Mat Oxley – MotoGP

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Few were in Ivy’s league

Forty summers ago, Britain lost one of its greatest exponents of two- and four-wheel motor sport. If Billy Ivy hadn’t been killed in practice for the 1969 East German motorcycle Grand Prix, he might have gone on to match John Surtees’ unique achievement of winning World Championships both in cars and on motorcycles.

Ivy won the 1967 125cc world title and quit bikes at the end of the following year after team-mate Phil Read double-crossed him out of the 250 crown. Disillusioned with the world of motorcycling he bought an ex-Winkelmann Racing F2 Brabham BT23C.

From the outset Ivy’s driving turned heads. He qualified on pole for his Thruxton debut in April 1969, finishing his heat in fourth behind Jackie Stewart, Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Graham Hill. Alan Peck’s 1972 biography of Ivy, No Time To Lose, recalls how the Thruxton commentator interviewed the diminutive 26-year-old (he was just 5ft 3ins): “You only look about 14… how old are you?” “Fourteen!” Ivy replied.

Best mate Mike Hailwood called Ivy “a cheeky little rogue”; he was also a richly talented man of speed and fully plugged into the 1960s scene. He was motorcycle racing’s first rock ’n’ roll star: he wore a beat hairdo and flower-power clothes, drove a Ferrari 275 GTB4 and chased “dollies” in discotheques. If the ’60s youth revolution had him rapt, the
sexual revolution obviously passed him by, because Ivy called his succession of super cars “great crumpet wagons”.

Some say Ivy was motor sport’s Brian Jones: a vain man who cloaked his vulnerability in a swathe of braggadocio. He dazzled off the track just as he did on it, and he was trigger-happy with his fists, as several overzealous race officials discovered.

Ivy’s car racing career lasted only months but during that time he impressed everyone. Jackie Stewart met Ivy in a London nightclub at the dawn of the motorcyclist’s car career. “He was smaller than me, so that was a change…” recalled Stewart, who thus became fond of the little hipster. “He had more natural ability than anyone I’ve seen coming into motor racing.”

Autosport declared that Ivy “demonstrated pure and simple natural ability of the sort which had been seen rarely outside of names like [Jim] Clark and Stewart”.

Graham Hill (whose son Damon successfully graduated from bikes to F1) was similarly agog: “Bill just arrived, and – bang – there he was. It doesn’t always follow that just because a person is good at motorcycle racing, they will be good at cars. All the attributes are common in both sports, but the technique is vastly different. Bill adapted immediately and showed tremendous flair.” Hill also remembered how the working-class racer’s “cockney-style humour” captivated his well-to-do racing friends, who found the cheeky chappy an absolute hoot.

Ivy’s sense of humour included driving like a madman on the road. He famously wrecked his Ferrari 275 GTB4 while trying to impress a young lady driving round the Isle of Man TT course. Hailwood recalled how they tore around Europe like they were in a James Bond film: “Bill was in his Stingray and I had a Ferrari; we had a fantastic dice from Zurich to Clermont-Ferrand… the cars were smoking, steaming wrecks by the time we got there.”

Ivy’s complicated life became more so in 1969. His car career was taking off but he had little financial backing and was soon running on empty, so when Czech motorcycle factory Jawa offered him a paid Grand Prix ride he found himself unable to turn them down. That summer he crisscrossed Europe at frantic speeds in his Maserati Ghibli – bikes at Montjuich, Hockenheim and Assen, cars at Monza, the Nürburgring and Zolder.

Jawa’s 350cc V4 two-stroke wasn’t the Iron Curtain’s most malevolent piece of engineering, but it wasn’t far off; the 160mph motorcycle was notorious for its tendency to seize pistons and crankshafts. Ivy must have had premonitions of what was going to happen – he told friends he would die that summer. Before he left home for the East German GP at the Sachsenring street circuit he put his affairs in order, tidied his flat and left money for a wake.

The Jawa seized a crankshaft bearing as Ivy sped through the village of Hohenstein-Ernstthal. He was flung into an unprotected concrete post and fatally wounded.

Ivy was just one of countless racers of the era who were killed or grievously injured by the two-stroke’s tendency to run hot, ‘nip up’ and lock the rear wheel. Piston seizures often came with a moment’s warning, a pre-ignition ‘tinkling’ which warned that a piston was about to overheat and weld itself to the bore. Riders had a phrase for that eerily quiet moment when the engine locked solid – “whispering death” – and developed gunslinger reactions in their efforts to survive.

“I always had four fingers over the clutch lever,” remembers Frank Perris, who rode Suzuki two-strokes to several GP wins during the 1960s. “You never got much of a warning; big-end seizures were worse because you got no warning at all.

“In ’62 at Clermont-Ferrand I came off three times through seizes. The third time I was going along at a fair old rate when it went ‘whack’ and down I went. Luckily I didn’t hit anything, so I was able to walk across the road and there was Rex Avery [whose EMC two-stroke, built by Joe Ehrlich, had also seized]. Rex and I started walking back to the pits, which was a long way. Over the next hill who should we see walking towards us but Ehrlich? He said ‘oh thank God you’re both okay’. Then he put his hand in his coat pocket and said ‘here, I’ve got just the thing’ and pulled out a bottle of whisky. By the time we got back to the pits both of us were absolutely pissed. It didn’t go down too well with the Japanese…”

No wonder Billy Ivy and so many of his contemporaries felt the need to live life so large, because they suspected life might not last so long.

*****

Rossi’s next target: Ago’s record

A decade and a half ago when Valentino Rossi won his first Grand Prix no one could have guessed that one day he’d be in a position to challenge the record of Giacomo Agostini (above, with Rossi), who won 122 GPs during the 1960s and ’70s, mostly with MV Agusta. But that is where Rossi is now – zeroing in on the Italian legend’s record which most fans thought would stand forever.

Rossi suggested for the first time that he is ready to have a crack at Ago’s record after scoring his 100th GP victory at the recent Dutch TT.

“I have good motivation now and I feel fast on the bike,” said the Italian who won his first GP, on a 125, at Brno in August 1996. “I don’t know if I will arrive at Giacomo’s record, but I have a contract signed with Yamaha for next year, so for sure in 2010 I will ride in MotoGP. I think I will decide my future next season. If I had to decide now I would want to continue because I think it is possible to make another three or four years in MotoGP, but you never know.”

As I write Rossi has won 101 Grands Prix: 75 in the elite class, 14 in the 250 category and 12 in 125s.

*****

Street engines for MotoGP?

MotoGP is considering the introduction of street-powered race bikes to swell its dwindling grid, which currently consists of just 17 bikes. The idea was tabled by rights-holder Dorna, which has suggested that 1000cc street-powered machines would allow hard-up privateer teams to line up with the exotic 19,000rpm 800cc prototypes run by the factories.

In fact Dorna’s proposal is little more than a Max Mosley-style incitement to encourage the factories – Ducati, Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha – to manufacture ‘low-cost’ versions of their 19,000rpm 800 engines. Independent teams would lease these engines and house them in their own chassis.

“The cost of leasing bikes is very expensive,” says Dorna CEO Carmelo Ezpeleta. “The high price doesn’t permit us the chance of having more than 18 or 19 bikes on the grid. That’s why we have proposed that the independent teams use tuned 1000cc [street] engines with the objective of having a bigger grid.”

If Ducati’s reaction to Dorna’s proposal is anything to go by, Ezpeleta will get his affordable 800 engines. “Officially, I believe that allowing the satellite teams to run 1000 engines is something we must think about, but personally I think it’s ridiculous,” says Ducati MotoGP boss Livio Suppo.

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