Listed below is my list of the top ten racers over the past 71 years based upon the following facts; the number of titles, multiple titles within a year, championships in different classes, championships on different makes of bikes, power and size of bikes, factory involvement at the time, level of competition and most importantly the impact that the racer had in the evolution of road racing motorcycles. You will have to excuse me for not holding the 50/80/125cc classes at the same level as the 250/350/500/Moto GP classes. Please see below the list for The Top 10 Motorcycle Road Racers of all Time.
1) Mike Hailwood 76 Wins – 9 Titles
England 1962/63/64/65 500cc Champ, 1966/67 350cc Champ, 1961/66/67 250cc Champ
Mike “The Bike” Hailwood revolutionized the sport with his natural ability and relaxed attitude on life and competition. The first picture most people saw in the U.S. of international road racing was the backside of Hailwood entering a corner at full lean angle riding the Honda 250cc six-cylinder bike with six megaphones. It was a classic picture of man and machine. Hailwood won on MV Agusta’s and Honda’s in three different classes from 1959 to 1967. Not to mention he was also the king of the Isle of Mann with wins from 1961 to 1988. Hailwood was the man, and he still is today many years after his death driving his car to pick up a fish and chips dinner for his family. Mike won 67% of his races.
2) Valentino Rossi 89 Wins – 9 Titles
Italy 2001/02/03/04/05/08/09 500cc/Moto GP Champ,1999 250cc Champ, 1997 125cc Champ
“The Doctor” brought forward a vibrant style on and off the track. Colorful hair and racewear fit in with this Italian fashion. The world had not seen anybody this dominant since his fellow Italian Agostini, except Rossi, did his against very brutal competition. He won titles for Aprilla and then moved to Honda for the 500cc 2 strokes. He left Honda to join Yamaha because he wanted a new challenge, not to just win more titles. He transitioned from the brutal 2 stroke 500cc bikes to the new 4 stroke bikes without a whimper. He was and is flamboyant as only an Italian could do. Still racing, and fighting for a championship at age 41.
3) Marc Marquez 56 Wins – 8 Titles
Spain 2013/14/16/17/18/19 Moto GP Champ 2012 Moto 2 Champ 2010 125cc Champ
The product of the Spanish racing system where they train young boys into World Champions. He has not disappointed them. Supremely talented with a no-fault in his brain that what he sees he can do. He has played bumper cars with his fellow racers using them as berms in corners and almost always wins his way. Not the personality of some great racers, or the style. But he just keeps on winning against some very talented competition. A freak of nature to be sure. Compared to fan-favorite Rossi he lacks that touch.
4) John Surtees 38 Wins – 7 Titles
England 1956/58/59/60 500cc Champ, 1958/59/60 350cc Champ
The first “Boy Wonder” of racing, and the only racer to win world championships on motorcycles and F-1 cars. Surtees bridged the gap between the single-cylinder Norton’s to the four-cylinder MV Agusta’s and took motorcycling and racing into the modern age. He retired at age 26 to compete in F-1 cars. How many more championships could he have had if he had stayed a little bit longer? Surtees’s first love was motorcycles and it still is today. John won an incredible 84% of his races.
5) Giacomo Agostini 122 Wins – 15 Titles
Italy 1966/67/68/69/70/71/72/75 500cc Champ, 1968/69/70/71/72/73/74 350cc Champ
With Italian film star looks and the heart of a champion, Agostini accumulated more GP wins and titles than any rider in history. Unfortunately “Ago’s” domination came after the Japanese factories had dropped road racing from their budgets leaving only privateer efforts against the factory MV’s. He won the 500cc and 350cc championship a record, that will never be beaten, 7 times in a row on MV’s. His best finishes were at the beginning and end of his career where he gave no quarter to Hailwood at the beginning and Phil Read at the end after finally switching to a Yamaha.
6) Phil Read 52 Wins – 6 Titles
England 1964/65/68/71 250cc Champ, 1973/74 500cc Champ
Phil won on two strokes and four strokes in a ten-year time span where everybody else went the opposite direction. Phil was always in the shadows. First, he followed in the shadow of fellow countryman Hailwood and then of Agostini on the MV Agusta’s in the mid-’70s. I can’t get any respect should have been his motto. He was the first champion on a Yamaha. He was a champion all the way.
7) Geoff Duke 33 Wins – 6 Titles
England 1951/52 350 Champ, 1951/53/54/55 500cc Champ
From Norton singles to dustbin fairing Gilera motorcycles Duke was the personable and advertised hero of the new championship series. Like many great riders after him, he was also a many-time Isle of Mann TT winner. The TT in those days was as important as a world title for the manufacturers. He fought for the right of privateers so much that he was banned from the first six months of racing and lost the world championship in 1956. He finally gave way to the young Surtees after the loss of a factory ride and injuries with nothing left to prove.
8) Kenny Roberts 24 Wins – 3 Titles
USA 1978/79/80 500cc Champ
“King” Kenny Roberts is a strange name for a rider who was and still is the biggest revolutionary of motorcycle racing. The first U.S. champion, the builder of his own road racer (Modenas), the inventor of rear-wheel steering, the father of Kenny Roberts Jr., the leader in safety and race purse structure, the leader and over thrower of just about everything. With a more reliable bike, the championships could have been six. Probably the most single-focused racer the world has ever seen. From flat track championships to world titles Kenny has seen the world and he thinks that he owns it. I wouldn’t argue with him.
9) Mick Doohan 54 Wins – 5 Titles
Australia 1994/95/96/97/98 500cc Champ
You can’t argue with success! Like Agostini, Mick achieved his success on one brand of the bike against middling talent. He just missed the battles with Lawson, Rainey, Schwantz, and fellow Aussie Wayne Gardner, all of them champions. With his talent he would have won races and championships against such talented foes, but how many is the question.
10) Eddie Lawson 31 Wins – 4 Titles
USA 1984/86/88/89 500cc Champ
“Steady Eddie” is what they call him for always concentrating on what people remember you for, championships. Eddie won four championships the most by any U.S. racer. He took the torch from Kenny Roberts and went even further. The shy and reclusive racer off the track was much more demonstrative on the track handling the high horsepower of the Yamaha and Honda 500cc GP bikes. He didn’t put on a show for the fans like some other racers did; instead, he was in a world of his own to win races and championships.
11) Angel Nieto 90 Wins – 13 Titles
Spain 1969/70/72/75/76/77 50cc Champ, 1971/72/79/81/82/83/84 125cc Champ
The master of the small engine. Small bikes take a higher degree of race technique as they cannot recover from mistakes with horsepower. They must contain an even flow. Barry Sheene called him one of the best racers of all time. Angel dominated the small bike classes for 15 years.
12) Jim Redman 45 Wins – 6 Titles
Rhodesia 1962/63/64/65 350cc Champ, 1962/63 250cc Champ
“Honda all the way in grabbing six titles in the early 60’s” could have read the headlines. Jim grew up in a tough life where he had to immigrate to Rhodesia from England to take care of his two small sisters. He was a tough cool character that was a careful planner and schemer to reach the top. This did not make him very fan-friendly. Jim took all that Honda could give him in technology and horsepower and returned wins and championships.
13) Freddie Spencer 27 Wins – 3 Titles
USA 1983 /85 500cc Champ, 1985 250cc Champ
Pure genius is all that can describe “Fast Freddie” in his career. He came on like a hurricane defeating by the slimmest of margins “King Kenny” in 1983 to be the last racer to win two championships in one year. Like a hurricane, he developed into rain squalor all too fast and never regained his championship ability after 1985. The flame that burns twice as bright, burns twice as fast.