THE REAL PHIL READ
What is the controversial eighttimes world champion really like?
Great racing success is no guarantee of a win in the popularity stakes. Just ask Casey Stoner. Or for that matter, Phil Read. The UK’S greatest living Grand Prix champion still divides opinion among race fans and commentators.
Even 43 years after his last world title – the 500 championship he won for MV Agusta in 1974 – his name still ranks in the top 10 of grand prix winners, with our most widely celebrated GP champion, Barry Sheene, 31st in the list of all-time greats with 23 wins.
Read’s Grand Prix record spanned 15 years, from 1961 to 1976, his first win coming in the 350 GP on the Isle of Man in ’61, the last ever Junior TT win on a British bike (Norton) and ended with his victory on an MV Agusta in the 1975 Czechoslovakian 500 GP.
In that time he gave Yamaha their first world championship, the 1964 250 title, repeating the feat the following year and taking both the 125 and 250 titles for the firm in 1968. He won the 250 series in 1971 on a privateer Yamaha and took back-to-back 500 titles for MV Agusta in 1973 and 1974. Those achievements made him the first rider to win world titles in three capacity classes and it was widely reckoned that his record would never be matched, given the growing specialisation of riders and machinery. However, it was eventually equalled by a certain Valentino Rossi in 2001.
There would be one more world title, taking Read’s tally to eight. In 1977 he won the TT Formula One title on the Isle of Man riding a Honda.
It’s an incredible record and one that should see Read lauded as a great champion. However he’s always been a contentious figure. There are many reasons for that.
Read has always been a forthright character. The single-mindedness
that let him achieve so much makes it hard for him to keep his opinions to himself. There is no-one in Phil’s orbit who hasn’t experienced this, from the racing authorities to team members and fellow competitors.
Eddie Carter, who was Phil’s me- chanic for his first world title, always raised an eyebrow and grinned wryly at the mention of the man he referred to as ‘His Lordship’. “We had to drive straight back to England after the Monza round where Phil clinched the title. The glitz and glamour came later. But even in those early days, Phil was very much his own man,” he says.
Read’s refusal to follow Yamaha team orders in 1968 left an indelible stain on his reputation for many. Phil was to take the 125 title and team-mate Bill Ivy, whom Read had introduced to Yamaha was to take the 250. Ivy followed the party line but as the season progressed Read didn’t, the two tying on points and the title going to Read on aggregate race times. Yamaha withdrew from GP racing at the end of 1968 and Ivy announced a move to car racing. However, he was lured back to bikes for 1969 by Jawa. An unfortunate incident at the Sachsenring killed Ivy when his unsecured helmet flew off when he fell from his 350 when it seized. Some blame Ivy’s decision to go to Jawa on Read.
“Bill was my friend yet I became his enemy. People still make nasty remarks although many of them are too young to have even seen Bill race,” says Phil. “I did feel aggrieved with Yamaha. I’d
“Bill Ivy was my friend yet he became my enemy”
given them their first world championship on the 250 and despite repeated requests they wouldn’t confirm their intentions for the following season. I didn’t want the 125 title, I wanted the 250. I’d helped develop the bike and if Yamaha knew they were pulling out of racing I think they should have let me have a fair crack at the title. They didn’t so I took the chance myself.”
A controversial decision
Before joining MV Agusta for 1973, Read rode Benellis, private Yamahas – winning the 250 title in 1971, the first time a private team had won a world title – and even a Ducati 500 V-twin. He also joined Peter Williams in the John Player Norton team in 1972. Williams offers a balanced assessment of Read, recognising his talent as well as his ability to play the game: “He could be attracted by money. At the same time Phil was able to deliver. Not only did his name bring the desired credibility to the team for the big sponsor but, above all, he was a very fast racer. He always pulled his weight and, although the 1972 JPN was far from the fastest racing bike in the world, he always rode it as fast as he could make it go.”
Already 34 years old by the time he joined MV, there was a new generation snapping at his heels and two-strokes were setting the race pace. Nonetheless Read took back-to-back 500 titles on the Italian four-strokes.
Read announced his retirement from world championship racing in 1976. But there was still one more title to come and a highly controversial decision to race for it – the 1977 TT Formula One.
The temerity to return
Throughout the 1970s, the Isle of Man TT’S ranking as a world championship round attracted ever-more vocal criticism. Read decided to stop racing there for GP points after Gilberto Parlotti’s 1972 fatal accident. Parlotti died when he hit a concrete post on the Verandah. “Where was the concern for rider safety there? Over the years I lost three friends and a number of acquaintances at the TT – killed racing for championship points,” says Read, who was also critical at the lack of money on offer to competitors. He wasn’t the only Island critic – Giacomo Agostini and his boss Count Agusta were just two of many.
Barry Sheene raced there once, in 1971, fell off and never went back. But Phil Read is the one everyone remem- bers because he had the temerity to return. Marshals threatened to strike and filling station staff refused to fill up his car.
In 1977 the British Grand Prix moved to Silverstone and the FIM and ACU sanctioned three TT Formula production races on the Isle of Man as world titles. While the Mountain Course might still have been dangerous, the appearance and prize money on offer went some way to balancing the risk. Read won the Formula One on an 810cckitted Honda CB750 to make him an eight-time world champion and also added the Senior on a Suzuki RG500 for good measure. He would race on the Island several times after that, too.
Read set the mould for the modern racer, courting sponsorship, decent start money and pushing for rider safety. He was as focused and as ruthless as a champion has to be. Look at Valentino Rossi and his psychological destruction of rivals like Biaggi and Gibernau. Barry Sheene always knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it. Perhaps if Read had, like those two and his 1960s contemporary Mike Hailwood, a little more of the cheeky chappy about his persona, the fans and history itself would be a little more forgiving.
‘Phil was attracted by money… but he could deliver’ PETER WILLIAMS
Phil Read is 78 years old but is as feisty and controversial now as he was in his heyday Phil Read (8) chases team-mate Bill Iv y (9) at the 1966 Dutch TT
Read (left) and Ivy (right) were good friends... until 1968
Read won two world titles with MV in 1973 and 1974
Agostini and Read both had great success with MV