MV Agusta Racing Resurrection

MV were once racing's dominant force, before slipping into the Japanese shadow. Two men have risked their livelihoods to resurrect Italy's heritage and produce bikes that are works of art and ahead of their time. This is their story

Forget Honda Racing Corporation, Rossi's Yamaha or Mick Doohan's race craft. MV Agusta, in the hands of Giacomo Agostini, Mike Hailwood, John Surtees, Phil Read and other big names of racing past annihilated the competition throughout the 50s and 60s, winning 75 world championships, 207 GPs and more than 1000 individual national and international races. Now hardcore bike nut Claudio Castiglioni wants to resurrect past glories - and we all know what that did for Ducati.

"I've always loved motorcycles," says Castiglioni from his office at the MV factory in Varese. "I even raced as a kid, but just for one year because my family made me stop. So in 1978 I bought Italy's Harley-Davidson building in Varese and started Cagiva."

Castiglioni put his family business worth millions on the line to pursue his passion. At that time European motorcycle manufacturing was in a dire state, but, "we don't have time to wait for the sun to shine," explains Castiglioni. "We have to make it shine."

In 1985 Castiglioni asked Bimota founder Massimo Tamburini to help his firm develop the new Cagiva Mito 125. "When I left Bimota in 1983 I was undecided about my future," says Tamburini. "I wanted to continue
developing motorcycles, but I needed someone who believed in me to put money behind me. Then in 1985 Claudio asked me to make a 125 sportsbike for Cagiva. The Mito became such a success that Claudio let me open the Cagiva Research Centre (CRC)."

In 1985 Castiglioni bought Ducati "when Ducati was lost", says Castiglioni. The owners were about to shut it down and when Castiglioni asked to buy the name, they replied: 'You want-a Ducati? You take-a Ducati an' go!' Tamburini then set about developing bikes like the then unique looking Ducati Paso, until the early 90s, when he created a stunner: the 916. TWO's Grant Leonard was at the launch. "I've never been at a launch where all the journos were so gobsmacked by a bike," he recalls. "There was a feeling it might be a big styling job and underneath it only an 888. It took about 100 yards of pitlane to realise it wasn't, and after a dozen laps I came in truly astonished. It was so together, so capable; the harder you pushed the better it felt. And it bristled with new ideas - all patent pending, clever and trick, and moving the game forward. "

The 916 was produced in time for the 1994 World Superbike Championship, and it dominated the series. But just a couple of years later Castiglioni sold Ducati for a huge profit and turned his attentions to MV Agusta, a name he'd bought a few years earlier. At the 1997 Milan show, Castiglioni and Tamburini presented the gorgeous inline four F4 750.

"I always believed a 750 with the weight of a 500 and the power of a 1000 is the perfect motorcycle," says Tamburini. But when the F4 Serie Oro was finally launched in 1999, followed shortly after by the F4 S, it was criticised for not being quite powerful enough and even heavy in the F4 S's case. Grant was at the launch of the F4 Serie Oro: "The bike was covered in superlight sandcast magnesium - swingarm, engine covers - rough looking and gold in colour, hence its model name, the Oro. They claimed 120bhp, huge for a 750 then, but it didn't feel any faster than a GSX-R750 of the day. It handled beautifully, felt very small and low and would lean, lean, lean. I loved the technology: the radial valves, the way the chassis came apart in three pieces, the thought behind the architecture that allowed you to lie flat on the tank. And the looks. Clothed or naked, you could stare at it all day. But it should've been a 1000cc."

MV continued to expand the F4 750 line-up with the F4 S 1+1 and the limited-edition F4 SPR and F4 Senna. Production was stopped in 2001 with MV in debt after the collapse of the Piaggio merger, but resumed with the launch of the naked Brutale 750 after an Italian merchant bank threw a 'controlled administration' lifeline. When Malaysian car giant and Lotus owner Proton took a majority stake in MV in 2004, survival was assured and Castiglioni finally launched the mighty F4 1000S, with limited-edition Ago and now the Tamburini. A Brutale 910 is due in July. To Tamburini's admission, the F4 1000S is still a bit heavy:

"Japanese sportsbikes weigh 180kg wet, apart from the Honda. We need to shed 10% and I'm working on it." But he won't be changing the styling in a hurry: "A motorcycle must be born beautiful. The only changes should be to improve performance or reliability." Despite being created well over a decade ago, there are no signs of the 916 looking dated, and it and the F4 are displayed as works of art in New York's Guggenheim museum.

So when will MV race again? "We're developing an F4 in the Italian championship this year," says Tamburini. "But if we return to GPs we'll develop a V5. We'll need a new Valentino or Agostini and that won't be easy. Racers like these are born once in a blue moon."


MV Agusta's passionate president

"I love MV Agusta because when I was a boy I watched every race with my father and brother. History is important because it stirs strong emotions in the enthusiast.

"MV Agusta motorcycles have many elements to them - passion, history, beauty and technology. Our motorcycles are always 10 years ahead of the competition, starting from the Cagiva Mito through to the 916 and MV Agusta. I always strive to be different and better than the Japanese and other European bikes; our bikes must be more beautiful and perform better too. MV Agustas are more expensive because they're exclusive, and people spend the extra money because they want something different. For this we have 150 people working under Tamburini's supervision in our San Marino R&D department.

"Twenty-five years ago I asked Massimo to develop the Cagiva Mito. I knew straight away he was the best in the world. He's not only the best stylist, he's the best engineer. Every detail has to be 100% right and he's the only person on the planet to concentrate on the motorcycle as a whole. He knows that building a beautiful bike is not enough; you need a motorcycle with performance and reliability, and a bike that is completely different to anything else.

"Agostini is an important part of the brand; he's the history for MV Agusta. After winning most of the races he competed in with MV Agusta, Agostini then became team manager for the Cagiva race team and won with Eddie Lawson and John Kocinski. Cagiva became the only bike in Europe to win against the Japanese.

"There were times between 2000 and 2002 when I thought MV Agusta would not make it, but with the Proton deal that's all in the past. It's tough building fast bikes in Italy and it's pointless having all these great ideas if you don't have the money or technology to go ahead with them. But Proton is a strong partner industrially and financially, and it's not just the MV brand that will benefit.

"In the next few years Husqvarna will return to being a market leader in the dirt bike and supermoto categories. Cagiva is the brand that has suffered the most in recent years because we focused on MV Agusta production motorcycles, but it too will grow. Because MV Agusta is exclusive, we will never build more than 20,000 bikes, but Cagiva is a less expensive, mass produced brand aimed at a completely different motorcyclist.

"I've always raced our motorcycles - Cagiva, Ducati, Husqvarna - and we've won races with all of them. For now the production of MV Agusta is more important, but next year we will race MV in WSB, and one day even in MotoGP. When MV Agusta comes back to the premier class it must win or it's best not to race at all."


The genius behind the Cagiva Research Centre

"I'm known as a motorcycle designer, but my main passion is for engineering. If the stylist has an in-depth knowledge of engineering, then he never has to compromise form for function. In life, the fewer the compromises the better.

"Only two motorcycles from another manufacturer have ever inspired me. The first is Honda's NR750. It was beautifully engineered, perfect in every detail with its single-sided swingarm, underseat exhaust and technical advances. The second is Honda's RC30. I was amazed at how stable and fast this bike was. I learned a lot from these bikes.

"A motorcycle is not essential like a car. The motorcycle must make its owner feel strong emotions when he looks at it and when he rides it. The owner must perceive the quality, admire the beauty and feel the performance. Every detail must be carefully studied so that even when the owner is in his garage cleaning his motorcycle he continues to notice new details in the precise engineering. It's a different concept to the mass produced Japanese bikes; I maintain a tight control over our suppliers and tell them exactly how we want parts to look and perform. They have no freedom.

"I like my motorcycles to be distinctive. The most important aspects for a strong character are the front and rear. They're also the most difficult to design due to the lack of surface area, but they are the parts you see when the bike is riding towards you or away from you. You can only tell Japanese bikes apart when you're up close, but if you see an F4 or a 916 in the distance you know instantly what it is. I also like my bikes to be technically innovative, but only when this brings real benefits to the performance.

"One day, Claudio told me we must develop a project with the Ducati 888 engine. It musn't be like any other Ducati or anything the Japanese ever built. So I modelled the headlights to appear like two eyes staring at you and I placed the two silencers underneath the seat. The technical guys weren't happy; they said they needed to be able to lenghten or shorten the downpipes to find optimum power, which the underseat exhausts would compromise. So I said, first we do it like this, then we see. Sure enough we found the optimum power straight away and it was never a problem. With competence and professionalism you can make form and function work perfectly together.

"Many articles say the F4 was going to be the evolution of the 916. This isn't true. The 916 was launched in time for the 1994 SBK, so it was still a new project when Ducati changed hands. It's not in my DNA to restyle bikes. A motorcycle must be born beautiful and you must have the courage to keep it that way. Claudio told me I had to develop a bike that didn't look like a 916 or a Japanese bike and it had to be technically innovative. Sportsbikes must be compact but this was more difficult with the inline four engine, so I designed a tank that houses the fuel tank, airbox and cooling system. Then I designed the organ exhaust coming out of the back of the bike. I studied every detail of that bike, both in the performance and styling. The results were very satisfying."


Still the most successful racer of all time

"As soon as I was born I couldn't stop thinking about racing motorcycles. My family refused to help me, so I bought a Morini 175 to race privately and payed two pounds a month for it. I quickly started to win so I made enough money to buy the bike outright. Morini noticed me straight away and I became a factory Morini 250 rider and won the Italian championship. Count Agusta then called me and we talked from nine in the morning to five in the evening, then he offered me a factory ride. I signed the contract with MV and won 13 world championships.

"MV was an important helicopter manufacturer with 3500 staff. But Count Agusta loved motorcycles and he made them his priority. He wanted to win races, which is why we had such fantastic bikes. I used to compete in the 350 class, then jump in the 500 class and win both championships. But today they are all gentlemen, they don't like to work so hard!

"I raced against many great riders - Carlo Vialli, Tarquino Provini, Barry Sheene, Phil Read, Jim Redman, Bill Ivy, Jarno Saarinen, Kenny Roberts... But the man to beat was Mike Hailwood. I started out as his teammate at MV, but he switched to Honda and that made great competition. The racing was very exciting and 250,000 spectators turned up to watch the meetings. The best race was during the 1967 TT. For the whole race Mike and I were riding very close together. I was maybe eight seconds in front, after I lost four seconds, then he got four seconds in front, then I got in front, all this for the entire 360km course. Then on the last 3km of the last lap my chain broke so Mike won. But when he got on the podium, Mike said to the crowd: 'I didn't win today, Giacomo won'. That was nice.

"But when Count Agusta died MV Agusta went to the Government. The people there didn't like motorcycles so they dropped them to focus on helicopters. I was very happy when Mr Castiglioni decided to buy the MV Agusta name and turn it into production bikes, and hopefully one day MV will go back
to GP racing.

"I was also very pleased when MV Agusta remembered my name and made 300 F4 Ago limited edition models. We sold all the bikes in two months because MV Agusta is a big name in racing and people remember it. Castiglioni and Tamburini have turned MV Agusta motorcycles into exclusive works of art, like Ferrari. I have an F4 and a Brutale and when I stop for petrol on either one of them, I always have a lot of people watching the bike. This only happens with MV."