The Godfathers of motorcycle racing

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As MV Agusta prepares to return to mainstream motorcycle racing, we reflect on Count Domenico Agusta. He built one of the great Grand Prix teams of the 1960s and 1970s, but behind the scenes his family also had a darker side

MV Agusta won its last Grand Prix race in August 1976, when Giacomo Agostini rode to victory in the West German 500cc Grand Prix at the Nürburgring. Yet despite being out of Grand Prix racing for the past four decades the Italian marque still ranks as motorcycling’s fourth most successful constructor, behind Honda, Yamaha and fellow Italian brand Aprilia.

This statistic gives some measure of the stature of MV Agusta, a name that once resonated in the world of motorcycling as Ferrari still does in the car world. Between 1952 and 1976 MV Agusta took 275 Grand Prix victories and 75 riders’ and constructors’ world championships across the 125, 250, 350 and 500cc categories. More than half of those race wins were achieved in the premier class, leading to a unique run of 17 consecutive 500cc riders’ world titles; a record unthreatened even by Honda.

MV’s roll call of riders reads like a who’s who of motorcycling greats: Giacomo Agostini, Mike Hailwood, John Surtees, Phil Read, Les Graham, Carlo Ubbiali, Tarquinio Provini, Luigi Taveri and many more.

All these riders were the princes of Agusta, but they were as nothing to Count Domenico Agusta, the mysterious, aloof, domineering aristocrat who ran his racing business like a feudal empire. The story of the Count, his family and his motorcycles is a tale of glory, tragedy, controversy, chicanery and expensive legal proceedings; a kind of petrolhead’s Dynasty.

IT ALL BEGAN in the early years of the 20th century, when Count Giovanni Agusta left Sicily for northern Italy, where he built his first aircraft, the AG1, four years after the Wright brothers had made history in the US. Following the First World War the Count founded the Agusta aviation company, but died soon after, leaving eldest son Domenico in charge. When the Second World War ended, the new Count had a problem. The Paris Peace Treaty shrank the Italian air force, terminating Agusta’s lucrative military aviation contracts, so he had to think quick to save his high-tech business and keep his employees in work.

At that time Italy needed cheap transport, so that’s what Agusta provided: low-cost two-stroke motorcycles. Inevitably, it wasn’t long before the company went racing to promote its products.

In 1948, Meccanica Verghera Agusta – based outside Milan – dipped its toes into the shallow end of the racing game with its five-horsepower 123.5cc two-stroke of 1948. The bike was good enough to win that year’s Italian 125cc Grand Prix at Monza, only recently reopened following repairs to fix damage caused by a VE Day parade of Allied armour.

However, by the following summer, MV’s two-stroke had been overtaken by the four-strokes of Mondial, from Milan, and Moto Morini, from Bologna. By now, the Count was in his element in the racing world. He was a natural at scheming and wheeling and dealing. At the end of 1949 he signed two great engineering brains from Gilera, based in nearby Arcore. Italy’s so-called Motor Valley was in full swing.

“Iran’s air force and other dubious militaries became fundamental to the Count’s business”

Piero Remor had designed the four-cylinder Gilera engine that dominated post-war Grand Prix racing. Arturo Magni was Gilera’s chief mechanic, who would stay loyal to MV for the rest of his life.

The Count had yet to win a world championship in any class, but already had his eyes set on the greatest prize of them all, the class of kings, where Gilera’s mighty four-cylinder 500 did battle with Norton singles and AJS twins. The Count’s first 500 – a Gilera clone – made its race debut at Spa-Francorchamps in July 1949, just six months after Remor had put pen to paper in MV’s Cascina Costa race shop.

Two years later the Count sealed the biggest deal of his life. This new contract had nothing to do with racing but would bankroll his competition team and make racing history for the next quarter of a century. In 1952 Agusta aviation started building helicopters under licence to American manufacturer Bell. Hugely profitable contracts with the Italian navy, the Shah of Iran’s air force and other dubious militaries once again became fundamental to the Count’s business. Although MV Agusta continued to sell small numbers of exotic road bikes, from this moment on racing was a hobby for Count Domenico. Helicopters made him a fortune, which he spent on racing.

Aviation technology also served him well on the racetrack. His Grand Prix bikes were constructed using the same high-tech casting, forging and machining techniques used in the manufacture of his helicopters.

In the autumn of 1950, Agusta signed Les Graham, the 1949 500cc world champion and a decorated Lancaster bomber pilot. Graham was very technically minded and was charged with knocking MV’s cumbersome and troublesome 500 four into shape. Although the Count was something of a control freak, he realised he needed help. Graham put his many years of racing knowhow to work, reducing the four’s cylinder bore to cure piston failures and improving handling by reworking the chassis and replacing the shaft drive with chain drive. The pair became good friends, Graham’s family setting up home in the Count’s holiday villa on Lake Lugano, which became known as Casa Gram.

In September 1952 Graham made Agusta the happiest man alive by winning MV’s first 500cc Grand Prix, on the hallowed asphalt of Monza, beating Gilera’s Umberto Masetti by 58 seconds. Giuseppe Commendatore Gilera was so incensed that he lodged a protest, claiming MV’s engine was oversize. It wasn’t.

Sadly, this chapter of the story didn’t end well. Graham was killed during the 1953 Isle of Man Senior TT, when Agusta’s 500 threw him off at the bottom of Bray Hill. Less than two years later talented Rhodesian Ray Amm lost his life during his MV debut at Imola. The Count’s motorcycles by now were getting a bad reputation.

John Surtees was therefore a brave man when he travelled to Cascina Costa in October 1955. “After Ray was killed, they came to me and said, look, we want you to join us,” Surtees recalled of the visit. “I said, ‘I’d like to try the bike first’.”

Surtees duly tested the MV and signed a contract with the Count, but not before he had been given the onceover by the family matriarch. Giovanni’s widow, Giuseppina, visited the Count’s office dressed in mourner’s black to assess the young Briton from behind her veil. Asked many years later if the family’s way of doing business was like something out of The Godfather, Surtees replied: “perhaps it’s the Italian way”.

Surtees carried on from where Graham had left off, utilising his Norton expertise to further refine the MV’s handling. The very next year he won the Count his first 500cc world championship, the first of seven 350 and 500 titles. However, Surtees was never friendly with his new master.

“He wanted to create an aura around himself – everything he did was about increasing his social standing,” said Surtees. “He seemed to enjoy making things difficult for you. When the MV 500 really needed a new frame the only way I could raise the problem with him was by booking myself onto the same train back from Spa to Milan!”

Indeed the Count’s truculence finally pushed Surtees into quitting motorcycles and moving into car racing. History is often made in strange ways.

THE NEXT STEP in MV Agusta’s conquest of the racing world came at the end of the 1957 season. And once again it was the Count planning and plotting. The European motorcycle industry had boomed in the post-war years but fell into a slump in the late 1950s as cheap scooters and small-capacity cars came onto the market. Thus all the Italian motorcycle factories – Gilera, Moto Guzzi, Mondial and MV Agusta – agreed to withdraw from racing. Then the Count changed his mind – MV would race alone.

For the next eight seasons MV was the only name in 500cc Grand Prix racing, the factory lording it over penniless privateers, who worked their way around Europe, struggling to put fuel in their Nortons and food in their stomachs.

Aussie Jack Ahearn was one of those skint racing gypsies. “I got tired of the bloody MV riders,” he said. “God, you’d swear there was no one else in the world racing a motorbike. All the news was always about MV – but there were 30 other blokes racing who never got a mention.”

The Count couldn’t care less that MV had no competition. He was in his element, playing the Godfather of the paddock, effectively deciding who would be crowned 500cc world champion at the end of each season. Even his best riders were never allowed to forget who was in charge. Giacomo Agostini, who joined the firm in 1965, still remembers his first meeting with the Count.

“I had an appointment to see him at 4.30pm,” Agostini recalls. “I wait outside his office and finally he see me at 10.30. When I go inside it’s a big room, very dark, all the trophies on the wall. His desk is high up, like an altar in a church, and he’s there with a small light on his desk.”

“Count Rocky became friends with Vito Palazzolo, who dealt in gold, diamonds and uranium”

“Who you are?”

“I’m Agostini.”

“What do you want?”

“I want to race with your bike.”

“But my bike is a difficult bike. Can you ride my bike?”

The Count asked his secretary to book Monza for a private test session the following day. Agostini arrived to see a line of traffic cones stretching down the start-finish straight.

“It costs a lot of money to book Monza, but he wants me to ride slalom like I used to do in gymkhanas when I was a boy, and I am already three-times Italian champion! The Count, he liked to play with you.”

MV finally got some serious competition when Honda entered the 500 class in 1966. Surely, the Japanese factory would win the day, as it had already done in the 125, 250 and 350cc categories?

The 1966 and 1967 seasons were surely the Count’s proudest. Agostini was equipped with the latest iteration of MV’s ageing four-cylinder 500. First time out, Honda beat MV by 26 seconds.

The Count’s reply was as brilliant as it was unexpected. At round two the Italians turned up with a 420cc version of their three-cylinder 350, which was soon further enlarged to 489cc. The triple handled better than the Honda, allowing Ago to beat Honda’s Hailwood to the title; a feat he repeated the following season, after which Honda withdrew, once more leaving MV Agusta in glorious isolation.

Again, the Count’s bikes became unbeatable. No surprise then that he had a paranoia of his technology being stolen, so he preferred to destroy most of his machines at the end of each season. Legend has it that the motorcycles were taken to a secluded part of the Agusta facility, where a large trench had been excavated by a digger. The bikes were rolled into the trench, where they were crushed and buried; all the while the Count watching intently, puffing on a cigar.

THIS FABULOUS, ROMANTIC and slightly creepy era ended in 1971 when the Count died of a heart attack. Younger brother Corrado took over the helicopter and motorcycle business, while Corrado’s son, Rocky, inherited the family title and took charge of the race team.

Count Rocky was very different from his uncle. Young and flamboyant, he signed Phil Read to partner Agostini, hardly a match made in heaven, because the Briton and Italian weren’t the best of friends.

“Rocky liked to be the big boss: ‘I’m Count Agusta, I’m the team owner’, I think he was jealous of me,” says Ago. “Also, Phil wanted to be friends with him, so he always told him the bikes were fantastic, even when they weren’t.”

MV Agusta’s four-strokes had finally met their match in Japan’s burgeoning two-stroke technology. Agostini could see that two-strokes were the future, so he defected to Yamaha. He won the two-stroke’s first 500cc title in 1975, before briefly returning to MV the following year. There was talk of a new MV boxer-four for the 1977 season, but it was obvious that the four-stroke’s reign was already over.

MV’s empire was crumbling and the pressure showed, especially with Count Rocky. During a row in an Italian nightclub he threatened Yamaha’s team manager with a gun. He was quickly disarmed and the incident was hushed up.

Although the race team shut up shop at the end of 1976 and MV sold its last road bike in 1980, Agusta aviation was still growing. In the 1970s the company started building its own helicopters, including the hugely successful A109. In 2000 Agusta merged with the British Westland company to become AgustaWestland.

Rocky dabbled in car racing and lived a playboy lifestyle, chartering a plane to fly 68 guests across the Atlantic for his wedding in Washington DC; or as one reporter noted, “68 beautiful people attached to 136 beautiful kneecaps”.

Corrado died in 1981, triggering a bitter and costly dispute over his inheritance between Rocky and his stepmother, Francesca Vacca Agusta, Corrado’s second wife. In the 1990s the Count moved to South Africa, where he invested in vineyards and luxury tourism. There he became close friends with fugitive mafioso Vito Palazzolo, who had jumped jail in Switzerland to carve out a new life in Africa, where he dealt in gold, diamonds and uranium. His dealings with Agusta and African businessmen were revealed in the Panama Papers. Palazzolo was extradited to Italy, where he remains in a high-security prison.

Meanwhile Corrado’s widow was accused of laundering bribes of £10 million for former Italian prime minister Bettino Craxi. The Countess fled to Mexico but was extradited to Italy where she was convicted and given a suspended sentence. In January 2001 she disappeared from the family’s Portofino mansion, formerly owned by Lord Carnarvon, who had helped discover Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt and died shortly after, prompting the legend of the Mummy’s Curse. Francesca’s body was found several days later, washed up on the French coast. Homicide was suspected, but the riddle of her death remains unsolved.

Rocky also had his troubles with the law; in South Africa he was convicted of bribing government officials. He died earlier this year in St Moritz, Switzerland, following a long illness. His passing was significant, because he was the last member of the Agusta dynasty to be involved with its legendary motorcycle racing operation.

The Agusta name may have been tarnished by scandal, but the motorcycle brand has returned from the dead. In the 1990s Claudio and Gianfranco Castiglione, who had earlier saved Ducati from collapse, bought the MV name and commenced production of a new range of superbikes. However, the company has had a troubled existence, changing hands frequently, with names like Mercedes-AMG and Harley-Davidson taking either full- or part-ownership. MV’s most famous customer is Lewis Hamilton, who has owned several MV superbikes and has put his name to a limited-edition machine, the F4 LH44.

MV Agusta is now back in the ownership of the Castiglione family, run by Claudio’s son, Giovanni, with backing from billionaire Timur Sardarov, son of Russian oligarch Rashid Sardarov. Giovanni Castiglione recently announced that MV will return to Grand Prix racing next year, albeit in the Moto2 world championship, which will require his machine to use a spec Triumph engine.