Last charge for the 250 GP cavalry
Forty years ago, a young man from Sydney earned a unique place in the history of the road racing world championship – and thanks to the changes planned for next season; his place in the history books can never be usurped.
Kel Carruthers is and will remain, the only Australian to have won the 250cc World Championship, an achievement he sealed with victory in the final race 1969 on September 14 in Yugoslavia.
Carruthers, born in 1938 and raised in Gladesville, had dominated the Australian racing scene in the early 60s with multiple national titles and two successive clean sweeps at Mount Panorama in four categories in 1964-65 before heading off to Europe in 1966.
The fearsome Isle of Man TT race at the start of that 1969 season yielded Kel’s first success –but it owed a lot to circumstance. An Aermacchi rider at the time, Carruthers was released to replace Benelli’s injured Renzo Pasolini at the TT.
When the Aussie won the race, he was allowed to stay with Benelli for the remainder of the Championship season, winning again in Ulster and Yugoslavia to take the title.
Carruthers would go on to be runner-up in 1970 with Yamaha, for whom he eventually master-minded much of the success of Kenny Roberts, who won the 500cc world title from 1978-80 on Yamaha YZR500s.
And why can no-one ever take that unique title-winning place away from Kel? Because this is the last season in the long and distinguished history of the 250cc world Championship, which will be replaced next year by the new 600 Honda engine Moto2 category.
So a 250cc story that began on June 17, 1949 at that year’s Isle of Man TT will end on November 8, 2009 when Valencia, the final stop on this year’s calendar, stages the last charge of the light brigade known as the 250cc World Championship.
The 250cc bikes kick-started their world championship history on that summer’s day in 1949, when 29 starters lined up on the gruelling Manx circuit. Only 13 of them finished, and Manliff Barrington of Ireland on a Moto Guzzi was the winner.
In that inaugural year the series comprised just four races: the TT itself, Berne in Switzerland, Belfast and Monza and each round was won by a different rider, though it was Italy’s Bruno Ruffo who emerged as the first 250cc World Champion.
Little did he know it at the time, but Bruno had begun an Italian love affair with the quarter-litre class which has seen that great motorcycling nation claim far and away the greatest number of 250cc Grand Prix victories.
In fact if an Italian wins at Phillip Island (Marco Simoncelli perhaps?) then it will be the 200th World Championship race won by an Italian rider.
In individual terms, however, it’s a German who sits proudly on top of the list. Between 1978 and 1988 Anton Mang, riding Kawasaki, Yamaha and later Honda machines, accumulated 33 victories in the 250cc class, although Max Biaggi is just four behind him in the all-time standings.
Biaggi, world champion in the 250 class from 1994-97, holds the record number of titles with those four in a row, three for Aprilia and one for Honda, which is the all-time record-holder in constructors’ terms with 19 titles between 1961 and 2005.
Seven-time race-winner Carruthers apart, five other Australians have distinguished themselves on 250cc machinery over the years. Tom Phillis, the 1961 World 125 Champion, has his own place in 250 history: 48 years ago almost to the day, on October 15 1961, he was the first two-time Australian winner of a 250cc World Championship Grand Prix, in Argentina, having won the French 250 GP in May from Mike Hailwood.
Argentina was the final round of that year and Tom’s Honda was one of just six entries, the smallest starting line-up in 250cc history. Only four of them made it to the finish. Compare that with the Isle of Man TT in 1968, when no fewer than 80 bikes took the start, although that supreme test of man and machine winnowed them down to just 31 by the end. Tragically, Phillis was killed at the Isle of Man when he crashed his works Honda 285 at Laurel Bank in the 1962 350cc TT while staging a great duel with Hailwood’s and Gary Hocking’s MV Agusta 350s.
Casey Stoner earned five grand prix victories in the 2005 250cc World Championship on an Aprilia, the late Gregg Hansford was a four-time winner for Kawasaki in 1978 on his way to being World Championship runner-up, Phillis and John Dodds both won twice and of course Anthony West recorded a singleton victory in that wet race at Assen in 2003 on an Aprilia. Freddie Spencer (1985) and John Kocinski (1990) are the only Americans to have won the 250 world title, while Kenny Roberts Snr won two GPs in 1978 at Venezuela and Holland with Kenny Junior claiming the 1995 German 250 GP.
Cecil Sandford was the first Briton to win the 250 championship in 1957, followed by Hailwood, Phil Read and later Rodney Gould.
It’s been a wonderful and sometimes bumpy ride – for 714 races so far and all of 61 years.
List of 250cc World Champions
2008 – Marco Simoncelli (Gilera) Italy
2007 – Jorge Lorenzo (Aprilia) Spain
2006 – Jorge Lorenzo (Aprilia) Spain
2005 – Daniel Pedrosa (Honda) Spain
2004 – Daniel Pedrosa (Honda) Spain
2003 – Manuel Poggiali (Aprilia) San Marino
2002 – Marco Melandri (Aprilia) Italy
2001 – Daijiro Kato (Honda) Japan
2000 – Olivier Jacque (Yamaha) France
1999 – Valentino Rossi (Aprilia) Italy
1998 – Loris Capirossi (Aprilia) Italy
1997 – Max Biaggi (Honda) Italy
1996 – Max Biaggi (Aprilia) Italy
1995 – Max Biaggi (Aprilia) Italy
1994 – Max Biaggi (Aprilia) Italy
1993 – Tetsuya Harada (Yamaha) Japan
1992 – Luca Cadalora (Honda) Italy
1991 – Luca Cadalora (Honda) Italy
1990 – John Kocinski (Yamaha) USA
1989 – Sito Pons (Honda) Spain
1988 – Sito Pons (Honda) Spain
1987 – Anton Mang (Honda) Germany
1986 – Carlos Lavado (Yamaha) Venezuela
1985 – Freddie Spencer (Honda) USA
1984 – Christian Sarron (Yamaha) France
1983 – Carlos Lavado (Yamaha) Venezuela
1982 – Jean-Louis Tournadre (Yamaha) France
1981 – Anton Mang (Kawasaki) Germany
1980 – Anton Mang (Kawasaki) Germany
1979 – Kork Ballington (Kawasaki) South Aftrica
1978 – Kork Ballington (Kawasaki) South Aftrica
1977 – Mario Lega (Morbidelli) Italy
1976 – Walter Villa (Harley-Davidson) Italy
1975 – Walter Villa (Harley-Davidson) Italy
1974 – Walter Villa (Harley-Davidson) Italy
1973 – Dieter Braun (Yamaha) Germany
1972 – Jarno Saarinen (Yamaha) Finland
1971 – Phil Read (Yamaha) Great Britain
1970 – Rodney Gould (Yamaha) Great Britain
1969 – Kel Carruthers (Benelli) Australia
1968 – Phil Read (Yamaha) Great Britain
1967 – Mike Hailwood (Honda) Great Britain
1966 – Mike Hailwood (Honda) Great Britain
1965 – Phil Read (Yamaha) Great Britain
1964 – Phil Read (Yamaha) Great Britain
1963 – Jim Redman (Honda) Federation of Rhodesia Nyasaland
1962 – Jim Redman (Honda) Federation of Rhodesia Nyasaland
1961 – Mike Hailwood (Honda) Great Britain
1960 – Carlo Ubbiali (MV Agusta) Italy
1959 – Carlo Ubbiali (MV Agusta) Italy
1958 – Tarquinio Provini (MV Agusta) Italy
1957 – Cecil Sandford (Mondial) Great Britain
1956 – Carlo Ubbiali (MV Agusta) Italy
1955 – Hermann Paul Müller (NSU) Germany
1954 – Werner Haas (NSU) Germany
1953 – Werner Haas (NSU) Germany
1952 – Enrico Lorenzetti (Moto Guzzi) Italy
1951 – Bruno Ruffo (Moto Guzzi) Italy
1950 – Dario Ambrosini (Benelli) Italy
1949 – Bruno Ruffo (Moto Guzzi) Italy