Yamaha switch was no fairytale for Agostini

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Tempting a certain suave World Champion to make the move from MV Agusta should have been enough to help Yamaha dominate the top flight of racing. But there was still work to be done to make its 500cc Grand Prix machine seriously competitive. VJMC’s Steve Cooper explains…

Following the triumphant first and third at the 1973 French GP, Yamaha went one better on the Salzburg track in Austria with Jarno and Hideo Kanaya taking the top two places – the OW19 was definitely making its mark!

Agostini 1973

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Things were looking well starred when Saarinen was side-lined by a broken drive chain and Kanaya found his crankshaft had snapped in two. Because of safety concerns, Yamaha decided to boycott the next round of the championship at the Isle of Man TT.

In reality, this had little impact on the world ranking as most of the big names also chose to swerve the event for similar reasons. Next up was the Monza circuit in Italy which should have favoured the Yamaha riders, but it all went tragically wrong.

In the preceding race, Jarno was hit when Renzo Passolini’s Harley-Davidson crashed into the trackside barriers. Both riders died, leaving the world of GP racing so much the poorer. Yamaha withdrew for the rest of the season as a mark of respect to their top rider.

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Even to this day those that witnessed Jarno Saarinen on the OW19 believe he was Yamaha’s premier class winner in the making. The world of motorcycling was robbed of one of its greatest potential stars.

Despite pulling factory support, Yamaha knew it had to carry on if it wanted to take the premier title, and it needed a new rider. Tensions within the MV Agusta team between No.1 Giacomo Agostini and No.2 Phil Read had been bubbling away for a while. The Italian Grand Master was also getting very frustrated with the lack of development at MV.

Rod Gould, 250 World Champion on a Yamaha in 1970, was employed by the European arm of the company in various rolls and brokered a deal that saw MV’s top man sign on the dotted line for the Japanese firm for the 1974 season. Agostini went immediately to Japan to try out the new OW20. Sometime in amongst all this, Yamaha had also signed up Tepi Lansivouri as No.1 rider to take over from his late fellow countryman Saarinen.

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Internal politics kicked off before the first race of the season with Finn suddenly finding himself playing second fiddle to Ago!

The new bike differed significantly from the OW19 in that it ran a mono-shock rear end developed from the factory’s YZ250 motocross machine. Agostini was well regarded for his ability to set up and develop a bike and with the Japanese mechanics hanging on the multiple world champion’s every world the prototype OW20 was massively reworked.

Moving the engine further forward in the frame put more weight on the front wheel, and lengthening the swing arm improved stability. Further developments of the bike met with resistance from the team managers but such was Agostini’s analytical ability that he soon convinced even the most sceptical senior people at Yamaha he knew exactly what was needed to fine tune the bike.

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If Yamaha, Agostini and Lansivouri were hoping for a fairytale debut, they would all be sorely disappointed. The Italian experienced gearbox bearing failure ran out of fuel and was continually hounded by the MV Agustas he’d walked away from, only taking two wins over the entire season. The Finn took a fair time to acclimatise to the OW and only managed one win.

Yamaha was still on a learning curve; the OW20 was only the one iterative step beyond the OW19 and still not a potential world-beater.

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