750 World Championship in 1977.
2. Johnny Cecotto: the Venezuelan star landed in the Grand Prix world in 1975 and immediately won the 350cc class.
3. Kenny Roberts lost his fight with Johnny Cecotto for the 750cc title in 1978 – but won his first 500cc title.
4. Australian rider Gregg Hansford was one of the top riders in the 750cc class, riding a factory 3-cylinder Kawasaki.
5. Spanish rider Victor Palomo won the 1976 F-750 FIM Prize after a battle with American Gary Nixon – thanks in part to the cancellation of the results of the Venezuelan round.
6. French rider Patrick Pons, F-750 World Champion in 1979.
Photos R. Loher/B. Jonzier