Motorcycles with Mat Oxley

The life and times of Giacomo Agostini

This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the retirement of the world’s most successful motorcycle racer. In August 1977 Giacomo Agostini contested his final Grand Prix, ending a career that had brought him 122 GP wins and 15 world championships. They are records that Valentino Rossi, Marc Márquez and the rest are still chasing.

Agostini rode his last GP at Silverstone, finishing ninth on his four-cylinder factory Yamaha, hassled all the way to the chequered flag by up-and-coming Briton Kevin Wrettom on an over-the-counter twin-cylinder Yamaha. It was an ignominious end to a glittering career that started in 1964 Italian 250 GP, when he rode a Moto Morini to fourth place at Monza.

Ago won 13 of his 350cc and 500cc world titles and 110 of his Grand Prix victories with MV Agusta, the Italian marque that dominated an era during which few other manufacturers bothered contesting the bigger classes. This is why many fans wonder whether his talent corresponded to the statistics.

But there were times when Agostini raced against the odds and still came out on top. He twice beat Honda and Mike Hailwood to the 500cc world championship and later became the first rider to win the premier-class title on a two-stroke, when the new-fangled engines were still fickle in the extreme. “I don’t think Ago got the credit he deserved,” says his former mechanic Mac Mackay. “But I saw him ride at the TT. Hell, that was a sight to behold!”

The man from Brescia lost many of his British fans when he turned his back on the Isle of Man, following the death of his friend Gilberto Parlotti in 1972. However, he has returned to the island on many occasions since his retirement, most notably in 2009 when he rode a closed-roads lap with Rossi, who is fascinated by the TT. The two Italians have much in common, including the fact that they were courted by Ferrari. Ago got the call in 1969, when il Commendatore wanted him to follow the path already taken by John Surtees.

“I was so excited,” Ago says. “Then I start thinking. My passion is motorcycles. And for sure I am making a lot of money racing motorcycles, always on the podium. And cars? Maybe I don’t enjoy the same success, so I stay with motorcycles.” Half a century later Rossi made the same decision for similar reasons.

There were others who tried taking Agostini away from bikes, this time on account of his good looks. He was always hugely popular with the ladies; so much so that he remembers female admirers exposing their breasts as he roared around the TT course.

“This one girl, she live near Ballaugh Bridge and every time I pass, she say ‘hello!’ like this,” he says, lifting his jersey. “Every lap, even in early morning practice, 4.45am!”

The industry that wanted to exploit Agostini’s allure was the Italian film business. During the off-season Ago liked to supplement his MV Agusta salary by acting, usually in films focused on motorcycle racing, like Bolidi sull’ Asfalto, a Tutta Birra! He must have been good in front of the camera because Oscar-nominated director Pietro Germi, who created Italian rom-coms, wanted to steal him away from the racetracks on a full-time basis. Germi was stunned when Ago turned him down. “I say to Pietro, listen, I love motorbikes.”

Full-time motorcycle racer and occasional movie star; no wonder Sports Illustrated sent a staff writer to Italy to hang out with Agostini. Bob Ottum’s 1967 feature was titled, with good reason, ‘Viva! But hide your women.’ 

The story begins, “His name is Giacomo Agostini. And he poses most of the time as a plain mild-mannered, handsome, glittering Super Italian. In moments of crisis he strips and changes quickly into a tight, soft black leather costume, with black leather mask and soft black boots, and roars off on a motorcycle that looks a whole lot like a torpedo.

“He lives on the far edge of life, where most men are afraid to go, at a kind of blinding speed punctuated by crashes. He always recovers, ministered to by platoons of stunning girls; he is cool, scarred and bold. He also is 24 years old, which is a wonder.

“All through the summer, these racers speed on a crushing weekly schedule: race and skid and crash and then make love and drink wine.”

Ottum watched Agostini testing at Monza, where Enzo Ferrari stood in the background, “anonymous behind his tinted glasses, watching Agostini with a look of purest speculation.” The journalist couldn’t help but notice that the Italian attitude to motorcycles was very different to the American, a fact he blamed on Marlon Brando’s The Wild One. “Italians see in motorcycling a form of fine, sensible insanity, like knife-fighting or letting the bulls chase you through the streets of Pamplona – which also makes a lot of sense if you don’t think about it too long”

Later Ago drove Ottum to a restaurant in his Porsche 912, where the Italian was the centre of attention. Ottum noted one “leggy girl who was being restrained from leaping on him only by the iron thread of chaperoned propriety.”