1963-1964: Yamaha’s first Grand Prix and first World Championship
If Yamaha’s rise to dominance of the Japanese racing scene had been meteoric, the factory didn’t take much longer to conquer the 250cc World Championship – taking its first GP win in 1963 and its first world title the very next summer.
Yamaha made its GP debut at Clermont-Ferrand in May 1961, scoring eight-place finishes in the 125 and 250 GPs, with the rather basic RA41 single and RD48 twin. Not bad, considering that this was the factory’s first serious outing on a full tarmac course and that this initial foray into GP racing was a humble affair. Yamaha’s first GP team had no European workshop, just three trucks chugging around the Continent, carrying 13 riders and crew, plus bikes and spares. And communication with the other side of the world wasn’t easy – the home-sick team’s only links to Iwata were dodgy phone line and telexes; parts were ordered and collected at airports across Europe.
Yamaha sat out the 1962 season, returning the following spring with an all-new 250. Developed from the RD48, the RD56 was Yamaha’s first fully competitive GP bike. The air-cooled, disc-valve twin produced an impressive 55 horsepower at 11,500 rpm and used a twin-loop ‘Featherbed’-style steel chassis.
It was both lightning quick and a good handler. Fumio Ito took second place finishes in his first two outings, then scored Yamaha’s first GP win at Spa-Francorchamps, leading home team-mate Yoshikazu Sunako for a one-two.
The victory followed an all-night session that solved a carburetion glitch, which had afflicted the RD56 on Spa’s flat-out straights. Ito, who had first proven his skills on the Fuji and Asama dirt tracks, went on to win at an astonishing 189 kmh / 117 mph. After the race, team manager Hiroshi Naito said: “Engines are living things, I’ve come to feel this more than ever.”
A few months later Yamaha took the next step to global glory, hiring hard-riding Briton Phil Read for the 1964 250 series. The new relationship quickly blossomed, Read winning five GPs to comfortably wrest the riders’ crown from Jim Redman and the constructors’ title from Honda, repeating both successes in 1965. Yamaha was now very much a world force.