Top 10 MotoGP race winners never to take the title

Race wins galore but nary a top-line championship to their name

AS MUCH as racing is about talent and tenacity, there’s also a giant side-order of luck involved in the career of every rider; the roll of the dice can mark one out for greatness while another disappears and deny some hard-working, race-winning riders from ever having the championship trophy on their mantelpiece.

The same luck can work the other way, too. Riders with fewer career race wins than anyone on our top 10 list have walked away with the championship, whether due to ill fortune of others or the ability to sustain a string of solid podium finishes while more flamboyant race winners throw points away.

Of course there are endless question marks over the unfulfilled potential of riders with careers cut short by injury or worse. Would Marco Simoncelli have been a champion? Could Daijiro Kato have been Japan’s first top-class title winner? These are impossible questions, so we’ve stuck to a list that’s supported by fact; race wins. We’ve looked purely at wins in the top class – 500cc or MotoGP – and at riders who never took a title at that level.

10. Tadayuki Okada – four wins (500cc)

A man with ‘Honda’ written through him like a stick of rock, there has never been a shortage of people prepared to claim that other riders would have made more of his opportunities, particularly when he helmed Repsol Honda from 1996-2000. But the bare statistics show that he took four race wins in his top-line career. The first, in 1997, was during an impressive podium run that took him to second in the championship, playing a distant wing-man to the unbeatable Mick Doohan that year. Three more came in 1999, but in a more closely-fought championship they were only enough to bag third place overall despite a bigger points haul than in '97. Bear in mind that Nicky Hayden, with a longer Repsol Honda career, took only two wins on his way to the 2006 world title (runner-up Rossi won five races that year) and, with only three wins overall to his name, wouldn’t have made this list if Rossi had pipped him that year.

Image credit: Rikita, under license from Creative Commons.

9. Wil Hartog – five wins (500cc)

Despite five career wins spread over a relatively short top-level career, Hartog never managed better than fourth in the championship, proof that wins alone aren’t a guarantee of success over the length of a season. It’s worth pointing out that Hartog never managed a complete season in which he took part in every race, and often missed multiple rounds. His first win came in 1977, when he only raced in four GPs, and his last came in 1980 when he only finished three races from six starts.

Image credit: Robvonk, under license from Creative Commons.

8. Marco Melandri – five wins (MotoGP)

Given a few lacklustre years it’s easy to forget that in the junior classes Marco Melandri was something of a wunderkind, seen by many as the next Rossi. The youngest ever race winner in 125s (15 years old in 1998), he was also the youngest 250cc champion (20, in 2002) before moving to MotoGP. A combination of the wrong bike and, perhaps, too much too soon meant he struggled for a couple of years on Yamahas before getting a chance on the Movistar Honda in 2005, winning the last two rounds of the year and taking runner up spot in the championship. The following year he took three more victories on the Gresini Honda (remember when non-factory bikes could win races?) – one more than eventual champ Hayden – but only managed fourth overall.

7. Alex Barros – Seven wins

When it comes to staying power, few riders can compare with Alex Barros, with a top-flight career that lasted 276 races over a period of 18 years (with one year off when he went to race in WSB in 2006). During that time there were plenty of lean seasons but he took a total of seven wins, split between 500cc (four wins between 1990 and 2001) and MotoGP (three wins between 2002 and 2007). The win ratio might not have been good, but it was always enough to ensure Barros kept a decent ride, right from the moment he got his breakthrough with Suzuki in 1993 after three mediocre years on Cagivas. There was no flash-in-the-pan sweet spot in his career, either – the first win was in 93, the last a dozen years later in 2005. Only twice (2000 and 2002) did he score more than one win in a season, never managing more than two in a year. The high point was his win first time out on a four-stroke MotoGP bike. Having spent most of 2002 on an old NSR500, struggling to keep pace with the new RC213V, he finally got the new Honda V5 990 at Motegi and beat works rider Rossi to the line.

6. Luca Cadalora – Eight wins

Twice a 250 champion, there’s no doubt that Cadalora had speed, and he proved it with eight wins on 500cc two strokes. But somehow his career at the top level never quite came together despite a sparkling start at Marlboro Yamaha in 1993, playing second fiddle to Wayne Rainey. He became de facto team leader after Rainey’s crash at Misano that year, and led the Yamaha assault until the end of 1995, scoring two wins each year he was with the team. His championship results were impressive – fifth in his debut year, then second, third, and third again after moving to Irv Kanemoto’s Honda team in '96. He should have been set for the pick of the best rides. He signed to Yamaha and things fell apart after the Promotor squad he raced for at the start of 1997 folded. The season was saved by WCM, but it was the start of a patchwork career that never saw Cadalora get a full season with a really competitive ride again.

Image credit: Rikita, under license from Creative Commons.

5. Loris Capirossi – Nine wins

With two 125cc titles and a 250cc championship to his name, Capirossi was expected to succeed when he made the leap to 500s in 2000. And he didn’t disappoint, taking his first win just six races into his top-level career, in Italy to help consolidate hero status in his home country. But there wouldn’t be another until 2003, by which time he’d joined newcomers Ducati, taking the firm’s maiden MotoGP victory. He stuck with the Ducati team, taking six further wins on the red bikes but unable to come close to Casey Stoner when he joined the line-up in 2007 – in the Australian’s first championship year, Capirossi could manage only seventh in the championship. A shift to Suzuki in 2008 saw no improvement, and he’d only climb onto the podium once more – third at Brno in 2008 - before calling it quits at the end of 2011.

4. Sete Gibernau – Nine wins

What started out as an unspectacular career peaked with some of the most memorable duals in recent(ish) memory. Having reached the top level of racing in 1997 riding for Wayne Rainey’s Yamaha team, Gibernau seemed a solid mid-field rider, moving to Honda’s Repsol squad the following year (but on the V-twin NSR500V rather than the ‘proper’ V4 machine). The middling results continued for years until Sete took a surprise win on Suzuki’s last RGV500 in 2001. Movistar backing meant he swapped with the sponsor from Suzuki to Honda in 2003, where he suddenly sprung to life. Following teammate Kato’s fatal accident at the opening round, Gibernau took four wins and second in the championship, with some nail-biting battles with eventual champion Rossi, despite the Italian having an arguably superior works Repsol RC211V. The battle continued in 2004 when Rossi switched to Yamaha, Gibernau again taking second place and four wins. But he’d never win another GP. A shaky 2005 saw a smattering of podiums and by 2006 Gibnernau’s results – now at Ducati – looked much like they had in the less distinguished early part of his career.

3. Randy Mamola – 13 wins

Taking the runner-up spot in the championship four times between 1980 and 1987, it seemed for years that it was just a matter of time before Randy Mamola added a championship to his catalogue of race wins, but it was never to be. There was no flash-in-the-pan here, Mamola’s results were good throughout this part of his career – he won on Suzukis (five race wins), Hondas (four wins) and Yamahas (four wins) but just happened to come into the sport at a time when there was a rash of superstar riders and not enough years for every one of them to take as many titles as they arguably deserved. Roberts, Spencer and Lawson all rode in the same period, each taking multiple titles, plus the likes of Gardner and Mamola could run with all of them. By 1992, when he retired, a new era of stars – Rainey, Schwantz, Doohan et all – were winning.

2. Max Biaggi – 13 wins

Biaggi was already a star before he ever got on a 500cc GP bike. He’d taken four consecutive 250cc titles so there was no shortage of expectation when he finally made the switch to 500s in 1998 - and he didn’t disappoint. Riding with the Marlboro Honda team, he took an unprecedented win at his first ever 500cc GP, at Japan in 1998. Admittedly, the unbeatable Mick Doohan had retired from that race and Biaggi’s only other win in '98 also came on a day that Doohan didn’t finish. Still, those wins and a host of other podiums took Biaggi to second in the championship at his first attempt. Surely a title was just around the corner? A move to Yamaha in '99 led to a lone win and fourth in the championship followed by two wins and third place overall in 2000. What was important in 2000, though, wasn’t that he was beaten to the title by Kenny Roberts Jr, it was the fact that second place went to some new boy called Rossi. The Rossi-Biaggi rivalry and mind games that would follow over the next couple of years were legendary, but Rossi kept winning and that took a toll on Biaggi’s confidence. Despite a Repsol Honda for 2005, Max only managed fifth in the series and found himself on the sidelines come 2006. A brace of WSB titles for Aprilia in later years proved that he still had it, though.

1. Dani Pedrosa – 28 wins

Dani Pedrosa isn’t just miles ahead in this list but he’s unique in that he is the only person appearing on it who could yet get his name removed – all he needs to do is take a MotoGP championship. One of the highest-flying stars in memory when it comes to the lower level series, he took three consecutive championships on 125 and then 250cc Hondas before leaping in at the deep end with a Repsol RC211V ride in 2006. It took just four races before he got back on top of the podium, despite concerns that the tiny Spaniard wouldn’t be able to muscle the hefty four-strokes around. He’s stuck with Honda and won at least one race every year for a decade since that debut, and usually many more than that. He’s been championship runner up three times, third three times and fourth three times. His worst championship result, fifth, came in that debut season, so we’ll excuse that one. Why hasn’t he won a championship? That comes down to a few things; they’re called Rossi, Stoner, Lorenzo and Marquez. With Pedrosa finally appearing to overcome the arm-pump issues that have constantly blighted his attempts at stringing together a championship challenge, does he still have time to get himself removed from this list? If he doesn’t, he’s likely to retain this position as GP’s most successful rider never to win the title for decades to come.

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