Sunday, April 15, 2012

When Cagiva went GP racing

Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing
Back in the early 1990s, John Kocinski and Eddie Lawson actually won a race or two aboard Cagiva's fiery, red, utterly gorgeous 500cc GP racebikes
Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing

Set up in 1950 by Giovanni Castiglioni in Varese, Italy, Cagiva started with making metal components and moved on to making motorcycles in 1978. The company went on to become a bit of a European motorcycle industry powerhouse, buying out Ducati and Moto Morini in 1985, Husqvarna in 1987 and MV Agusta in 1991.

During an extensive restructuring of the company in 1999, however, MV Agusta came out on top as the company’s primary motorcycle brand and the Cagiva name went into gradual decline. They were still building some 125s until 2-3 years ago but have now stopped completely – Cagiva motorcycles are no longer being produced.

It does seem weird that a brand which at one time owned Ducati, Husqvarna and MV Agusta, and which was even present in 500cc motorcycle GP road racing in the 1980s and 1990s, no longer exists, but for Cagiva, that’s how the dice rolled. For us, more than their street bikes, what’s truly fascinating is their 1990s 500cc GP racing bikes, which were ridden by riders like Virginio Ferrari, Jon Ekerold, Marco Lucchinelli, Randy Mamola, Eddie Lawson, John Kocinski, Mat Mladin and Doug Chandler.

Cagiva’s 500cc GP effort began in 1981 but the early years were pretty disappointing for the Italian company, with lackluster results and poor performances from its riders. To see if it was really their bikes that were not performing or whether it was their riders who simply weren’t trying hard enough, Cagiva got ‘King’ Kenny Roberts to test one of their 500cc GP racebikes at Misano.

The King went on to do a best lap time of 1:21:86, only half a second slower than Freddie Spencer’s fastest lap time on Misano in 1985, aboard his Honda NS500. Much later, in the early-1990s, Kenny Roberts – working closely with Yamaha – also helped Cagiva again in their development efforts. King Kenny and Yamaha even provided Cagiva with one of their YZR500 racebikes, allowing the Italian company to take the bike to their workshop for close scrutiny and analysis. The Japanese admired Cagiva’s efforts and wanted the company to succeed in GP racing because they believed it would be good for the 500cc class as a whole.

Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing
Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing

But coming back to the late-1980s, even after it was ‘proven’ that their bike wasn’t exactly slow, things only meandered along for Cagiva until 1988, when they hired Randy Mamola (who had finished 2nd in the 500cc world championship in 1980, 1981, 1984 and 1987) and Raymond Roche as their riders. The 1988 bike – Cagiva V588 – had engineering inputs from Ferrari, beautiful bodywork designed by Massimo Tamburini and the best components money could buy. The results, however, were still only average, with Mamola taking just one podium position during the season, at the Belgian GP.

Despite great expectations, 1989 also did not bring much in the way of results, with Mamola building a reputation for being more interested in showboating rather than in winning races. Claudio Castiglioni, who had started the year by saying ‘This is the season of truth,’ finally admitted the V589 bike had various technical problems, including incorrect weight distribution and inconsistent power delivery.

1990 was yet another season fraught with disappointments and there was some talk of Cagiva quitting GP racing for good. But the team soldiered on, keeping Mamola and adding Ron Haslam and Alex Barros to their lineup of riders. In the second half of the 1990 season, Cagiva – working closely with Ferrari Engineering – rolled out a new bike with a light, stiff, carbonfibre chassis and some significant improvements to V590’s 500cc two-stroke engine.

In 1991, Cagiva hired the services of four-time (1984, 86, 88 and 89) 500cc world champ, Eddie Lawson, while still retaining Alex Barros as their other rider. With inputs from Lawson, Cagiva made some major changes to the bike’s (the V591) chassis, modifying the steering geometry and repositioning the engine in the chassis, but the engine was still low on power (169bhp at 12,000rpm) and acceleration was deemed inadequate. Still, the Fiat-sponsored Cagiva did show improvements in performance and Eddie Lawson took 6th place in the 500cc world championship that year.

Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing
Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing

1992 saw the introduction of some major changes, with Giacomo Agostini coming in to manage Cagiva’s 500 GP team and the team switching from Michelin to Dunlop tyres on the V592 GP bike. During the year, Lawson managed to win the 500cc Hungarian GP, at the Hungaroring Circuit, perhaps largely due to making a smart choice with his tyres. ‘To be honest with you, yeah, it was fun. We won a GP but it was under such special conditions that you can’t say that’s a win. We lined up with cut slicks and it started raining! Those were special circumstances,’ recalls Eddie, who anyway got a Ferrari Testarossa from Claudio Castiglioni as a gift in recognition of Cagiva’s first ever 500cc GP race win.

Lawson retired from 500cc GP racing at the end of the 1992 season and in 1993, Cagiva’s rider lineup included Americans John Kocinski and Doug Chandler and Australian Mat Mladin. With its ‘big bang’ engine, electronically-controlled exhaust valves, electronically controlled suspension and host of expensive titanium parts, the Cagiva C593 GP racebike was a high-tech machine. And indeed, Kocinski won the USGP at Laguna Seca that year – Cagiva’s first 500cc GP victory in dry conditions.

Next year, in 1994, John Kocinski again raced with Cagiva, winning the Australian GP on the utterly gorgeous C594 racebike. With another six podium finishes after the Australian GP, Kocinski ended the season with third place in the 500cc championship – it was Cagiva’s best ever year in 500cc GP racing and also, ironically, their last. Due to financial and other pressures, Cagiva decided to withdraw from GP racing after the 1994 season. The C594 was raced just once in 1995, in the Italian round of the 500cc class, after which Cagiva never raced in the GPs again.

It’s a pity that lack of financial resources forced Cagiva out of GP racing because by the early-1990s, after more than a decade of development, their 500cc machines were actually getting quite good and inching closer to the Japanese bikes. The 1994 Cagiva C594 weighed 130 kilos and its carbureted, liquid-cooled 498cc V4 produced 175 horsepower at 12,600rpm and 105Nm of torque at 12,100 revs. It rolled on 17-inch light alloy Marchesini wheels shod with Michelin rubber and had Brembo brakes (twin 320mm carbon discs at front, with 4-piston calipers) and fully adjustable Öhlins suspension. The bike’s top speed was about 300km/h. If only Cagiva had the financial strength to keep going, the history of 500cc grand prix racing in the mid-1990s and beyond might have been written differently.


Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing
Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing Cagiva 500cc motorcycle GP racing

Roland Brown’s Cagiva C593 riding impression

In 1994, motorcycle journalist Roland Brown got to ride Cagiva’s 1993 GP bike – the C593 – at Misano, and was quite impressed with the machine. Here are some excerpts from what he had to say about the bike:

John´s name and number-three plate are on the fairing of the familiar red machine that sits in the pit garage of a cold and windy Misano racetrack. The Cagiva looks small and muscular. Perhaps the C593 lacks the sleek style of some previous years, but it´s streamlined and supremely purposeful, from the big air intake in its nose to the twin carbon tailpipes exiting under the seat.

Pressurising the airbox gave an important mid-season power boost to a motor that now puts out a little over 175bhp at 12,500rpm, slightly down on Honda´s NSR and Suzuki´s RGV, but roughly level with Yamaha’s YZR. It’s an 80-degree V4 with twin counter-rotating crankshafts (like all but the Honda) and, naturally, a ‘big-bang’ firing order. Carburetion is by four 36mm Mikunis, with fuel-injection a distinct possibility for next season. Cagiva have tried a carbonfibre frame in the past, but as usual this bike´s chassis is based around enormous twin beams of finely formed aviation alloy. Thick gold inverted Ohlins forks run down from magnesium triple-clamps to a Ferrari-built, carbonfibre front wheel with carbon discs and four-pot Brembo calipers.

Alongside the right fork stanchion is a rod to record suspension movement for the data-logging system; bolted to the top yoke is a hydraulic shock preload adjuster; on the right handlebar is a disconnected three-way switch that once worked Showa´s abortive electronic damping.

The bike drips with carbon-fibre, from small details like the tacho body and clip-on handlebars to the massive swing arm and all bodywork, including the self-supporting seat unit. A red-jacketed mechanic removes the tyre-warmers, bumps the bike into life and warms its engine, sending the evocative smell of racing oil wafting through the garage.

Misano´s surface is cold and dusty but another rider has the thankless task of getting the tyres – a treaded front, due to the conditions, and big 180-section rear slick – fully up to temperature. He comes in shaking his head at the slippery track, and making tucking-in motions with his hands. Just what´s needed before my first ever ride on a 500cc GP bike. But there´s no time to waste and shortly afterwards I´m off, being pushed down the pit-lane, the motor reluctant to fire at first, then rasping into life and thrusting me out on to the empty circuit.

I´m expecting a snarling, fire-breathing monster of a bike, and as Misano´s long, decreasing-radius left-hander gradually unwinds I discover that the Cagiva can certainly be that. I´ve ridden down Misano´s back straight many times on a variety of fast roadbikes. Now I discover that those bikes weren´t really fast, and that on a factory 500, Misano doesn´t have a back straight. So violent is the C593´s acceleration out of the last, 100mph-plus left-hand kink that almost instantly the bike is approaching the next tight turn at warp speed, and it´s time to get back on the brakes.

So I grab the lever and flick down a few gears, and the Cagiva sheds speed with amazing rapidity, tracking through the second-gear left-hander with marvellous stability and control despite my ragged approach and extreme caution with the throttle. For the first few laps I´m barely conscious of the handling; the bike simply goes where it´s pointed, steering easily, gripping surely, remaining stable despite my often less-than-smooth manoeuvring.

It´s supremely and surprisingly easy to ride reasonably fast, thanks partly to the wonderfully refined nature of the big-bang motor. Before the 1992 season, factory 500s were peaky beasts whose power came in with a rush. Even the non-big-bang Yamaha motor used by privateers last season is far less tractable than a modern factory V4 like the 593, which pulls as strongly and smoothly from 4000rpm as most roadbikes.

Considerably more smoothly than many, in fact. At a shade over 130kg, the C593 is barely heavier than Cagiva´s sweet-handling Mito 125 race-replica roadster. As well as being far more tractable than the 125, the 500 has a much stiffer frame, plus infinitely more sophisticated suspension and brakes. Provided the throttle was never opened far, a relative motorcycling novice could circulate Misano all day dreaming of dicing with Schwantz and Doohan.

The reality, as my brief burst of last-bend heroics illustrated so vividly, is very different indeed. Mentioning that the C593 is over five times as powerful as an unrestricted Mito doesn´t sound so outrageous if you say it quickly. But its phenomenal blend of poise and power-to-weight ratio ensures that this tiny racebike accelerates, stops and turns with a speed way beyond the nerve and reflexes of even most expert riders. Treat it right, and on a good day it would be the fastest thing on two wheels around this racetrack. One false move, and it would flick you into the trackside dust in a flash.

If proof were needed of the skill required to ride the C593 at grand prix pace, it was provided by Cagiva´s data-logging system. Never mind the fact that, after ten laps, my best time of 1min 56sec was over 20 seconds slower than Doug Chandler´s best at the pre-grand prix IRTA test-session. More revealing was the throttle-position graph, which showed that while I´d held the Cagiva´s Mikunis fully open for a few seconds just once a lap, Chandler had been flat-out, at least momentarily, at five different points on the track.

It´s a humbling experience, riding a factory GP machine like the C593. The bike is so good that it can give you a momentary false sense of security. But try pushing it harder, using it in the way it was built to be used, and you´re very abruptly reminded that ordinary mortals can only hope to scratch the surface of its awesome potential. After riding the Cagiva C593, I have slightly more idea of what John Kocinski was dealing with when he won the US Grand Prix on this bike. How he did it is more of a mystery than ever.

Barry Sheene talks about Cagiva's 1991 500cc GP bike...

Photo copyright for some pics used here belongs to Phil Aynsley Photography. Other pictures are from miscellaneous sources and copyright information is unknown.

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