MAR 23rd 2016

Famous Five... Bike Aces Turned Four‑Wheel Heroes

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the death of a man many consider to be motorcycle racing’s greatest-ever rider, Mike Hailwood.

Aged just 40, the seven-time World Champion and 14-time Isle of Man TT winner succumbed to injuries sustained a few days before in a road accident while out collecting fish and chips with his two young children. Hailwood’s daughter Michelle was also killed, although son David survived the tragedy, caused when Hailwood hit a truck performing an illegal U-turn on a dual carriageway.

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Hailwood was in a unique band of bike aces who made the switch to four wheels, making a very decent fist of it to boot. He won the European Formula 2 Championship in 1972, took part in 49 Grands Prix, with two podium finishes – a second and a third – his best results, and won the 1973 Spa 1,000km with Derek Bell in a Mirage M6.

As I reflect today on the impact Hailwood made in the both disciplines, and the legacy he left, I wonder who else made the switch without damaging their reputation, instead adding to their collection of silverware. Here are five of the best two-wheel-turned-four aces.

Johnny Cecotto

The Venezuelan won two 250cc Grands Prix – at Paul Ricard and Spa – on a Yamaha in 1975 but fared better in the 350cc class that same season, taking four wins and the title. He won five more 350cc races between 1976 and 1980, as well as breaking Suzuki’s monopoly on the 1977 500cc season with two wins for Yamaha.

When he made the move to cars, he displayed superb versatility, winning three European F2 races in a works March in 1982 and contesting 18 GPs for Theodore and Toleman during 1983 and ’84. His best result came on his second outing, at Long Beach in ’83, where he finished sixth. He then enjoyed a long career in touring cars, winning in the European and World Championship and the DTM, as well as taking victory in the Spa and Nürburgring 24 Hours for BMW.

Wayne Gardner

The gritty Australian won 18 500cc Grands Prix on a factory Honda between 1986 and 1992 and took the world title in 1987. He was one of the stars of the two-stroke ‘unrideables’ era, along with fellow Australian Mick Doohan and American heroes Eddie Lawson, Randy Mamola, Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz.

During his final year in bike racing’s top class, he tackled four races in the DTM, aboard a Linder Team BMW M3, which whet his appetite for more tin-top action. A switch to the Australian Touring Car Championship netted a pole position in his first season in 1993 and he won two races – at Mallala in 1996 and Calder Park in 1997 – in his self-run Holden Commodore. He also tackled the Japanese Super GT series for several years, his best result sixth in the points in 2001.

Damon Hill

Few people remember that Damon Hill, F1 legend and Britain’s eighth World Champion, cut his teeth in bike racing. He tackled club-level races at his local Brands Hatch circuit in Kent, winning scores of events. With his mother fearful that he might get hurt, she persuaded him to try a single-seater at the famous Winfield Racing School. And that was the end of Damon the biker. He graduated through the Formula Ford, F3 and F3000 ranks, with modest success, to become a highly prized test driver for Williams. His race debut came with Brabham in 1992, a venture that achieved little in a year that proved to be the team’s death throes.

His big break came with Williams, alongside Alain Prost in 1993 and he won three races on the trot in the second half of the year to finish third in the points. During the next three years, he racked up numerous wins and, in 1996, finally emulated his father Graham by winning the drivers’ title. Sacked by Williams for 1997, he joined Arrows, almost winning in Hungary in an otherwise recalcitrant Yamaha-powered car, before seeing out his F1 days with Jordan in 1998-’99. His final win came on an incredible day at Spa in ’98 when he led team-mate Ralf Schumacher to an historic one-two for Jordan – the team’s first victory after seven years of trying.

Stéphane Peterhansel

This mighty French all-rounder made bike class of the gruelling Paris-Dakar Rally his own, winning six times on a Yamaha between 1991 and 1998. In fact, only Italian rival Edi Orioli prevented a Peterhansel whitewash in those eight events. Peterhansel then aimed at emulating countryman Hubert Auriol, who won twice on two wheels with BMW in the early 1980s before taking a four-wheeled win for Mitsubishi in 1992.

In 2004, Peterhansel duly joined the special club by guiding a Mitsubishi Pajero to victory. He won the car class again in 2005 and 2007 to make it three. The event was moved to South America for 2009 after civil unrest in Africa during the 2008 event, with Peterhansel still one of the frontrunners. He took win number four and five in 2012 and 2013 in a highly modified Mini and a sixth win – to match his bike tally – earlier this year in the factory Peugeot 2008 DKR, once again aided by long-time co-driver Jean-Paul Cottret.

John Surtees

He may be alphabetically last among this special quintet, but John Surtees is by far and away the greatest advertisement for bikers turning to cars. Surtees won races in the 250cc, 350cc and 500cc arenas, notching up three world titles – in 1958/1959/1960 – on a 350cc MV Agusta and four – in 1956/1958/1959/1960 – on the larger-capacity Italian machine, including a seven-out-of-seven perfect score in 1959. He also won six Isle of Man TT races.

And then ‘Il Grande John’ fancied a crack at cars. He made his four-wheeled debut aboard a Formula Junior Cooper at the Goodwood Members’ Meeting in March 1960, famously recalling ‘the first car race I’d ever seen I was in!’. Immediately on the pace, Surtees jostled with Jim Clark’s Lotus, his runner-up slot proving he was a dab hand in an alien environment. He soon joined the Formula 1 ranks, making his World Championship debut, in a Lotus 18, at Monaco in 1960.

He joined Ferrari in 1963, taking the first of four wins for the Scuderia in Germany that year, and becoming the first and, almost certainly in perpetuity, only man to win the world title on four wheels as well as two the following season. He fell out with Ferrari mid-1966, joining British team Cooper, for whom he won the finale in Mexico in its Maserati-engined T81. His maiden season with Honda in 1967 netted a sixth and final win, in Monza’s Italian GP. Stints with BRM and McLaren followed, but his F1 career as a driver finished in 1972 after two years racing for his eponymous team. He stepped down to concentrate on running the Team Surtees operation until it folded at the end of 1978.

Other notable successes on the Surtees CV were four World Sportscar Championship wins for Ferrari, including the 1963 Sebring 12 Hours, and the inaugural Can-Am title in ’66 in a Lola T70 Spyder.

Not forgetting…

Special mention should also go to Jean Behra, Jean-Pierre Beltoise, Tazio Nuvolari, Bernd Rosemeyer and Achille Varzi, all of whom cut their teeth on bikes before achieving success with twice the number of wheels.

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