Classic Bike (UK)
BILL IVY: FINAL RECKONING
The 125cc world champion met his end 50 years ago, at the Sachsenring in July 1969. With the help of previously unseen documents we examine the final days and sad death of bike racing’s first rock ’n’ roll star
Examining the racer’s demise with recently discovered documents
It’s the morning of July 12, 1969. Bill Ivy is commencing the final practice session for the 350cc East German Grand Prix at the Sachsenring aboard Jawa’s disc-valve V4. The bike is the latest creation from the Czech marque that started life as a World War I armaments manufacturer.
In fact the 1967 125cc world champion and twice TT winner had retired from motorcycle racing at the end of the previous season, following a bitter feud with Yamaha team-mate Phil Read. He had switched to cars, buying a Brabham-ford to contest national and international F2 races. At the first round of the 1969 European F2 series at Thruxton, his speed stunned Jackie Stewart, Jochen Rindt, Graham Hill, Derek Bell, Clay Regazzoni and others.
“Billy had more natural ability than anyone I’ve seen coming into motor racing,” said Stewart. “Neither John Surtees nor Mike Hailwood made the adjustment as obviously as Billy.”
But Ivy didn’t have the money to go car racing, so he accepted an offer from Jawa to earn some cash.
Ivy didn’t know it, but the 350 V4 would become one of the most murderous race bikes of that deadly era. At its GP debut at Assen in 1967 the engine seized four times and it was a year before it finished a GP. Ivy rode the bike for the first time at a pre-season race in Italy, where it seized. The engine’s weaknesses were low-grade Iron Curtain metals and thermo-siphon water-cooling. However, when the disc-valve two-stroke ran well it was mighty quick – 70hp at 13,000rpm, good enough for 170mph, which must’ve felt a lot faster while rocketing around the lethal street circuits that were home to most 1960s Grand Prix events.
Ivy and the Jawa had their first GP outing at Jarama, which resulted in a DNF after the motor seized. In the next GP round at Hockenheim, he chased home Giacomo Agostini’s MV Agusta triple. A few weeks later he led Ago at Assen, until the engine oiled a plug, probably because it was running rich to prevent piston seizures. Thus, when he arrived at the Sachsenring, Ivy must’ve had hopes of inflicting a rare defeat on Ago.
Ivy posted his request for a race entry to the Sachsenring organisers on May 28, asking for start money of £275 plus 2500 East German marks, a total of around £350 (about £5500 today). He then got in his Maserati Ghibli and crisscrossed the Continent, contesting the West German 350 GP at Hockenheim on May 11, an F2 race at Zolder (where he ran second until sidelined by mechanical problems) on June 8, the Dutch TT on June 28, the Belgian GP on July 6. He also travelled to Monza for an F2 race on June 22, but didn’t start the event after a punch-up with officials!
A few days after finishing second to Ago at Assen, he sent the organisers a telegram (from Britain, so presumably done by a friend at home) asking once again for money, so the organisers asked Alfred Hartmann, the East German Communist Party’s sports-kommissar, to negotiate with Ivy at Spa-francorchamps.
The 26-year-old arrived at the Sachsenring on Thursday, July 10, driving his Maserati (registration plate EE 2676). On Friday Ago was fastest around the 5.3-mile street circuit, ahead of Ivy and MZ’S Heinz Rosner. On Saturday morning Ivy and a factory mechanic push the Jawa out of the paddock to start the final 350cc session. At around 9.45am he completes his first lap of the day, riding past the pits and through the series of fast kinks that take riders into the town of Hohenstein-ernstthal. As he approaches a left-hander, the Jawa breaks a crankshaft bearing. The broken bearing seizes the engine, locking the rear wheel and sending the bike into a sideways skid, which hurls Ivy to the ground.
Travelling at around 90mph, Ivy is not in control of his destiny. He slides along the road, his pudding-basin helmet comes off and he slams into the roadside fence, finally coming to rest, half on the road, half on the pavement. Meanwhile the bike loses its fuel tank, which spews fuel across the track and ends up by the stone gate posts of number 87 Friedrich Engels Strasse, named in honour of the man who developed the theory of Marxism with Karl Marx.
Over the years there has been much speculation that Ivy’s helmet came off because it wasn’t strapped up properly, but this seems unlikely since he had already completed a full lap at speed. Pudding-basin lids weren’t the safest.
The marshals at post eight write two reports at 09:45, which stated: “Number 61, crash”, then “Number 61, crashed heavily and is being treated”, then at 09:46 a further one: “number 61 is taken away on a stretcher”. Dieter Knorr, a marshal at post seven, later writes his own report. It says: “The machine number 61 came past as normal. Before the corner the front of the machine went down. I thought he used the hand [front] brake. After that the rear wheel veered towards the right. He crashed and skidded with his machine on the road, hit a garden fence post and back from there. The rider was lying on the road. His helmet flew across the street. Two rescuers of the DRK (German Red Cross) were on the scene with a stretcher right away. I showed the yellow flag immediately and the cleaning of the spilt fuel was started by the marshals at post eight. The DRK took the rider away on the stretcher.” Ivy is stretchered 150 metres to an ambulance car. The initial-examination report describes the grievous injuries suffered by Ivy: he is unconscious, but gasping for air. The medics can find no pulse and his pupils don’t react to light. He has major bleeds from the nose and mouth. The diagnosis is very bad: he has suffered cardiac arrest and a basilar skull fracture – a fractured bone in the base of the skull. The medics do what they can; they perform tracheal intubation to keep his windpipe open, give him oxygen, undertake CPR (artificial respiration and cardiac massage) and extract liquid from his nose and throat. While all this is happening, Ivy is being driven to Lichtenstein hospital, five miles away. However, on arrival Ivy is pronounced clinically dead. There are repeated attempts at resuscitation, but without success. Doctors detail the causes of death: basilar skull fracture, fracture of the cranium, ruptured right lung and irreversible trauma and bleeding. An autopsy is carried out two days later, which confirms the causes of death. Shortly after the accident, the engine of Ivy’s Jawa was stripped for inspection by the Sachsenring scrutineers and FIM steward Franticek Smauss. Jawa mechanics Jaroslav Seda and Karel Pischa dismantled the engine. ‘A considerable amount of aluminium flakes was found in the intake system for the bottom-left cylinder, which had marked the disc-valve casing,’ stated the scrutineers’ report. ‘Further examination showed that the flakes came from the destroyed crank bearing. The destruction of the crank bearing resulted in a sudden locking of the engine, which caused the crash of the rider. All other parts, apart from the crash damage, were in a faultless condition.” It is significant that the engine suffered a crank-bearing failure, because riders usually got a fraction of a second’s warning when a piston seized, so they could be ready with
‘A CRANK-BEARING FAILURE GAVE NO WARNING, NO CHANCE’
their left hand to pull in the clutch lever, but a big-end gave no warning and therefore no chance. Jawa withdrew from the meeting, but were soon looking for a replacement rider. Aussie privateer Jack Findlay bravely accepted an offer to ride the bike, commencing at the following weekend’s Czech Grand Prix at Brno. Two miles into first practice, the cooling system leaked onto the rear tyre, causing Findlay to crash, fracturing a collarbone. Later that same weekend another Jawa 350 killed Czech rider Frantisek Bocek. Two months after that, the bike did finally prove its potential when Italian Silvio Grassetti took victory in the season-ending Adriatic Grand Prix at Opatija (in currentday Croatia). However, that was the V4’s only success and the bike slowly faded from the scene over the next few seasons. Arrangements were made to return Ivy’s body to his mother Nell, in Ditton, near Maidstone. The body had to be transported across borders, so it was laid to rest in a zinc coffin, welded up by a local plumber. The coffin was held at the Karl-marx-stadt cemetery, then driven to Berlin six days after the accident. From there it was flown to London. The funeral was held at St Peter’s church, Ditton, with Read, Mike Hailwood and other bike racers in attendance, as well as important figures from car racing, including Ken Tyrrell and Frank Williams. Ivy’s body was cremated and his ashes scattered at an unknown location According to standard procedure, a ‘criminal complaint of unnatural death’ was lodged by the authorities two days after Ivy’s crash. This came to nothing. However, the East German police were involved in the aftermath. Again, according to standard procedure, Ivy’s room at the Moskau Interhotel in Karl-marx-stadt (now Chemnitz) and his Maserati Ghibli were searched and every item documented. The list of his belongings offers a fascinating glimpse into the life of a ’60s GP racer. Ivy was something of a rock ’n’ roll dandy, so no surprise that his effects found in his hotel room included ‘13 different-coloured shirts... one green-patterned scarf... one electric hairdryer’. Inside the Maserati were: ‘six trophies... 12 audio cassettes [sadly, not individually identified]... a can of car wax... a Yamaha motorcycle operating manual...” plus money in seven different European currencies. The car was driven to the Jawa factory in Prague by Seda, Ivy’s mechanic. It’s not known what became of it. Racing was a very dangerous business in the 1960s and ’70s – seize-prone two-strokes and street circuits were a terrible mix. Ivy was the last-but-one of 25 riders to die at world championship events during the ’60s. The others lost their lives at the Isle of Man TT, Assen, Solitude, Dundrod, Imatra, Brno and Spa Francorchamps. Thus death was a regular visitor to the paddock, and every rider who cared to face his own mortality knew he
might be next. Ivy certainly knew his number could be up at any time. Bizarrely, the chills gripped him just before his final outing. “He said to me the day before he left for East Germany: ‘I really don’t want to go this weekend, I really don’t’,” he told friend Lady Sarah Marguerite Curzon, wife of racing driver Piers Courage, who was killed during the 1970 Dutch Formula 1 GP. “I said: ‘Then don’t go, Billy! If you really feel that you’re not happy about going, just don’t go.’ He told me he had to. ‘It’s my bread and butter’. I tried to persuade him… but it was no good.” The premonitions must’ve been pretty strong, because before leaving his flat near Heathrow, Ivy put all his affairs in order and left some money with a friend. “This is to pay for a booze-up for the boys if anything should ever happen to me,” he said. “Because I’ve got a feeling that one of these days I shan’t be coming back.” Ivy’s death had an immediate effect on circuit safety at the part-cobbled Sachsenring and was an important turning point in the push for safer circuits. On news of his death, the survivors lobbied the event organisers to put out more straw bales before the next day’s racing. Jack Findlay, Rod Gould and Santiago Herrero advised on their location. Herrero had less than a year to live – the Spanish star died following an accident at the 13th Milestone in the 1970 Lightweight TT, one of five racing deaths at that TT. Finally, the FIM seemed to get the message: something had to be done to reduce the death toll. They announced that all Grand Prix events should be preceded by a meeting with riders. As always, it had taken a death to wake people up. The next chapter of the circuit-safety story began following the death of Jarno Saarinen in 1973. The 350cc East German Grand Prix got underway as normal the next day, with the exception that a bouquet of red carnations was laid in Ivy’s grid slot while 200,000 fans held a minute’s silence in his memory. Agostini took victory in the 350 and 500 races, Renzo Pasolini took the 250 on his Benelli and Dave Simmonds won the 125 on his Kawasaki twin. The documents that underpin this story are published here for the first time. They were the property of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Motorsport Verband der DDR, organisers of the East German GP, until the Berlin Wall came down, when the entire club archive was offered to the Jordan family of Hohenstein-ernstthal, who maintain one of Germany’s best bike-racing archives. Andy Jordan compiled and translated the documents. Bill Ivy was bike racing’s first rock ’n’ roll star, some years before Barry Sheene. A motorcycle mechanic by trade and only five foot three inches tall, Ivy started out racing 50cc machines. He quickly rose through the ranks, riding Bultacos for Frank Sheene, then winning the 1964 British 125cc title. The following autumn he was picked up by Yamaha, at the suggestion of Phil Read. Three years later the pair were the bitterest of enemies. Ivy was fast and funny. He was a real character who lived as hard as he raced, with a taste for high times and fast cars. Mike Hailwood called him “a cheeky little rogue”.
‘IVY’S DEATH HAD AN IMMEDIATE EFFECT ON CIRCUIT SAFETY’