French Grand Prix 1974: The Battle of the Fours


At the end of the 1973 500 Grand Prix season Giacomo Agostini lost the world title to his arch-rival and team-mate Phil Read. He took the brave decision to leave MV Agusta for the following season and joined the factory Yamaha team. Many of his disappointed race fans thought this would be the end of Ago’s career. Jan Burgers follows the Grand Prix trail of 1974.

Words and photographs: Jan Burgers

Giacomo Agostini very soon proved they may well have assumed wrongly when he travelled to Florida, USA, in March and won the prestigious Daytona 200 on the 750cc Yamaha.

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There had been rumours all winter that Suzuki was building a new 500cc four-cylinder two-stroke. Would it be possible for Suzuki to build a competitive 500 four-cylinder racer in such a short time to beat the mature MVs and the relatively new, but much more developed, Yamahas?

The fantastic picturesque scenery of the start and finish area, but Agostini on the hunt for Länsivuori and Barry Sheene have no time to admire it.
A typical start of an early Seventies 500 Grand Prix with two-stroke smoke filling the air.

That was the question during the early 1974 Grand Prix season and race fans were looking forward to an interesting campaign. For a long time the first 500cc Grand Prix at the end of April at Charade Clermont Ferrand in the French mountains was remembered as a real Battle of the Fours.

Barry Sheene, surprisingly, finished in his first race on the brand new RG500 Suzuki between the two MVs of Read and Bonera. His team-mates were Paul Smart and the Australian veteran Jack Findlay.

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Smart was still suffering a lot from a tumble the weekend before in the second heat of the Anglo-American Match races. He decided to ride just a few laps on the new machine to get used to it.

ABOVE and BELOW: The brand new square four 500cc works Suzuki RG500

The skilled Findlay, who had been racing Suzukis for the Italian Saiad for the past two years, was clever enough to go for safety first. The final standings of the 500cc World Championship proved he was right.

After the first lap Phil Read, Sheene, Tepi Länsivuori and Giacomo Agostini passed the finish line close together.

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Agostini’s first GP race on the Yamaha 0W20 was sensational. In the next five laps he passed Länsivuori, Sheene and Read and was nine seconds in the lead.

Works Yamahas of Giacomo Agostini and Teuvo Länsivuori all over the place; the 500cc 0W20 and the 350cc 0W17.
Spectators all packed the circuit, even at the start of the race, asking for a signature.

Unfortunately, his gearbox broke after eight laps. Read (MV) won the race, Sheene (Suzuki) was second and Gianfranco Bonera on the second MV passed Länsivuori on the Yamaha during the very last stage of the race.

The event was overshadowed by the many spectators that entered the pit lane during the event and the many crashes, some of them fatal, of race fans on their street bikes at the open dangerous mountain street circuit between practice and race day.

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It was to be the last French motorcycle Grand Prix at Charade Clermont-Ferrand.

The small but brave Tepi Länsivuori had his hands full on that big Yamaha, as can be seen by the damage to his new 1974 boots and his toes in his first GP of the year. The side of the bike shows evidence of just how hard he was rising too.
ABOVE and BELOW: The magnificent Read, Ago and Sheene battle in the early stages of the race kept the fans on their toes.

However the continental circus was looking forward to the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring. And we all have read what a terrible weekend that was in issue 174 of this magazine.

The next race after that was the Italian Imola 500cc Grand Prix. You can read all about it in the September – October issue of Classic Racer.

Paul Smart in the pit lane between the race fans. Smart did only a few laps, as his arm was still hurting from the Anglo-American Race crash the week before.
Gianfranco Bonera on the MV-Agusta pushed Tepi Länsivuori, on the works Yamaha, hard.

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