Vince French

There is an old say­ing that ‘be­hind ev­ery great man there is al­ways a great woman’. But on the mo­tor­cy­cle racing scene, while women have al­ways been plen­ti­ful, that say­ing should be more suit­ably para­phrased as ‘be­hind ev­ery great rider there is al­ways a

Classic Racer - - NEWS - Words: Bruce Cox Pic­tures: Vince French Col­lec­tion Right: Vince with his 1972 rider, Rod Gould.

From a racing start to spin­ning the span­ners for some of the big­gest names in racing his­tory, French was one of the most in­flu­en­tial and in­stru­men­tal peo­ple in racing’s past. Here’s his story and an ex­pla­na­tion of why many big names owe this par­tic­u­lar man a lot.

Way into the Seven­ties even world cham­pi­ons usu­ally only had a sin­gle me­chanic as­signed to each of the bikes they were rid­ing in the var­i­ous Grand Prix classes and, in the cases of pri­va­teer rid­ers, there was quite of­ten just one man for all avail­able bikes. Those were the days when the rid­ers them­selves ex­pected to get their own hands dirty! Not for them the brigade of crew chiefs, com­puter tech­ni­cians and ‘en­gi­neers’ that fill the pit garages at a Mo­togp. More of­ten back then it was a lux­ury to even have a pit garage. Bikes were worked on ei­ther in the open air of the pad­dock, maybe un­der an awning or even in the back of a van if the weather was bad. Note the use of the word ‘en­gi­neers’ by the way – there is no such thing as a lowly ‘me­chanic’ these days! And back in the days when en­gi­neers were ‘me­chan­ics’ they were also es­sen­tially in­vis­i­ble men when it came to press and pub­lic recog­ni­tion of their long hours of labour. There were no back­room boys in those days en­joy­ing the guru-like rep­u­ta­tion that Jerry Burgess did dur­ing his days with Valentino Rossi. In fact, I can only think of two truly fa­mous ‘span­ner men’ from the Six­ties and Seven­ties – Nobby Clarke, who was Mike Hail­wood’s right-hand man and the only Westerner that Honda would al­low to delve into the in­ter­nals of its com­pli­cated six-cylin­der GP racer, and Ar­turo Magni, who man­aged the MV Agusta race team and helped pre­pare the bikes. Kel Carruthers ful­filled the same func­tion with the Kenny Roberts Yamaha team, of course, but he had al­ready achieved his per­sonal fame by win­ning the 1969 World 250cc Cham­pi­onship as a rider. But many other names could, and per­haps should, be added to what would still be a rel­a­tively short list and most as­suredly, one of those is that of Vince French. How many other peo­ple can pos­si­bly say that they have pre­pared bikes as the Yamaha fac­tory-des­ig­nated me­chanic for no less than five world cham­pi­ons – Gi­a­como Agostini, Jarno Saari­nen, Barry Sheene, Johnny Ce­cotto and Rod Gould – plus other Yamaha team rid­ers and Grand Prix win­ners, Tepi Lan­sivuori and Hideo Kanaya? Not only that, but Vince also stood proudly in Vic­tory Lane with a ma­chine and its rider at the Day­tona 200 on three oc­ca­sions in four years! He pre­pared the bikes that were rid­den to vic­tory in Amer­ica’s great­est race by Saari­nen in 1973, Agostini (work­ing along with Nobby Clarke) in 1974 and Ce­cotto in 1976. All in all, it’s a suc­cess rate that few, if any, of the hard-work­ing men who wield the wrenches have matched.

Even in his pre-teen days, Vince was fas­ci­nated by mo­tor­cy­cles – both as me­chan­i­cal en­ti­ties and the op­por­tu­ni­ties they of­fered for speed and ex­cite­ment. And as a jockey-sized 13-year-old he came close to hav­ing a mas­sive crash on one, even though he had not even learned to ride by that point and the ma­chine was still on its stand! For what he had learned was (a) that he could switch on his brother’s Tri­umph Bon­neville with the aid of a screw­driver in the ig­ni­tion switch and (b) de­spite not even be­ing tall enough for his feet to reach the ground, he could kick-start it into life when the bike was on the cen­tre stand. Next, he worked out that with the bike on the stand, the rear wheel was in the air and by se­lect­ing first gear he could watch the speedome­ter nee­dle climb up­wards as the wheel spun free. Then the ob­vi­ous thing was to go up through the gears and see how far round the dial he could get the nee­dle while the bike was still sta­tion­ary on the stand – all this tak­ing place on the front gar­den path of the cot­tage where Vince lived and on which his brother al­ways parked the Bon­neville! “I got into top gear and the nee­dle around to about 85mph by the time my brother came charg­ing out of the house to shut me down. I was lucky that he did, as I hadn’t even thought about the pos­si­bil­ity of the big twin vi­brat­ing it­self off the stand. If that had hap­pened I would have smashed down the front door, shot through the house and straight out into the back gar­den!” A year later, at age 14, he had ac­quired a bike of his own – a BSA Ban­tam on which he ce­mented his ‘bad boy’ rep­u­ta­tion amongst the neigh­bours in the row of what were once plush weavers’ cot­tages near the cen­tre of his home town of Ban­bury in Oxfordshire. Around these were a net­work of pedes­trian lanes lead­ing down to the lo­cal park and these im­me­di­ately be­came Vince’s test track. “The neigh­bours got re­ally mad when I tested an ex­pan­sion cham­ber ex­haust one Sun­day af­ter­noon,” he re­calls, “and that re­sulted in the bike be­ing taken off me un­til I was legally able to ride it on the road. In ret­ro­spect that prob­a­bly helped in my fu­ture ca­reer, as I spent the time strip­ping it down and tun­ing it up with the help of Phil Irv­ing’s fa­mous book­tun­ing for Speed. “What we used to call ‘racing Ban­tams’ were pop­u­lar with the Ban­bury boys back then and the time I had spent work­ing on mine meant that it was a quick one once I was able to take in on the road.” By that time Vince had left school, he had learned enough about how a mo­tor­cy­cle worked to get a job as an ap­pren­tice me­chanic with Ed­die Dow’s fa­mous spe­cial­ist Gold Star shop and he was a ju­nior mem­ber of a group of sev­eral young Ban­bury mo­tor­cy­clists, my­self in­cluded, who went road racing in the hope of emu­lat­ing the suc­cess of lo­cal aces like Ed­die him­self (he won the Club­man’s TT in 1955) and Dan Shorey, one of the best rid­ers on Bri­tish short cir­cuits. One of these was Rod Gould who, by 1966, was al­ready bat­tling with Dan on UK tracks and by 1970 he had be­come a Yamaha works rider and the World 250cc Cham­pion. As can be imag­ined, he was later to have a big in­flu­ence on the ca­reer of his fel­low ‘Ban­bury Boy’. In 1967, how­ever, Vince still had racing as­pi­ra­tions of his own and he be­gan com­pet­ing on a Greeves Sil­ver­stone Mk2, which he rode for the next sea­son and a half. On the two-stroke sin­gle he took a win on the Club cir­cuit at Sil­ver­stone, as well as good plac­ings at Cad­well Park and Snet­ter­ton, plus the air­field tracks at Llandow in Wales, Wroughton, Staver­ton and Gay­don, near his Ban­bury home. Within a short time he had made quite a mark on the club racing scene and was ready to move up to na­tional meet­ings. Feel­ing that the Greeves would be out­paced at these, he dug into his hard-earned sav­ings and pur­chased a short-stroke Aer­ma­c­chi 250 – at the time seem­ingly the way to go. Un­for­tu­nately, it wasn’t, as more and moreyamaha twins be­gan be­com­ing avail­able in 1970. Vince con­tin­ued to show his prom­ise in club racing with the Aer­ma­c­chi, scor­ing wins at Brands Hatch andthrux­ton and win­ning the 1970 South­ern 67 Club Cham­pi­onship. But he rue­fully re­mem­bers a na­tional at Snet­ter­ton in which he was up near the front af­ter a good start. That was un­til the pack got onto the 1/2-mile-long Nor­wich Straight, which was a fea­ture of the track in those days… “I was flat out in top when a cou­ple of Yama­has came by and changed up twice!” he re­calls. His best ride at a na­tional was when he fin­ished eighth in a Mal­lory Park race late in the 1970 sea­son that was won by Derek Chat­ter­ton from Barry Sheene – and in which Vince was the only rider on a now out-dated four-stroke. De­spite be­ing out-paced at the na­tion­als, Vince felt that with a change to a Yamaha he could do well enough to war­rant quit­ting his job and be­com­ing a full-time pro­fes­sional for the 1971 sea­son. One of the plus points about get­ting the Aer­ma­c­chi was that race com­men­ta­tor Fred Clarke (an­other of our group of Ban­bury boy rac­ers) in­tro­duced him to Ron Her­ring, a guy Vince cred­its with help­ing him a great deal in his later ca­reer. Ron was a bit older than most of our group, whereas Vince was a bit younger, which was why the two had never met. A good rider in his own right and a win­ner on bikes rang­ing from racing Ban­tams to Nor­ton 650 twins, Ron had worked for Sid Lawton, the UK im­porter of Aer­ma­c­chi rac­ers. There­fore, he was a great help in im­part­ing his knowl­edge of the bikes to Vince. Not only that, he was the guy who had built the Yamaha-bul­taco that Rod Gould rode to a storm­ing fourth-place fin­ish in the 1968 World 250cc Cham­pi­onship, headed only by the fac­tory Yamaha vee-fours and the fac­tory MZ twin. Fur­ther­more, Ron recog­nised Vince’s tal­ent and the two had a plan for 1971, aided by the prom­ise of sup­port from Joe Hen­der­son, a Berk­shire cat­tle dealer and en­thu­si­as­tic spon­sor. The plan was that Ron would build a replica of Gould’s Yamaha-bul­taco that Joe would own and Vince would ride, with Ron main­tain­ing it dur­ing the sea­son. It was a com­bi­na­tion that seemed to have more than a good chance of suc­cess. To put it into ac­tion, Vince felt that he needed a job that paid more than he was mak­ing with Ed­die Dow and that al­lowed the chance of lots of over­time dur­ing the win­ter to come. So, he took a job de­liv­er­ing for a lo­cal pub­lish­ing com­pany and left the em­ploy of ‘the Cap­tain’ as ex-mil­i­tary man Cpt W E Dow was re­ferred to by his work­force. Back in those days Ed­die also com­men­tated at race meet­ings and was at Thrux­ton where Vince scored his first win on the Aer­ma­c­chi. Joe was also there and hap­pened to re­mark to Ed­die that Vince had rid­den well. But ‘the Cap­tain’ was in no mood to give Vince a pat on the back… “Don’t talk to me about Vince right now, Joe,” he said. “The silly young bugger has just left my em­ploy for a dead-end job… just for the sake of a pal­try shilling an hour!” Sadly, Vince’s plans for putting that ex­tra shilling an hour to good use never did come about, as he was badly hurt in a crash at Brands Hatch in the Stars of To­mor­row race at the end of the 1970 sea­son. He had won three or four times at Brands ear­lier in the year, but ar­rived at this im­por­tant race to find he had been rel­e­gated to the back of the grid, as his en­try had ar­rived late. Worse still, his arch-ri­val and lo­cal club favourite was on the front row. A hard charge through the pack was needed to make up this im­me­di­ate deficit, but Vince charged too hard, too soon and, af­ter pass­ing al­most half the field by the first cor­ner, slid off into the barely-pro­tected bar­ri­ers at the bot­tom of Pad­dock Hill. The mar­shals and med­i­cal staff got to him quickly enough, re­moved his hel­met and be­gan check­ing him over. But more may­hem was to come. While the medics were work­ing on Vince, an­other rider slid off and crashed right into them. So, in­stead of the hoped-for trip to the podium, it was an am­bu­lance ride to Sid­cup Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal, where he was de­tained for a week with bro­ken bones all down the left side of his body from his col­lar­bone to his knee. Af­ter that he was picked up and brought back home to Ban­bury by Rod Gould and Fred Clarke, stretched out on the back seat of Rod’s big BMW sa­loon. The sub­se­quent re­cu­per­a­tion and con­va­les­cence, plus the fact that he was un­able to drive, meant that he would be off work for three months, so there would be no cash to go racing as a full-time pro­fes­sional in 1971.


Rod re­alised this and, hav­ing known Vince for years, made him a job of­fer as his me­chanic in the 1971 sea­son. Randy Hall, the guy who had worked with Rod since 1968 and helped him to the 1970 world ti­tle, had re­turned to his na­tive Cal­i­for­nia to be­come man­ager of the US Kawasaki race team, so Rod had a va­cancy for some­one that he knew and trusted. He knew that Vince had al­ready had a taste of the race me­chanic’s life­style from ac­com­pa­ny­ing and as­sist­ing Ron Her­ring at race meet­ings when Ron was work­ing with var­i­ous Yamaha rid­ers such as Tony Rut­ter and Phil Read. “Ac­tu­ally, Phil was the first world cham­pion I worked with,” says Vince, “as I helped out when Ron Her­ring was look­ing af­ter his 350 Yamaha and I had gone with Ron to Monza. It wasn’t as a me­chanic, how­ever. I was just the go­pher… go­ing for this and go­ing for that.” At the end of the week­end, Phil gave Vince £5… which was, in fact, £5 more than Vince had ex­pected. And, as Phil said when the pair met again re­cently at Sil­ver­stone, “a fiver was good money for a go­pher in those days!” So, when Rod’s of­fer of a full-time job on the Yamaha pay­roll came along, Vince cer­tainly se­ri­ously con­sid­ered it. At the time, how­ever, he was still dream­ing of a racing fu­ture of his own and even­tu­ally told Rod: “Thanks, but no thanks.” As it hap­pened, 1971 was a frus­trat­ing year for them both. Once he had spent just about all of his money re­build­ing the Aer­ma­c­chi, Vince’s sea­son never re­ally got off the blocks and Rod lost his world ti­tle to Read by just five points. He had sev­eral non-fin­ishes with me­chan­i­cal prob­lems when just one more fin­ish as low as fifth place would have seen him take his sec­ond cham­pi­onship. There­fore, at the end of 1971, he again made the job of­fer to Vince. And at that point Vince faced up to re­al­ity about the prospects of his own racing ca­reer and ac­cepted. It was a sen­si­ble de­ci­sion and un­doubt­edly the most sig­nif­i­cant ca­reer move of his life. In those days, the Yamaha bikes were all run by satel­lite im­porter teams. Rod’s bikes car­ried the name of the Swis­syamaha im­porter, Hostet­tler, for ex­am­ple, while Jarno Saari­nen’s were un­der the aus­pices of Ar­wid­son, the Fin­nish im­porter and so on for the var­i­ous Yamaha rid­ers like Kent An­der­s­son, Chas Mor­timer and Barry Sheene. The base for all the race bikes, how­ever, was at the Yamaha Europe work­shops just out­side Am­s­ter­dam in Hol­land and that was where Vince would live in a ho­tel when not on the road at races across Europe. It was a glam­orous life for a young Ban­bury boy, al­beit a hard-work­ing one. But it wasn’t all glam­orous. When the team ar­rived in the Eifel Moun­tains for the GP sea­son-opener in West Ger­many in April, for ex­am­ple, it was snow­ing! Rod was run­ning one of the first wa­ter-cooled Yamaha twins and Vince de­lib­er­ately drained the cool­ing sys­tem in an­tic­i­pa­tion of an overnight freeze. “It just seemed like com­mon sense to do that,” says Vince, “but sev­eral guys whose bikes had wa­ter-cool­ing didn’t drain their sys­tems and there were lots of peo­ple run­ning around the pad­dock next day look­ing for Araldite to re­pair cracks in the ra­di­a­tors and cylin­der wa­ter jack­ets.” Rod fin­ished sixth in that race but, af­ter a DNF at Cler­mont Fer­rand in France, he was lead­ing the Aus­trian Grand Prix by a com­fort­able mar­gin from the even­tual win­ner Borge Jans­son (Derbi) and Saari­nen when the crank­shaft of the Yamaha ran its main bear­ings. The team stayed on in Aus­tria for test­ing and fault-find­ing af­ter fit­ting a new crank­shaft. Dou­ble check­ing af­ter re-as­sem­bly, Vince found the drive-side main crank­shaft bear­ing was run­ning free in the di­rec­tion of the en­gine’s ro­ta­tion. But when he took the un­usual step of check­ing in the other di­rec­tion, he did find some re­sis­tance. Strip­ping the en­gine again, he found that the bear­ing cages were break­ing up. He re­ported his find­ings to Mizu-san, the fac­tory race team’s chief en­gi­neer, which led to a re-de­sign in Ja­pan and a big thank-you for Vince. All satel­lite teams were is­sued with new crank­shaft as­sem­blies for the next race. That was at Imola, where Rod was sec­ond to the Aer­ma­c­chi of Renzo Pa­solini but ahead of Saari­nen. Two more sec­ond places fol­lowed, in the Isle of MANTT and Yu­gosla­vian GP, be­fore Rod won the Dutch TT at Assen, again beat­ing Pa­solini and Saari­nen. It was the first of many big race vic­to­ries for en­gines pre­pared by Vince and one he cel­e­brated in style in the no­to­ri­ous ‘party dis­trict’ of Am­s­ter­dam, his new home town. Fol­low­ing the Assen win came a solid string of re­sults for the team. Rod was sec­ond to Saari­nen in Bel­gium, third to Pa­solini and Saari­nen in East Ger­many, fourth in Cze­choslo­vakia and fi­nally an­other win came when Rod rel­e­gated the cham­pion-in-wait­ing, Saari­nen, to the sec­ond step on the podium. That was to be Rod’s last GP win, as he crashed in a UK non-cham­pi­onship race at Oul­ton Park and smashed his kneecap in what was to be a ca­reer-end­ing in­jury. But his fi­nal year had still been a good one, with third place in the cham­pi­onship thanks to a cou­ple of Grand Prix wins, and five podium places. More­over, only he and Pa­solini had been able to beat the new sen­sa­tion, Saari­nen, in a straight fight. Rod also rode to fourth place in the World 500cc Cham­pi­onship be­hind Gi­a­como Agostini, Al­berto Pa­gani and Bruno Kneubuh­ler af­ter only four races on the 354cc twin Yamaha were us­ing as a devel­op­ment ex­er­cise that year. Vince was also pre­par­ing these bikes and Rod re­warded him with sec­ond places to Agostini in East Ger­many and Swe­den and thirds in Bel­gium and Fin­land. Af­ter Rod had gone into re­tire­ment af­ter his Oul­ton Park crash, Vince still had work to do in the 1972 sea­son, as it was de­cided that the en­gine from Rod’s 250 would be loaned to the young ris­ing star, Barry Sheene (rid­ing for the French So­nauto Yamaha team) for the fi­nal GP of the year at Mon­tjuic Park in Barcelona. With the en­gine went its cus­to­dian, Vince, and the com­bi­na­tion put the Yamaha on the podium in Spain with third place be­hind Pa­solini and an­other Fly­ing Finn, Tepi Lan­sivuori. So Rod’s de­ci­sion to bring in fel­low Ban­bury boy Vince as his me­chanic proved to be a good one and his choice was rat­i­fied by the Yamaha man­age­ment when they told Vince that he would be the me­chanic en­trusted with the 250 and 350 ma­chines that would be rid­den in 1973 by the new World Cham­pion, Saari­nen. More­over, Vince would now be a full fac­tory me­chanic. With the ar­rival of the new 500cc four-cylin­der racer, Yamaha Ja­pan would be back in Europe with a bang! Satel­lite teams would con­tinue but the fo­cus of the fac­tory would be on its new su­per­star, Saari­nen, backed up by the Ja­panese Hideo Kanaya for the first half of the sea­son that was all the fac­tory seemed to al­low its do­mes­tic rid­ers in GP com­pe­ti­tion. They would each ride the 250 and 500cc classes with Ja­panese me­chan­ics look­ing af­ter the 500s and Nobby Clarke re­spon­si­ble for Kanaya’s 250. Vince would be tak­ing care of Jarno’s smaller ma­chines, as well as help­ing with the new 500 four as and when needed. It had the mak­ings of be­ing a dream sea­son and it cer­tainly started that way. The Day­tona 200 was the first race and Vince pre­pared a 350 twin for Jarno in the unique yel­low and black Yamaha USA liv­ery. Jarno won com­fort­ably from the sim­i­larly-equipped Yamaha USA team leader Kel Carruthers and pri­va­teer Jim Evans on an­other Yamaha twin, this one pre­pared by well-re­spected Amer­i­can tuner, Mel Di­ne­sen. Then came what was be­ing de­scribed as ‘the Euro­pean Day­tona’ – the Imola 200 – and Jarno won again. Af­ter that, the Grand Prix sea­son got go­ing – and what a start it was for the com­bi­na­tion of Jarno, Vince and the 250 Yamaha. Three straight Grand Prix wins for Jarno in France, Aus­tria and Ger­many, with Kanaya sec­ond each time. And things were al­most as good in the 500 class. Jarno topped the podium in France and Aus­tria and then set a new lap record at Hock­en­heim in Ger­many be­fore the drive chain broke and Phil Read in­her­ited the win for MV Agusta. The pop­u­lar and like­able Finn was lit­er­ally on the top of his world and, af­ter lit­tle more than two GP sea­sons, was al­ready es­tab­lished as a racing su­per­star. But then came the tragedy at Monza. A mul­ti­ple-rider crash in the 250cc race took the lives of Jarno and Pa­solini and se­ri­ously in­jured sev­eral oth­ers. For the mo­tor­cy­cle world in gen­eral – and es­pe­cially for Vince – it was a dis­as­ter of unimag­in­able pro­por­tions. “I had never been at a meet­ing be­fore where a rider was killed,” Vince re­calls, “and at first it didn’t seem real. I just felt numb and just wanted to be by my­self. It doesn’t take much to imag­ine what the at­mos­phere was like at the Yamaha team ho­tel af­ter­wards.


“I had to wait there for three days with Nobby Clarke un­til Jarno’s broth­ers came down from Fin­land to col­lect him. In some ways, they were more com­posed than me.the Saari­nen fam­ily were in busi­ness as fu­neral di­rec­tors, which I sup­pose gives you a dif­fer­ent at­ti­tude to death, even when it af­fects you per­son­ally. “Nobby and I drove Jarno’s VW camper back and fol­lowed his broth­ers for three days across Europe. It was an aw­ful trip know­ing that his body was just up ahead of us. “When we got to Fin­land, the whole of the Yamaha team came for the fu­neral and I felt hon­oured to be one of the cof­fin’s es­corts along with Jarno’s broth­ers, Hideo Kanaya and Rod Gould. But it was still an aw­ful time and it took me a long while to get over it all”. Af­ter Saari­nen’s death, Yamaha with­drew the of­fi­cial team from racing and all the 500cc fours and the crew re­turned to Ja­pan. Vince and Clarke re­turned to Am­s­ter­dam, un­sure of their racing fu­ture and in the mean­time they switched to re­search and devel­op­ment on road bikes like the prob­lem­at­i­cal 750cc four-stroke twin of that time. Vince, in fact, wasn’t even sure that he wanted to con­tinue work­ing in the racing area. Mean­while, al­though Yamaha Ja­pan had with­drawn its fac­tory team, the satel­lite im­porter teams were con­tin­u­ing to race with the 350 and 250cc twins. And about a month af­ter Jarno’s death, Yamaha Europe asked Vince if he would be in­ter­ested in work­ing with an­other Fin­nish rider, Lan­sivuori, and the Ar­wid­son team at the Dutch GP in Assen. This cir­cuit was an hour or so north of the com­pany’s base in Am­s­ter­dam, where Vince was still work­ing while also con­tem­plat­ing his fu­ture. “The of­fer was the best thing that could have hap­pened to me at the time,” says Vince, “as I knew that Tepi and Jarno were great friends and this changed my out­look. I truly felt that Jarno would have ap­proved, so I agreed to work with Tepi.” A very fast 350 ar­rived from Ja­pan a cou­ple of days be­fore Assen and aboard it Lan­sivuori broke the lap record ahead of the MV Agusta duo of Agostini and Read but then he had gear se­lec­tor prob­lems and dropped back to fin­ish third. With his mind now in a bet­ter place, Vince worked with Lan­sivuori for rest of his sea­son on the 350 and this re­sulted in wins in Cze­choslo­vakia and Swe­den. In turn, this meant that he fin­ished sec­ond in the 350cc Cham­pi­onship, split­ting the MV Agus­tas of Agostini and Read. For the MV rid­ers, the writ­ing on the wall hadn’t been hard to read – even though Ago had won the World 350 Cham­pi­onship and Read had taken the 500cc ti­tle. It was ob­vi­ous that the two-strokes, were the way of the fu­ture and the MV stran­gle­hold on the 500cc class, which had lasted for an in­cred­i­ble 16 years, was surely soon to be bro­ken. Since first con­test­ing the classes in 1965, Agostini had won an in­cred­i­ble 13 World Cham­pi­onships in the 350 and 500cc classes by the end of the 1973 sea­son. At that point he sur­prised the world of mo­tor­cy­cle racing and prob­a­bly out­raged the whole of Italy by switch­ing to Yamaha af­ter a se­cret deal bro­kered be­hind the scenes by his for­mer Grand Prix ri­val and nowyamaha Europe PR Di­rec­tor, Rod Gould. For Vince, this meant an­other new chap­ter in his life, as Yamaha Ja­pan came back into racing at full-strength for 1974 and Vince was co-opted into the fac­tory team to work with Agostini and his team-mate, Lan­sivuori. Now he would be work­ing full-time on the sen­sa­tional four-cylin­der 500s. Be­fore that, how­ever, there was an equally sen­sa­tional ma­chine to pre­pare. Yamaha had built a 700cc ver­sion and had built 200 of these to qual­ify the bike for the pop­u­lar For­mula 750 class. As a re­sult, Vince would be go­ing back to Day­tona whereyamaha Ja­pan was to run a pair of TZ750S for Agostini’s first visit to Amer­ica’s most im­por­tant race and Lan­sivuori’s re­turn af­ter an ex­ploratory visit as a pri­va­teer in 1973. A new ex­pe­ri­ence for Vince at this race would be re­fu­elling the big and thirsty Yama­has. This was a two-man job, so in the week be­fore the race, Vince and Clarke prac­ticed the rou­tine un­der the guid­ance of Kel Carruthers, now re­tired from rid­ing and the man­ager of the Yamaha USA race team. Vince han­dled the large in­take hose, hold­ing it on his hip and plug­ging it into the air­craft-type filler valve on the side of the gas tank. Nobby han­dled the vent tube, which al­lowed air out of the tank as the new fuel rushed in. The pro­ce­dure was that Nobby would place the vent tube in first, then Vince fol­lowed with the fuel. Then, only when Vince pulled out, Nobby would fol­low suit. The whole op­er­a­tion took only a few sec­onds but had to be per­formed ab­so­lutely in the cor­rect or­der. If Nobby pulled out first, then the four car­bu­ret­tors would flood and restart­ing would be dif­fi­cult, per­haps even im­pos­si­ble. “I loved it, as it was in­tensely ex­cit­ing,” says Vince. “There’s not ac­tu­ally much in a me­chanic’s life that gets the adrenalin pump­ing, but those few sec­onds cer­tainly did!” The other thing that gets a me­chanic’s juices flow­ing is watch­ing ‘his’ rider win… so Vince got a dou­ble dose at Day­tona 1974. Ago led from the start, then got in­volved in a bat­tle with fel­low Yamaha rider Kenny Roberts and the Suzuki team of Barry Sheene and Gary Nixon. Sheene re­tired with bike prob­lems around the half­way mark, Roberts dropped back with a cracked ex­haust pipe slow­ing his TZ750 and then, with 10 laps to go, Nixon crashed out of sec­ond place. Af­ter his per­fect­lyex­e­cuted fuel stop a lap later, Agostini then cruised on to an un­con­tested win from Roberts and Vince was on his way back to Day­tona’s Vic­tory Lane for the sec­ond time in two years! Back in Europe, Vince was as­signed the re­spon­si­bil­ity for the ma­chines to be rid­den by Lan­sivuori, who had also been at Day­tona on a bike pre­pared by Vince and fin­ished in a solid fifth place, the last rider out of the 100-strong field to fin­ish on the same lap as the lead­ers. Work­ing with Tepi was a re­spon­si­bil­ity that Vince was happy to take on, as he had en­joyed work­ing with him dur­ing the last half of the 1973 sea­son. “Apart from Jarno, he was the rider I most en­joyed work­ing with,” says Vince. “I to­tally re­spected him, both for his abil­ity and his hon­esty. If he was hav­ing an off-day, he would ad­mit it and not try to hide be­hind some imag­ined prob­lem with the bike.” The ‘dream team’ of Yamaha and Agostini paid off to the ex­tent of the Ital­ian win­ning the World 350cc Cham­pi­onship but the 500 fours of both he and Lan­sivuori did have more than a few me­chan­i­cal is­sues. Phil Read and Gianfranco Bon­era topped the 500cc stand­ings with their MV Agusta four-stroke fours ahead of Tepi, who was just two points be­hind Bon­era and 10 ahead of Agostini. The high­light of the year for Vince was the Swedish GP at An­der­storp, where, prior to the race, there were is­sues with por­ous crankcases on one of Tepi’s en­gines. Vince had to ar­gue with team per­son­nel to bor­row a spare en­gine for Tepi to use in the race – an en­gine that had been ear­marked for Agostini. Tepi then went out and did the 350 and 500 dou­ble and Ago crashed while chas­ing him in the 500cc race! But with Agostini al­ways go­ing to be the des­ig­nated num­ber one in the Yamaha GP team, Lan­sivuori felt that this was hold­ing him back and he switched to Suzuki for 1975. “He asked me to go with him,” Vince re­mem­bers, “and I en­joyed work­ing with him and re­spected him so much that I would have switched camps had we been able to get agree­ment with the Suzuki fac­tory be­fore the end of the year.” Still at Yamaha for 1975, Vince be­gan the sea­son with Hideo Kanaya, work­ing on his 350 twin. On this bike, Hideo won the Aus­trian GP and then went on to win the 500 race as well af­ter Agostini had prob­lems. “I was al­ways very im­pressed with him,” says Vince, “and I could never un­der­stand why he only ever did half a year in Grands Prix. “And as with Tepi, I al­ways had the feel­ing that he and Hideo were per­haps hav­ing to ride to team or­ders and gen­uinely feel that ei­ther of them could have been a world cham­pion in the right cir­cum­stances.” Af­ter Kanaya’s cus­tom­ary mid-sea­son re­turn to Ja­pan, Vince be­came part of the crew work­ing on Ago’s ma­chines in the year that the Ital­ian su­per­star de­liv­ered Yamaha its first World 500cc Cham­pi­onship.


The win­ner of the 350cc ti­tle that same sea­son was a young Venezue­lan by the name of Johnny Ce­cotto and it was to his team that Vince was despatched by Yamaha for 1976. The team was a satel­lite op­er­a­tion run by the Venezue­lan Yamaha im­porter, Ven­emo­tos, so in Jan­uary Vince packed his bags and headed to Cara­cas for the early sea­son prepa­ra­tions. It was his first time work­ing in a ‘third world’ Latin Amer­i­can coun­try and he wasn’t im­pressed. “There was no or­gan­i­sa­tion and every­thing seemed to be left to the last minute,” he says. “I didn’t speak much Span­ish and, ob­vi­ously, I didn’t un­der­stand the gen­eral cul­ture. But it seemed to me like it was a cul­ture in which peo­ple fig­ured that things would al­ways work out in the end and that, if you fi­nally had to make some­thing hap­pen, you could do that by the back door. “That was usu­ally by ‘know­ing a man who could’ or maybe by per­sua­sion in the form of a favourable deal, per­haps even a threat and for sure a back­han­der into the right pocket.” Vince’s first ev­i­dence of a lack of or­gan­i­sa­tion at Ven­emo­tos came when he was about to fly to Mi­ami to col­lect the bikes and spares that had been shipped on ahead for the Day­tona 200… only to find that no rental trans­port had been ar­ranged in ad­vance and he would need to find one on ar­rival. This he did, but he had to make do with the only one avail­able – a mon­ster van about 35 feet long! More­over, Amer­i­can truck driv­ers are gen­er­ally big ol’ boys and Vince is just a lit­tle chap. He had to put his suit­case be­tween him­self and the seat-back so he could reach the ped­als for the 200-mile drive north to Day­tona Beach. More ev­i­dence of the lack of pre-race or­gan­i­sa­tion came when he got to the track and found that Ven­emo­tos hadn’t or­gan­ised a pit garage. He fi­nally se­cured one but it was so in­con­ve­niently po­si­tioned out­side the main pad­dock that it was bet­ter to use the back of a truck as a work­shop. It was lucky that he had been forced to rent a big one! Fur­ther ev­i­dence of the Ven­emo­tos’ lack of plan­ning was that they had not read the Day­tona reg­u­la­tions and, there­fore, the bikes were not equipped with the si­lencers de­manded by Amer­i­can racing rules. These had to be sourced, pur­chased and fit­ted be­fore the bikes could be scru­ti­neered. This de­layed prac­tice for the team but, once un­der­way, it did go rea­son­ably well, apart from some prob­lems with pis­tons crack­ing around the skirt area. Some ju­di­cious fil­ing re­moved the stresses at these points and the newtz750 OW31 ran well enough for Ce­cotto to qual­ify fourth be­hind Roberts, Steve Baker and Kanaya – all on sim­i­lar ma­chines. On the morn­ing of the race there was drama when Ce­cotto thought that the Yamaha might have seized in the pre-race warm-up ses­sion. There was no op­tion but to check this out. Luck­ily, all was okay, but Vince only just got the bike to the grid in time. Roberts led in the early laps from Ce­cotto, both rid­ers run­ning a very fast pace at lap record speed. The fuel stop went smoothly for Vince and at about the 175-mile mark Ce­cotto had a good lead over Roberts. It was at this point that Vince no­ticed that one of the Yamaha USA hi­er­ar­chy in the next pit was deep in con­ver­sa­tion with the Goodyear tyre rep­re­sen­ta­tive and the pair were glanc­ing over in his di­rec­tion. Al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter this, the Goodyear man ap­proached Vince to tell him that it would be ad­vis­able to bring Johnny in for a rear tyre change. This race was Vince’s first ex­pe­ri­ence with Goodyear tyres, so he had asked the tech­ni­cian sev­eral times whether the rear tyres would go the full 200 miles and was re­peat­edly as­sured that they would last out the race. There­fore, he didn’t feel in­clined to fol­low or­ders and deny Ce­cotto the vic­tory – es­pe­cially as he had fin­ished third the year be­fore with­out prob­lems and would have a good feel for tyre be­hav­iour. Sus­pect­ing that Yamaha USA might have been af­ter a bit of home side ad­van­tage, Vince told the Goodyear man: “I must have asked you a dozen times if the tyres would go the dis­tance and ev­ery time you said there would


be no prob­lem. So I’ll tell you what I’ll do; when I see you bring Kenny in for a tyre change, then I will bring Johnny in on the very next lap.” Theyamaha USA team never did or­der Roberts into the pits, though he made their mind up for them when his rear tyre later de­flated in a slow cor­ner. For­tu­nately, Kenny was able to get back to the pits and change the rear wheel, even­tu­ally fin­ish­ing ninth, two laps down. Mean­while, Ce­cotto had a very com­fort­able lead over Gary Nixon’s Kawasaki, even though his race pace had been re­duced by a cracked ex­pan­sion cham­ber. And, with Roberts out of the run­ning, he could ease the pace still fur­ther to bring the Yamaha home with a full lap ad­van­tage over the rest of the field. “Via our pit boards I told Johnny what his ad­van­tage was over Nixon and that Roberts had pit­ted. By this time there were very few laps left and I felt that with his pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence at Day­tona he was com­pletely able to mon­i­tor his tyre’s be­hav­iour and make up his own mind. “I feel that Kenny’s tyre prob­lem might well have come about be­cause he was hav­ing to ride harder to re­duce Johnny’s lead – and cer­tainly Johnny had no qualms about rid­ing care­fully to the fin­ish once he was clear of the pack. “There was some gos­sip af­ter­wards about his rear tyre be­ing down to the in­ner cords at the fin­ish but that wasn’t the case. There was 100% of the rub­ber coat­ing left… ad­mit­tedly not a very thick layer, but still enough to do the job with­out any cords show­ing.” De­spite it hav­ing been a close-run thing, the re­sult meant the third trip to Day­tona’s Vic­tory Lane in four years for Vince and a great start to a new year with a new rider. Un­for­tu­nately, the rest of sea­son would turn out to be one he would rather for­get. One rea­son was that he was del­e­gated to work on a year-old 500 that wasn’t com­pet­i­tive with the new 1976 bikes. And it wasn’t long be­fore the pre-day­tona wor­ries about Ven­emo­tos’ lack of or­gan­i­sa­tion came up again. For an early sea­son race in France, Vince ar­rived with the bikes to find that Ven­emo­tos had not filed an of­fi­cial en­try. This meant that the FIM and French fed­er­a­tion bu­reau­crats de­nied the team ac­cess to the pad­dock! Ob­vi­ously, the reign­ing World 350cc Cham­pion was go­ing to be al­lowed in at some point but Vince sat in the trans­porter out­side the pad­dock en­trance and fumed for a whole day while the sit­u­a­tion was sorted out and im­por­tant prac­tice ses­sions were missed. It was this sort of thing that led to Vince quit­ting the team, dis­il­lu­sioned with the way that it was run. “There was more than one oc­ca­sion when we had to make an overnight drive to a race af­ter work­ing late the pre­vi­ous day,” he says, “and then get the bikes out for prac­tice af­ter a quick nap in the cab of the truck. “I thought that this was dan­ger­ous for the rider at the track and even for the crew when out on the road. “By half­way through the sea­son I’d just had enough with the var­i­ous has­sles, so I quit. It wasn’t the way I wanted to fin­ish the sea­son – es­pe­cially as it meant that I had burned my bridges with Yamaha. You don’t just walk away from a Ja­panese fac­tory team and ex­pect to walk back in again in the fu­ture. “On top of that I had sub­mit­ted a very crit­i­cal re­port on the Ven­emo­tos team sit­u­a­tion to Yamaha Europe, but was asked to let the PR depart­ment tone it down be­fore it went to Ja­pan. “I wouldn’t put my sig­na­ture to a wa­tered­down ver­sion, so it was a case of say­onara to one of the best pe­ri­ods of my life.” De­spite this, Vince re­mained a fix­ture in the Grand Prix pad­docks for many years, firstly as Cham­pion Spark Plugs man on the spot and then in the same role for Shoei Hel­mets. Fi­nally, his life turned full cir­cle when he joined the pro­to­type depart­ment at As­ton Martin and found him­self driv­ing cars around the com­pany test track on the for­mer V-bomber base at Gay­don, not far from his Ban­bury home. Part of this track was where Vince had raced his Greeves Sil­ver­stone and Aer­ma­c­chi and, where even ear­lier, he had cy­cled over to watch air shows as a school­boy. Now re­tired, he lives com­fort­ably in an 18th-cen­tury cot­tage in a North Cotswold vil­lage not far from Ban­bury where it all be­gan for him.

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