Great to see the two grandest men of bike racing inducted into the Motor Sport Hall of Fame this week, taking their place alongside Fangio, Senna and the rest.
John Surtees and Giacomo Agostini greeted each other like old friends when they met at the Hall of Fame awards evening at London’s Roundhouse, embracing warmly and immediately launching into animated conversation in Italian. Their motorcycling careers were, of course, inextricably linked with the revered Italian marque MV Agusta, the Ferrari of motorcycling.
Indeed ‘Il Grande John’ and Ago were the men who made MV. Surtees won the marque’s first four 500 world titles, between 1956 and 1960, while Ago took seven consecutive 500 crowns with MV between 1966 and 1972. Even now MV stands as the fourth most successful constructor in motorcycle Grand Prix racing, despite the fact that its race shop closed its doors for the last time in the mid-1970s.
John Surtees with TAG Heuer’s UK managing director Rob Diver
However, the real reason Surtees and Ago were decorated this week was for the unique achievements that make them two of the greatest men in motor sport history: Surtees the only man to have won world titles on two wheels and four, Ago the man with the most motorcycle Grand Prix wins, an astonishing 122 victories.
Both men have wonderful tales to tell about the enigmatic Count Domenico Agusta, a Godfather-like figure who ruled his racing team from a vast, darkened office next to his Agusta helicopter factory. Agusta was an aristocratic control freak who ran his team like a chess set in which he was the king and everyone else the pawns.
Surtees found him a hard man to get along with, even trickier than Enzo Ferrari, for whom he won the Formula 1 car world title in 1964. When I asked Surtees with whom would he rather spend an evening – the Count or il Commendatore – he thought for a moment and then said “Neither! But I spent more time eating and drinking with Enzo. He was OK once you got him away from Modena”.
Like everyone else, Surtees had huge difficulty getting even a moment or two with Agusta who used to enjoy making his riders sit for hours outside his office waiting for an audience.
“He wanted to create an aura around himself – everything he did was about increasing his social standing,” Surtees added. “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!”
Ago – who won all but one of his 15 world titles with MV – vividly recalls his first-ever meeting with the Count.
“I had an appointment to see him at 4.30. I waited outside his office and finally he saw 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.’
‘Who you are?’
‘What do you want?’
‘I want to race with your bike.’
‘But my bike is a difficult bike. Can you ride my bike?’”
So the Count ordered his secretary to book Monza for a private test session the following day. Agostini duly arrived and walked out of the pits to see a line of traffic cones stretching down the start-finish straight.
“It costs a lot of money to book Monza, but he wanted me to ride slalom like I used to do in motorcycle gymkhanas when I was a boy, and I am already a three-time Italian champion! The Count, he liked to play with you. OK, so I did the slalom and he gave me a contract.”
In 1969 Agostini got the call from Signor Ferrari, who wanted Italy’s racing darling to follow in the wheel tracks of Surtees.
“I was so excited – to drive for Ferrari! Then I start thinking. My passion is motorcycles. And for sure I am making a lot of money racing motorcycles, always on the podium, always making the headlines. And cars? Maybe I don’t enjoy the same success, so I decided to stay with motorcycles.”
Both Ago and Surtees’ records seemed entirely safe until recently when Valentino Rossi looked like he might be able to overhaul at least one of them. In the end, however, Rossi decided against chasing F1 glory with Ferrari and now seems unlikely to win the 18 MotoGP victories he needs to overhaul Ago.
Surtees encouraged Rossi to try and emulate his own achievement but Ago is happy that his own record once again looks unbeatable.
“Already I told him: Valentino, I enjoy when you win races, but please stop when you have two or three victories less than me! Anyway, now I think the record is very difficult for him. It’s not impossible, but maybe he has two or three years left and even if Ducati build a very good bike, Stoner is so fast…”