The Isle of Man in the Irish Sea is said to be the inspiration for the Island of Sodor in the popular children’s program Thomas the Tank Engine, and is a major tourism destination with attractions like the world’s largest working waterwheel. Each year, the island’s public roads play host to the legendary Isle of Man TT, and the road race’s history that spans over 100 years makes the island a revered location in the motorsports world.
Although news of the TT’s popularity had reached Japan in the late 1950s, Yamaha instead chose a different island for its first foray into international racing: Santa Catalina Island off the coast of California in the United States. The Catalina Grand Prix held there was not an actual GP event, but at the time, Yamaha was more focused on the major potential of the west coast market around Los Angeles. Upon hearing American motorcycle dealers tout the event as the most influential one on the coast and one that would have the biggest impact on the market, Yamaha decided to enter.
For the 8th Catalina Grand Prix in May 1958, the 349 machines entered were divided into seven classes. Yamaha entrusted one Japanese rider and four American riders with a version of the Asama Highlands Race factory-spec YD Racer modified with an upswept muffler and other changes to better suit the 2/3 gravel dirt course.
It became a battle of attrition as only 11 of the 32 machines in the 250cc class even finished the race. Of those, the Japanese rider Fumio Ito, had an early crash and remounted in last place, but pushed hard to finish an impressive 6th by the checkers. His strong performance did not go unnoticed by the media and the coverage became a springboard for Yamaha’s expansion into the U.S. market.
One year later in June 1959, Honda led the way for Japanese manufacturers by entering the Isle of Man TT—which was on the GP calendar at the time—and taking a noteworthy top-six finish and winning a team prize as well. For Yamaha, the experience of the Catalina GP served to confirm the potential of international markets and demonstrated how important racing could be in establishing a foothold. At the same time, those early Yamaha pioneers experienced the Kando* and sense of accomplishment that comes from competing and achieving in motorsport, and as if hungry for more, they formed a development team in August that same year to build a racebike capable of winning at the highest level—Grand Prix.
*Kando is a Japanese word for the simultaneous feelings of deep satisfaction and intense excitement that we experience when we encounter something of exceptional value.
In February 1961, Yamaha took part in the Daytona GP in Florida in the U.S., an event seen as a preamble to the official GP season. As the GP-spec RD48 was not ready yet, the team was forced to use a prototype machine powered by an engine from a production YDS-1. It nonetheless propelled Yoshikazu Sunako to a 5th place finish and this provided the impetus for an entry in the World Championship. Although two years behind Honda and one year behind Suzuki, both had only contested a single round of the championship, the Isle of Man TT; Yamaha had already decided to contest four rounds with a debut at the French GP. Fumio Ito raced the RD48 with its distinctly large front fairing to 8th in the 250cc class while Taneharu Noguchi also took 8th in the 125cc class on the RA41. While neither were point-scoring finishes, this first outing helped Yamaha get a feel for GP racing.
It was another rider staying in the same hotel as the Yamaha team that extended a helping hand: MV Agusta’s Gary Hocking. He drove the Yamaha riders around the course in his car, carefully pointing out braking points and the ideal lines to take. Whether it was a small gesture from MV Agusta—who were unbeatable at the time—to a newcomer or just the goodwill of a fellow racer, it was a huge saving grace for Yamaha and one that helped take Fumio Ito to a 6th place finish in the 250cc class. Yamaha’s first attempt at the TT ended with a point-scoring finish—a small but sure first step on its GP journey. This result was thanks to the bond shared among racers that often transcends their teams and manufacturers.
In the end, Yamaha entered all four rounds it had scheduled in 1961—the French GP, Isle of Man TT, the Dutch TT and Belgium GP—and learned both technological as well as cultural lessons through the experience. Hiroshi Hasegawa shared his thoughts many years later: “We were called the ‘factory team,’ but in some ways we were racing ‘incomplete’ motorcycles back then. The vibration was so terrible that I got large calluses on my hands, and I even rode sometimes with my feet on the crankcase.” Hitoshi Nagayasu, who later became Managing Director at Yamaha Motor, shared similar thoughts: “The riders, engineers, and mechanics all had their eyes on being number one in the world in their respective fields and we all worked tirelessly to achieve that. That was who we were back in the GPs of the 1960s.”
The culture was different as well. “Part suppliers would sometimes thank us with cash for putting their stickers on the fairing! That was a shock,” recalls former racer Yoshikazu Sunako. “Back then, we all thought it was just normal practice to put stickers on like that for free, so being thanked for it with money felt awkward for us. We were introduced to a new culture through things like that.” It was their first experience with the bonds the riders, team and sponsors form as they come together to go racing, a signature part of GP culture.
Yamaha’s GP ascent continued, claiming back-to-back 250cc Rider and Constructor titles in 1965. In 1967 and 1968, the brand secured consecutive 125cc Rider and Constructor titles in addition to recording a fourth straight Isle of Man TT win in the class (‘65–‘68). The 1964 season in the 250cc class in particular became a technology showdown between Yamaha’s 2-strokes and Honda’s 4-strokes, drawing added attention. With Yamaha starting to post consistently strong results, Honda countered by introducing the 4-stroke 6-cylinder RC165 that same year, and other manufacturers began following suit with more powerful, multi-cylinder racebikes.
In 1967, Yamaha entered with the new 4-cylinder 250cc V4-powered RD05A, but in an effort to halt the escalating trend toward more powerful multi-cylinder machines by the Japanese manufacturers, the FIM introduced new rules at the end of the year that would limit GP machines from 1970 onward to 6-speed gearboxes and single-cylinder engines in the 125cc class and twin-cylinder engines in the 250cc class. In response to this change, both Honda and Suzuki decided to withdraw from GP competition.
Yamaha, however, chose to remain and continued racing in 1968. British riders Phil Read and Bill Ivy went on to take 1st and 2nd, respectively, in the 250cc championship aboard the RD05A that had narrowly missed out on the title the year before.
From the time Yamaha first began international competition in 1961, the target has always been victory. From that singular goal, the results to date range from personnel development and technological innovations to real contributions to the business. Yamaha did cease participating in GPs as a factory in 1969 due to the upcoming rule change mentioned earlier, but had already firmly established itself as a presence in the GP paddock, and would switch its approach to supplying privateer teams with competitive production racebikes.