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 emotive.
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 up statistics.
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, raw talent.
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 too.
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 these days.
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... Why bother?...
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 scientists.
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 etc. etc...
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 an under powered, under developed 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.
Copyright (c) 2009 Michael Williams