Oout of the shadows
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