Ducati Motorcycles Join the Big Leagues After Pivotal Race Win

2017 marks 45 years since Paul Smart’s victory at Imola made Ducati, well…Ducati.

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Paul Smart on the Formula 750 Ducati.Photo: Ducati

45 years ago, Ducati's fate was held in the hands of the most tenuous of things: a motorcycle race. The struggling marque was pinning its hopes and staking its future on an unproven machine in a grueling two hundred-mile race through the back hills of Emilia-Romagna.

The course was in the grand style of other historic GP circuits, lined with trees and Armco barriers, stamped on the undulating hills in glorious crescendos of tarmac. To be the conductor and stand atop the podium wreathed in glory meant mastering high-speed corners like Tamburello: from the bottom of the hill through the apex, flat-out at speeds in excess of 150 mph. The year: 1972. The man whose name would be immortalized in victory: Paul Smart. This was the Imola 200.

For decades, Ducati has been synonymous with production-class racing where its success is as much a hallmark of the brand as its 90 desmodromic L-twin engine. Before Imola, Ducati was known for small capacity bikes with single-cylinder engines, but by the late 1960s, its Italian rivals, not to mention those from Britain and Japan, already had large multi-cylinder machines that outpaced the Ducatis in every way. In 1969, the Italian government gave the cash-strapped brand capital to develop a new twin-cylinder engine. It was make or break.

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Paul Smart and Bruno Spaggiari (both in leathers) with Fabio Taglioni (far right).Photo: Ducati

In order to expedite production and minimize new tooling, Ingegnere Fabio Taglioni bolted two singles together around a common crank, orienting them at 90 for perfect primary balance: an elegant, if not simple, solution. This was the birth of Dr. T’s beloved bevel-drive L-twin. The 1971 valve-spring 750GT and 750 Sport production bikes became the basis for Taglioni’s Formula 750 racebike. He added desmodromic valve operation in addition to using lighter, stronger con rods; raising compression from 8.5:1 to 10:1; adding higher-lift camshafts; and replacing the standard Amal 30mm carbs with a pair of beefy 40mm Dell’Ortos.

In April 1972, Ducati’s F750 racing desmo debuted at Imola, its front cylinder conspicuously protruding from its production-based steel frame. The now-iconic green paint couldn’t disguise that it still carried lugs for the centerstand. As beautiful as it looks to us today, it must have looked as equally unorthodox then. At the time, English-born racer Paul Smart was racing a Kawasaki H2R, derived from the notorious and viciously fast 750cc two-stroke triple, in the American F750 series. Smart was making barely enough money to live on, in spite of his considerable experience. Desperate for more income, Smart’s wife Maggie committed him to race at Imola before even consulting him.

As soon as Smart got off the plane in Italy, he was taken to the circuit at Modena to test the machine now identified with his name. He was met by a host of Ducati staff straight from the Borgo Panigale factory, including Franco Farné, head of the racing department, and Taglioni himself. Smart, exhausted from a long plane trip, dutifully—if not begrudgingly—put in two ten lap practice sessions. Entering the pits to an ecstatic crew, he was shocked to learn that he had just broken Agostini’s lap record. And on street tires at that. Things were looking up.

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Marketing at its finest: truck/display case filled with F750 racebikes.Photo: Ducati

Come race day, the circuit was teeming with 70,000 exuberant Italian race fans. Smart and teammate Bruno Spaggiari, one of Ducati’s small-capacity GP specialists, were fast straight away and lead much of practice. But they faced stiff competition from a deep field, including Yamaha-mounted Finnish GP star Jarno Saarinen and Giacomo Agostini on a fire-breathing MV Agusta. It should be noted that in this era, GP racers regularly raced in non-championship events such as the Imola 200 and Daytona 200.

Moto Guzzi, Norton, BSA, and Triumph also fielded factory efforts while Kawasaki, Honda, and BMW supplied semi-works machines. This was serious. Agostini started on pole and got an early lead, but his MV, based on a production shaft-drive model, had sub-par handling and dubious reliability. The MV engine failed in the early stages of the race, forcing Agostini to retire.

Smart and the F750 took over the lead, but it wasn’t long until it lost first gear, which would have been race done for machines with less tractable power. The inherent characteristics of the Ducati meant Smart could be aggressive on the throttle without disturbing the dead-stable chassis. At a high-speed circuit like Imola, these qualities were at their best advantage.

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Smart (no. 16) leads teammate Spaggiari (no.9) at the Variante Alta curve during the race.Photo: Ducati

Smart and Spaggiari rode in tandem for much of the race. Evenly matched till the end, Spaggiari went for one heroic last-lap move, trying around the outside coming out of the Aqua Minerale section. Going flat out, Smart drifted wide and blocked Spaggiari from making the move stick.

Above the roar of the bleating desmos, the duo could hear the thunderous noise of the crowd cheering them on to a Ducati one-two finish. At the checkered flag, they were way ahead of an atrophied field in which many succumbed to the toll of a hectic 200 miles.

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It's a Ducati one-two as Smart leads Spaggiari across the line.Photo: Ducati

It was a miracle the F750s finished, let alone were victorious. In today’s terms, this would be kind of like if Hyosung showed up on the World Superbike grid and stuck it to the established elite. Taglioni’s F750 prototype became the basis for the 750 Super Sport of 1974 as well as all subsequent desmo twins up to the introduction of the belt-driven Pantah engines.

The Imola 200 victory threw Ducati onto the world scene, changing its fortunes by changing the minds of riders and race fans across the globe. More importantly, it defined Ducati’s future trajectory and established the course that it is on to this day.

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Podium celebrations with Spaggiari dousing Smart in bubbly (Prosecco, most likely...). Spaggiari had reason to celebrate as the two agreed to split the purse if either of them won.Photo: Ducati

To endeavor against the odds and find success is a tenuous thing: one wheel straying off line, one simple part failing, one moment in time exchanged for another. When there’s boldness in the face of the most unlikely of odds, the margin is fine between glory and failure, lasting achievement and being resigned to history. Where would Ducati be had they lost that day in Imola in 1972?

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Smart in Action.Photo: Ducati