Last week, two icons who played such a massive influence in my growing up celebrated their 80th birthdays. Paul McCartney will celebrate at the weekend by headlining Glastonbury Festival, the legendary Cathedral of modern music. I do not think Giacomo Agostini is planning to headline at Assen at the undisputed Cathedral of World Championship Motorcycle racing, but he has every right to. I never saw McCartney, or The Beatles live but I certainly saw Ago. They are memories that form the very structure of my love for the sport.
The most successful rider in the 74-year history of Grand Prix racing. 15 World titles, 122 Grands Prix wins in just 231 Grands Prix starts. Add the fact that Ago’s looks, and charm, tempted so many beautiful ladies to link his arm – how could I not be impressed. Where do you start for a rider who loved Assen, winning 14 times at the Dutch TT.
Ago and I made our debuts at the TT races in the Isle of Man in 1965. The Italian was a works rider and team-mate to Mike Hailwood in the legendary MV Agusta team. I, a scruffy teenager on a day trip to the Island to watch the 50cc and 500cc World Championship races. Agostini had made his TT debut earlier in the week by finishing third in the 350cc race. I caught my first glimpse of the rider and machine that would dominate Grand Prix racing for the next decade. It was a very short glimpse as he raced down from Kates’s Cottage to where we stood in the pub at Creg Ny Baa. In a red blur and lingering exhaust smoke, he was gone. As we waited for him to return a lap later it was announced he had crashed 16 km out at Sarah’s cottage on the second lap. He was uninjured but his race was over.
Eight years later in 1973, we made a brave decision to miss our annual visit to Isle of Man TT and spread our wings and catch the ferry to Holland and a very different TT. Windmills, so many pushbikes, chips with mayonnaise and Beer at 6 am, were already making my first Grand Prix visit a memorable experience. The icing on the cake was watching Ago win the 350cc race on the MV although Phil Read’s victory in the 500cc race ran it close.
So, Ago was such a massive presence at my first World Championship events, surely it could not get better than that. It did and it did not. My very first assignment as the new reporter at Motorcycle News in 1976 was to travel to Misano for the pre-season international race in which arch enemies and former team-mate Giacomo Agostini and Phil Read were riding on 500cc Suzukis. They lost my luggage at Milan Airport, but I managed to find the legendary Abners Hotel on the Riccione seafront. I was nervous, very nervous but met Scotsman Iain Mackay, the renowned mechanic who later became head of Honda Racing PR, in the lobby. He took pity on me and asked if I would like to join him and his team for dinner that night in the hotel restaurant. I had no idea what team he worked for and gratefully accepted. With no luggage, I arrived at the restaurant in a dirty old t-shirt only to be welcomed with the shake of the hand by the rider in Mac’s team, a certain Giacomo Agostini. I said and ate little that evening. Incredibly the next evening Phil Read invited me to the very same restaurant for dinner and even lent me a couple of t-shirts. I thought what all the fuss about this job, it’s a doddle, but then events started going downhill rapidly.
When sleet fell on the morning of the race Ago refused to ride on safety grounds. The meeting was called off without a wheel being turned. I managed to get hold of Read by telephone who accused Ago of being pathetic. Pathetic Ago, accuses Read, steamed out of the front-page headlines on Wednesday morning. I thought I was in the big time. A week later the race meeting was re-scheduled for the aerodrome at Modena. I arrived cocky and full of myself. The first person I saw was Ago reading the front-page pathetic headlines. Before I could disappear, he signalled me over with the crook of his finger. He was so very angry. Ago enquired whether the opinion of a 15-time World Champion to such accusation might have been how a proper journalist would have approached the story. There were no more invitations to dinner that weekend. I still had so much to learn. Thirty-six years later when I hosted his 70th birthday party at Silverstone he told me he’d forgiven me.
Happy 80th Ago. Paul McCartney will be celebrating his birthday by singing ‘Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away.’ In my case, it was watching the great Giacomo Agostini in action that did just that.