MotoGP: Indianapolis Grand Prix Countdown

If Marc Marquez wins 10 in a row, it will indeed be “a big deal.”

Marc Marquez Catalunya 2014

Spain’s Marc Marquez, MotoGP points leader and defending world champion, is going for his 10th win in a row on August 10 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. If he accomplishes this at the Indianapolis Grand Prix, Marquez will be in a three-way tie with the great Italian rider of the 1960s and ’70s, Giacomo Agostini, and five-time 500cc World Champion Mick Doohan of Australia for fourth place in consecutive wins in the premier class of Grand Prix racing. That may not seem like such “a big deal” in itself but, as I will endeavor to establish, no rider in GP history has ever maintained such a winning streak against such a field of rivals on competitive bikes.

To understand just what an accomplishment it will be if Marquez does manage to win for the 10th time in 10 starts this season, let’s look at four longest winning streaks in GP history:

Giacomo Agostini: 20 consecutive wins (1968–69)

The longest string of consecutive victories in the premier class (500cc/MotoGP) belongs to Italy’s great Giacomo Agostini, who won 20 Grands Prix in a streak that stretched over two seasons (1968–69). Mike Hailwood is second with 12 wins in a row, also achieved over two seasons (1963–64), and third on the list of consecutive wins is John Surtees (the only man ever to win world titles in 500cc GP and Formula 1), who put together a string of 11 wins over three seasons (1958–60).

But, with all due respect to those three great riders from the pre two-stroke days, none of them, not Agostini, not Hailwood and not Surtees, had the level of opposition (both riders and machines) that Marquez currently faces.

Agostini, certainly one of the greatest of all time, achieved those 20 straight 500cc wins during a bleak period in FIM racing when his rivals all were on much less powerful machines compared to the all-conquering MV Agusta four-cylinders of the period. At the end of the 1967 season, Honda withdrew from racing and paid the other great rider of those times, Hailwood, to sit out the year. With Honda gone, the only bikes available to Agostini's rivals were the already long-in-the-tooth British singles (Norton and Matchless) or twins like the Linto (a union of two Aermacchi singles) or the Paton.

Giacomo Agostini and Mike Hailwood Dutch TT

Giacomo Agostini and Mike Hailwood Dutch TT.

Perhaps, if Honda had not retained Hailwood, the greatest of all British riders would have signed with Benelli to ride a notionally comparable four-cylinder bike. As it was, Agostini won all 10 races in 1968 on the MV lapping the second-place finisher on three occasions. The late Australian star Jack Findlay took second that season and heroically gave “Ago” a battle at twisty and dangerous Montjuich Park in Barcelona. Findlay led 17 of the 40 laps and was only 61.3 seconds behind at the flag. That was the closest anyone on a single or a twin came to Agostini all season.

The closest anyone came to beating Agostini in that 10-race 1968 season was at the final race. The Benelli factory entered the late Renzo Pasolini (later to die along with Jarno Saarinen in the infamous “Curva grande” 250cc crash at Monza in 1973) on its still-fast four-cylinder machine. “Paso” made a race of it, but after 35 laps and 125.055 miles, he was 34.6 seconds adrift.

Agostini, after winning 10 in a row, started the 1969 season third on the list of consecutive winners behind Hailwood with 12 and Surtees with 11, but it would have taken a crash or an engine failure to prevent the inevitable. There was not a single serious factory entry to rival the MV. Swiss rider Gyula Marsovszky (Linto) was runner-up in 1969.

Agostini won the first 10 races of that 12-race season and then, after winning his 20th consecutive race (having already clinched the title) on the road course at Dunrod (Belfast, Northern Ireland), he gave the final two races of the season a miss, ending his streak voluntarily. Alberto Pagani (Linto) of Italy won in Imola, the first race Ago missed, to increase the still-standing record of consecutive wins by Italian riders, but even that string ended at Opatija (Yugoslavia) when Britain’s Godfrey Nash on a Norton Manx won from Italian Franco Trabalzini, also on a Manx.

The fact that Agostini was virtually unopposed in the 500cc class from the end of the 1967 season until the beginning of 1973 (when Yamaha attacked with Saarinen on the four-cylinder two-stroke) allowed the Italian to add four relatively uncontested premier-class titles to his total of 15 championships (eight in 500cc and seven in 350cc). Agostini clearly deserves a place among the all-time greats on the basis not of his utter domination from 1968 until 1973, but for those 500cc titles he won at the beginning of his career against Hailwood (1966–1967) and for the classic 1975 season when, displaced by Britain's Phil Read in MV Agusta, Agostini became the first rider even to win a 500cc title on a two-stroke with Yamaha.

Mike Hailwood (35) leads Phil Read and Rod Gould at Cadwell Park

Mike Hailwood (35) leads Phil Read and Rod Gould at Cadwell Park.

Mike Hailwood: 12 in a row (1963–1964)

Hailwood’s string of 12 wins was run up in 1963 and ’64 when Mike was the only MV rider on the grid, but he did face and beat top-class rivals John Hartle, Derek Minter, and Phil Read on four-cylinder Gileras over the eight-race 1963 season. Hailwood won the ’63 opener on the Isle of Man but failed to finish at the Dutch TT, where Hartle won from Read in a Gilera one-two. After that, Gilera faded. Read and Hartle both missed races due to injury, and the Gilera retired on one occasion with an oil leak. Hailwood won the remaining six races. Gilera, having already lost the title, did not enter its team at the final race of the season in Argentina and then retired at the end of the season, leaving MV without a rival in 1965. Hailwood, having ended the ’64 season with six wins in a row, added six more to that total in ’65 before Count Agusta decided, with the title already won, to rest his team, sitting out the Ulster and Finnish GPs, before the final in Monza where Hailwood won from Argentine Benedicto Caldarella. It was the swan-song run for grand old Gilera.

Whenever the question of who is the greatest motorcycle roadracer of all times comes up, Hailwood is one of the strongest candidates, but, like Agostini, not on the basis of the seasons when he enjoyed huge mechanical superiority, but because of those years when he fought season-long battles against the greatest riders of his day in as many as three classes (250, 350, and 500cc) in the same year. On five occasions, Hailwood won three races at the same event, and twice, he won the 250, 350, and 500cc Grands Prix races on the same day!

John Surtees: 11 in a row (1958–60)

Britain’s John Surtees, who took over from Geoff Duke (Gilera) the unofficial title of “greatest of all time” in the early days of FIM Grand Prix racing, earned his place at MV Agusta factory on the basis of his wins in British nationals with a factory Manx Norton 500cc single.

Surtees’ string of 12 consecutive wins in the 500cc class, however, came over the 1958, ’59 and ’60 seasons after both Gilera and Moto Guzzi had retired at the end of the 1957 season, leaving the MV Agusta without a true rival.

John Surtees MV Agusta 500 Silverstone 1959

John Surtees MV Agusta 500 Silverstone 1959.

It was, to a large extent, the absence of competition that prompted Surtees to retire from motorcycle racing and move to Formula 1. MV denied his request to compete in both motorcycle Grand Prix racing and automobile racing, and this caused him to opt for Formula 1. In 1964, driving for Ferrari, he won the Formula 1 Driver’s Championship, the only man to have won both at the highest level of both FIM GP roadracing and FIA Formula 1.

Giacomo Agostini and Mick Doohan: 10 in a row in different eras

In 1970, Giacomo Agostini took up where he had left off when MV Agusta opted to sit out the final two races of the ’69 season, thereby truncating Agostini’s 20-race winning streak. Again, without any rival on competitive machinery, Agostini did his job, winning the first 10 races of the season. With one race to go, MV allowed Agostini to skip the final race of the year in Barcelona, where Angelo Bergamonti, who had joined MV late in the season as a reward for his strong rides (including two second places) on an oversize Aermacchi 350cc single in the 500 class, won the final race of the season at Montjuich. (Bergamonti, set to join Agostini on the MV team for the 1971 season, died when he crashed in the rain at Riccione, Italy, in a pre-season national run through the city streets.)

Mick Doohan’s string of 10 in a row came in 1997. Unlike Agostini, Hailwood, and Surtees, Doohan had a bike, the Honda NSR500, that, although arguably stronger than the 1997 Yamaha YZR500, was not blatantly superior to the other machines. Doohan also faced a strong challenge from his teammates, Tadayuki Okada and Alex Criville. Okada began the season with three consecutive pole positions, but Doohan won in Malaysia from Criville in Malaysia and Suzuka before his young Spanish teammate beat him by 5.6 seconds in Jerez de la Frontera.

After that Doohan went on to win the next 10 in a row and hammering his rivals with margins of victory of more than five seconds (and as much as 22 seconds) on six occasions. The only riders to finish within a second of Mick during that winning streak were Okada (twice) and Carlos Checa (once). The string was broken at Sentul, Indonesia, by Okada, who beat Doohan at the line by 0.069 seconds.

Since then, the longest winning streak, until now, was set by Valentino Rossi, who won seven in a row on the five-cylinder Honda during the first year of the new 990cc four-strokes.

Mick Doohan 1991

Mick Doohan 1991.

Marc Marquez against “the strongest field ever assembled”

It is not hyperbole to affirm that the field of rivals that faces Marc Marquez may very well be, as Dr. Martin Raines (official Dorna statistician for MotoGP) characterized it, “the strongest field ever assembled” in the premier class of GP racing.

While it is impossible to meaningfully compare riders and machines of different decades and periods, the numbers speak for themselves: At the start of the 2014 season, Marquez’s rivals, including three former premier-class champions (Rossi with seven titles, Jorge Lorenzo with two, and Nicky Hayden with one), had between them a total of 140 wins and 10 titles in the 500cc/MotoGP class.

Doohan, by comparison, in 1997, started the season facing a grid that had a combined total of only 20 500cc wins and none of them had ever won a title—although, in fairness to Mick, I should add that it was his domination over the 1994, ’95, and ’96 seasons that kept his rivals starved of wins and titles.

Marquez has been unbeatable in the United States since 2011. He won in Moto2 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2011 and 2012 and then swept all three US rounds of MotoGP at Circuit of The Americas, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, and Indianapolis in 2013. This spring, he won his sixth consecutive win on US soil when he beat his Repsol Honda teammate, Dani Pedrosa, by 4.1 seconds at COTA.

There have been five winners in the six previous MotoGP races at Indy starting in 2008: Rossi (2008), Lorenzo (2009), Pedrosa (2010, ’12), Casey Stoner (2011), and, last year, Marquez.

Only four riders in Grand Prix history have won 10 races in a row, and only one rider, Mick Doohan, accomplished this during the period (1975 to the present) regarded by Dr. Raines as “the modern era.”

Bottom line? If Marc Marquez keeps the winning streak going at Indianapolis, it will definitely be, well, “a big deal.”

Giacomo Agostini and Mike Hailwood Dutch TT.

Jim Greening

Mike Hailwood (35) leads Phil Read and Rod Gould at Cadwell Park.

B.R. Nichols

John Surtees MV Agusta 500 Silverstone 1959.

B.R. Nichols

Mick Doohan 1991.

Patrick Gosling

Marc Marquez Catalunya 2014.

Mark Wernham