Top 10 MotoGP/500cc World Champions

Tom Roderick
by Tom Roderick

Grand Prix motorcycle racing celebrates its 64th birthday this year. Since its introduction in 1949 many facets of the sport have changed except for the constant ability of one man to dominate his competitors. There have been, in fact, only 25 premier class champions in motorcycle Grand Prix’s 64 years of existence.

Before getting to our Top 10 rider picks, however, here’s some other interesting stats from the last 64 years of GP motorcycle racing.

Rider World Championship Winners by Country

Great Britain hasn’t had a premier class champion since Barry Sheene in 1977. However, with the previous multi-time champions including Sheene, Phil Read, Mike Hailwood, John Surtees and Geoff Duke, England remains in second place owning 17 World Championship rider titles. With the current crop of Spanish riders including Jorge Lorenzo, Mark Marquez and Dani Pedrosa, expect Spain to soon pass Australia for fourth on this list.

CountryRider World Championships
Great Britain17
United States15

Constructor World Championship Winners

Only these five manufacturers have scored multiple premier class manufacturer’s titles. Like the British riders who haven’t had a championship in 36 years, MV Agusta hasn’t won a manufacturer’s title since 1973 but remains the OEM with the most titles. Honda and/or Yamaha will soon surpass this long-standing record.

ManufacturerConstructor World Championships
MV Agusta18 (17 consecutive)
Suzuki, Gilera8

#10 – Kevin Schwantz

This list is largely comprised according to number of championship titles but there is a rider with only one title to his credit that is more deserving to be included in this list than other riders with multiple titles.

Kevin Schwantz won his only premier class title in 1993 but remains one of the most beloved GP champions in the history of the sport. His crash or win style aboard the RGV Suzuki was always thrilling and while not the best way to accumulate championship titles his cowboy antics were a crowd favorite and earned him more race wins than his arch rival Wayne Rainey.

To commemorate his popularity and dedication to the sport of motorcycle racing, the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) retired Schwantz’s #34 racing number

#s 8 & 9 – Wayne Rainey & Kenny Roberts

Not only is “King” Kenny Roberts a three-time World Champion he has the honor of being the first American to win a motorcycle Grand Prix title. Known for applying the U.S. version of dirt track racing to pavement, Roberts wowed European racers and spectators alike with his rear wheel sliding/steering style. Roberts won the championship from 1978 through 1980 and began a decade’s-long American domination of GP champions.

Wayne Rainey was one of Robert’s proteges. Racing for Team Roberts, Rainey won three consecutive world GP titles in ’90, ’91 and ’92 and was on his way to a fourth with a points lead over Kevin Schwantz when tragedy occurred in Misano. Rainey crashed out of the race while leading, severing his spinal cord in the process and ending his motorcycle racing career. His passion for the sport has never waned and Grand Prix motorcycle racing endures at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca largely due to Rainey’s efforts.

#s 4, 5, 6, 7 – Geoff Duke, Mike Hailwood, Eddie Lawson & John Surtees

Clockwise from upper left, Geoff Duke, Eddie Lawson, John Surtees and Mike Hailwood all share four Grand Prix world titles apiece. Umberto Masetti was the first two-time (’50 and ’52) World Champion but Geoff Duke, initially aboard a Norton Single then an inline-Four Gilera, won four championships in 1951 and ’53-’55.

Following “The Duke” in 1956 and ’59-’60, John Surtees became the second four-time world GP champion aboard MV Agusta, beginning the Italian manufacturer’s 17-year domination of the sport. Surtees is best known as the only Grand Prix motorcycle racer to successfully convert to auto racing winning the Formula One World Championship in 1964.

Mike “The Bike” Hailwood, already a World Champion in the 250cc class, signed with MV Agusta in 1962 and promptly won the premier class title for the next four years, ’62-’65. Like Surtees, Hailwood also went car racing but with much lesser success. A few years after his historical comeback win at the Isle of Man in 1978 Hailwood died in a non-racing-related car accident.

Fast-forward to 1984 when Eddie Lawson would win his first of three world GP championships aboard a Yamaha ’84, ’86 and ’88. He then switched to Honda for the 1989 season and became the first rider to ever win back-to-back championships aboard machines from two different manufacturers.

#3 – Mick Doohan

Five of the eight Grand Prix titles Australia owns belong to Mick Doohan. Doohan began his world championship career in 1989 racing against Lawson, Rainey, Schwantz and fellow countryman Wayne Gardner. In 1992 Doohan crashed and, due to medical complications, nearly had his right leg amputated. He returned for the final two races of the year but could not stop Rainey from taking the title (by only four points). The following season Doohan continued racing but struggled with residual health problems from the year before.

In 1994, however, Doohen went on a five-year winning spree earning the championship title from ’94-’98. His control over the diabolical two-stroke V-Four 500cc GP machine of the era is legendary and captured in the image above, utilizing the spinning, rear-wheel-steering style ushered in by Kenny Roberts years prior.

#2 – Valentino Rossi

With nearly a third of all world championship rider titles Italy is the country that dominates motorcycle Grand Prix racing. Of those 20 titles 15 are owned by two Italians, one of them being Valentino Rossi with seven premier class championships.

Placing second in his rookie season by 49 points to Kenny Roberts Jr., Rossi returns the next season to win the final world title aboard a 500cc two-stroke V-Four Honda. In 2002 he wins again aboard the all-new Four-Stroke V-Five 990cc Honda in the newly christened MotoGP class, repeating the effort again in 2003.

In 2004 Rossi switches manufacturers, this year winning the championship aboard a Yamaha, becoming the second racer since Lawson to accomplish such a feat. He garners his fifth championship and second for Yamaha the next year. Following a two-year drought Rossi reclaims the title again in ’08 and ’09.

With 80 premier class race wins (and counting), Rossi bests his legendary rival Giacomo Agostini with 68 but Ago owns eight premier class titles and that’s why he remains number one.

#1 – Giacomo Agostini

After Mike Hailwood defected to Honda, Giacomo Agostini became MV Agusta’s number one rider and he immediately repaid MV owner, Count Domenico Agusta, with the first of seven consecutive championships in 1966.

With pressure coming from within his own team in the form of Phil Read (GP champion ’73 and ’74) and having the foresight to see the oncoming two-stroke upheaval in the 500cc championship series, Agostini jumped ship to Yamaha. In 1975 Ago won his 8th and final 500cc world Grand Prix title and the first for a two-stroke Japanese machine. Agostini would retire following the 1977 season, but Japanese two-strokes would continue winning until the advent of the four-stroke MotoGP class in 2002.

As much as he was a gifted and talented rider, Agostini was also a brilliant tactician and savvy businessman. In his book, Fifteen Times, Ago says, “So Yamaha offered me an opportunity, and just as I’d done when I was with Morini, I looked ahead and took it. I knew that there was no two-stroke project at MV and I knew I’d have to change if I wanted to keep winning.”

Overall, Ago ended his Grand Prix motorcycle racing career with a total of 15 championships and 122 Grand Prix wins across all classes.

Tom Roderick
Tom Roderick

A former staffer who has gone on to greener pastures, Tom Roderick still can't get the motorcycle bug out of his system. And honestly, we still miss having him around. Tom is now a regular freelance writer and tester for when his schedule allows, and his experience, riding ability, writing talent, and quick wit are still a joy to have – even if we don't get to experience it as much as we used to.

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2 of 7 comments
  • Tom Roderick Tom Roderick on Sep 24, 2013

    Not including Fast Freddie was a hard decision, but this was about premier class championships so his winning a 250cc title didn't weigh on the outcome. Yes, he was a two-time premier class champ, but so was Barry Sheene and Casey Stoner and Phil Read. These three riders were, in fact, the ones Schwantz beat out making the 10th slot in this list.

  • John John on Sep 24, 2013

    I have to disagree about Fast Freddy. He won the 250 and the 500 World championship in the same year.
    good god man.