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Who is the greatest ever Moto GP rookie?

Submitted by on November 14, 2013

enny roberts 1978Marc Marquez is the first rookie to win the premier-class world motorcycle championship since Kenny Roberts in 1978. Both won in epic seasons, where the battle went down to the final race.

But they fought different battles. Roberts had road raced 750s for four years, but he was new to 500s as well as the circuits and the Grand Prix circus. In terms of established opposition, Roberts faced Barry Sheene, Johnny Cecotto and Pat Hennen, until Hennen was seriously injured at the Isle of Man TT.

marc marquez slideMarc Marquez hangs it out on his way to the World Championship crown in his rookie season

Marquez knew the scene, but moving up from a machine with a modified 600 road-bike engine to a prototype 1000. Tellingly, he said the move from Moto3 to Moto2 was a larger jump and won at his second start in MotoGP.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, Grand Prix riders put great store in the unofficial title of top private entrant. Recognition for the top newcomer or rookie is a more recent concept. It was made official with the MotoGP Rookie of the Year award.

But let’s look at some of the most exciting and best-performed rookies throughout world championship history.

Technically, everyone was a world championship rookie in the first season, 1949, but many of the leading contenders had raced pre-WW2 and all had competed on the re-emerging 1948 European tour.

Geoff DukeGeoff Duke won at his first 500cc start

The 1950 season saw new stars emerge. Norton’s dashing Geoff Duke won at his first 500 classic start, the Isle of Man TT, and triumphed again in the Ulster and Italian Grands Prix. He missed the championship by one point to Gilera’s flamboyant Umberto Masetti, who won in Belgium and The Netherlands. Masetti was in his first full season as a works 500 GP rider with four-cylinder machines, so he too might be considered a rookie.

John Surtees had wanted to contest the 1955 world 500 championship on a factory Norton sponsored by the newspaper News of the World, but Norton could only support a domestic season.

Italian teams were hiring and Surtees joined MV Agusta in 1956, with immediate success. Aged 22, he claimed the championship at his first attempt, winning at the Isle of Man, Assen and Spa-Francorchamps, before breaking an arm at Solitude in Germany.

ohn-surtees-agusta-mvJohn Surtees won the World Championship at his first attempt

Not all riders have the opportunity to race works four-cylinder machines in their first full premier-class season. England yet again provided the standout rookie in 1961, with 21-years-old Mike Hailwood riding private Nortons for most of the year. And get this…Hailwood was on the podium in all but one of the nine GPs he contested. His full season read: fourth at Hockenheim, second at Clermont-Ferrand, first at the TT (with the first 100mph race average speed on a single-cylinder machine), second at Assen, Spa-Francorchamps and Dundrod, victory at Monza in his debut for MV Agusta on a 500-four and second in the Swedish Grand Prix to MV team mate and 1961 champion Gary Hocking.

These top rookies, Duke, Surtees and Hailwood all morphed into multiple champions.

The most successful 500 racer of them all, Giacomo Agostini, made his 500 debut with MV in Hailwood’s shadow during 1965. He ended the season with his maiden 500 victory in Finland and his closest margin to the now four-times 500 champion at Monza.

The next stunning rookie was Jarno Saarinen in 1973. He won the first two 500 GPs he contested in France and Austria. That was a first. He retired after setting fastest lap in the third round at Hockenheim with a broken drive chain. What the Flying Finn might have achieved from there we’ll never know, It was the last 500 GP he started.

Now it was the turn of the Americans. Pat Hennen, as a private entrant on a Suzuki RG500, won a Grand Prix and finished third in the 1976 title. Steve Baker was parachuted into the 1977 series as a works Yamaha rider and finished second to Suzuki’s Barry Sheene.

Kenny Roberts arrived and conquered in 1978, winning four races and, crucially, taking podium positions at two circuits that were way outside his comfort zone – Spa-Francorchamps (in the wet) and the 22km Nurburgring.

Fellow Californian Randy Mamola rode a 500 in Europe in the latter part of 1979, before joining the Suzuki team full time in 1980 and pushing Roberts to the last round of the series. He scored his maiden GP victory at Zolder, the only time it was used for the Belgian motorcycle Grand Prix.

kevin Schwantz 1988Schwantz won twice in the first six races in 1988

Fierce rivals Kevin Schwantz and Wayne Rainey both have claims to top rookie status in 1988, Schwantz for winning twice in the first six races and Rainey for finishing third in the championship, with one victory.

Max Biaggi was the next standout rookie, in 1998, winning his first 500 GP start at Suzuka and finishing the year second overall to Michael Doohan. Two years later came the much anticipated 500 debut of Valentino Rossi. He crashed at his first two starts, but thereafter won two races and finished second to Kenny Roberts Jnr in the title.

max biaggiMax Biaggi won on debut at Suzuka in 1998

Notable rookies between Rossi and Marquez? In 2003, Rookie of the Year was a near-run thing between Honda’s Nicky Hayden and Ducati’s Troy Bayliss.

But what of Casey Stoner’s MotoGP debut in 2006? Riding a satellite Honda, he was the highest placed rookie in 2006, in eighth on title ladder. He qualified fastest at his second premier-class meeting in Qatar and went within 0.2 seconds of winning his third start in Turkey. And it might have been an even better year with a front tyre he actually liked.

Dani Pedrosa was the top rookie of 2006, winning two races on a works Honda. But spare a thought for Casey Stoner on the satellite Honda, qualifying fastest at his second premier-class meeting in Qatar and went within 0.2 seconds of winning his third start in Turkey. And it might have been an even better year with a front tyre he actually liked.

Jorge Lorenzo 2008 crashLorenzo was quick in 2008, but had some nasty spills

Jorge Lorenzo arrived like the wind in 2008 in terms of qualifying performances and won at his third start. But he also learned that a high side from a MotoGP machine hurts.

As for the best rookie performance of them all, Roberts might be the man. He began 1978 with second-string Yamaha 500 machinery, and had to master 10 new circuits and a different lifestyle. Marquez this year re-set the bar on how to ride a MotoGP machine, but 35 years ago Roberts turned 500 GP technique on its head.

In this clip Kenny Roberts describes Marc Marquez’s style  – and reminds us that he brought this technique to the game

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