Oout of the shad­ows

Classic Racer - - FRONT PAGE - Words and Pho­tos: Jeffrey Zani

You know that mo­ment when a dream be­comes a re­al­ity? Few do. But would you reckon on any­one re­act­ing to it in quite the same way that Mario Lega man­aged in 1977?

Forty years ago, Mario Lega’s wardrobe was ba­si­cally split into three sec­tions, each equally rep­re­sent­ing parts of his life. One part con­sisted of the work out­fits he usu­ally wore Mon­day-fri­day, as a tech­ni­cian for the Ital­ian tele­phone com­pany, at the time called Sip. An­other part had ca­sual and el­e­gant clothes for week­ends and the fi­nal part had leather suits, gloves, boots and hel­mets. This was the part of his wardrobe that Mario Lega picked from after he’d asked for time off to go rac­ing all around the globe. On June 1, 1977, Lega had closed the door on his rac­ing ap­parel for what he thought could be the fi­nal time. A few days ear­lier, he was fourth in the French GP at the Paul Ri­card circuit in the 250 class and de­spite that oh so close to a podium fin­ish, he thought that was it – his last race. The rea­son be­ing, Mor­bidelli, the Ital­ian man­u­fac­turer, had hired him a few weeks be­fore as the sub­sti­tute for main rider, Paolo Pi­leri (in­jured at the begin­ning of the sea­son). It was a short call-up and now that was it. Or so Mario thought. Then the phone rang: “Come along for the next GP. You’ll help Paolo, he’s not 100% fit yet. Let’s do one more race to­gether”. Al­most three weeks later the 28-year-old Ital­ian was at the start of the Yu­gosla­vian Grand Prix in Opatija, a nar­row, 3.7-mile-long street circuit lo­cated in what is now Croa­tia on the Adri­atic coast – the sea on one side of the road, rocks on the other. “That circuit re­minded me of the streets

where I used to train when I was young, the ones that go up the moun­tains of cen­tral Italy, from Forlì to Florence,” Lega re­mem­bers four decades later. He started the race well, mus­cled his way into the lead and never saw a wheel in front of him: “I won and put Mor­bidelli in the po­si­tion of hav­ing to make a pretty cru­cial choice, be­cause I had no con­tract at that point, but was lead­ing the cham­pi­onship.” At the head of the team was Gian­carlo Mor­bidelli, the owner of a wood­work­ing ma­chin­ery fac­tory based in Pe­saro, Italy, who spent part of what he earned on de­sign­ing and build­ing rac­ing pro­to­types as a hobby. Some hobby, it had al­ready de­liv­ered him two ti­tles in the 125 class. At the busi­ness end of what now to do with Lega, Mor­bidelli didn’t waste much time de­lib­er­at­ing on the de­ci­sion. He found Lega soon after the race and an­nounced: “You’ll fin­ish the sea­son with us!” That marked the start of the sec­ond part of Mario Lega’s sea­son and it was a year’s com­pe­ti­tion that looked like a dream, which then turned into a night­mare – but had a happy end­ing… The next race was in Hol­land, then Bel­gium. Lega was fifth in the Dutch TT that fol­lowed with things go­ing well but come the quick Spa Francorchamps, Mario was strug­gling, find­ing him­self locked into the mid­dle of a packed group scrap­ping for the lead. The lu­mi­nar­ies in that el­bow-to-el­bow bat­tle in­cluded, among oth­ers, Franco Uncini and Wal­ter Villa (both on the fac­tory Har­ley- David­sons) and also Lega’s team-mate, Pi­leri. Pi­leri sur­prised many when, in the height of the on-track scrap, he opted for the re­sult for Mor­bidelli rather than per­sonal glory. Know­ing that the slip­stream to the flag is vi­tal on the circuit with such long straights, Pi­leri de­cided that tac­tics were needed: he faked a prob­lem in the quick­est turn of the circuit while fourth, with Lega right in front of him, this forced the rid­ers be­hind Pi­leri to slow down for a mo­ment and lose the vi­tal close-quar­ters dis­tance that was so cru­cial to them all get­ting a run on Lega along the high­speed dash. It worked and the move didn’t quite de­liver the win, but it did mean that Mario ended up third for an­other podium. Lega re­mem­bers that gen­eros­ity well: “He (Pi­leri) had a big heart and helped me a lot. I must ad­mit that my suc­cesses that year should be partly cred­ited to him”. The sea­son con­tin­ued to the Swedish GP next and with two Har­ley-david­sons out of the race, Lega ended up sec­ond. Sev­enth was the next re­sult in Ima­tra, Fin­land and that meant that if Mario Lega got him­self on the podium the next time out in Brno, where the Cze­choslo­vakia Grand Prix was to be held, then he would take the crown. It was some­thing of a dream come true, a gen­uine rags to riches story after the sea­son be­gan with no ride and no of­fer of a ride com­ing. Sev­eral years in the 250 and 350 classes with pri­vate Yama­has hadn’t borne much fruit for Mario Lega and – aside from a sin­gu­lar Yamaha out­ing in 1977 from a friendly im­porter in Venezuela – the sea­son was look­ing baron. When Mor­bidelli made that call for Lega to ‘help’ Pi­leri in the squad it was very much an all-christ­mases-at-once sce­nario. “I still re­mem­ber the con­ver­sa­tion we had when he called me,” says Mario. “He asked me if I wanted to be their rider for a few races. I was on my knees, I said yes, of course. I was so happy!” Ev­ery­thing, fi­nally, seemed to be go­ing the right way. But the un­pre­dictable was about to hap­pen. Trav­el­ling from Fin­land, head­ing to­wards Cze­choslo­vakia, the team truck in which the bikes were be­ing trans­ported was in­volved in a bad crash. Lega: “The driver was hurt, and the per­son close to him was thrown out of the wind­shield. We didn’t know the lan­guage and were in a de­serted part of East­ern Ger­many. “Ev­ery­one was shocked and wor­ried. For­tu­nately we found a ve­hi­cle that could

load our truck and bring us to Brno. But when we checked the bikes, we found out they were badly dam­aged. “At that point Paolo said that he was not go­ing to race and that I could take parts from his bike to re­pair mine. It took my me­chanic one night to do the job. He fin­ished the next morn­ing, just in time for the first prac­tice ses­sion.” It was a cru­cial race, so Lega said to his me­chan­ics that he wanted new pis­tons on his twin, two-stroke bike. They said it was not nec­es­sary, but he in­sisted, so they fi­nally agreed: “I headed out onto the track, got half a lap around and the en­gine seized. It was bad for Lega’s morale and worse for his me­chanic, who ended up hav­ing to pol­ish the cylin­ders with sand­pa­per. On Sun­day, de­spite ev­ery­thing, Lega made the grid with a mo­tor­cy­cle that may or may not be up to the task of rac­ing. And in the back of his mind was the added worry that that was it. There would be no more chances to win a world ti­tle be­cause with the truck so badly dam­aged, his team had al­ready de­cided that they will not be able to make it to the fi­nal round of the cham­pi­onship in Sil­ver­stone. This would be his only chance. No mis­takes al­lowed. Away at the start of the race and Lega grabbed the holeshot but is pretty soon un­der at­tack from the Har­ley-david­sons of Uncini and Villa. Lega: “No prob­lem, I say to my­self, third is okay. Then Mick Grant on the Kawasaki passes me and I can’t keep up with his pace. “But he has a tech­ni­cal prob­lem and is forced to re­tire. The same al­most hap­pens with Takazumi Katayama. From the pits the me­chan­ics sig­nal to me that Katayama is re­cov­er­ing and to be aware that he’s com­ing back and I am, un­til I see him on the side of the track, out of the race”. Through­out the race, Mario had the same mes­sage from his team hang­ing over the pit wall – telling him to stay calm, not to risk any­thing. Get the podium. Lega: “It’s easy to go slow, no prob­lem. But after a few laps I saw that the group be­hind me, in which there were Kork Balling­ton, Tom Her­ron and Pa­trick Fernandez, plus oth­ers, was clos­ing the gap to me. “So I needed to change my tac­tic and that was not easy at all, with all the ex­tra pres­sure of not mak­ing mis­takes, rid­ing clean, be­ing smart. I was su­per stressed, but man­aged to fin­ish third by a few me­tres in the end. “It was very close though. If I had to race for one more lap I would not have been able to make it across the line in third place”. So that was it. Mario Lega was a world cham­pion. He man­aged it by a few me­tres and achieved ev­ery­thing he wanted – but the mo­ment wasn’t as ebul­lient as you might imag­ine. “I was so an­gry about how I had to deal with the race. It wasn’t the best way to feel after get­ting the world crown… and I sim­ply made the Ital­ian ges­ture that we use to tell peo­ple to go to hell.” Mario ad­mits that the an­noyed feel­ing lin­gered longer than nor­mal and was still might­ily miffed when he even­tu­ally got on to the podium. It took his me­chanic – the one who worked all night on the race­bike – to even­tu­ally snap him out of his bad mood and back to re­al­ity. Lega: “He came up to me and said, ‘what are you do­ing? You made it! You’re the world cham­pion!’” It was at that point that Lega re­alised that yes, he was the man of the day and the man of the year... and the world’s fastest tele­phone tech­ni­cian. Some days later, when he got back to his home, he opened the wardrobe, put away his rac­ing ap­parel and stared at his work out­fits. “I re­alised that, even though I was a new world cham­pion, that I had a de­ci­sion to make. Should I quit my job and fo­cus only on rac­ing? It was a hard choice. “In the end I de­cided to keep work­ing for Sip, and it was a good de­ci­sion – be­cause to­day I’m 68 and I get a pen­sion. “That’s not bad at all”.

Lega on his way to fourth at Paul Ri­card.

Pi­leri lays in­jured. His ac­ci­dent opened the door for Mario. Paolo Pi­leri, Gian­carlo Mor­bidelli and Mario Lega. A real team.

Lega (bob­ble-hat­ted) and Mor­bidelli pre-sea­son

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