or Hailwood? .....
is the greatest racer of all time?
Photo & Copyright: Ronald
Sent to us by John S Nowell.
So who is "The
Best Motorcycle Racer Ever"? The
"Greatest of All Time"?
The ugly and unflattering term: "G.O.A.T."
as they put it these days? It's a moot point and highly
In my 40 years experience of witnessing the
greatest riders of all time on the greatest machines of
all time at all kinds of track all over the World, I find
this question is often tainted by the era you witnessed,
or by emotion, or nationality. Some will say Stanley Woods,
Bob MacIntyre, Geoff Duke, John Surtees, Giacomo Agostini;
or Kenny Roberts, Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, Michael
Doohan... It's a bit like selecting your favorite James
Bond - most people choose the one they saw first!
I've tried to look at the question as dispassionately
as possible. My first heroes were Pat Hennen, Randy Mamola
and Freddie Spencer thus, with no disrespect to them, one
could say my judgment is not clouded on the topic.
I have huge respect for all road racers and
like most true race fans the issue of nationality is neither
here nor there. I can only call it as I see it, and have
been seeing it - and reading about it - for decades. If
you witness someone or something special you know it, and
sometimes that often transcends the issues of simply adding
Given my age naturally my first hand viewing pleasure has
been from 1970 onwards, but I'm a keen fanatic of motorcycle
racing history and have read most first hand autobiographies
(not some Biography made by a blinded psychophant). From
the horses mouth as it were. From the people who have ridden
with or against the great names. Ask anyone who knows his
salt about "who's the greatest" and you'll be
given two names: Mike Hailwood
or Valentino Rossi.
The answer is because they had, or have an
uncanny gift that belies any mechanical prowess. They possess
an indeterminate and indefinable skill that gives them that
tiny advantage. That little bit extra that leaves team mates
and rivals scratching their heads wondering how on earth
they do it. The ability to ignore or overcome technical
'problems' or 'deficiencies', and simply make two wheels
circulate faster than anyone else in the World. In essence,
So. Mike Hailwood or Valentino Rossi? What
do I think?
Although I admire them both hugely I have
no particular attachment or 'emotional relationship' to
either of them, even though my name is 'Mike'. I generally
tend to be a fan of underdogs. That being said I have quite
a clear and open mind on the subject.
I've been asked this question many times
and have thought long and hard about it, especially given
the ascendancy of the Italian in recent years, but I have
perhaps just realised that the clues, or even the answer
to the question, is already there…
In the modern World it’s a given that most sports
people are more advanced than those of the past. Every issue
in every sport is analysed in the most minute of details.
Competition and commercial pressure is fierce and media
attention extensive. Money, education, training facilities,
health care, research, diet, food supplements have all contributed
to make modern athletes, footballers, rugby players, tennis
players etc far more technologically advanced compared to
those of the past.
Some even suggest modern athletes are made, not born. There
are a few exceptions of course but having ‘talent’
these days is often not enough.
Nothing has advanced more than motor sport. The technology
is of space age proportions with both mechanical and safety
equipment consisting of things ‘not even invented
yet’. Motorcycle racing has changed enormously in
the last 10 years, especially with the advent of the 4 stroke
MotoGP class. The horsepower is vast, grip levels arm wrenching
and stopping distances astonishing. For 10 months a year
the modern Grand Prix rider has to cope with global travelling
and twisting heaving and hanging on to these beasts for
6 hours a day, 5 days a week in temperatures of between
70-130 degrees. Supremely fit athletes indeed.
The commercial pressures and opportunities are tempting
and thus the standard is extremely high. MotoGP level is
a millionaire’s club of quite simply the very best
motorcycle racers and technological gurus in the World.
You can’t buy these things, stick it in a van and
drive round the World expecting to score some Championship
points, or perhaps luck a podium. Every single rider in
the class has a pedigree, a history and huge pride. Manufacturers
Mistakes are few, and if there are any they are highly scrutinised
adding to the pressure. Machine reliability is rarely an
issue. “You’re only as good as your last race”
has never been more true. The differences between the 20
or so MotoGP machines are consistently fractions of a second.
Not minutes, or several seconds a lap. Fractions. The concentration
and pressure is huge both on and of the track, 24 hours
a day. It is the ultimate challenge and ultimate test of
“who really is the best”.
You have to be particularly special to win a MotoGP race.
The standard is phenomenally high. The effort required has
to be respected. These races are not given away. Any win
is a well deserved one. You can’t rely on others misfortune
To win a World Championship takes something else again.
To win more than one Championship – or even dominate
– requires someone particularly special. Valentino
is particularly special.
In terms of statistics Valentino cannot do any more. He
has won on 125cc, 250cc, Superbike (Suzuka 8 hour), 500cc
and MotoGP machines. His podium finishes, points scores
and success rate is incredible. He has taken on all-comers
and seen Champions challenge and fade, but he’s still
there 12 years on acclaimed as THE benchmark in motorcycle
racing. The man to beat. And his career is far from over.
A growing chestnut is whether or not Valentino would win
on the Isle of Man TT course. The answer is most certainly
YES, with practice. If he can ride two wheels faster than
anyone else in the World then he can ride on two wheels
faster than anyone else in the World. No disrespect to TT
riders, but put them on a 1m 30s short circuit and they’re
a good few seconds off the pace.
Former British Superbike and Supersport runner Steve Plater
has proved with his fabulous performances at the Isle of
Man TT that it’s easier to make the transition to
the roads than the other way round. He lapped at over 128mph
and finished in the top ten first time out, yet even he,
and the equally as fast John McGuinness, would have to concede
they wouldn't see which way Valentino went on a short circuit.
Notwithstanding their busy work schedule you can’t
blame modern GP riders for avoiding the TT. They simply
don't need it, financially or risk wise. Why bother?...
People often say it’s impossible to assess who is
the greatest due to generation gaps, different eras, different
riding styles, different machinery, different equipment,
different circuits etc etc.
I believe that Mike Hailwood dispelled those arguments when
he rode a modern Heron Suzuki RG500 Grand Prix bike at the
TT in 1979, one of the best Grand Prix bikes in the World
at that time. Notwithstanding everything else he did in
the past, in my view it was his performances on THIS bike
that marks him out as the greatest ever.
Although he rode brilliantly in 1978, he
was for all intents and purposes away from modern Grand
Prix motorcycle technology for 12 years. 12 years! Look
how much Grand Prix technology has changed in the last 3
years! Despite that absence he adapted to the modern dynamics
of engine, tyres and suspension in no time at all and simply
made it fly – around the Isle of Man TT course no
less! Of all the places…!
The focus and pressure on him was enormous.
Just as big if not bigger than any modern day rider. Make
no mistake the whole World was watching his every move.
He didn't need the money, the acclaim, the attention...
He trained of course, but did he train as
fiercely as any modern MotoGP rider? Rely on dieticians?
Sports scientists? Undertake lessons or courses in enginering
and electronic management? Become a specialist in understanding
data logging? Probably not.
My research, and accounts from the horses mouth himself,
suggests that Mike was a poor engineer and didn't really
understand how a bike worked or what did what. This meant
he relied almost entirely on feel. As result he was able
to leap from bike to bike of differing capacity, size and
weight and still set astonishing lap times. He just had
IT. Despite the lower level of preparation, of both man
and machine, the 'easy' transition to the rigours of a modern
GP bike is even more staggering. His performanes on the
RG500 more or less PROVED that Mike Hailwood could be put
in a time machine and transported to any period of time
and still ride a two wheeled projectile as fast, if not
faster, than anyone else in the World. And without really
thinking about it.
Valentino works extremely hard at what he
does and does so alongside some world class engineers and
That isn't to say Mike did it all on his
own, but obviously the level of technology and support in
those days was comparatively non-existent. You run what
you brung in those days. No special tyres shipped in overnight,
no plugging the machine in to see where it was going wrong
Mike had to rely on feel and instinct and that alone. Whilst
the rider is still clearly key in the motorcycle world,
technology is now making the impossible possible and is
certainly assisting the process.
Lets put it another way, could Mike have
been on the pace on a perfectly set up, electronically aided
MotoGP bike? Even better! Pick your track! I was 9 years
of age when I saw Mike sweep through Hillberry flat out
on the RG500 in 1979, sat upright and relaxed, knees in.
A man totally at ease and in control. It just flowed. A
naturally gifted motorcycle rider. Seeing him on the pace
at Mallory, Silverstone and Donington, beating modern stars
on a clapped out Ducati I remember thinking that he was
too good for these guys and should be taking on Sheene and
Roberts in 500cc Grands Prix. I genuinely believed he could
win GPs at that time despite his age and ‘generation
gap’, and despite his badly damaged ankle - a consequence
of F1 not motorcycling - I prayed he’d give it a go.
I recall the media being similarly excited at the prospect
at the time. His standard was truly THAT good. Think about
that. A 39-year-old man, 12 years after retirement, on an
unfamiliar modern GP monster showing form comparative to
the GP superstars of the day. Shouldn’t happen. A
true phenomenon. I can’t think of any sportsman in
any sport who would put such a huge reputation on the line
like Mike Hailwood did and adapt to such a dynamic, challenging
and technologically evolving sport so quickly and so effectively.
“Greatest Ever” is surely the conclusion?
Valentino is without question a fantastic
rider. The best of his generation by far. If you swapped
roles then I believe both he and Hailwood would be 'the
men to beat' in any era. In my view the only difference
between them is that Hailwood has "done it" in
a different era. The evidence has been there since 1979.
He has PROVED he could adapt to a modern era.
Valentino, legend that he clearly is, still
has some way to go to prove that he could do the same, and
prove that his talent will last forever.
Reproduced from the blog of Mike Williams
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