Better late than never

Despite his personal fortune, Riccardo Agusta had turned 40 by the time he was able to devote some serious time to motor racing. This year, he has a works team at his disposal…

”Cor. I bet that suntan goes right down to his bones,” remarked one admirer when Riccardo ‘Rocky’ Agusta appeared in the Paul Ricard circuit paddock. Stockily built, with a mane of golden hair, the 44 year-old looks every inch a wealthy celebrity, Italian style.

To get one matter out of the way, the Agusta family has long since ceded control of the helicopter concern to professional management. Agusta and his three cousins are occupied elsewhere, not short of a bob or two, and are averse to discussions about current Italian business practices.

Agusta divides his time between Monaco and South Africa, where he has vineyards and a fruit farm, and Botswana where he owns the Campokuti Safari Camp. He also has a controlling interest in a small, but flourishing telephone answering service in Britain.

But it is as a team owner and driver that Riccardo Agusta currently raises his profile, running the ‘works’ team of Callaway Corvettes in the BPR Karcher CT series.

Why so late in life? “In 1972, when I was 21 years old, I went to Balocco to drive an Autodelta Alfa Romeo, and it was very exciting. I was not much good on motorcycles, I have to say, but cars were a different matter. I drove very fast. But when I told my father, he was so sad that I dropped the whole idea.”

Many scions of wealthy families met this sort of parental opposition. Some raced under pseudonyms. ‘Mickey Mouse’ and ‘Shangri-la’ are two that come to mind, and perhaps ‘Stingbrace’ is another? Corrado Agusta knew how to control Rocky’s enthusiasm, though, making him director of the legendary MV Agusta motorcycle team.

A bit young, perhaps, to run a team with 36 World Championships to its credit? “Yes, too young to be in charge,” Agusta agrees. “But my job was publicity, PR, not really to control the team. We had quite fantastic people to do that. Romani was the team manager, thank God, he could do everything. There were about 10 of them, a group of mechanics, who were genius.”

Names trip from Rocky’s tongue. . . “Leslie Graham, Gary Hocking, John Surtees, Mike Hailwood, Giacomo Agostini, Phil Read, Carlo Ubbiali and many more, won championships on MV Agustas.” These included 18 in the 500 cc category, with Surtees (four), Hocking (one), Hailwood (four), Agostini (seven) and Read (two) providing an unbroken run of titles between 1958 and 1974. Then the Japanese manufacturers arrived, and MV Agusta retired honorably.

For the speed-crazy Italians Verghera was a shrine, the home of the Meccanica-Verghera Agusta team north-west of Milan. Members of the Agusta family are accorded the highest respect, as Enzo Ferrari was in his lifetime, and an interview with Riccardo Agusta at Monza is punctuated with requests for autographs, and a photograph, per favori, alongside the superb display of MV Agusta motorcycles that glistens on display under the team awning.

Rocky Agusta did not go to university. “In 1968, the students were striking everywhere, and the universities were closed. I was lazy, I did not bother after that.” Nor did he do his military service, having been born with a deformed finger on his right hand.

He led the life to which millions vainly aspire, but was liberated, in a sense, by the death of his father in 1989. And it was still not too late for him to take up motor racing…

With friends, who included Stephane Ratel, the ‘R’ in BPR, the Venturi Gentleman’s Trophy was established in 1991. “It was all a bit crazy, but fun, with a group of friends who like speed,” recalls Agusta.

One thing led to another, of course, and last year Agusta set up his own team with Venturi GT cars. On his own account he finished 24th at Le Mans in a Venturi 600 LM (“first of the Venturis,” as he likes to mention) with Paolo Mondini and Onofrio Russo, 16th in the Spa 4 Hours and 16th at Suzuka.

“I enjoy it very much,” he says, “but even more than the race enjoy the ambiance, the life with the mechanics, the drivers. It is a good way to spend some time. It is a clean sport.

“I chose endurance racing because I can learn a great deal without showing exactly that I do not have much experience, maybe 10 races, against other professional drivers with perhaps 300 races. Today, I consider myself as a gentleman, an old driver!”

As Venturi’s fortunes went down, Agusta switched to the Callaway Corvette for 1995. It was a clear choice because Reeves Callaway’s cars were good out of the box last season, running rings round the Porsche 911 RSRs. They were well priced, competitive, and looked and sounded marvellous out there on the circuits.

The Agusta Racing Team was established during the winter with Almo Coppelli as co-director, and managed by Keith Greene. “It is fun, but it is business,” emphasises Agusta, a point that he impresses on his staff.

The team unfortunately had to sit out the opening BPR GT race at Jerez as the two cars were not yet ready to emerge from Callaway’s factory in Heilbronn, and the only result at the time of writing was a 15th place overall, and sixth in the GT3 class, for Coppelli and Philippe Olczyk at Ricard.

Agusta made the decision to sit out the race at Jarama, in order to test the Corvettes thoroughly and overcome the teething problems. Along with everyone else, his attention is focussed on getting the team into shape for pre-qualifying at Le Mans on April 30.

Does the man have any more goals? Well, he owns the trademark for MV Agusta, and although the company has been shut down for a number of years. Agusta surprisingly reveals that “we will make motorcycles again,” He is in partnership with brothers Gianfranco and Claudio Castiglioni, who make and Cagiva off-road machines.

Both have been extremely successful in recent years in Superbikes (Raymond Roche, Carl Fogarty and Doug Polen being the top men on Ducat’s) and in Rally-Raids. Cagiva being the top make in the Paris-Dakar and Pharaohs events.

The new MV Agusta, according to Rocky, is a 750 cc four-cylinder, four-stroke. In the motorcycle paddock you may learn that the Ferrari-influenced engine is mounted transversely and that it revs mightily to 16,000 rpm. where it develops 145 bhp… almost up to Formula One levels of 200 bhp per litre! A 900 cc road version is also proposed, apparently.

They will be expensive, no doubt about it, and although at least one prototype has been on trial for months no date has been set for production. “At the moment there are some economic problems, and this bike we plan to do will be at a pretty high level, so this is not the time to make it.

“It is in limbo,” says Agusta eloquently. “If we go back to motorcycles with the name MV, we want to go back at the very top.”