After the infamous death of their rider, Renzo Pasolini, at Monza in May 1973, the Aermacchi / Harley-Davidson factory hired Walter Villa to compete in the World Grand Prix motorcycle racing championship for 1974. During the winter of 1973 -1974, the factory made great progress in the development of their machines, in an effort to catch up to, and compete with the Yamahas that had dominated the 250cc class for years. Fighting off a fierce challenge from his team-mate, Michel Rougerie, and a host of Yamahas, Villa won the 1974 World Championship, including winning the first race of the year, in Italy, by 45 seconds! Villa repeated the World Championship victory in 1975 by winning 5 of the 6 races that he competed in, and clinching the championship with 3 races remaining!
Villa was highly competitive and always seeking an edge against his competition, both from within his team and from the Yamahas – so in 1975, he privately commissioned Bimota, who was gaining a reputation for building exceptional chassis, to build a special chassis for his Harley-Davidson 250cc engine.
In 1976, Villa won the first race of the season in France with his all-Harley- Davidson racebike, but was feeling tremendous competitive pressure. So, starting from the second race – the Gran Prix of Nations in Mugello – he switched to the frame that Bimota had built for him in 1975. In this first race weekend on the Bimota-HD, Walter had great difficulty in the Friday practice. But by Saturday he had adapted his riding style to take advantage of strengths of the new chassis and he won the pole, and then went on to dominate the race! He used the Bimota chassis for the rest of the championship and won his third World Title! He won seven of the eight races in which he competed in 1976 (finished 2nd in the eighth) – SIX OF THEM ON THE BIMOTA chassis! At the time it was difficult to publicize this information because Harley-Davidson wanted to take full credit for their racing program – and to this day, few people know about Bimota’s important contribution to this World Championship. In addition to winning the World Championship, Walter Villa won the 1976 250cc Italian GP Championship with the same motorcycle. Also in 1976, Gianfranco Bursi was competing in the Italian Junior Championship on an HDB2 (after Walter Villa's prototype frame, Bimota had started producing HDB2s along with YB2s – the chassis are very similar.) Morri tells the story, in the racing supplement to his book, L’era d’oro Bimota, that Bursi’s machine wore Bimota logos, and that the journalist Carlo Canzano photographed the staff of Harley-Davidson removing the Bimota logos from the fuel tank, only to have Bursi put them back on again – repeatedly! Bursi went on to win the 1976 Italian Junior Championship on his HDB2!
In 1977, Harley Davidson bought 6 Bimota chassis for their factory team and eventually sold 35 engines for the privateer HDB2s that Bimota was building. In the World Championship, Walter Villa missed a number of races in the early part of the season, but despite this, he and his teammate, Franco Uncini, won five of the 11 races (3 and 2 respectively.) In the end, Mario Lega, on his Morbidelli, outpointed them for the title – I say “outpointed” because Lega won only one race! – Uncini and Villa finished 2nd and 3rd in the championship (Villa most likely would have won his 4th championship if he had started all of the races or gotten support from his teammate.) By the end of 1977, Harley-Davidson had lost interest in grand prix racing and withdrew for 1978. The Harley-Davidson engine and Bimota chassis remained very competitive and many racers continued to compete with HDB2s in national championships until 1980.
Many famous racers competed on HDB2s. At the World Championship level were Villa, Uncini and Franco Bonera. At the national level were Bursi, Giancarlo Pelatti (Italian Junior Champion in 1977), Germano Conti (Italian Junior Champion in 1978), and Giuseppe Migliorini ((Italian Junior Champion in 1979). In fact, the Bimota HDB2 completely dominated the Italian Junior 250cc class from 1977-1979 – finishing 1st through 4th, 6th through 9th in 1977; 1st through 17th! in 1978; and 1st, 3rd through 15th in 1979!
So what gave Walter Villa his advantage with the Bimota chassis versus the Harley-Davidson factory chassis? First and most significant was the 13 Kg./28.6 Lb. weight reduction – an unbelievable amount for such a small racing motorcycle! It also positioned the fuel tank lower and permitted it to be narrower for a lower, more centralized center of gravity. Furthermore, it had a shorter wheelbase, different steering geometry, ride height adjustability and an exceptionally rigid swingarm. The stability of the HDB2 encouraged very high corner speed – and was described in the day as “running on rails” (LaMoto, 1977) and “difficult to catch, precise and well handling as it need be, less fatiguing to ride and with an intensely intuitive response.” (Motosprint, 1978)
The HDB2 featured here is from the Bimota Spirit Collection. It is completely original and unrestored except for re-painted wheels – necessitated because the magnesium was corroding as vintage magnesium does, and new tires added during the wheel re-painting process.
Photographs taken by Ron Smith - rfoto