Formula 750. When the big guns came out
Part two of Phil Wain’s appreciation of the big class in the 1970s that drew big crowds, big names and big money. Nothing small about the Formula 750s or the superstars who enjoyed them.
In the previous issue we told you the story of how the 750 class began and evolved into a class that drew big names, big races and big outcomes. Here’s the continuing story of the 3/4litre class and how the 750s got its first world champion.
1977 – Baker becomes the first 750 world champion
The rules come under scrutiny once again at the FIM’S annual conference with the 750s deemed too powerful for both the riders and the accessories, primarily the tyres. Various ideas were floated around but in the end no changes were made, with the exception that the Formula 750 was upgraded, gaining full World Championship status from the 1977 season onwards. The season again got underway at Daytona, where the durability of the tyres and the weather were of major concern to everyone. A decision was made to run the event as two 100-mile heats and the three clear favourites were all Yamaha mounted – Steve Baker, Johnny Cecotto and Kenny Roberts. The first 100-mile heat saw Cecotto drop out with an oil leak after just four laps and it was Baker who romped to victory some 28sec clear of Roberts, with Takazumi Katayama giving Yamaha a clean sweep of the top three. The expected bad weather then appeared and the second heat was cancelled. Yamahas dominated the field at Imola, with 36 of the 39 entries on the TZ750, the remaining three on Kawasakis and Roberts was the star performer, winning both heats ahead of Baker, Agostini and the young Frenchman Christian Sarron. Baker then claimed his second win of the season at Jarama, with Sarron again impressing in second place and the American was making a real charge for the title. He had to settle for third place at Dijon-prenois though, as Estrosi grabbed the victory once more. Round five saw the riders head to Brands Hatch in July, where Baker dominated the event, joined on the podium by British riders Ron Haslam and Newbold, and round six saw a similar outcome at the fast Salzburgring, visited by the 750cc calendar for the first time. Baker got his fourth win, this time from Agostini and Sarron. Zolder in Belgium was the next venue and Baker again dominated proceedings ahead of Marco Lucchinelli and Sarron and a week later at Assen, rising star Lucchinelli clinched his first 750cc victory ahead of Baker, Sarron and Agostini. A second United States round was run in California, at Laguna Seca, but few European riders attended the event, and only one, Sarron (eighth), scored any points. The victory
went to Skip Aksland in front of Baker and Gregg Hansford on a rapid Kawasaki and the Australian went on to take victory a week later at Mosport in Canada, with the similarly-mounted Yvon Duhamel in second. Baker continued to rack up the points in third place and his dominance of the season could be seen in the final points standings, as he ended some 76 points clear of Sarron, the runner-up. Agostini won the final round at Hockenheim and the 15 points saw him clinch third place overall. A lot of top riders had competed in the first 750cc World Championship, but many of them only competed in selected rounds and at the next FIM Congress a discussion took place as to whether or not to include the 750cc races at the Grand Prix events. Opinions were very much divided among the members, with concerns about the calendar and the number of events, resulting in timeconsuming 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 750cc Championship, arguing it was a failure, while others defended it, claiming that it deserved another chance. Some also argued that the creation of the F-750 Series was premature, while others said that it was the FIM’S best initiative in recent years.
Championship positions 1 Steve Baker (Yamaha) 131pts 2 Christian Sarron (Yamaha) 55 3 Giacomo Agostini (Yamaha) 45
1978 – Cecotto and Roberts do battle on Yamahas
Roberts arrived in Europe full-time in 1978 and while the 500cc World Championship was his priority, he was determined to have a good go at the 750cc and 250cc titles as well. With fellow Yamaha rider Cecotto sacrificing the 350cc class for the 500cc and 750cc Championships, the scene was set. The relationship between the FIM and Daytona management had broken down and so it was Imola that hosted the first round of the season, with Cecotto taking the win from Baker, Sarron and Hansford and the Venezuelan made it two from two with victory at Paul Ricard as well. Roberts got his first points on the board in second place, with Baker in third. Roberts stopped Cecotto’s winning run at Brands Hatch but a second place for the latter, this time ahead of Pons, extended his title lead. Kenny was making a charge though and he was victorious at both Österreichring and Jarama and although Cecotto was second at each race, his lead was cut down to nine points. Gianfranco Bonera and Sarron took third in Austria and Spain respectively, but Baker’s title defence was evaporating rapidly. Despite winning the title the year before, he had lost full factory support from Yamaha. Cecotto’s first DNF of the season came next time out at a wet Hockenheim when a sticking throttle forced him out early on and Sarron took his first win of the season from an impressive Bonera, Hansford and Roberts, who closed to within one point of Cecotto. However, the American’s challenge faltered at Zolder when he retired on the first lap with a broken chain tensioner and Cecotto took full advantage, claiming maximum points ahead of Frenchman Herve Moineau and Bonera, his lead now back up to 16 points. This lead increased to 26 after the Dutch round at Assen when Roberts again failed to score, this time due to a broken steering damper with third place for Cecotto, behind Bonera and Katayama, putting him firmly in the driving seat. The last two events were held in the US and Canada respectively and at Laguna Seca, Roberts won, ahead of Baker and Mike Baldwin, to show it wasn’t over just yet and with Cecotto’s gear lever snapping, he managed to bring the gap back down to 11 points. Baldwin demonstrated his potential at Mosport with a win ahead of Roberts and Duhamel but sixth place was enough for Cecotto to become world champion, five points ahead of Roberts. It had been an excellent year for the 750cc World Championship with full grids, top class riders and close racing throughout the season.
Championship positions 1 Johnny Cecotto (Yamaha) 97pts 2 Kenny Roberts (Yamaha) 92 3 Christian Sarron (Yamaha) 55
1979 – the final year and a French world champion
1979 would prove to the final year of the 750cc World Championship and the FIM finally decided to award championship points for each heat held and not for the aggregate result. It was a logical move but one that certainly should have happened a lot earlier. The homologation rules were finally abandoned too, but with the FIM announcing that the series was to be stopped, many riders decided not to contest the championship, Roberts being one of them. It was still a superb year of racing though, and Mugello in Italy got the season underway, where Sarron won the first race from Virginio Ferrari on an XR23 Suzuki, Cecotto, Hansford and Pons. Ferrari got the verdict in the second race ahead of Cecotto, Japanese rider Sadao Asami and Switzerland’s Michel Frutschi to take 27 points, but he didn’t score a point again all season, preferring instead to focus on the 500cc Championship. The second event was held at Brands Hatch where Cecotto was on top form, winning both races, the first from the surprise package of Finnish rider Markku Matikainen and the second from Baldwin and the impressive Asami. It gave him an early 24-point lead over Sarron as the series headed to France, a late switch seeing the action take place at Nogaro instead of Rouen. Cecotto was absent after being injured at the Austrian Grand Prix while Sarron was struggling with a back injury sustained in the second race at Brands. The end result was that Pons took first and second to move up to third overall in the title chase as Hansford, the victor in the second race, jumped up to third. France also played host to round four, the
Paul Ricard circuit the venue for the Swiss round and Frutschi finally got his first race win ahead of a fit-again Cecotto and Asami. The reigning 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, his advantage over new second-placed rider Frutschi now 36 points. Onto the Österreichring and local rider Werner Nenning upset the established guard by winning both heats, the first in front of Swiss rider Jacques Cornu and Pons, the second in front of Pons and Australian rider Greg Johnson. The results raised questions about the level of riders in the championship, but also of about the points system itself. The fact that top riders took part in only a few events but scored big points ahead of most regular riders also asked another question about the suitability of some of the, arguably, less prestigious circuits that were being used. The riders then left Europe for the North American rounds and Mosport saw a win by Pons in the first heat and Frutschi in the second, results that saw the Frenchman move into the championship lead for the first time. A week later in Laguna Seca, US riders dominated the results, headed by Roberts (two wins), Richard Schlachter (second and fourth) and Dave Aldana (third and fifth). Frutschi was the best of the Europeans, scoring a total of 15 points. The series returned to Europe for the last three rounds and at Assen, local hero Boet van Dulmen obtained the best results, winning the first heat and ending second in the other, which was won by Cecotto. Pons was out of luck, his gearbox breaking in the first heat and then crashing in the second and it was Cecotto who now led the way once more on 99 points, 10 ahead of Frutschi. Pons was a point further back in third. Pons rallied at the penultimate round at Hockenheim, winning both heats to claim the maximum 30 points and the meeting ultimately determined the outcome of the title as both Frutschi and Cecotto were stopped by the failure of experimental Michelin tyres, the duo scoring just one point between them. Pons only needed one point at the final round at Rijeka, Yugoslavia and while Cecotto and Frutschi shared the race wins, a brace of thirds meant the Frenchman won the final 750cc World Championship by 22 points with Frutschi in second.
Championship positions 1 Patrick Pons (Yamaha) 154pts 2 Michel Frutschi (Yamaha) 132 3 Johnny Cecotto (Yamaha) 126
By the late 1970s, four-stroke racing was beginning to come to the fore in some countries and the FIM was clearly looking to enhance both the Endurance and Formula One/two world championships, although whether these were better than the Formula 750 championship was a different matter altogether. There appear to be two main reasons for the lack of a clear definition of the philosophy behind the Formula 750 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 aimed at the Yamaha OW 31, which was obviously a racing motorcycle produced on a large scale. Yamaha’s philosophy of providing racing bikes for privateers was applied to F750, but curiously what worked in the 250cc and 350cc series failed when it came to the 750cc class. None of the other manufacturers followed the trend. Kawasaki concentrated on the 250cc and 350cc classes, which would become so successful between 1978 and 1982, and Suzuki built up its famous square-four 500cc, their XR23 being quite a way short of perfection, according to the riders who raced it, even with Ferrari’s win. The fact is, at that time, two-stroke technology was being developed for smaller capacity motorcycles and it was now obvious that the 750cc class and anything larger was destined to be four-stroke classes. Maybe the natural lifespan of the F750 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, and after the World Formula One Championship had appeared, the FIM went on to create the Superbike World Championship in 1988.
Steve Baker, Yamaha, 1977.
The 750s get underway at Laguna Seca. Aksland wins from Baker and Hansford. Bouncing Bob does his bouncing. Stylish.
Johnny Cecotto o, 1978. Christian Sarron.
Roberts, Aksland, Baker, Singleton etc, at Daytona.
Virginio Ferrari wins in 1979.