Gladiators v performers: MotoGP riders then and now…

| | MotoGP
Agostini relaxing on the Isle of Man
Agostini relaxing on the Isle of Man Picture: Miller Family Archive

“When I leave Bergamo to go to a race and I say ‘Ciao’ to my mama I think maybe I don’t see her again…” Legend Giacomo Agostini talking about his early days in racing and the difference between then and now.

It was an observation regarding track safety by ex-Formula 1 driver Tony Brooks who, when asked to compare drivers like himself and Stirling Moss with today’s stars, said, after careful thought: “They are very, very good but more like performers. We were gladiators.”

Gladiators. Is that how greats like Agostini and Phil Read saw themselves? Or indeed Peter Williams whose career was ended by a crash at Oulton Park, a circuit which claimed the life of the great Bob McIntyre.

Williams redefined the dictionary description from ‘a person engaged in a fight to the death as public entertainment for the Romans’ to something less than death but having ‘an element of danger and possibly pain’.

Motorcycle racing still has its gladiators. Road races like the TT, arguably the most famous race in the world, remain the ultimate challenge.

Their future is threatened, not by a shortage of competitors, but rising costs such as insurance and, bizarrely, the pandemic Coronavirus which has closed down the Isle of Man and ruled against large crowds attending sporting events. And there is uncertainty as to when it will end.

From his Bergamo home, locked in by coronavirus, Agostini told “In my time we have both the circuit and the normal road like the Isle of Man, Francorchamps or Imatra.

“We have to race because we don’t have any alternative. So when we start the race, if we think about our life because some friends have died, we have too much emotion.

“Why did we do it? Because I want to race. I love to race. If I don’t race in the Isle of Man I must change my job. Yes, of course it’s also true that people think nasty things happen to other people but not me. A plane crashes killing many people but the airport is full the next day.

“The most dangerous circuit, for me, was the Isle of Man. But it is also the best circuit.To ride the TT is something different. Winning there was a victory your remember all your life. But when my friend Gilberto Parlotti was killed I talked to other riders, including Phil Read, about the safety.

“I was very sorry but decided not to ride again. And it lost its world championship so it was not necessary.

“Today it is different. Marquez can crash two or three times in practice and still be ok. In our time if we crashed once we were lucky to go to the hospital. But now we don’t have to think about safety, just the battle between the riders. It is very exciting and gives me a special emotion because I like the battle between two, three or four riders. And the group behind is much closer than in my time.

Perhaps we were more like gladiators because today it is more controlled by computers, the circuit is perfect, the bike is perfect and you have all the information. When you come into the pits now it’s the man with the computer who tells you what you have been doing. A few years ago you told him.

“Today, the good rider compares with the good rider of 20, 30 or 40 years ago. We cannot say we were better. The only difference is the safety. Today the riders don’t think, ‘Maybe I don’t come back again’ like we used to.”

For Read, road racing was completely normal. A Manx GP winner in 1960 he went on to win the Junior TT the following year, the first of many and forerunner to seven world championships.

“Grand Prix circuits in my day were mostly on road circuits, not specially prepared race circuits. There was Francorchamps, very, very fast and the GPs in Czecho, Germany and Austria. Bloody dangerous. But even Silverstone, an airfield circuit, had a wall that was not protected. A rider complained about it, he was ignored, crashed there and was killed. Organisers did not consider the riders in those days.

“Nowadays riders can fall off, as Marquez does several times, without fear of serious injury. Falling off at 200 mph, dusting themselves down and racing next day, they are gladiators too. I think Marquez goes into racing expecting to crash on every corner and they are constantly cutting each other up.

“Would I prefer racing now rather than then? Well, you knew it was dangerous and you were pushing your luck.You tried to ride within ten tenths and only on certain corners would you be on ten tenths to win. “The old Sachsenring circuit in East Germany went through the village of Hohenstein-Emstthal and you would never attempt to overtake anyone there.

This was where Bill Ivy was killed when his bike seized. The organisers didn’t consider the importance of protection so much or to have paramedics on every corner or every section. It took an hour for the paramedics to get to Bill and he bled to death.

“I suppose you could call us gladiators but we carried on because we did think it was something that happened to other people. It was also a different world. We were just coming out of the second World War and I remember a journalist, Peter Howdle, who flew with Bomber Command and survived long enough to be on the Dresden raid. Half his colleagues didn’t.

“And I bought my first Norton from Peter Ferbrache, also a tail gunner, who rode in the Continental Circus and the only thing which frightened him was going back to East Germany in case he was recognised.He was later killed at Assen.

“It is a much more risk averse world now and I think crowds are missing out a bit with 50 yards of run off and the them well back. The TT is getting a bit like that. Spectators are banned from watching at some of the most spectacular areas.

“And yet people still enjoy taking risks. Those who go skiing or base jumping off the tops of mountains risk a lot. The death rate is quite high. It gives the individual a great deal of excitement when you’ve taken the risk and succeeded rather than something where there’s little or no risk.”

Peter Williams came from a racing family, father Jack being one-time head of the AMC racing department famous for creating the AJS 7R and the Matchless G50. Not just a highly successful rider on all circuits, he used his training as a mechanical engineer to be a pioneer in frame design and construction, alloy wheels and an early user of disc brakes.

Riding for Tom Arter, MZ and the John Player Norton team he racked up wins in the TT, Ulster Grand Prix, the British Superbike Championship together with 11 podiums in the World Championship including winning the 1971 Ulster GP on an MZ. A crash at Old Hall Corner at Oulton Park in 1974 ended his career.

Preferring the comparison to be between gladiators and entertainers he expounded: ”In these ‘enlightened’ days some people fight or play potentially dangerous games to enjoy themselves while others are horrified at what they are doing. Mountaineering and climbing sheer cliff faces hundreds of feet high or crashing into each other in rugby makes me flinch.

“But I understand their inner need to find the limits of what is possible. What I deplore is the ghoulish schadenfreude and even blood lust which is an echo of ancient Rome still remaining in some sections of the public.

It is when sports are organised to entertain the public that, whereas with the Romans the result depended on death, today the avoidance of death or serious injury should, as far as possible, be the aim and duty of the sports organisers.

“It was relatively recently that sports organisers realised it was not just socially necessary, but good business practice, to lengthen their gladiator’s careers by protecting them against death and disabling injuries to enable them to entertain the paying public for a long time - more appearances, more gate money!

“The problem for kill-joys is that whenever and wherever there are risks some people are prepared to take them as long as they enjoy doing it. And what is ‘too risky’ and ‘too dangerous’? Mums and dads don’t let their kids climb trees anymore. Health and Safety is the bane of adventure nowadays.

“It is not about bravery that leads us to doing dangerous things. It is inquisitiveness and willingness to set and accept a challenge. Bravery is willingness to confront a task you don’t want.

“So many people think motorcycle racers are brave and TT riders the bravest. No, many are foolish but all are simply fascinated by riding motorcycles - in love with it.

The trouble is that riding and racing can be dangerous and the TT is the greatest motorcycle love story. And the greatest love stories are tragedies.

“In my day I am not sure I would describe myself and my peers as gladiators because, while I knew I was not being paid well enough, I was doing what I loved doing.I remember scanning the Mallory Park programme to see what the prize money for a heat was - £3 - which I had to win to get home. I was actually grateful for the opportunity to race.

“There are not many sports played professionally that are not gladiatorial to some extent. We could say that contests that have no element of risk are not sports - just games.

“But does it matter as long as it is exciting to do and to watch. And if the sport spectator is lucky he will be entertained by an art form and poetry in motion.”