Motorcycle racing is all about taking it to the limit and getting away with it – and that’s what MotoGP did last weekend.
The freight nightmare that came close to cancelling the Argentine Grand Prix was the logistics equivalent of losing the front on the way into a corner, saving it on your elbow, then gassing it up, spinning the rear, getting it sideways and exiting the turn with your left knee skimming the guardrail.
Termas de Rio Hondo certainly wasn’t the first Grand Prix to be affected by cargo chaos. One of the first GPs staged at the USA’s Laguna Seca started late, following the late arrival of freight from the previous weekend’s Japanese GP at Suzuka.
But MotoGP’s Argentine round has form. When the event returned to the calendar in 1987 after a four-year absence, customs officers at Buenos Aires made the paddock sweat, in all kinds of ways. Dunlop got the most hassle. Customs refused to give the British company its tyres, stating that British products weren’t allowed into the country, as a result of the Falklands War. A bribe of several thousand dollars saw them right.
“The East German authorities were raging about Degner’s defection, they telegrammed GP organisers, announcing he wouldn’t be allowed to ride”
Most famously of all, a cargo cock-up – or worse, a cargo conspiracy – decided the outcome of a world championship at the first Argentine GP in 1961, which was also the very first GP staged outside Europe.
If last week’s world championship leader Enea Bastianini was worried that his bikes wouldn’t make it to Argentina, his fears had nothing on those belonging to 1961 125cc world-title-hopeful Ernst Degner.
In August 1961, at the height of the Cold War, factory MZ rider Degner defected from East to West during the Swedish GP, while his wife and kids were drugged and smuggled through the Berlin Wall in the boot of a car.
Degner had defected to gain freedom from Communist East Germany and gain a fat Suzuki contract, which required him to divulge the secrets of MZ’s super-quick two-strokes. At that time no other machine made more horsepower per litre than the little rotary-valve-induction machines.
Degner and his MZ on their way to victory at Sachsenring in 1961, watched by 300,000 East German fans
Only one problem – Degner didn’t have a motorcycle for the season-ending Argentine GP. If he could get hold of a competitive bike he still had a chance of winning the world title, so he contacted British-based Austrian engineer Dr Joe Ehrlich, a Viennese Jew who had fled his home when the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938.
Ehrlich’s EMC (for Ehrlich Motor Cycles) 125 GP bike was similar to the MZ, because Ehrlich and genius MZ engineer Walter Kaaden used to do a bit of business together. Kaaden couldn’t afford high-quality Western suspension and other parts, so Ehrlich would supply him and in return Kaaden would help with his engines.
Ehrlich agreed to supply Degner with an EMC for the Argentine season finale and duly arranged for the machine to be freighted from London Heathrow to Buenos Aires, via New York.
“Legend has it that Degner acquired a handgun in downtown Buenos Aires, paranoid that secret police would murder him”
If only it had been that simple. The East German authorities were raging about Degner’s defection, so they telegrammed the Argentine GP organisers, announcing that his racing licence had been revoked, so he wouldn’t be allowed to ride at the event
By now Degner was already on his way to South America, sat beside Ehrlich’s most trusted mechanic, while Ehrlich fixed him a West German racing licence.
On Friday morning Degner was at the track outside Argentina’s capital city, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the EMC, when the British freight company called Ehrlich at his Watford race shop, wondering what they should do with the motorcycle they’d been holding for several days. When the Argentine GP organisers had received the telegram from the East German authorities they had contacted EMC’s freight company, advising them not to send the bike.
By now Ehrlich was incandescent. He telegrammed Buenos Aires: “Machine held in London due to your panic cable to airline. Will arrive Buenos Aires 15:45 Saturday. Hold you fully responsible for this delay. Inform Degner of arrival of machine and give him every possible assistance”.
Meanwhile Degner’s agonising wait continued. On Saturday afternoon he learned the dreadful truth – the bike had made it to New York but no further.
Degner (seated, centre) at Suzuka with Suzuki personnel. To his left are team-mates Hugh Anderson and Frank Perris
Locals offered him a Bultaco, but the piston-ported Spanish single would have no chance of beating the factory Honda four-stroke of title-rival Tom Phillis, so all Degner could do on Sunday was watch the Australian win the race and the championship.
Degner had two theories for the EMC’s non-arrival: either the East German authorities had plotted with Argentine President Arturo Frondizi to ensure the bike didn’t reach its destination, or hardcore East German communists had contacted old German Nazis hiding in Argentina to maroon the bike in New York.
Legend has it that Degner acquired a handgun in downtown Buenos Aires. The East Germans were obviously out for revenge and he became paranoid that they would send their Stasi secret police to murder him. Of course, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, especially in this case, because the Stasi was well known for executing defectors, to discourage others from going West.
And then the FIM got involved. The Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme considered scrubbing the 125cc Argentine GP, due to Degner’s lack of machinery, but finally the result stood.
Even then the story wasn’t over. Degner had to stand trial before an FIM court, charged by the East German federation on several counts, including breaking his MZ contract, selling MZ’s industrial secrets and failing to fulfil his obligations to his East German club. He was found guilty of the last charge and fined 250 Swiss francs.
He did have the last laugh, however. The knowhow he had learned (or stolen, if you prefer) from Kaaden, created Suzuki’s first competitive GP bikes, a 125cc single and a 50cc single, with which Degner won Suzuki’s first GP victory, the 1962 50cc Isle of Man TT, and its first world title, the 1962 50cc world championship.