When the so-called Prince of Speed (because Giacomo Agostini was its king) was at the height of his powers in the late 1960s and early 1970s most Grands Prix were staged around street circuits, where he knew full well that one mistake might be his last, never mind the fact that he was fighting for FIM world championships, just as Fabio Quartararo, Pecco Bagnaia, Aleix Espargaró and others fight for world championships today.
Read and his rivals lived a knife-edge existence between risk and reward like few before or since. He admitted that the combination of the two often had him doubling up over the toilet before a grand prix, the hideous rush of adrenaline causing him to vomit before he steadied and dressed himself for the fight: pudding-basin helmet and a leather onesie. Not much use when meeting a brick wall at a hundred and fifty hundred miles an hour.
“I was bombing up the M1 when I passed this Lotus doing about ninety. I looked inside and it was Jim Clark”
Despite all this, Read made history. He was the first rider to win the junior, intermediate and senior world championships – 125s, 250s and 500s in those days – an achievement that even now has only been matched by Valentino Rossi and Marc Márquez. That’s how special he was, in an age when every GP season stole several lives and no one seemed to care.
He won eight world titles (two 500cc, four 250cc, one 125cc and a TT F1 crown on the Isle of Man), scored 52 GP victories, between 1961 and 1975, and won eight TTs, riding everything from little two-strokes to big four-strokes
Read was a tough competitor, possibly the toughest of all time. It was probably Read that began the sport’s metamorphosis from the gentleman champions of old – Geoff Duke, John Surtees and so on – to the grinning assassins of today.
John Cowie, a fierce competitor during Read’s later years when the he was back racing in Britain, remembers lining up with him on the grid at Cadwell Park in 1978, when there was a disagreement over the starting rules.
“Read leant over to me and said ‘you ain’t f**kin’ going to win it anyway!’,” recalls Cowie. “I didn’t know the man but he had been one of my idols when I was a teenager. He blew that right there. After he’d thumbed his nose at me he came up the inside of me into the hairpin, shoved me out and out, until I was high and dry, then cleared off.”
This is the attitude it takes to win multiple world titles. However, on this occasion Cowie had the last laugh – he beat Read to that year’s British TT F1 title.
Read was bike racing’s George Best and revelled in the bad-boy image. He named his autobiography after his other nickname ‘Rebel Read’ and he had the accoutrements to go with it. He wore rockstar shades and fur-coats, lived in mansions in London’s stockbroker belt, drove a Rolls-Royce, flew his own private plane, spent his winters skiing in the Alps and water-skiing in Hawaii and had a string of glamorous wives and girlfriends. His living-it-large character brightened the sport for years.
Read was born and bred in Luton, Bedfordshire. He started racing in 1956, aboard a 350cc BSA, encouraged by his mother, a keen motorcyclist. Just two years later he won his first Isle of Man TT, at that time the world’s biggest motorcycle race, and he was on his way
After that TT win he bought himself his first flash motor, a 3.8-litre Jaguar Mark 2, which was soon replaced by an E-Type.
“I remember driving up to Silverstone in the E. I was bombing up the M1 at about a hundred when I passed this Lotus doing about ninety. I looked inside and it was Jim Clark [1963 and 1965 Formula 1 world champion]. I thought, that’s good, I’m a motorcycle racer and he’s an F1 driver, so I’m doing okay.”
At the end of 1963 Read was signed by Yamaha, the third Japanese manufacturer to take on the world, after Honda and Suzuki. The following year he gave the company its first world title, the 250cc. Over the next few seasons the battle between Yamaha’s and Suzuki’s two-strokes and Honda’s four-strokes became the most fabulous, most lethal arms race in bike racing history.
The two-strokes were fast and scary too, prone to engine seizures because the metallurgy and lubrication of the days couldn’t cope with the heat produced by the engines. Riders like Read and Yamaha team-mate Bill Ivy were basically crash-test dummies, developing technology that might kill them at any moment.
“You realised you could get killed, so you lived it up. At one meeting it got a bit hectic, lingerie flying out of the window…”
“I remember my 250 splitting a flywheel at Chimay [a lethal Belgian street circuit, still in use today] at top speed,” Read told me a few years ago. “I felt it go and had the clutch in before it locked the rear wheel and sent me flying. You were always nervous…
“It was new technology, like the moon landing. We were developing multi-cylinder bikes, suffering their idiosyncrasies and their seizures. The Japanese were on a steep learning curve and we the riders were benefitting but also suffering. Seizures were a constant concern, so I still ride with two fingers on the clutch, even if I’m riding a four-stroke on the road!
“We were busy on the bikes and it was hard work – a 1000rpm powerband, about 350rpm between gears, shifting all the time. Hard work but very exciting, with all the hi-tech interest, the sounds, the atmosphere.
“It wasn’t only the engines, though. It was also the awful handling and lack of brakes. I remember during testing in Japan, Bill and I took some Yamaha engineers out to a certain section of the Suzuka circuit to see how the bikes handled. Usually the engineers stood in the pits and the bikes would flash by and look wonderful. Anyway, they came to watch us through the corners, where the bikes were tying themselves in knots, and after two laps they were standing on the circuit, jumping up and down, saying, ’Slow down, slow down! We understand!’.”
With the risks came wild times, because Read and his peers never knew which night out might be their last.
“You realised you could get killed, so you lived it up between meetings. We were like Spitfire pilots. It was like ‘f**k it, we’ve survived another mission, let’s live it up a bit’. It was thrilling to do it but the danger was the terrible problem. You had a choice; you could give it up or you could continue. I just prayed that I didn’t end up dead or a paraplegic. You tried not to think about it, you tried to make the most of it.”
“At one meeting in ’75, me and [Barry] Sheene had got blown off by Giacomo [Agostini] on the Yamaha. MV had brought these promotion girls along, so we were having a bit of a time with them in my hotel room. It got a bit hectic, lingerie flying out of the window…”
During the 1960s arms race Yamaha raced 125cc and 250cc twins in the GPs, so Honda built a five-cylinder 125 and six-cylinder 250. Yamaha responded with a V4 125 and a V4 250. Things were getting out of hand, so at the end of 1967 Honda and Suzuki withdrew. That left Yamaha all alone to contest the 1968 125 and 250 championships, with Read and Ivy.
Because Yamaha had no real opposition it decided to carve up the championships between its two stars before the racing had even started: Read would win the 125, Ivy the 250.
Both men obeyed team orders, until Read wrapped up the 125 title at Brno, Czechoslovakia, with three races to go. A few hours later he dropped his bombshell.
“Bill had been telling everyone, ‘I’m goin’ to win the 250 title, I’m goin’ to beat Ready’. I’d heard all this, so as we lined up for the 250s I said to him, ‘Okay, if you think you can beat me when we’re riding to orders, well, now you’re going have to race me for it’. He said, ‘Ah, f**kin’ ‘ell, Phil’. So we raced, I won and he was second.”
The championship ended in bitter acrimony at Monza, where they ended up equal on points, with the same number of victories and second places, so the title was decided on aggregate race times from the season. Read won the crown by two minutes 5.3 seconds.
Ivy lost his life ten months later when his Jawa two-stroke seized during practice for the 1969 East German GP at Sachsenring.
By then Yamaha had also quit GP racing, so Read became a privateer again, taking his fourth 250 title in 1971. In 1973 he was hired by Count Rocky Agusta to ride MV Agusta’s booming four-strokes, alongside the factory’s hugely successful star, Agostini.
Against all expectations Read beat Ago to the 500cc world title, precipitating Ago’s defection to Yamaha. Read won the title again in 1974, the last 500cc success by a four-stroke, just as his 1964 250cc world title had been the first by a two-stroke.
Read quit GP racing halfway through the 1976 season, aged 36. The following summer he returned to the Isle of Man for the first time since the early 1970s when he, Ago and other top GP stars had boycotted the event, because it was too dangerous for GP racing. Read’s decision to turn his back on the TT was hugely unpopular with British fans, who gave him a rough reception on his return.
Danger wasn’t Read’s only beef with the TT, he was also unhappy with the money on offer, which like all world championship events, was derisory.
“When I did the 1972 TT my appearance money as a five-times world champion was £50 [£700 today]. And I had to pay for my own ferry, hotel, everything, so even if I won a race or two the Isle of Man still cost me money. The TT didn’t frighten me, I loved it over there, but Ago and I mutually agreed that it was too dangerous for a GP, so we wouldn’t go again.”
Things were very different when he went back in 1977 because the TT had lost its GP status and the promoters feared for the event’s future, so they were desperate to attract big names.
“The promoters had been ripping us off for years. In 1977 they gave me £6000 to race there. I entered two bikes in two races and came with away with more than £20,000 [£135,000 today].” So he wasn’t too bothered that hundreds of fans booed him at the prize-giving.
“We passed and repassed, waving at each other as he went by or I went by, usually with a V-sign.”
Arguably Read’s most famous race was the 1978 F1 TT, when he battled with nine-time world champion Mike Hailwood, who was returning to motorcycle racing after a dozen years of racing cars, followed by full retirement from motor sport. Read rode a factory Honda, Hailwood a Ducati 900SS, its engine prepared by the Bologna factory.
Although the pair started the race apart (staggered starts at the TT) they spent several laps together, cheered all the way by sun-kissed fans.
“That race with Mike was one of the most exciting times I had on the Isle of Man. I heard him coming into Ramsey and I thought, ‘Oh no, I recognise the sound of that Ducati’. Then I thought, well, I’ve got to stay with him and make it more interesting.
“We passed and repassed, waving at each other as he went by or I went by, usually with a V-sign.”
Finally Read’s Honda expired and 38-year-old Hailwood won the most famous TT victory of all time.
“I realised that if his bike had broken instead I would’ve been the most unpopular TT winner ever. When I eventually got back to the Douglas Bay hotel, where Mike and I were staying, I went to his room and said, well done Mike, congratulations! I was still in my oily leathers. He said come down to the bar and we shared a couple of bottles of champagne with friends.”
Read retired at the end of 1982 to spend more time on his business interests and take part in classic racing events. He made a lot of money and lost a lot of money. The last time I interviewed him face to face he was living in a caravan at the bottom of a friend’s garden. Seeing an eight-time world champion in such circumstances didn’t feel right at all.