There aren’t many good things for which you can thank tobacco, but close racing in MotoGP is one of them. From the dawn of Grand Prix racing in 1949 until the late 1980s, the racing was dominated by a handful of factory riders on cutting-edge motorcycles, while improverised privateers followed along at a respectful distance, struggling on inferior machinery.
Cigarette sponsorship first arrived in the 1970s, when a discreet Marlboro logo adorned the leathers of racer and sometime matinee idol Giacomo Agostini. Within a decade or so, Grand Prix grids resembled a tobacconist’s: Marlboro, Gauloises, Lucky Strike, Rothmans, Fortuna, HB, Ducados, Cabin and the rest.
Most significantly for the racing, this flood of money allowed more teams than ever before to afford factory machines. Instead of Honda and Yamaha building factory race motorcycles for two, perhaps three riders, they now built many more machines, which they leased out to eager teams grown fat on tobacco advertising money. When riders lined up for the beginning of the 1988 500cc season there were 16 riders on factory-spec V4 500cc race machines, more than ever before. It is no coincidence that the earliest of our top-10 best battles happened that summer. In fact, each and every one of our 10 best races happened during or after 1988.