When it comes to sending shockwaves through the MotoGP world, few winters can match the 500cc off-season of 1988-89.

Riders switching teams at the eleventh hour was nothing new. But none quite held the surprise of Eddie Lawson's sensational switch from Yamaha to Honda, a decision that set off a sensational end-of-year clamber in the rider market and brought Freddie Spencer out of retirement.

Two of America's finest racing exports, Lawson and Spencer had seen their fortunes differ drastically in the years following their epic '81 AMA Superbike bow. But by the close of the decade, with six world championships between them, there was a belief they would once again face-off for the highest honours in motorcycle racing.

Within the months of October and November, Lawson swapped the luminous orange of Marlboro Yamaha for the sophisticated blue and white of Rothmans Honda, with Spencer coming out of retirement to take Lawson's place at Giacomo Agostini's team.

Lawson had been a Yamaha rider since his '83 debut, while Spencer's only non-Honda GP start was a one-off Yamaha ride in 1980. 'Fast Freddie' was ending an eighth month retirement, having missed the whole of the '88 season, to line-up for the team he once called his greatest threat.

Lawson was contracted to an Erv Kanemoto-run outfit that was, crucially, outside the HRC garage and given enough technical freedom to allow the architect of Spencer's stellar acts in the early '80s to flourish. Meanwhile Spencer was now working with Kel Carruthers, a man who steered Roberts and Lawson towards victories (and, in 1984, a title) at Spencer's expense. It seemed as though the grid had been reversed, turned upside down and inside out.

The episode was an apt curtain raiser for a season that still stands as one of the finest in the championship's 66-year history. It ended with one of the two standing tall as king of the world, while the other exited stage left mid-season, his stellar reputation tarnished. Unknown at the time, a series of events had been brewing for several months and the reasons behind the moves ran long and deep in their complexity.

Lawson leads Gardner, 1988 Italian 500GP.
Lawson versus Gardner
Few saw Lawson's move coming. Take Wayne Gardner, HRC's number one rider, for instance. As the Australian prepared to board a Japan-bound plane at the end of a long and trying season, a news kiosk headline caught his eye. Honda, his employer of six years, had recruited his archrival and it had all been done behind his back.

Gardner's anger at being kept in the dark was justified. He had given his all in a spirited title defence that required serious bravery and some engineering genius from Jeremy Burgess to tame an unruly NSR. "So much for loyalty," he told local press. "I have been riding my butt off for Honda while they have been working on this for months...they didn't even have the courtesy to tell me before I read it in the papers." It wasn't just that Gardner had been kept in the dark. Honda was essentially signing his main adversary. A rider with whom Gardner shared a deeply uneasy relationship and who had wrestled the world crown from his grasp just a month before.

The pair's differences stemmed, first of all, from opposing characters. Hailing from Southern California, Lawson was the personification of So Cal cool. Weighing up every word as though it were a carefully thought-out on-track move. Lawson's quietness and unwillingness to engage with the media belied a fierce competitiveness and desire to improve. Until that moment, every championship failure pushed him to further success.

"I think it's absolutely necessary to suffer when things don't go as you planned," he later said. His was a hard-fought road to the top, and Lawson hadn't given up on improving just yet.

On the other hand Gardner, to use Wayne Rainey's words, was "a cowboy... a bulldog" who certainly wasn't lacking in ferocity (or bravery). Australia's first premier-class champion wasn't shy in flaunting his ability either and particularly outspoken at detailing the reasons why he had lost. A trait that irked his rival. Gardner's 'It's mine in 89' t-shirt adorned for the podium at the season-ending race in Brazil demonstrated a headstrong self-belief.

Lawson was and always has been adamant that the press blew their relationship out of proportion. "He does his thing and I do mine. We'll leave it at that," he enigmatically stated at the tail end of 1988. Yet their mutual disdain was there for all to see during the thrilling conclusion to Lawson's third championship year. By the penultimate round tensions boiled over with the pair crudely gesturing at one another during qualifying. A day later they looked in opposite directions as they climbed the podium.

From the notorious rider safety advert filmed in '88 - that involved the pair icily staring one another down - to the countless post-race ceremonies conducted in awkward silence. You didn't need to be an expert in body language to recognise this stretched far beyond one wanting to beat the other.

By season's end, Lawson was so incensed that Gardner claimed the number one spot in Motocourse's much-coveted rider ranking he took great delight in telling the annual's future editor, Michael Scott, that his complimentary copy had been quickly dispensed into his alighted fireplace. According to Lawson "It burned pretty good" too.

That Honda would bring Yamaha's three-time champ into the tightly woven outfit centralised around Gardner's excellence, bordered on incomprehensible.

Gardner, Lawson and MacKenzie, 1988 US 500GP.
Lawson and Yamaha
Lawson's desire to test his ability on his main rival's bike was one thing. But his deteriorating relationship with Yamaha went further. By the summer of '88 he had grown tired of the factory's complacency after success, a fact echoed by his year-on year-off title pattern. Niall Mackenzie once commented that Yamaha "always worked hard when [it] had had [its] butt kicked." Yet not quite as hard when it was doing the butt kicking. Well, not as much as Lawson would have liked anyway.

The double AMA Superbike champion had attacked the '88 season with renewed vigour. His nose put out of joint by Gardner's debut crown and loss of second place to Randy Mamola's Dunlop-shod Lucky Strike Yamaha at the end of a somewhat erratic '87. Not since his debut year in the class of kings had Lawson failed to finish the year as top Yamaha.

Spurred on by the added depth of field - including Rainey, Schwantz and Magee - plus advancements in tyre technology, Lawson and Gardner skimmed seconds off lap and race records throughout '88. By Austria Lawson had claimed his 23rd grand prix win, taking him above Kenny Roberts as the most successful American in GPs - and the third best rider of all time. By now his 'Steady Eddie' nickname did him a disservice. Lawson could match anyone's blinding speed and outdo it with devastating consistency. Leading one time team-mate Roberts to comment that, by 1989, "he didn't have any flaws in his make up."

Gardner, Lawson, 1988 Austrian 500GP. Sarron falls in background.

Lawson had complained of the YZR-500's carburetion through 1988, an issue the team never truly sorted. The factory's inability to address such problems was an indication of a potential defocusing ahead of '89. Cracks in their relationship appeared at the penultimate race of '88 in Brno, where Lawson needed to finish second to wrap up the championship.

There would be no champagne-laden euphoria at claiming his third crown however, as his annoyance spilled over into the press. After a radiator hose split in morning warm-up, Roberts Yamaha rider Rainey pushed Lawson all the way for second in the race. Something the newly crowned champ didn't take kindly to. "I didn't think we were going to get second place. It looked like Team Yamaha against me," he said wryly in parc ferm?.

Lawson, 1988 Austrian 500GP.

In short, Lawson was performing at the peak of his powers in '88 and putting more into racing than he ever had. "I've never trained that hard in my life," he told ITV. "I'd wake up at five in the morning and go for a marathon run, bicycle, and all I thought about was Kevin, Rainey, Gardner." When it became apparent that his physical and mental exerts weren't being matched by the factory, he decided to look elsewhere.

"...Mostly it was a feeling I had that Yamaha was not really behind me the way I felt they should be," he told the Los Angeles Times in April 1989. "After six years, maybe the team got too relaxed. I don't really know what happened, but it didn't seem as though the team was working together with the same purpose."

In fact Lawson sounded out Kanemoto as early as July, when the paddock assembled for the Belgian Grand Prix. Kanemoto revealed to Cycle News scribe Henny Ray Abrams that, to his surprise, the Yamaha man voiced an interest in putting a team together for the following year. In an interview with Superbike Planet the Japanese mentioned HRC initially weren't keen, but warmed to the idea when Kanemoto suggested running the operation outside the HRC garage. Lawson had always admired Kanemoto. A desire to work with the American remained but one interaction with team manager Agostini would ultimately push him into making the jump.

Fanali, Carruthers, Agostini, Lawson, 1988 Brazilian 500GP.
The Agostini Incident
The final straw came when Lawson sat down after the circus' trip to Goiania to thrash out a new deal for '89. Upon finding out that his team had courted GP starlet Kevin Schwantz towards the end of the year Lawson held his tongue. But Agostini, a notoriously ruthless negotiator when it came to rider contracts and delegating funds, stirred Lawson further when discussing monetary specifics. "Agostini...started playing games, saying stuff like, 'I don't know if we can pay you the same as we did in 1988.' I'd just won my third title, so that was tough to hear," he told Cycle World in 2009.

In Kanemoto, Lawson had not only found someone with the same fearsome work ethic but also a composed, thoughtful temperament similar to his own. The opportunity to work with such a figure, on a bike which for years enjoyed its own 'Honda lane' due to its top speed, was too good to turn down.

Lawson and Kanemoto, 1989 Belgian 500GP.

To dampen the occasional whisper that Lawson was disillusioned, manager Gary Howard said his man would re-sign for Yamaha "unless things fall apart" at the start of October. Upon telling Marlboro of his potential move to enemy ranks, Philip Morris' firm offered a highly lucrative counter. But Lawson's mind was made up. His move to Honda was leaked to the press on October the 18th, ironically while he attended a Marlboro photo shoot.

The deal worked out at around two million dollars a year. He eventually "rode for less money" than he would have done had he stayed with Yamaha, according to an ITV interview held some years after.

Spencer, 1989 Japanese 500GP.
Spencer's return
Just as the thought of Lawson lining up for his long-time rivals was becoming less alien, the GP community got another jolt. This one coming as even more of a surprise.

"With any luck, we haven't seen the last of him", read Peter Clifford's Motocourse tribute on Freddie Spencer's glittering career at the end of '88. The season in which he'd announced his retirement. Little did he realise that Spencer would be back in the GP fray within weeks of the annual's publication.

Typically laconic, Lawson couldn't understand the fuss his move had generated. Agostini and Carruthers were forgiven for reacting differently, the latter telling Superbike Planet their former man "had done the dirty on us." Lawson had been a guaranteed championship challenger since '84. And with Schwantz, Rainey and Gardner already signed up, Marlboro Yamaha were going to need to take a punt on a joker in the pack.

In a turbulent month for the team, rumours came and went with each weekly publication. Carruthers was supposedly joining Pepsi Suzuki, while up-and-coming Australian Mick Doohan was touted as Lawson's replacement. Having impressed Japanese bosses at an end of season F1 race at Sugo, Yamaha were keen to sign. But, again, Honda got there first. Next on the shopping list was 250 runner-up Juan Garriga, but the Spaniard chose to contest Sito Pons in the quarter litre category for another year. They then looked at Magee, unhappy and burnt out after a year away from home and under Kenny Robert's demanding glare. Yet Lucky Strike wouldn't let up on their prized asset, not least to a heavyweight rival like Marlboro.

"God Bless America and Freddie Spencer" banner, 1988 US 500GP.

There was one man few would have thought of. Spencer officially retired at the beginning of '88 after two desperate, problematic years that contained numerous absences and just three race finishes. The effects of tendonitis and a trapped nerve had dogged his fitness. There was plenty of cause to question his motivation too. His days aboard two-wheels were seemingly over until a chance meeting with Carruthers.

Post-retirement, Spencer turned his attentions to four-wheels and it was at a Pro Series event in California where Carruthers approached him. It was certainly a gamble but one worth taking in the Australian's eyes. And in reality Marlboro Yamaha was in a state of flux with no big-name alternatives. On the occasions Spencer had shown up during his ultimately failed '87 comeback, there were rare flashes of brilliance. With proper mentoring, an intensive fitness regime and a new environment designed around him, who was to say Spencer couldn't replicate the form that took him to an extraordinary championship double in 1985?

"It was only after leaving racing that I realised how much I missed different things about it," he told Michael Scott at his official unveiling in the January of '89. The press had heard it all before. But with memories of his masterful exploits still relatively fresh in the mind, many were willing to give him one more chance. Especially after having a year out to hone his fitness and focus.

Spencer didn't take much convincing and he signed on the 19th November. Unsurprisingly, scepticism surrounded the move. It was rumoured he had fallen on financial difficulties during his four-wheel venture and Marlboro's ostentatious flashing of the chequebook had been enough to ease the strain.

Cadalora, Mackenzie and Spencer, 1989.

Alarm bells were ringing as Spencer arrived an hour late for his press unveiling in Italy, a day after missing a photo appointment and welcome dinner. But Spencer's words seemed genuine. The wrist that had plagued his last two years in racing was totally healed and Spencer was here to remind Lawson, Gardner and co. that the most prodigious talent of the '80s was far from finished.

Again, unsurprisingly, Honda wasn't enamoured with the decision. Spencer had previously requested to run his own team with their bikes but his request was denied after a bustling absence sheet in '87. "As far as me going to Yamaha, HRC had lots of chances to prevent that," he told Scott.

Doohan, Gardner and Lawson, 1989 Australian 500GP.

Honda would console themselves with not only Lawson but also Doohan, who would win five world championships and 54 premier class wins. But that signing, which entailed Jeremy Burgess moving from Gardner's garage to join the GP rookie, was a mere blip in the press considering events elsewhere.

Like Spencer, Niall Mackenzie jumped ship to rejoin his '87 team-mate in Agostini's outfit. Meanwhile highly gifted three-time AMA Grand National champion Bubba Shobert swelled American presence by joining Cabin Honda. There were also moves for Ron Haslam (Elf Honda to Pepsi Suzuki) and Dominique Sarron (250 to Elf Honda), ensuring 13 grand prix winners (past and future) lined up at Suzuka for the first race in March '89.

Lawson, 1989 Swedish 500GP.
The Lawson-Honda-Kanemoto relationship took several rounds (and several chassis configurations) to click. But when Lawson wasn't winning he was characteristically collecting podiums and points. By the French Grand Prix in July Lawson was regularly taking on Rainey and Schwantz for wins. His relentless championship pursuit of Rainey pressured his ex-AMA team-mate into a crucial mistake in Sweden. From there Lawson's fourth premier-class title was never in doubt. Cementing his place with Duke, Surtees and Hailwood among the pantheon of quadruple 500 champions. This achievement had no predecessor either. Lawson was the first rider in history to win back-to-back titles with different manufacturers.

Lawson, Rainey and Schwantz, 1989 Brazilian 500GP.

In total contrast Spencer's Yamaha honeymoon didn't last long. He failed to show for pre-season tests, setting the tone for a year in which the occasional flicker of old magic was outweighed by no-shows and underwhelming performances. Spencer started the year encouragingly, leading the field away at Suzuka. But after auspicious performances in Australia and Jerez it became onerous to watch a one-time great fighting at the foot of the top ten. By Donington Park Agostini had had enough. It would be three years until Spencer was seen in GPs again.

Carruthers and Spencer, 1989 Belgian 500GP.

Agostini's team was never the same. Its poor showing in '89 convinced Marlboro to move its financial clout to Kenny Roberts' burgeoning squad, leaving the Italian without bikes and financial support. The Italian's days running a team in the premier-class with the Japanese marque were numbered.

It would be flippant to claim grand prix had never seen the like of Lawson's move before. Hailwood and Agostini broke off relations with MV in favour of its Japanese rivals' nascent 500 projects after years of overwhelming success. No one saw that coming. Both Geoff Duke and Valentino Rossi caused stirs by trading manufacturers in their respective decades of dominance too.

Yet none set off the kind of dramatic chain of events following Lawson's move.

Maybe if Marc Marquez suddenly left Honda for Yamaha, causing Nakamoto and Suppo to lure a certain Australian out of retirement there could be an off-season to rival it. Well, one can always dream...

1989 500cc World Championship

1. Eddie Lawson USA Honda 228 points
2. Wayne Rainey USA Yamaha 210.5
3. Christian Sarron FRA Yamaha 165.5
4. Kevin Schwantz USA Suzuki 162.5
5.Kevin MageeAUS Yamaha 138.5
6.Pierfrancesco Chili ITA Honda 122
7.Niall Mackenzie GBR Yamaha 103
8.Ron Haslam GBR Suzuki 86
9.Mick Doohan AUS Honda 81
10.Wayne Gardner AUS Honda 67

16.Freddie Spencer USA Yamaha 33.5

Lawson, Rainey, Schwantz and Spencer lead start of 1989 Belgian 500GP.