In a Class of His Own

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In the motorcycle racing record books, no one can touch Italian legend Giacomo Agostini. On the night when he took his place in our Hall of Fame, we quizzed him on his amazing career — in the back of a taxi…
By Ed Foster

There are hundreds of people filing out of luggage reclaim at Heathrow Terminal 5. They’re coming from two different doors, 20 metres apart, and I wonder whether I’ll spot Giacomo Agostini among the crowd.

I needn’t have worried. The Italian good looks, the tan, the grey hair swept to the side and that smile — he’s unmissable. The 15-time motorcycle World Champion is here for a mere 16 hours to become a member of the Motor Sport Hall of Fame and I am under strict instructions to get him to the Roundhouse in time for the awards. To grab some time with him, we’re sharing a taxi back into London. “We are running late?” he asks in his accented English as we head off to find our transport. Too modest to pull the fame card, Ago was ‘bumped’ from his overbooked original flight — the one that would have allowed us time to talk, and not in a taxi — and we’re now pushed for time.

He needs to jet off in the morning to head back to his home in the pretty town of Bergamo in Italy — where he still regularly rides his MV Agusta — in order to get to Jerez. He may have retired, but the most successful rider in motorcycle racing history is a busy man.

Count Agusta
(Terminal 5 to the M4)

The taxi driver is oblivious to who he has sitting behind him, which is probably for the best. I’m too panicked about the time to let the enormity of sharing a taxi with Ago dawn on me, and we launch straight into his thoughts on MV founder Count Domenico Agusta, for whom he won an astonishing 110 World Championship races in the 1960s and ’70s.

“You know,” he says, looking out the window at the heavy traffic on the M25, “it was very, very difficult to work with him on a daily basis. You couldn’t just talk to him; you had to ask Mr [Arturo] Magni, the team manager, for a meeting. Before I first met Count Agusta Mr Magni called me and said ‘meeting Count Agusta is a huge honour, but I have an appointment for you at 4.30pm’. I waited one hour, two hours.., eight o’clock soon passed, nine o’clock, and he eventually received me after 10 o’clock!

“I was with Mr Magni and we went inside this big, big room. It was very dark and Count Agusta is at the far end, surrounded by trophies from the Isle of Man and other important races. He looked at me and asked ‘who are you?’ After five hours of waiting he asked that!

‘I am Agostini’, I replied.

‘What do you want?’

I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t really understand what he was on about!

‘I want to race your bike.’

‘Are you any good?’

‘Yes, try me!’

“He organised a test at Monza, but it was not really a test. Along the Tribune straight they had put chicanes in with cones. I am an Italian Champion [Ago won the 1963 Italian Championship aboard a 175cc Morini] and I am doing Monza like this? Incredible. After that we were OK, but he was like Enzo Ferrari in many ways.”

Mike Hailwood
(M4 to A40)

Count Agusta gave Agostini a ride for the 1965 season and immediately he started challenging the likes of Briton Mike Hailwood, who was already a four-time World Champion. “Mike was very, very fast,” Giacomo says after we dive off the M4 towards the A40, trying to avoid the traffic at Hammersmith. “He was one of the best that I ever competed against because he was always so strong. He had the ability to win on 125, 250, 350 and 500cc bikes on the same day. He had quite an aggressive style, but was always very correct. It’s difficult to ride all the sizes of bike well because of the different speeds — the 125cc had maybe 50 horsepower and the 500cc maybe 120 horsepower.

“When I met Mike he already had many more years experience than me so it was very difficult to compete.” Indeed, in the 1965 500cc Championship Ago couldn’t better Hailwood all year and finished second on six occasions. He did win the Finnish Motorcycle Grand Prix, though — which Hailwood didn’t compete in — and he had done more than enough to persuade the Count that he was worth holding on to. The following season Agostini won the 500cc Championship for the first time — a feat he would manage on another seven occasions.

Then and now
(A40 to Regents Park)

“Racing in the 1960s and 1970s was very different to now,” he says. “The safety was not like it is today, especially at circuits like Spa Francorchamps, the Nürburgring, the Isle of Man or Opatija in Yugoslavia.” Opatija was a super-fast seaside track that claimed the lives of many riders before being wiped from the championship calendar in 1978. “They were all so dangerous because we had fences, trees, walls.., we had everything.

“Out of all the tracks the Isle of Man was the best in the world. For a rider it gives you more emotion, more.., how do you say sensazioni diverse? Yes, different feelings. Winning an Isle of Man TT is like winning a World Championship because so much goes into it.” Ago was supreme on the island, winning a total of 10 TTs. However, his memories of the road race are not all good. Many of his friends died racing on the Isle of Man, and it was Ago who eventually put up his hands in 1972 and said that the circuit was too dangerous. Plenty of his contemporaries joined him, and in 1977 the race was removed from the World Championship calendar for good.

“During the many years that I raced in the Isle of Man I won 10 times, but every year I saw another friend gone. The last one was in 1972 — Gilberto Parlotti, an Italian guy. The night before the race [on June 9] he asked me ‘please Ago, can we do a lap so that you can show me how to be faster?’ I knew the circuit better than him so I took him out in my car that evening. In the morning he was in the 125cc race, which started at 9.30am and at the time I was in the paddock preparing for the Senior TT. He crashed and died that morning. After that I say ‘it is too many now’.

“Nowadays the bikes are so fast. People say the TT is safer, but the circuit’s about the same. They still don’t have any space to crash. You know, when you start a race today you’re nervous, you’re thinking about the win, but it’s not like it was when I raced. When we were about to start we had to think about everything that they think about today, but also you had to think about the possibility of dying. Every two or three weeks you lost a friend and sometimes you did think ‘well, next time it is going to be me’.

“Of course, most of the time when you see friends dying you have to think ‘he’s unlucky, and I’m sure it won’t happen to me’. It’s normal — it’s like when you fly. If a plane crashes the day before you fly, killing 200 people, do you not fly the next day? Of course you do, because you have to think like that in order to go out and continue with life. If you didn’t you would just shut the doors and stay at home.”

Inevitably talk turns to the dreadful accident that took Marco Simoncelli’s life in the 2011 Malaysian Grand Prix. Ago is quiet, and the only thing that breaks the silence is the driver’s mobile beeping, no doubt telling him his next pick-up is waiting.

“The accident that killed Simoncelli,” Ago says, “maybe in 30 years it might happen again. Maybe in 30 years… he was just so unlucky. The problem is that everyone is always trying to make the bikes faster and faster. But if you get onto the straight and do 200mph instead of 170mph it doesn’t improve the show. It changes nothing. The show is in the corner and under braking — not on a long straight.”

Rossi at Ducati
(traffic jam after leaving the A40)

By the end of Agostini’s career he had notched up an incredible 122 Grand Prix wins, making him the most successful rider of all time. For a moment, though, it looked as though the record might actually be broken by a fellow Italian. Valentino Rossi has so far won 105 World Championship races, but his recent move to Ducati seems to have temporarily stemmed the flow.

“He is clearly trying to have another vittoria, another conquest,” Ago tells me as we edge ever closer to the Roundhouse.

“Of course, if it works then Valentino will become a legend. But it’s not what he thinks. It’s been very difficult and he didn’t win a single race last year, which for him is very tough. He is used to winning every week, he’s a big champion.

“A few weeks ago a journalist said that the object for Ducati and Rossi now was to finish on the podium. No. Valentino is Valentino. For someone else maybe it is OK because he has never won before, never been on the top step of the podium. I don’t think he’s happy finishing second or third…”

I suggest that if anyone can get Ducati back to the front it’s Rossi. “Yes, the rider is important,” Ago says. “I’m sure I helped MV and Yamaha to set up the bike, to understand it, and I transferred as much information as possible to the engineer. But if the factory doesn’t give you a good project then you can’t transform the bike. Look at Mercedes in F1, look at Ferrari and then at Red Bull. Red Bull doesn’t manufacture cars, it makes drinks — and it beats Ferrari and the other big car companies! Why? Because it has one of the best engineers.”

The switch to cars
(still in traffic jam after the A40)

Time is running short, the start of the Hall of Fame is fast approaching and Ago’s attention will soon be on more important people than me.

John Surtees, another 2012 Hall of Fame inductee, cemented his name in history when he moved from bikes to cars and went on to win the 1964 Formula 1 World Championship. Ago made the same move, but with less success.

“John Surtees made it work, as did Mike Hailwood,” Ago says about the move to four wheels. “I also tried to make the switch, but I tried very late. Too late, I think.

“I did some races in British Aurora Formula 1 and European Formula 2, and one day Niki Lauda said ‘I don’t understand why everyone expects you to win after your first season. I waited over three years before I won in Formula 1’. I think [the switch to cars] is possible, because other riders have done it. But it is important to start early, it is important to have a good car.

“Some things are the same — you need to control the engine, you need the courage, but you must also forget about some of the things you did when you were riding a bike. Then you have to learn new skills.

“One of the things is that if you really slide with a car, it’s OK, you correct the wheel and go again. With a bike you crash. It makes going from cars to bikes very difficult. Schumacher tried, but he did a lot of crashing. Afterwards he understood that doing crash after crash is not so good…”

For the first time ever I’m wishing that the traffic in Camden won’t clear too quickly. Of course, it does. All too soon we draw up outside the Roundhouse and it is time for Ago to make his way inside to be briefed on the plans for the evening. Apparently I was supposed to do that in the taxi, but strangely enough it slipped my mind.

It’s hard to believe that Agostini is the most successful motorcycle racer of all time when you talk to him — he’s that genuine and unassuming. If you ever meet Ago, or see him riding through Bergamo on a MV Brutale or F4, make sure you say hello. You won’t be disappointed.

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