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History of Individual Motocross World Championships

01/06/10 - 11:09

The history of Motocross begins in the early 20th century when the first events took place in Great Britain, specifically during the 20s when the first “scrambles” were held, different from the Trials (obstacle crossing) and Reliability: the idea was off-road speeding, and the winner was the first crossing the finish line. The first known event was held in Surrey in 1924. The name Motocross, mixture of motorcycle and cross-country, from Belgian origin, would come up later.

Once the Second World War ended the sport started to grow from a national to an international level with the very first team event known as Motocross des Nations, raced with 500cc machines and taking place in 1947 in the Netherlands. Although the Belgian rider Auguste Mingels was the individual winner, the team classification prevailed and Great Britain claimed the first Trophy. From then on this special event was held regularly every year.

In the early 50s, Individual Motocross racing started to grow fast, with many events held in various countries. This led the FIM to introduce a European Championship in 1952. The subject had been studied for a couple of years; the Belgian Federation made the first proposal at the Milan Congress at the end of November 1950. After a long discussion it was decided to …postpone the decision to the following year in Paris. It was then decided that four races would count towards the Championship, no manufacturer classification (only as of 1969), the minimum length of the race should be 40 km if there was qualification session, and 45 km if there was not any. The maximum cubic capacity was 500cc.

The series counted with events in Imola (Italy), Dodington Park (Great Britain), Namur (Belgium), Ettelbruck (Luxembourg), Saxtorp (Sweden) and Montreuil (France). The four best results were taken into account. Each event counted two heats and a final, the classification followed the same points scale as in Road Racing (8, 6, 4, 3, 2, 1). The winner was Belgian Victor Leloup riding a FN machine. He was followed by fellow countryman Auguste Mingels, British rider John Avery and two more Belgians, Marcel Cox and Nic Jansen. Worth to be noted, some reports mention at the British round the presence of an American rider, a certain Bud Ekins…

August Mingels won this European Championship in 1953 and 1954, also riding a Belgian FN motorcycle. The number of rounds went from 6 to 8 (five counting). Another Belgian, René Baeten, finished second in both years. British riders were expected to fight for this title, as they were dominating the Motocross des Nations, for example John Draper and Leslie Archer. But another country was also reaching the top in Motocross – in both individual and team – at that time: Sweden. Bill Nilsson won his first Motocross in 1954 in his own country. In 1955 it was the turn of John Draper to clinch the title, riding a BSA, with only two wins but a constant regular performance. He was followed by Leslie Archer (Norton), winner of four out of nine GPs of 1956, ahead of John Draper and Nic Jansen, followed by two Swedes, Sten Lundin and Bill Nilsson. At the end of the season, the FIM decided to upgrade this 500cc Championship from European to World status, and to create a European Cup for the 250cc class in the following year.

From European to World Championship

1957 winner of the first Motocross World Championship was Swedish Bill Nilsson riding an AJS. It was announcing a period during which three nations would dominate Motocross: Great Britain, Belgium and Sweden. The first European Cup for 250cc motorcycles was created to match the popularity of this upcoming discipline. This Cup lasted only two years, the first one won by German rider Fritz Betzelbacher (Maïco) and the second by Czech Jaromir Cizek (Jawa) before becoming a European Championship in 1959.

The Belgian rider René Baeten (FN) finally won the 500cc World Championship in 1958 after finishing second twice. The Swedish riders - riding Swedish made motorcycles - clinched both individual titles in 1959: Sten Lundin on a Monark in the 500cc, and Rolf Tibblin on a Husqvarna in the 250cc. In 1960, Bill Nilsson (Husqvarna) was back at the top in the 500cc while in the 250cc Dave Bickers took the two stroke Greeves to victory. – which he did again in 1961, while Sten Lundin, this time on a Lito (also a Swedish motorcycle) took back the 500cc World title. In this year 1961 was held the first Trophée des Nations (with 250cc machines), and in 1962 the 250cc Series became a World Championship. The first 250cc World Champion was the legendary Husqvarna rider Torsten Hallman – another Swede. He won the title for two consecutive years, while his fellow countryman Rolf Tibblin was taking both 500cc titles, also riding a Husqvarna. Great Britain saved the Trophée des Nations in 62 and the Motocross des Nations in 63 from the Swedish dominance. But in 1964 things changed. An upcoming talent on the Motocross scenery suddenly hit the records: Joel Robert from Belgium steered his CZ to victory collecting the first of six titles - a record which would remain unbeaten until 2002. In the 500cc the last British reaction came up thanks to Jeff Smith and his BSA clinching the title in 64 – taking the title from Tibblin at the very last race - and 65 – ahead of a certain Paul Friedrichs who was about to make himself known - but it was the swan song for representatives of a declining empire. The British 4-stroke, heavy machines, originally made for the road, were about to give way definitely – and the riders too.

Politically the mid-sixties were the edge of the Cold War, and in the sport there was also a kind of confrontation for prestige between sportsmen from the Western and Eastern countries. The first one to get an Eastern country flag on the top was a Russian rider – or Soviet, as they called themselves until 1989. Viktor Arbekov, onboard a factory CZ, won the series, which was quite a surprise against Joel Robert and Dave Bickers. Then Torsten Hallman struck back twice in a row and got the 66 and 67 titles just ahead of Joel Robert. But time for the Belgian was coming… Robert would win five consecutive 250cc World Titles from 1968 until 1972, the year of birth of his countryman Stefan Everts, the man who would break all the records 30 years later. Robert’s dominance was total until 1972, exactly as the one of Giacomo Agostini at the same time, in the Road Racing Grand Prix…In the 500cc, the East German Paul Friedrichs, also CZ factory rider, would conquer three consecutive titles (66, 67 and 68). Another Belgian was showing up at the horizon who would also become a world-known figure until today: Roger de Coster.

In 1968, Swedish rider Olle Petterson was the first one to use a new machine in the World Championship from a new country in the 250cc class. After having invaded the Road Racing Grand Prix, the Japanese manufacturers were preparing their landing in Motocross: Suzuki, which had been preceded by Honda and Yamaha in Road Racing, was the first one to enter the scene. Petterson’s best results were two second places, in Belgium behind Sylvain Geboers, and in the Netherlands behind Joel Robert. It was the first signal of an invasion. In 1969 Petterson was also the only one in the 250cc and finished third behind Joel Robert and Sylvain Geboers – both still on factory CZ. But it was the turning point. In 1970 there were three yellow bikes in the 250cc – Joel Robert was the first Motocross World Champion on a Japanese motorcycle, Sylvain Geboers was second, they had four victories each. Roger de Coster still on a CZ, finished third ahead of the Finn Heikki Mikkola riding a Husqvarna. The third Suzuki, serving as testing machine in the hands of Petterson, finished in seventh place. In the 500cc, the Swedes – riders and machines – still dominated: Aberg won his second title ahead of Kring and Jonsson, Hammargren was fifth, all on Husqvarna, of course.

In the 250cc class, Joel Robert took two more World titles with his common facility – both times ahead of Hakan Andersson and Sylvain Geboers. In August 1972, after four consecutive wins which ensured the title for him, he took part in the 500cc Belgian Grand Prix in Namur, and bended his knee. It was the end of a brilliant career, Joel would not win anymore races nor titles as a rider. Many years later he would be team manager of a Belgian team back to the top in the Motocross des Nations, but this is another story.

The 500cc Suzuki would come in 1971 in the hands of Roger de Coster, who would clinch the first of his five titles…a Series only interrupted in 1974 by the “Flying Finn” Heikki Mikkola and his Husqvarna. In 71, the runner-up, and strongest opponent, was Ake Jonsson on the Husqvarna, but in 1972 De Coster finished a long way ahead of veteran Paul Friedrichs still on a CZ. The first Yamaha was on the track, the rider was another Belgian, the tall Jaak Van Velthoven.

In 1973, there were some changes in the rules, particularly the introduction of minimum weights for the motorcycles and the two heats counting points towards the Championship – no longer one result only. In the 500cc, Roger de Coster still was the only one riding a Suzuki for his third title, while Yamaha gave out big bore motorcycles to various riders, such as the Husqvarna, Maïco, CZ brands did. One Kawasaki appears also in the classification in the hands of a certain Brad Lackey.
In the 250cc, Yamaha struck back with its YZ 250 equipped with the Cantilever rear suspension, which the Swede Hakan Andersson took to its first title. German Adolf Weil, riding a Maïco, was the strongest opponent, even beating Mikkola for second place. Swede Thorleif Hansen took his new Kawasaki to fourth place, ahead of a trio of riders who would become known for different reasons: Soviet rider Guennady Moissev (KTM), Czech rider Jaroslav Falta (CZ) and US rider Jim Pomeroy (Bultaco).

In 1974 Heikki Mikkola went to the 500cc class and succeeded: in the first three Grand Prix, he won five heats against one only for Roger de Coster. The Finn would maintain his advantage until the end. A second Suzuki finally arrived, for the Dutch rider Gerrit Wolsink who finished in fourth, behind Adolf Weil. In the 250cc, the fight between Moisseev, Falta and Harry Everts ends with the title going to the Russian, as Falta was penalised with one minute after the finish of the second race of the last Grand Prix for a jumped start.

In 1973, the 125cc class was launched as a European Championship which was won for two consecutive years by Belgian André Malherbe on a Zündapp. In 1975 it became a World Championship, which was kind of an exclusive Championship for Suzuki and in which almost all riders’ titles were for Belgians. By doing so, Suzuki became the first manufacturer to ever claim a title in all three classes and clinched ten consecutive titles in the 125cc. The first three went to Gaston Rahier, one to the Japanese Akira Watanabe, three to Harry Everts – the last one in 1981, two to Eric Geboers and one to Michele Rinaldi until finally the Finn Pekka Vehkonen reached the title riding a Cagiva in 1985.

In 1975 the two other titles also went to Belgian riders. Roger de Coster got his 500cc title back and the 250cc title finally went to Harry Everts, riding a Puch, ahead of Andersson’s Yamaha. As Heikki Mikkola failed in his second try to get the 500cc title, he went back to the 250cc class in 1976 and beat Moisseev, while in the 500cc De Coster and Wolsink finished first and second, the Belgian beating the Dutch by a few points. The following year, Mikkola went back again to the 500cc and this time, riding a Yamaha, managed to beat De Coster and Wolsink. In fourth place appeared Brad Lackey riding a Honda…In the 250cc Guennady Moisseev clinched his second title, this time without any discussion, ahead of Kavinov and Malherbe. It was a triple KTM. In 1978, Moisseeev made it again and took his third 250cc World title, at the end of a long battle against Thorleif Hansen. At the United States Grand Prix, the local riders started to win regularly, the American motocross was in progress. In the 500cc class, Mikkola clinched his third title way ahead of Lackey and De Coster.

The 1979 season came next. In the 250cc, the Swede Hakan Carlqvist took the title on a Husqvarna while in the 500cc Honda finally arrived with big means: Graham Noyce and André Malherbe were factory riders in charge of capturing the title, facing Wolsink and De Coster (Suzuki), Lackey (Kawasaki) and Mikkola (Yamaha). A winning bet: Noyce won the title but the battle was hard. The 500cc class was attracting the attention of everyone, the factories were investing more and more, but for how much time?

Eighties: the turning point

Motocross was developing very quickly, the manufacturers were heavily present, not only in the 500cc but also in the other classes, mainly Suzuki. Malherbe (80, 81 and 84), Lackey (82), Carlqvist (83) won titles which appear today of gold but past time.

However, in the 250cc, a young Georges Jobé took the title in 1980. Everybody was foreseeing a great future, but injuries made him lose the 1981 title against Brit Neil Hudson and the 1982 one against American Danny Laporte – who was the first American World Champion, one week before Brad Lackey in the 500cc class. In 1983 Jobé took the 250 title back and went to the 500cc. End 1983, an earthquake shook the world of Motocross: Suzuki announced its withdrawal from the 500cc and the other companies reduced their budget. The best riders managed to find a new ride, but the trend was on. The British Dave Thorpe came to complete a big Honda team. Between 1985 and 1992, it claimed all 500cc World titles: Thorpe and Georges Jobé each earned three. Eric Geboers won another two, and he was the first rider to become World Champion in the three solo classes, after his title in the 250cc in 1987: he was then called Mr 875. Then the Austrian Heinz Kinigadner took the 250cc title for KTM twice, in 84 and 85, followed by French Jacky Vimond, Eric Geboers whom we just mentioned, John Van de Berk and Jean-Michel Bayle, both respectively 250cc Champions after a title in the125cc. American riders Trampas Parker and Donnie Schmitt followed in the 125cc, then in the 250cc, and the Italian Alessandro Puzar in the 250cc then in 1995 the 125cc after Dutch Pedro Tragter and American Bob Moore.

But at the beginning of the 90s the 500cc class was declining more and more. The manufacturers concentrated their (reduced) investments in the 250cc class (except maybe the Europeans). And the 250cc became the top class: all the first riders in the classification were riders supported by the factories. The 90s in the world of Motocross started with the first title in the career of Stefan Everts, in the 125cc class in 1991. He was followed by South African Greg Albertyn who took one 125cc and two 250cc World Titles. Then Stefan Everts started his series of titles in the 250cc by winning three consecutive times (95, 96 and 97). French rider Sebastien Tortelli also passed by the 125cc World Championship, which he won in 1996, before winning in 250cc in 1998. Fellow countryman Frederic Bolley succeeded to Tortelli in 1999 and 2000 winning two consecutive 250cc titles. The French riders were in good form as Mickael Pichon took the next two titles in the 250cc class, in 2001 and 2002, while Italian Alessio “Chicco” Chiodi dominated the 125cc Championship for three consecutive years from 1997 until 1999, then followed as of 2000 by South African Grant Langston, British Jamie Dobb and Frenchman Mickael Maschio.

With the lack of interest from the Japanese manufacturers in the 500cc class, it was time for European brands to take over: Jacky Martens was the first one winning a 500cc title riding a 4 stroke machine (Husqvarna) since Jeff Smith on his BSA in 1965. In this class, with the exceptions of Marcus Hansson in 94 – first Swede to become 500cc World Champion since Aberg – on a Honda and New-Zealander Shayne King in 96 on a KTM – all World Champions would be riding a 4 stroke machines. This would also be the case in the 250cc and 125cc as from 2003. In the bigger class came Joel Smets (three titles on a Husaberg and two on a KTM), Bartolini (one) and Everts (two) on a Yamaha until 2003.

Four stroke engines take over

2003 was the first time in the history of Motocross World Championship that all three classes had World Champions riding 4-stroke machines. In 2004 the classes were then renamed. The 125cc was called MX2, as most machines were 250cc 4-stroke bikes - 2-stroke 125cc were still allowed. The 250cc class was renamed MX1 hosting 450cc four stroke machines beside 250cc 2-stroke, as the former 500cc class became an open class, the MX3 – with the cubic capacity limited to 650cc.
This decade, though, will be remembered for the dominance of Stefan Everts. After two seasons that had been ruined by injuries, the Belgian clinched four consecutive titles in the MX1 class from 2003 to 2006 and took his 10th World title and his 101st GP victory in that last year of professional racing before retiring and becoming Team Manager for the factory KTM Motocross Team. After two years the Belgian celebrated the first World title as a team manager with Tyla Rattray winning the MX2 World Championship in 2008.

The last three seasons in the MX1 saw Steve Ramon, David Philippaerts and Antonio Cairoli as new World Champions. In the MX2 the names of Ben Townley, Antonio Cairoli (twice), Christophe Pourcel, Tyla Rattray and Marvin Musquin are on the list of Champions, while in the MX3 Yves Demaria (three times), Sven Breugelmans (two) and Pierre-Alexandre Renêt complete the list of World Champions.

Last but not least, it is almost 100 years after the origins of such an established sport as Motocross which has now included a Women’s World Championship in 2008 with the first Women’s World Champion being French Livia Lancelot, succeeded by German Stephanie Laier. This series started in 2005 as World Cup (winners were Stephanie Laier in 2005 and Katherine Prumm in 2006 and 2007) to be promoted to the World Championship status in 2008. Moreover a Veterans’ World Cup has been created in 2006.

Marc Pétrier

Photos FIM Archives (Hallman, Friedrichs: collection C. Lavery)

Leloup:
The beginning of the Belgian legacy: Victor Leloup won the first ever 500cc European Motocross Championship in 1952, riding a FN.

Baeten:
Runner-up behind his country-man Auguste Mingels in 1953 and 1954 and behind Swede Bill NIlsson in 1957, Belgian René Baeten finally clinched the Motocross World Championship crown in 1958.

Hallman:
Swedish riders were on top of the game since the late 50s. Torsten Hallman won four 250cc World titles (1962, 1963, 1966 and 1967), all on Husqvarna.

Robert:
Belgian Joel Robert won his first 250cc World Championship in 1964 at the then incredible young age of 20. He then added five more in a row from 1968 to 1972. He was the first rider to win a Motocross World title for a Japanese manufacturer (Suzuki - 1970). His record six World titles stood fort many years, beaten only by Stefan Everts in 2003.

Friedrichs:
East German rider Paul Friedrichs dominated the 500cc class with his CZ from 1966 to 1968. Two-stroke engines would rule the class until 1993.

Mikkola / De Coster:
The "Iron Men from Europe": 2 legends from the 70s: Belgian Roger De Coster (right) won five 500cc World Championships (71, 72, 73, 75 and 76), but had to fight hard against the “Flying Finn” Heikki Mikkola (left), who grabbed the 500cc Motocross crown in 1974, 77 and 78. The Finn also won the 250cc World title in 1976 and was the first rider to win titles in two classes.

Malherbe-Jobé:
Two Belgian riders who put their marks on the Motocross scene of the 80s : the flamboyant André Malherbe (left), who won the first two 125cc European Championships in 1973 and 74 and ragged up the 500cc title in 1980, 1981 and 1984 and stubborn Georges Jobé (right) who won the 250cc titles in 1980 and 1983, and the 500cc in 1987, 1991 and 1992.

Stefan Everts:
Although the first rider to have won titles in the three classes is Eric Geboers, Stefan Everts won one title in the 125cc class (91), three in the 250cc (95, 96, 97), then added two in the 500cc (2001 and 2002), followed by another four in the 250/MX1 (2003 – 2006). Record holder of a total of 10 World titles and 101 GP wins, he is the man of all Motocross World records. And if we add the four titles of his father Harry (one in the 250cc/'75 and three in the 125cc/'79, '80, '81), there are 14 World titles in the family… Oh, their nationality? As George Clooney would say: "From Belgium, where else?"


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