This is the question that separates a lot of enthusiasts. Everybody has his opinion on the matter but can we find the ultimate answer on the base of what we know?
To make it easier I won’t analyze all the riders from the 1920s but I will limit this article to the three names that everybody agrees are the greatest: Mike Hailwood, Giacomo Agostini, and Valentino Rossi. The reason why we took them is that they all won multiple championships in different categories over an extended period of time. They all changed the bike for the same reason, the arrival of a younger fast rider, and kept winning. They all changed the world of racing leaving an everlasting legacy.
There is a reason if people love him so much, he was funny, charming. He liked motorcycles, beer, and women. The right mix between a playboy and a gentleman. In the time he moved from MV to Honda was the highest paid rider of his time.
Hailwood changed the riding style of that time pointing his knees outwards, a style copied from everyone. He manages to make the best comeback of all time in the TT of Isle of Man winning it by 9 seconds after years away from racing. During the 1966 TT Hailwood and Agostini fought for, what most people say, the most epic battle TT ever. They crushed the record each lap and the last one was set by Mike and it was untouchable for 9 years. Another important aspect of Hailwood’s character is when his rival Ago broke his chain while being in the lead by one second. Only a few miles from the finishing line. Mike called him on the podium and seeing his rival after this epic battle with tears in his eyes, he invited on the highest step and said: “I won the race but you are the moral winner and this evening you’re my guest”. To me, this is also something to consider while judging the “greatness” of a rider.
The numbers: 76 victories, 14 Isle of Man TT, 112 GP podiums, and 9 World Championship, 4 of them in the 500cc.
The numbers speak for themselves, 15 times World Champion. A very charming personality but different from Hailwood, Ago was focused, didn’t smoke and trained a lot. He broke professionalism and fought for more safety in racing. The most astonishing record is also not mentioned because it’s so unusual. In 350cc and 500cc he won 58 races in a row between 1968 and 1971. That means three years of racing without seeing anyone else but him. To give you a hint of how good and how fast he was you should know that while racing against Hailwood, the bar was so high that they used to overlap all the riders on the track.
He brought big sponsors and professionalism into racing. Being also the most handsome rider and charismatic he also brought the attention of a larger audience including women.
The numbers: 122 victories, 10 Isle of Man TT, 159 GP podiums, and 15 World Championship, 8 of them in the 500cc.
He made MotoGP fun and took no one seriously. He started really early having a retired racing rider as a father, Graziano Rossi.
The numbers are close to Ago in terms of victories. But what makes Rossi so special is that he won every category: 125cc, 250cc, 500cc, MotoGP 990cc, MotoGP 800cc, MotoGP 1000cc. He was a champion of the two-stroke and the four-stroke. If Ago brought a larger audience to the racetrack, Rossi brought it to the next level. In 2011, the great commentator Murray Walker said: “Mike was the greatest motorcycle racer of all time in my opinion with, I have to reluctantly say now, the possible exception of Valentino Rossi”
Colin Edwards has referred in more interviews to his friend and former team-mate Rossi as the G.O.A.T. But the most surprising comment comes from Jorge Lorenzo because unlike Edwards, Lorenzo is far from being a friend and two years ago during a press conference, he said that he considers Rossi the G.O.A.T.
The numbers: 114 victories, 221 GP podiums, and 9 World Championship, 7 of them in the 500cc/MotoGP.
The Technical evolution
Comparing riders from different eras is not like comparing runners or swimmers. There wasn’t much of a change in water in the last hundred years. But there was an enormous change in motorcycle technology and racetrack safety. The track in the 60s was insanely dangerous, deadly. The today’s motorcycles have a top speed of over 200 mph and they are probably more difficult to set up. But one thing remained the same over generations. Everybody wants to win and if there are just one in 20 riders faster than you then you’re not the winner anymore. That’s why winning is a value that stands over time.
One last word
I asked once a piano player, a good friend of mine, who would he choose between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. To this legendary question, he gave a simple answer: “You see, the problem is that one is a pop band and the other is a rock band. The question is stupid in the first place”