In February 1955, the first 100 cc Gran Sport prototype appeared on the track in Modena.
The results of this initial trial were so encouraging that Ducati decided to speed up the release of the official debut of the special 100 cc Gran Sport, otherwise known as the Marianna, to coincide with a popular and difficult race, the Motogiro d'Italia.
The Motogiro d'Italia was an incredibly challenging race, lasting 9 days and covering hundreds of kilometres. In order to compete in the race, riders had to have great endurance; every day was a full day of riding and their only rest came during the short nights.
Winning the Motogiro was a victory for both the rider and the motorcycle. Ducati was sure that the Marianna had great potential, but it was less sure about its riders; the Ducati team was made up of young riders with great potential but without any significant racing experience such as Degli Antoni, Fantuzzi, Tartarini, Maoggi, Spaggiari, Villa and Scamandri.
At the age of 26, a previously unknown rider, Gianni Degli Antoni, was
victorious in the 1955 Motogiro d'Italia on a 100 cc GS. Degli Antoni
finished the race with an average speed of 98.90 km/hr, faster than most
of the 250 cc of the time and the more modern Benelli. Even Fabio
Taglioni, the creator of the 100 cc GS, was pleasantly surprised by the
extraordinary results of the rider and of the bike and Degli Antoni
quickly became the best rider the Ducati racing team ever had.
Ducati's approach to racing was rather unique: competitive racing was seen as a trial ground to develop and publicize Ducati's production models (as opposed to most of its competitors that created their racing bikes on the basis of already existing production modes). As a result, Ducati riders had to compete for the best possible results while also paying close attention to the way the bike was handling so that they could report back technical details about the performance of their motorcycles.
The 100 cc GS quickly became a favourite for motorcycle development techniques and for racing for its combination of reliability and high performance. While Taglioni and his team of mechanics meticulously tweaked the motors to perfection, the riders prepared themselves mentally and physically for the challenges facing them in these long races.
Stimulated by its success in the Italian national races, Ducati decided
to try its hand at the Gran Prix, an international championship that
took place all over Europe. The Gran Prix was one of the most exciting and stimulating races that
put Ducati's motors to the test and provided the opportunity to compete
against some of the best and most prestigious teams of the time. Other
competitors of the 1956 Gran Prix included MV Augusta, Mondial, Gilera,
the German company DKW and the young Spanish Montesa.
On February 25, 1956, with Degli Antoni leading the racing team, Ducati signed up to compete in the 125 cc category.
While Taglioni worked to perfect his Triple Camshaft Desmo , the new 125 cc, Degli
Antoni continued to compete and win on his 100 cc GS. He entered various
resistance races and constantly finished well; in the 1400 km
Milano-Taranto race in June, 1955 he won the 100 cc category with an
astounding average of 103.172 km/hr. Taglioni created a new motorcycle in record speed so that the Ducati
team would be ready to compete on the Hedemora circuit in the Swedish
On July 14th and 15th, 1956, with more than 40,000 spectators along
the Swedish track, Ducati was ready. Although Degli Antoni was still
fairly unfamiliar with his new 125 GP, he was up to the challenge. The
day before the competition the skies opened up and there was a huge
summer storm, leaving behind a pleasant temperature that left the whole
team in a great mood, ready for the Gran Prix. As the race began, Olle Nygren, the Swedish champion, took the lead. He
was also riding a Ducati 125 cc GP. Having watched his Italian rival's
extraordinary time trials, Nygren knew that he had to put some distance
between them straight off the bat, or else he wouldn't have any chance
to win the race. His initial optimism was short-lived and after just a
few curves, Degli Antoni proved his superiority and passed to the front
of the pack, eventually finishing 3 seconds in front of Nygren. With
his classy look (always the stylish Italian, Degli Antoni rode with a
red and white striped helmet that matched the stripes on his bike),
Degli Antoni finished the race in 1st place at a record-breaking speed of 48 minutes and 8.1 seconds. With this spectacular victory, Degli Antoni and Ducati won the respect of their competition. This was Degli Antoni's happiest moment in his racing career and he became known as an "unbeatable rider."
In order to keep up his good reputation, Degli Antoni began to practice intensively for the next race scheduled in Italy, two months after the Gran Prix. Sadly, Degli Antoni never competed again. On August 7, 1956, while training at the Monza circuit, Degli Antoni's life was tragically cut short. He lost control of his motorcycle and crashed in the infamous Lesmo curve and died instantly upon impact. He was only 27.
The racing continued and Alberto Gandossi took Degli Antoni's place on
the Ducati team. Even with the strength of Taglioni's 125 Desmo GP, at
the Italian Gran Prix the following year, Gandossi was unable to
replicate Degli Antoni's victory. Although Gandossi and Nygren did
their best in the race, the Ducati team sorely felt the loss of Degli
Antoni, an incredibly talented and charismatic rider.
In 1957, Ducati decided to take a break from racing to dedicate its resources and energy to the development of new motorcycles and to the search for new riders.
Originally published in the Passione Ducati Encyclopedia by Altaya/De Agostini and reprinted with the publisher's permission.