This weekend the legendary number 46 will grace the tarmac once again. The most famous number in World Championship motorsport returns to the racetrack proudly emblazoned on the side of a car. The doctor returns to the racetrack on four wheels and the Imola circuit prepares for a patriotic weekend as the nine-time World Champion Valentino Rossi makes his debut in the Fanatec GT World Challenge Europe less than five months after that emotional goodbye to MotoGP™ in Valencia. Rossi embarks on a well-trodden path from two wheels to four. It’s a tough journey with just a few very notable exceptions finding success in both sports that appear the same but in many ways are very different
You would imagine the switch should not be that difficult, but it is. John Surtees is the only man in the history of MotoGP™ and Formula One to win World titles on two and four wheels. The British rider won seven World titles in the 350 and 500cc classes between 1956 and 1960 which included 38 Grand Prix wins before switching to four wheels. In 1964 he won the Formula One World Championship for Ferrari and ironically brought Honda their first Formula One victory after dominating motorcycle racing for so long.
Since then, nobody has come anywhere near following in Surtees’s considerable footsteps. Nobody has even won Grand Prix in both sports although some have come close. Nine-time World Champion Mike Hailwood won 76 Grands Prix before switching. After winning the European Formula Two Championship he stepped up to Formula One and achieved two podium finishes driving for the John Surtees team before returning to two wheels and that emotional win in the 1978 TT races in the Isle of Man.
Frenchman Jean-Pierre Beltoise is the only competitor to do it the other way round. He won the legendary 1972 Monaco F1 race in the pouring rain. His early racing days had been on two wheels, and he finished sixth in the 1964 50cc World Championship. When I worked for Williams in F1 my switch to four wheels was made easy by spending hours talking bikes with the 1996 World Champion Damon Hill. He admitted after success on two wheels his one aim was to become the next Barry Sheene but realised, he was never good enough which was certainly not the case in an F1 car. Also, I was not so popular with Sir Frank Williams when I organised a test drive for Mick Doohan in Jacques Villeneuve’s World Championship F1 car. Mick was impressive but one slight ‘off’ into a Barcelona barrier amounted to a bill of around 75,000 euros.
The very first 125cc World Champion Nello Pagani drove in one F1 Grand Prix. Five-time World Champion Geoff Duke dabbled but never actually raced in F1. Nineteen-year-old Venezuelan Johnny Cecotto was the youngest ever World Champion at the time when he won the 1975 350cc title. He switched to four wheels with considerable success in touring cars. Two times motorcycle Grand Prix winner and 500cc podium finisher Stuart Graham, son of the first 500cc World Champion Les, won the British touring car Championship. Four-time World 500cc World Champion Eddie Lawson achieved some impressive results in both the Indy Lights and CART Championships in the States. Australian Premier class World Champions Wayne Gardner and Casey Stoner both switched to Touring and Supercar Champions at home and in Japan.
Both sports are dangerous and especially in the sixties and seventies before rider and driver safety became a priority. The likes of Kenny Roberts and Jackie Stewart led the respective campaigns. It was not a moment too soon. The 1961 double 350 and 500cc World Champion Gary Hocking retired from Grand Prix racing after the first round in 1962 when Tom Phillis was killed at the TT races. Following the tragic death of his close friend he went out and won the 500cc race before announcing his retirement. Hocking returned home to Rhodesia to go car racing and lost his life practicing for the Natal Grand Prix in South Africa. The 1967 125cc World Champion Bill Ivy impressed everybody with his speed when he switched to four wheels. The former Yamaha rider needed cash to finance his Formula Two efforts and returned to Grand Prix motorcycle racing on the 350cc Jawa machine. He was killed practicing for the 1969 East German Grand Prix at the Sachsenring road circuit.
While his old friends and foes make the long trip to Termas de Rio Hondo in Argentina on Sunday Valentino makes the short car journey from his Tavullia home to Imola to start a new adventure. Remember him on the top step of the podium wearing the Argentine football shirt seven years ago. Good luck Vale and I wonder if you have an Italian football shirt ready – just in case.