The 2023 MXGP season is just about to get underway, and although Tim Gajser’s injury means we won’t see it immediately, we have the prospect of seeing two five-time World Champions battling on the circuit at the same time once he does recover. This has only ever happened once before, that is where two riders who already have five world titles in the bag head into the season looking for a sixth. Here we look at the first two riders to ever hit the high-five figure, and see how their numbers stack up against their modern counterparts.
Words: Ben Rumbold | Images: Jack Burnicle
To those who saw him race, which includes your writer’s own father, Belgian legend Joel Robert (pronounced “Row-bear”) was as ground-breaking as James Stewart’s invention of the Bubba Scrub, if not more so. He rode at GP level from 1962 to 1976, seeing massive changes in machinery and equipment, and the old British Greeves and Czechoslovakian CZ bikes were simply not designed to be thrown around like a modern machine can be. To the awe of fans like my father, Joel started to launch his bikes from the tops of hills and rises in the terrain, as jumps were simply happy accidents of the natural lay of the land back then. Dad often recalls to me how he saw Joel tackle a road crossing up a hill at Dodington, the old British Grand Prix circuit in Wiltshire. Every rider would roll the throttle as they met the road, then get the power on again. Robert just launched it, aiming for a landing point much higher up the hill. He did a similar thing on a downhill section, making spectators’ jaws drop.
Quite often he was too demanding on the machines, little more than converted road bikes when he started, and they wouldn’t take the abuse! He had acres of natural ability on a motorcycle, and was a wild man away from it. On an American trip, he once made a mechanic dance on the roadside with his newly-acquired six-shooter and holster! He liked a drink, and often played like he was drunk on the start-line, putting his helmet on backwards, falling over when trying to start it, quite a performance! Although his younger compatriot Roger DeCoster soon noticed that it was an act, and that when he had drinks before a race with other riders, his beverage would usually end up slyly in a nearby plant pot. All these antics usually preceded an utter demolition of his rivals, leaving them wonder just how he could be so fast.
He was not without competition, however, as he came up against British legend Dave Bickers, and the first four-time World Champ, Torsten Hallman from Sweden. The 250cc class got its World Championship status in 1962, and was by no means inferior to the 500s, most of which didn’t go to the engine capacity limit anyway. Riding the Husqvarna from his homeland, Hallman for sure had the bike advantage over the British machines, but Joel caught him by surprise when he moved to CZ and won four of the first five 250 GPs in 1964. He won another four in a row, including the British round at road-race venue Cadwell Park, to make the title his own.
The 1965 series was narrowly won by Soviet hardman Victor Arbekov, also for CZ, with Robert 2nd. Hallman, the founder of clothing company Thor (Torsten Hallman Off-Road), was four years older than Robert and dug in after finishing 4th, behind Bickers, that season. Improving the Husky, he came out the better in a titanic struggle with Robert over an epic 15-round series in 1966 – although only the best 8 results counted back then to allow for mechanical problems. Hallman again won in 1967, by just two points as he and Robert won 5 apiece of the 12 rounds (the best 7 counting!).
From there, Robert began to utterly dominate the 250cc world, with two more world titles for CZ to round out the 1960s, then accepting the offer from new Japanese invaders Suzuki to ride their remarkable new yellow machines alongside fellow Belgian Sylvain Geboers. DeCoster was behind the pair in 1970 on his own CZ, before also turning yellow and heading to the 500cc class in 1971 with instant world title-winning success.
Robert won five straight world championships, totalling 50 Grand Prix wins – a record which stood for nearly thirty years until Stefan Everts matched it in 2001. As well as Geboers, he also held off the challenge of Swede Hakan Andersson, first on Husky and then on the new Yamaha. Hakan’s revolutionary monoshock Yam was the machine that ended Robert’s reign in 1973, although age and injury had also caught up with the six-time champ.
He was never tempted to move to the 500cc class, and Suzuki weren’t pushing him as Roger won three titles in a row for them while Robert was the primal force on a 250. He stayed on the yellow machines until the end of 1975, then campaigned the Austrian Puch machine in 1976 alongside Harry Everts. You will see the names Everts and Geboers in our further features this week!
How do Robert’s numbers compare to the other winners of five or more titles? Well he won his 5th title in his 10th GP year, faster than anyone until Antonio Cairoli (8th year) and Gajser who matched that number. He was the youngest 5-time champ at the age of 27, again until Cairoli and Gajser who got there at 26. Herlings was also 27 by the time he got number five. Only two other riders got to title number six – Everts and Cairoli – and while Cairoli was a year younger when he won his sixth, Everts was a year older and in his 14th season compared to Joel in his 11th. Even with more races per year they both sat on 54 wins at the end of that season, just four more than Joel’s 50.
His impact on the sport was immense, especially in his homeland, where he continued to work with riders almost up until he sadly passed away in early 2021. He will never be forgotten by Motocross fans.
The man they simply call “The Man” took a little longer than Robert to get to winning ways, but when he got hold of good machinery he certainly made it count, becoming the first five-time Champion in the 500cc class, and the only one to win all five exclusively on the big two-strokes. Nobody ever won more Grands Prix in the 500cc class. After a stunning career which he finished on a Honda in 1980, he then had probably the longest and most successful post-racing career of anybody on the planet, being a team manager for the mighty HRC in the 1980s, through to Suzuki and more recently of course with Red Bull KTM. Even at the age of 78 he could be seen with the headset, trackside at the Daytona Supercross. Nobody has lived at the very top of the sport for as long as Roger DeCoster.
After winning several Belgian championships and learning his bike skills with a lot of trials riding as a teenager, he started in GPs at the age of 21 in 1966, riding in both classes for CZ. He took his first GP win at the Italian round in 1968 on a 360cc CZ, then began an incredible run of success at the incredible Namur circuit for the Belgian GP. From 1969 to 1976 he was only beaten once at the Citadel, giving him seven wins in eight years – a record that only Stefan Everts matched in 2006.
Roger was never able to take a 250 GP win during his time with CZ, and when Suzuki came knocking with the offer a factory bike – the RN370 – for the 500cc class, he was ready to sign. He won on it instantly, taking the first GP of 1971, in Italy again, and a further five overall wins from the 12 rounds. Maico’s Ake Jonsson got to within four points when taking the best 7 results that counted, but there was no doubting who was champ. In 1972 he was even more dominant, firing in 6 GP wins out of 11 to win by a distance from former champ Paul Friedrichs.
1973 saw a close challenge from Maico teamster Willy Bauer, who even beat the maestro around Namur! In the first year when each moto was counted for points individually, Bauer suffered two mechanical failures in the sands of the final Dutch GP and lost out by two points! The following year, DeCoster was deposed by the mighty Finn Heikki Mikkola, but the Belgian returned with his most dominant season in 1975, winning 12 of the 24 motos to grab title number four.
The final title came in 1976, as Mikkola moved to the 250 class to win that title and Roger held back a late challenge from Dutch teammate Gerrit Wolsink to take championship number five. From there, now in his 30s, he suffered injuries to lose out to Mikkola again in 1977, and gradually faded back until he left Suzuki at the age of 1979. He had one fantastic last hurrah, however, with a stunning double moto win at his very last Grand Prix, the season closer in Luxembourg on the factory Honda.
Compared to his fellow five-time champs, DeCoster was the eldest of them to win his first crown, apart from Joel Smets, who also had to wait until his 6th GP season just like RDC. He also won less GPs through his five championship years than anyone apart from Georges Jobe. What the stats can’t tell you is the competition he was up against. Bauer was immense in 1973, and Mikkola at his very best, especially on the Yamaha, was one of the strongest riders of all time. As a complete lifetime of success both on-track and off, nobody can quite match The Man.
|Rider||Joel Robert||Roger DeCoster|
|Career Year (Age)||3rd (20)||6th (25)|
|GP Wins That Year||8/14 (57%)||5/12 (42%)|
|Career Wins To Date||8||8|
|Career Year (Age)||7th (24)||7th (26)|
|GP Wins That Year||6/14 (43%)||6/11(54%)|
|Career Wins To Date||26||14|
|Career Year||8th (25)||8th (27)|
|GP Wins That Year||6/12 (50%)||2/10 (20%)|
|Career Wins To Date||32||16|
|Career Year||9th (26)||10th (29)|
|GP Wins That Year||4/12 (33%)||7/12 (58%)|
|Career Wins To Date||36||26|
|Career Year||10th (27)||11th (30)|
|GP Wins That Year||8/12 (67%)||6/12 (50%)|
|Career Wins To Date||44||32|
|Career Year||11th (28)||–|
|GP Wins That Year||6/12 (50%)||–|
|Career Wins (Final Total)||50||36|