Tag Archives: Geoff Duke

A Herd Of Goats

Valentino Rossi on his way to pole position at Jerez.

Valentino Rossi about to claim pole position at Jerez.

The recent return to form by Valentino Rossi since re-joining his former team at Yamaha has been quite extraordinary. After two seasons in the wilderness with Ducati (2012-2013) and a change of crew chief from Jeremy Burgess to fellow Italian Silvan Galbusera, Rossi is back once more to his winning ways. A single win and four third-place podiums helped Valentino clinch fourth place in the 2014 MotoGP World Championship, which by anyone’s standards was a great achievement. The momentum continued into the 2015 season with four wins and Rossi finishing off the podium only three times to take second place in the championship by a mere 5 points, in what became a contentious world title win for Jorge Lorenzo.

What makes Rossi’s performance even more remarkable is his age. Valentino turned 37 years old earlier this year showing his hunger for victory and love of the sport has not waned.   Yamaha must think so as they have agreed to a two-year extension of Rossi’s contract keeping him with the factory team until 2018.

Nonetheless, Rossi’s renewed competitiveness has swung the spotlight of public attention once more onto the subject of who is the greatest of all time (G.O.A.T.) in the sport of Grand Prix motorcycle racing.

Giacomo Agostini on his way to winning German GP at the Nurburgring.

Giacomo Agostini on his way to winning German GP at the Nurburgring.

There are of course the cold facts that statistics tend to present. The great Giacomo Agostini is still the most prolific Grand Prix winner with 122 wins to his credit while Rossi is still chipping away on 114 with the potential to equal or beat this record. Agostini has also won 8 MotoGP (formerly 500cc) world titles to Rossi’s 7 so far. “Ago” has also won 7 350cc world championships giving him a total of 15 world titles to Valentino’s 9 (a 125cc title in 1997 and 250cc title in 1999 with Aprilia). Agostini has also won 10 Isle of Mann TT’s, the only non-British rider to do so. Rossi though has won world titles in three capacity classes to ‘”Ago’s” two.

Detractors of Agostini’s accomplishments like to point out that during his domination of the Grand Prix that he had superior multi-cylinder four-stroke machinery of the MV Agusta factory team at his disposal with mainly outdated British four-stroke singles to contend with. That is to a degree is true but ‘Ago” still had to deal with the likes of Mike Hailwood, Jim Redman and Phil Read as either teammates or factory supported Honda riders along the way as well as the ever-improving Japanese two-strokes that were gaining traction in both the 350cc and 500cc class during his career. And indeed it was Agostini in 1974 that won the first MotoGP (500cc) riders title on a four-cylinder two-stroke; a first also for Yamaha and Japan. Interestingly it was Rossi that won the last two-stroke World Championship and the first for the new 990cc four-strokes with Honda in 2001 and 2002.

Both “Ago” and Valentino have similarly won championships in the premier class with two different manufacturers and are part of an elite group of five that have done so in the sixty-seven-year history of the championship. The others are Geoff Duke, Eddie Lawson and Casey Stoner.

Five times World Champion Geoff Duke on the Gilera.

Five times World Champion Geoff Duke on the Gilera.

It should also be pointed out that Giacomo’s 122 Grand Prix wins were accrued over thirteen years from 186 starts, while Rossi has been in the Grand Prix for twenty years and accumulated his 114 (as this is written) wins from 341 starts.

Another relevant point is the danger factor. Grand Prix motorcycle racing has always been a hazardous sport, and even this year the paddock grieved another fatality when Luis Salom suffered a fatal crash in free practice for the Moto2 race in Catalunya. But during Agostini’s career in the 1960’s and early 1970’s fatalities were commonplace and many of the circuits were considered deadly. Surprisingly “Ago” was quoted as saying that his favourite tracks were the Isle of Man TT, the old Nurburgring, the old Spa, Opatija and the old Brno circuit, the five most deadly tracks in Grand Prix motorcycle racing history. Remember too, that it was during this period that the “pudding basin” helmet was considered standard “safety equipment”.

Greatness though is not necessarily statistics but perhaps the perception of the groups of fans who love the sport and have lived through different eras. Take Geoff Duke, for example, a six-time World Champion (two 350cc and four 500cc titles) during the sports infancy in the 1950’s, notching up a number of firsts. He was the first man to win two titles (350cc and 500cc) in the same season (1951), the first to win 3 consecutive 500cc titles (1953, 1954 and 1955) and also the first to win MotoGP (500c) titles with two different manufacturers (Norton and Gilera).

And what of John Surtees? Surtees won the premier 500cc Grand Prix crown on four occasions, (1956, 1958, 1959 and 1960) and the 350cc G.P. title on three times (1958, 1959 and 1960) for a total of seven championships on two wheels. Surtees then clinched the Formula One car title at the last race in Mexico in 1964, the only person ever to win the premier class on two wheels and four.

John Surtees rides his MV Agusta to victory at the 1958 Isle of Man TT.

Surtees rides his MV Augusta to victory at the Isle of Man.

But to many Mike Hailwood remains a true icon of Grand Prix motorcycle racing. Equal to Rossi with 9 world championships in three different classes (three 250cc, two 350cc and four 500cc) during a ten-year career with 76 wins from 152 starts in the late 1950’s and 1960’s that included 14 Isle of Man TT victories. Remarkably after an 11-year break from motorcycle racing, Hailwood returned to the Island and won the F1 TT in 1978 and the Senior TT in 1979.

The list goes on with names like Phil Read. A 7 times world champion in three classes (the 125cc in 1968, the 250cc in 1964, 65, 68 and 1971, and the 500cc 1973 and 1974) he accumulated 52 wins from 152 starts, again during the dangerous days of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

But if dominance was the criteria for being a G.O.A.T., then one needs to look no further than Mick Doohan. During a 10-year career between 1989 and 1999, Doohan won 54 500cc Grand Prix and achieved 95 podiums from 137 starts with five consecutive World Championships (equalled only by Rossi).  In 1997 Doohan amassed an astounding 12 wins and 2-second places from 15 races. This has only been surpassed by the youngest rider to win a MotoGP World Championship, Marq Marquez, with 13 wins, but from 18 races, on the way to his second World title in 2014. Add to this the fact that Doohan’s superiority occurred after he had sustained debilitating injuries to his left leg during practice for the Dutch TT at Assen during what should have been a dominant season and a convincing first world title.

So indeed the argument for the greatest of all time will continue between fans and journalists alike, on the Internet, in pubs and at racetracks around the world, revealing the genuine passion we all have for what is the greatest of all motorsports.

Words Geoff Dawes © 2016 Images courtesy http://www.crash.net, http://www.metzeler.com, http://www.theguardian.com.

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Vale Geoffrey Ernest Duke, 29th of March 1923 to the 1st of May 2015.

In this modern world of instant access to 24-hour news services and an almost inescapable saturation of the latest events from around the globe, it’s not unusual for those in the public eye to quickly achieve the status of celebrity or even “Superstar”. But to accomplish this level of fame during the 1950’s, in what could only be described at that time as a minority sport, is truly extraordinary.

Born in St. Helens, Lancashire on the 29th of March 1923, Geoff Duke OBE became a household name during this period in Britain, Europe and the Commonwealth. A four times World Champion in the 500cc (MotoGP) class and twice in the 350cc category of Grand Prix motorcycle racing, Duke also became the first rider to win three consecutive 500cc (MotoGP) World Championships between1953 and1955. Geoff would have been in contention for a fourth title had the FIM not imposed a six-month ban for supporting a privateers strike for more start money at the 1955 Dutch TT. Duke also became the first rider to win two World Championships in the same year, taking the 350cc and 500cc titles in 1951.

Duke on the Norton.

Duke on the Norton single.

Duke’s background in motorcycling had started at the age of 10, when unbeknown to his parents he bought a belt drive Raleigh of the same vintage. While still a teenager at the start of the Second World War, Duke trained dispatch riders in the Royal Signals Corps. He subsequently competed for the first time in military trials events and also achieved the status of Team Sergeant in the Royal Signals Motorcycle Team, the famous “White Helmets”.

An exceptional trials rider, Duke was employed in Norton’s trials department after the war. However, he already had his sights set on something faster. With Norton’s backing, he made his road-racing debut in 1948, starting out on the most dangerous racetrack of them all, the Isle of Man TT course.

World Champion Geoff Duke at Hesketh1 - Copy

Duke on the technically advanced Gilera.

His initial World Championship titles in 1951 had come on Norton singles but a reluctance by Norton management to pay Duke what he was worth led him to change to the technically advanced, but unruly, Italian four-cylinder Gilera. Duke helped develop the advanced machines to take a hat-trick of 500cc titles. He also became the first rider to win 500cc world titles on two different brands of motorcycles, a feat that has only been emulated by a handful of riders. Geoff also set new standards off the motorcycle, with a polite manner, good looks and smart clothes.

Another first for Duke was the use of a close-fitting one-piece leather racing suit, which no doubt came about by trying to reduce wind resistance on the underpowered Norton singles. Duke also dabbled in car racing and became an Aston Martin “works driver” during in 1952 and 1953.

Another win for .Duke

Another win for Duke.

After 33 Grand Prix wins from 89 starts and 50 podiums, which included 6 wins at the Isle of Man TT, Duke retired from GP motorcycle racing, ending an illustrious 10-year road racing career. A short-lived and unsuccessful return to car racing resulted in a major crash in Sweden after which Geoff became a Hotelier in the Isle of Man, which by then was his home.

As well as receiving an Order of the British Empire in 1953, Duke was voted BBC Sportsman of the year and awarded the prestigious RAC Seagrave Trophy, both in 1951.

Duke passed away at his home on the Isle Of Man on the 1st of May 2015. He was 92 years old.

Words Geoff Dawes © 2015. Images courtesy http://www.theguardian.com, http://www.members.boardhost.com. Video courtesy http://www.dukevideo.com.