Nuvolari, Rosemeyer, Surtees and Hailwood were bike stars who made seamless transitions to four wheels, from leaning to sliding. But a two-wheel hero’s speed, balance and competitive edge doesn’t guarantee four-wheel success. Fate can play a hand, as Colin Goodwin explains
Lancashire’s Geoff Duke was at the top of motorcycle racing at the end of the 1951 season. He’d just won the 350 and 500cc world championships for Norton and, to round the year off, had been voted Sportsman of the Year. The trophy was awarded in a ceremony at London’s Savoy Hotel where Lord Brabazon was among the guests.
“Lord Brabazon asked me if I’d ever thought of having a go at four wheels,” remembers Duke, “which I hadn’t at the time, though I enjoyed driving fast cars on the road. Lord Brabazon said he would get in touch with Aston Martin and organise a try-out in one of their sportscars.”
John Wyer, then Aston’s racing manager, had already seen Duke in action at MIRA’s (Motor Industry Research Association) small circuit near Hinckley, Leicestershire. Wyer remembered the occasion in the book Racing with the David Brown Aston Martins: “I had met Geoff Duke when he was testing Nortons for Joe Craig [Wyer’s equivalent at Norton]. It was the first time I’d seen him ride. It was an astonishing performance — I had never seen anything like it in my life and was enormously impressed.”
Wyer was equally impressed when Duke had his first go in a lightweight DB2 at MIRA. Duke asked Wyer to let him get the feel of the car for a few laps before the stopwatch was put on him. Wyer agreed but started timing anyway for his own interest. In the first session Duke’s best lap was only 1 sec off the quickest time the DB2 had managed there. In his next session he went quicker than any driver had gone in the car at MIRA. Wyer signed him immediately.
Duke made an even stronger point at Goodwood’s Easter Meeting in 1952. Though he found the prototype DB3 a little harder to drive than the DB2 — “the DB2 would track dead straight and was very stable, just like a motorcycle” and the car’s bonnet popped open early in the race, he finished third behind a pair of XK120s.
Stirling Moss is hazy about the race details, but hasn’t forgotten Duke: “I’d seen Geoff on a bike, and it was pure poetry. He was so natural, so quick, and obviously had many of the skills that would readily transfer from two to four wheels: balance, understanding of circuits and throttle control.”
Motorcycle commitments meant that Duke could only drive for Aston Martin four times in 1952, one of which was a fabulous fourth at Beme behind three works Mercedes, again in the DB2. He was also leading the British Empire Trophy on the Isle of Man, ahead of Duncan Hamilton’s Jaguar, until the crankshaft snapped. All strong enough performances for Wyer to sign the 29-year-old Duke for 1953. And then came Sebring.
“I didn’t much like the Sebring circuit,” says Duke, “very flat and boring. I shared a DB3 with Peter Collins, who had put up a strong lead from the start. I was very anxious to do well, which probably caused me to make a serious misjudgement. I overtook a much slower MG in a corner. The trouble was that he wasn’t in a drift and I was. I hit the MG and then clobbered an oil drum filled with cement I got back to the pits, but the rear suspension was damaged beyond repair.”
Understandably, Collins was less than happy. Here was this famous motorcycle racer, who’d just arrived in the team, blowing a victory in a major race with a silly mistake. Talking to Duke now, almost 50 years later, you can tell Collins’ reaction still stings. Duke admitted he’d made a mistake and never tried to make excuses for it; that Collins made so much of it left a scar. Worse, Duke didn’t feel he fitted into the car racing world, finding some people aloof and resentful. Hard to imagine; our view of ’50s motor racing is of a friendly and relaxed world. “It was,” says Moss, “but then I’d grown up in that world and was used to it. I can understand someone coming into it from motorcycling might have found it daunting.”
A Silverstone motorcycle meeting soon after the Sebring disaster reminded Duke how much he loved racing motorcycles, and how much more at home he felt around motorcycle racing. By his retirement at the end of 1959, Duke had added another four world championships to his CV, on Nortons and Gileras.
With bike racing behind him, he had another stab at car racing, this time at the wheel of a front-engined Gemini Formula Junior with Graham Warner’s Chequered Flag team. This Chiswick-based outfit were developing their own rear-engined FJ, which took up so much time that Duke did not get to race it that often. Worse, the money ran out.
Duke’s last car race came in June 1961 with the offer of a drive in an F1 Cooper from former speedway rider Fred Tuck. “The deal was to do a race in Karlsloga, Sweden, and at the Nürburgring. I didn’t like Karlsloga — very bumpy and tight — but I loved the idea of racing a car at the ‘Ring. Unfortunately, Fred couldn’t get a decent start money deal in Germany and decided he couldn’t afford for us to race at the Nürburgring. I’d agreed to drive for him so felt obliged to race the Cooper in Sweden.
“The gearbox seized in the race and I spun into a bank. The car flew into the air and landed on me. It nearly killed me. Ribs torn from the sternum, punctured lung, torn heart muscle, cracked pelvis and a broken collar bone. A real mess.” That was it.
“It wasn’t the fear of getting hurt again,” he comments, “more the fact that I’d taken part in a race against my better judgement and had nearly stuffed myself. I think that if I’d done the race at the Nürburgring instead, which I know I would have enjoyed, then I would have carried on.”
Goodwood, early 1969, and Bill Ivy is about to step into the Brabham BT23C F2 car he’s just bought from Winkelmann Racing — the ex-Alan Rees chassis, sister car to that driven by Jochen Rindt in the 1968 European F2 championship. Ivy doesn’t have a clue about racing cars — he’s never driven one.
The 1968 motorcycle racing season had been a grim one for Ivy; especially compared to the year before when he had won the 125cc world championship. Nasty accidents and terrible acrimony with Yamaha teammate Phil Read over team orders had made for a depressing time. The dispirited Ivy decided to pack up motorcyle racing and have a crack at cars.
An offer from Jawa to race its new V4 350cc two-stroke changed his mind, partly because he was swept up by the company’s enthusiasm, but also because he knew he’d need the money for racing the Brabham. He would do two and four wheels.
Back to Goodwood: Ivy fires off a lap that is a mere two seconds off the fastest F2 lap at the Sussex circuit. Too confident, he spanks the car a week later at Oulton Park while testing.
Brian Hart, now more famous for his engines, was a talented F2 driver in the late ’60s, and he too was at Oulton Park: “He was mad. Never the same line twice, car all over the place, flat out everywhere — the norm for bikers. Gary Hocking was the same. They’d get into cars and go like crazy.”
Fortunately, the Brabham isn’t too badly damaged and it is fixed up and readied for the Easter international F2 race at Thruxton.
With the Formula at its most competitive, the entry list contains a fair chunk of grand prix personnel: Jackie Stewart, F2-master Rindt, Graham Hill and Jean-Pierre Beltoise. Ivy is there with his mechanic who, according to Winkelmann’s Peter Briggs, a future F3 and F3000 team boss, knew barely more about the car than Ivy. “We gave them a hand with the setup and let them get on with it,” says Briggs. “The cars were quite simple back then and Ivy’s was a good one.”
A good car perhaps, but no one at Thruxton is expecting the sort of performance Ivy produces. Rindt is right on form and bangs off a staggeringly quick 1min 13.2sec lap. Stewart is behind him with a 1min 15.4sec. So too is Ivy, who equals Stewart’s time exactly, but is placed ahead of the Scotsman on the grid for their heat because he had set the time earlier.
Another newcomer, John Watson, remembers the reaction: “I was competing in my first international race so was too hyped up to take in much of what was going on around me, but I remember the stir when Bill put his car on pole for the first heat. People couldn’t believe it.”
Ivy himself was somewhat fazed. Briggs remembers him going to an official and asking if he could be allowed to start from the back of the grid because he’d never started a car race before and didn’t have a clue what to do. That might have suited some of the other drivers too, some of whom were heard to say: “Who’s going to try and overtake him? I haven’t got the guts.”
Ivy came fourth in that heat and was running sixth in the final when his engine let rip. That didn’t put a damper on one of the most ballistic debuts in racing history. Stewart was deeply impressed: “He had a tremendous talent and more natural ability than anyone I’d seen coming into motor racing. But he also had an incredible personality. With him came a fantastic breath of fresh air and levity into motor racing.”
Ivy raced the Brabham and Jawa in 1969, crashing the former at the Nürburgring, but not before setting third-fastest time in practice on a damp track. Another performance Stewart considers outstanding.
On 12 July 1969, what Ivy had most feared, happened. In practice for the East German GP at Sachsenring, the two-stroke Jawa seized while its rider’s left hand was away from the clutch lever. Ivy was spat off into an unprotected wall and received serious head and chest injuries, from which he died in hospital.
Never again would Ivy roar into a paddock in his Maserati Ghibli, which he called ‘The Gobbler’. Never again would his laughter and jokes be heard at prize-givings.
Bill Ivy came into car racing with a bang. Instantly fast, immediately loved, and still mourned by those who met him, however briefly.
In contrast to Duke and Ivy, Giacomo Agostini came into car racing when his motorcycle career was over. He had won 15 world championships between 1961 and ’77, including seven back-to-back 500cc and seven back-to-back 350cc titles. Yes, his MV Agustas faced little opposition after Honda pulled out of racing in 1967, and yes, in the late 1960s and early ’70s it was still possible to race in several different capacity classes at the same time but you don’t win 122 motorcycle grands prix riding like a muppet. And it takes some skill to get through a 16-year bike career without ever hurting yourself seriously.
Coincidentally, Ago’s car racing debut was also made at Thruxton, in an F2 car, at the Easter Meeting. Unlike Ivy, however, Agostini had sampled a racing car early in his career.
“Ferrari asked me if I’d like to try a Dino sportscar,” he remembers, “which I did, but my bike career was going very well and I was earning lots of money. But after I’d retired from motorcycle racing, I was very bored and badly needed to do something that would help me forget bikes.”
The Italian struggled to qualify his Chevron-BMW B42 at Thruxton, and finished last in the race. The season hardly improved.
James Hunt once explained the Hesketh philosophy thus: because they were spending a fortune in F2 and not doing very well, they might as well go into F1? Agostini followed their example and sorted himself out (thanks to a major Marlboro deal) with a Williams FW06. Setting his sights slightly lower than Hesketh, he entered the British F1 championship, which was called the Aurora AFX series in 1979.
“I much preferred driving the Williams,” says a reflective Agostini, “and had much better results in it. Formula Two was full of crazy young guys who would open the throttles and just go like mad. Hungry drivers. I was 37 by then, with a successful career behind me.”
It’s easy for people to be scathing about Agostini’s performance, but Guy Edwards, who also raced in the series, could see why the Williams suited Ago better than the Chevron: “I couldn’t get on with those F2 cars either, edgy to drive, with relatively peaky engines. With over 500bhp, the FW06 would have been much simpler to drive — like an enormous, powerful go-kart.”
Agostini: “Winning is always difficult, even though it sometimes looks easy from the outside. Reaching 100 per cent is hard, in cars or on bikes. The lines around the circuits weren’t that different, but what really was different was the speed at which you came into corners and the braking ability of the car compared to a bike. That was very difficult to adjust to.”
Agostini stayed with the series for 1980 with, as the year before, Dave Price running the Williams FW06 for him: “Giacomo did okay with the car, but he made a deeper impression on me as a person. A real gentleman. Dead easy to work with, friendly and totally relaxed.”
Bike genius Giacomo Agostini did not leave the motor racing world in awe of his speed as Ivy had done, but his culture and laid-back attitude were glimpses of the man himself.