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Noyes' Notebook - Men Who Stare At GOATs

PROGRAMMING NOTE: The 2012 MotoGP round from Jerez, Spain will air LIVE on SPEED on Sunday, April 29 at 8:00am ET. Qualifying will air LIVE all season long on SPEED2.

Every year at one time or another the question arises again: Who is the GOAT -- the greatest of all time?

It is an impossible question. Especially impossible for fans so young they never saw Eddie Lawson win any of his 31 Grands Prix, Roberts spinning the Goodyear on his crossed-up Yamaha as if Jarama were Ascot, Spencer doing the 250-500 double, Doohan winning five championships in a row… not to mention the vast majority who never saw Agostini against Hailwood, Read against Agostini, and the ever bigger majority who never saw Duke on the Gilera and the Manx Norton or Surtees on two wheels (I only saw Surtees drive once in F1). There are young fans who don’t even remember 'the American Years' from 1978 through 1993 when Japanese factory bosses still kept an eye on AMA dirt tracks looking for the next Roberts.

I saw my first GP at Barcelona in 1968. The late and great Jack Findlay got the holeshot on his old Matchless (he raced the same bike for five years) and led the opening laps until Agostini came past on the howling MV at tree-tunneled Montjuich Park. That same day a Spaniard, a little guy with glasses, Salvador Cañellas, gave Spain its first GP win on a Bultaco TSS single in 125 after Phil Read and Bill Ivy blew up their V4 Yamahas.

I thought the celebrations of leaping, crying joy in the Bultaco pit was rather extreme. I didn’t know it was Spain’s first win and I didn’t have a clue as to just how much Spain loved roadracing. At that time GP racing was dominated by Italian and British riders with Spanish riders limited to what the Brits in the media center referred to as “the tiddler classes.”

Now in 2012 Spain has become the leading motorcycling nation as regards GP talent while Ducati struggles to regain some parity with Honda and Yamaha. In Qatar Spanish riders won all three places and took five of nine podium places. In 2010 Spanish riders finished first and second in all three GP classes! Today Spain is the only country whose fans actually expect to have a good chance of winning all three classes -- it’s called a “triplete” in Spanish. But the most popular rider in Spain is probably still Valentino Rossi.

The Italian’s popularity is so great that it is said that whereas Spanish riders have five home races (the four Spanish rounds plus Portugal where a large part of the crowd comes from Spain), Rossi has 18 home races.

But is he the GOAT?

In a very clever TV interview, translated and posted on GPone.com, Valentino, as if he were just a TV guy in a suit, interviewed his own dad, former GP winner Graziano Rossi, on the subject of his son’s (his own) future. Great stuff. Graziano opined that Vale will be around another four or five years, winning with Ducati in MotoGP before he goes to Superbike to have a final showdown with Max Biaggi. (Max will have to keep racing until he is 45 or so for this to happen.)

Personally, I can’t see Rossi leaving Ducati without at least winning another few races, and it is hard to imagine him going to SBK unless he wins at least one more title in MotoGP. But the reason we have the races is to answer those questions. As far as Rossi’s place in current history, here, for the hell of it, is what the numbers seem to say.

Dorna's statistician, Dr. Martin Raines, divides GP history into two periods: “The Classic Era” from 1949 through the 1975 season, and “The Modern Era” beginning in 1976 and continuing to the present day.

This division is based on the fact that the era of four-stroke domination ended in 1975 when Giacomo Agostini (Yamaha) defeated Phil Read (MV Agusta) in a season-long battle. Read scored more points than Agostini (96 to 84) but, under the points rule of the day, only half the races plus one counted toward the title and, therefore, on the basis of each rider’s best 6 results from ten races, Agostini on the Yamaha won 84 to 76. In 1976 MV no longer ran a true factory team, but did loan their 500s and 350s to Agostini who ran his own team. 'Ago' scored two wins that season with the MV, one in each class, but they were 'sayonara wins.' There would not be another 500 win or podium or even point by a four stroke (in spite of Honda’s best efforts with the oval-piston NR500 V4 during their 1979-1980 attempt) until the premier class was renamed MotoGP and 990cc four strokes were allowed to compete with 500cc two strokes in 2002 and 2003. As of 2004 two strokes were banned.

So, record-by-record, here is where Rossi stands in the GOAT wars:

GP World Championship Titles in All Classes (1949 to Present)

1.Giacomo Agostini 15
2. Ángel Nieto 13
3. Mike Hailwood 9
Valentino Rossi 9
Carlo Ubbiali 9
6. John Surtees 7
Phil Read 7
8. Geoff Duke 6
Jim Redman 6
10. Mick Doohan 5
Anton Mang 5

Comment: This one will probably never be broken unless riders once again begin to race in more than a single class per season. Asked about whether he would ever consider racing in Moto2, Rossi said, “I would at least have thought about racing MotoGP and 250cc in the same season, but Moto2 is crazy!”

Total Wins in All GP Classes (1949 to Present)

1. Giacomo Agostini 122
2. Valentino Rossi 105
3. Ángel Nieto 90
4.Mike Hailwood 76
5. Mick Doohan 54
6. Phil Read 52
7. Jim Redman 45
8. Max Biaggi 42
Toni Mang 42
10.Casey Stoner 40
11. Jorge Lorenzo 39
Carlo Ubbiali 39
13. John Surtees 38
Dani Pedrosa 38
15. Jorge Martinez 37
16. Luca Cadalora 34
17. Geoff Duke 33
18. Eddie Lawson 31
Kork Ballington 31
20. Luigi Taveri 30

Comment: This record looked to be in jeopardy when Rossi was winning with Yamaha. Now it looks like Agostini's 122 wins spread over two classes (350cc and 500cc) will stand for a long time. In former times riders sometimes entered all three classes not just at a single meeting, but for an entire season. Hailwood once won in 250, 350, and 500 all in a single day at Assen. Doubles were common as well. However, seasons were shorter. With 18-race seasons, a rider like Stoner or Lorenzo might have a shot, but it is unlikely.

Premier Class Wins (1949 to Present)

1.*Valentino Rossi 79
2. Giacomo Agostini 68
3. Mick Doohan 54
4. Mike Hailwood 37
5. *Casey Stoner 33
6. Eddie Lawson 31
7. Kevin Schwantz 25
8. Wayne Rainey 24
9. Geoff Duke 22
John Surtees 22
Kenny Roberts 22
12.Freddie Spencer 20
13.Barry Sheene 19
14. Wayne Gardner 18
* Jorge Lorenzo 18
16. Álex Crivillé 15
*Dani Pedrosa 15
18. Max Biaggi 13
Randy Mamola 13
20 Phil Read 11
*Rider currently active in MotoGP

Comment: Doohan seemed headed for Ago's record until his crash at Jerez in 1999. Rossi had it fairly easy with Honda in the beginning and would probably have broken Ago's record earlier if he hadn’t complicated his life by switching to Yamaha. He has not won now since Malaysia 2010. Just how high he leaves this record is the question. Right now win number 80 looks very difficult. Of current riders, Stoner and Lorenzo are the most likely to challenge Rossi’s record, but it would mean that one or the other would have to put up several dominant seasons -- and the fact that they are contemporaries will make that harder that it was for Rossi who had several 'easy' seasons, though never with the machine advantage of Agostini with MV from 1968 until 1973. Ironically it was Agostini, who, after losing his title to teammate Phil Read in 1973, went to Yamaha and eventually became the first ever 500cc champion on a two stroke in 1975.

Premier Class (500cc, MotoGP) “Batting Averages”

Winning Percentage All Time (1949 to Present)

1 John Surtees 64.7% (22 of 34)
2 Giacomo Agostini 57.1% (68 of 119)
3 Mike Hailwood 56.9% (37 of 65)
4 Geoff Duke 40.0% (22 of 55)
5 Valentino Rossi 39.7% (79 of 199)
6 Mick Doohan 39.4% (54 of 137)
7 Gary Hocking 38.1% (8 of 21)
8 Kenny Roberts (Snr) 37.9% (22 of 58)
9 Casey Stoner 32.7% (33 of 101)
10 Freddie Spencer 32.3% (20 of 62)

Comment: You could say that Surtees and Hocking didn’t get enough 'at bats' but 'Long John’s' winning percentage of 64.7% will not be broken by anyone riding today unless we have a withdrawal of all factories but one as happened at different points in the careers of Surtees and Agostini. Hailwood had a couple of years with the dominant MV, but had to battle with his Hondas against Agostini in those great ’66 and ’67 seasons. As the balance of power stands today, it is hard to imagine anyone of today’s riders getting close to that .647 batting average of John Surtees.

Winning Percentage (“Modern Era” 1976 to Present)

1 Valentino Rossi 39.7% (79 of 199)
2 Mick Doohan 39.4% (54 of 137)
3 Kenny Roberts (Snr) 37.9% (22 of 58)
4 Casey Stoner 32.7% (33 of 101)
5 Freddie Spencer 32.3% (20 of 62)
6 Wayne Rainey 28.9% (24 of 83)
7 Jorge Lorenzo 26.5% (18 of 68)
8 Eddie Lawson 24.4% (31 of 127)
9 Kevin Schwantz 24.0% (25 of 104)
10 Barry Sheene 19.4% (19 of 98)

Comment: Briefly Rossi was the only modern '.400 hitter' among modern riders, but since moving to Ducati, he has slumped. If he does not win in either of the next two races, he will fall behind Doohan in the percentage tables. Of the young lions, the next possible '.400 hitter' could be Stoner. A competitive bike could put Rossi back at the top quickly, but it's unlikely to happen this year and will be harder to achieve if he has another 0 for 18 season.

All Time Podium Appearance Percentage (1949 to Present)

1 Wayne Rainey 77.1% (64 of 83)
2 Giacomo Agostini 73.9% (88 of 119)
3 Mike Hailwood 73.8% (48 of 65)
4 John Surtees 70.6% (24 of 34)
5 Valentino Rossi 69.8% (139 of 199)
6 Mick Doohan 69.3% (95 of 137)
7 Kenny Roberts (Snr) 67.2% (39 of 58)
8 Jorge Lorenzo 66.2% (45 of 68)
9 Phil Read 64.2% (34 of 53)
10 Eddie Lawson 61.4% (78 of 127)

Comment: To be honest, in the '60s when Agostini, Hailwood, and Surtees ran up these stats, a bad day usually meant second or third. For Wayne Rainey there were always enough dangerous rivals on the track to make just getting on the podium difficult. The Yamaha was always competitive but never has the vast superiority that MV enjoyed. That makes the Californian’s record, to me, the most amazing of all.

Podium Appearance Percentage (“Modern Era” 1976 to Present)

1 Wayne Rainey 77.1% (64 of 83)
2 Valentino Rossi 69.8% (139 of 199)
3 Mick Doohan 69.3% (95 of 137)
4 Kenny Roberts (Snr) 67.2% (39 of 58)
5 Jorge Lorenzo 66.2% (45 of 68)
6 Eddie Lawson 61.4% (78 of 127)
7 Casey Stoner 59.4% (60 of 101)
8 Dani Pedrosa 57.6% (57 of 99)
9 Wayne Gardner 51.0% (52 of 102)
10 Freddie Spencer 50% (31 of 62)
Pat Hennen 50% (12 of 24)

Comment: If Rossi doesn’t start running up front frequently again, the Californian’s record will stand a long, long time. Lorenzo is like Rainey in many ways -- he knows when second or third is all the bike has in it, gets the points and moves on. Stoner, now that he is on Honda, could also threaten Rainey’s record as could Dani Pedrosa, but getting on the box in 77.1% of starts just might be a bridge too far for anyone nowadays.

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Noyes' Notebook - Men Who Stare At GOATs
 
Noyes' Notebook - Men Who Stare At GOATs
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