The Daily Telegraph
Motorcyclist who reigned supreme in the heyday of great Italian marques like Agusta and Mondial
CARLO UBBIALI, who has died in Bergamo aged 90, was one of motorcycle racing greatest champions, winning nine world titles as he dominated the sport’s smaller engine classes in the first decade of Grands Prix.
One of four children, Ubbiali was almost born in the saddle, on September 22 1929, his father Giovanni being a mechanic who later had a concession for the MV Agusta marque. At eight Carlo was already working the throttle when, seated in front of his father, the pair motorcycled from their native Bergamo to Milan to watch a race.
His other vivid early memories were of the war: a Tiger tank parked outside the family’s workshop, for example. When Carlo was 15 he used a sidecar to carry victims of shelling to hospital.
In 1947 he won a race around the circuit of Bergamo’s walls, using an ex-afrika Korps DKW 125 borrowed from the head of the city’s Flying Squad. But he was disqualified when the Agusta-mounted entries protested that he had altered his identity papers to appear to be already 18. Nevertheless, his skills caught the eye of Count Domenico Agusta, the marque’s owner.
Grand Prix racing was first staged in 1949, and Ubbiali would eventually be the last survivor of that inaugural year. Riding for Agusta, he finished fourth in the 125cc championship. More notably, however, he won a gold medal in the International Six Days Trial, an endurance event, staged that year in Llandrindod Wells (a fellow competitor was Murray Walker, the future commentator).
Ubbiali had journeyed to Wales by train, and victory came despite his being forced to make the trip alone, without a word of English, after a prank which ended with his luggage and passport left on the platform in Milan.
These were the days when racers travelled to tracks through a Europe shattered by war, and before the advent of TV coverage or specialised protective gear they risked their lives for little more than a season’s fame.
The next year he moved to Mondial. Italian bikes reigned supreme (Gilera, Moto Guzzi, Morini were others) and in 1950 he won his first Grand Prix, in Northern Ireland. He also finished first in the Milan-taranto race, completing the 807 miles in 13 hours. He fainted at the line, having suffered various breakages that had forced him to push his bike through Bari with the help of spectators; as a result he was disqualified.
Still with Mondial, he took the 125cc title the next season. His golden years came when he teamed up with Agusta again in 1952. Riding the four-stroke Bialbero, with a top speed of 115mph, Ubbiali won the 125cc class in 1955, 1956, and from 1958 to 1960.
He also took the 250cc crown in 1956, 1959 and 1960, having only entered at the behest of Count Agusta, who was desperate to best the German NSU bikes which were sweeping all before them.
Ubbiali was a meticulous racer whose successes owed more to tactics than risk-taking. He was renowned for his safe riding and only had one serious crash, at the Dutch Grand Prix in 1957. He concentrated on precise track positioning, braking and acceleration, and would spend much of a race analysing an opponent’s weaknesses before attacking late on.
Nicknamed “La Volpe” – “The Fox” – Ubbiali would sometimes settle for a place, rather than hazard all on a win, with his eye on the standings in the table. Nor was he above gamesmanship, shifting his body to suggest he was about to brake and then not, or, to distract a competitor, releasing his grip on the handlebars and fiddling with his engine.
Ubbiali won 39 of the 74 Grand Prix he entered and came second 20 times. He scored five victories in Isle of Man TTS; in 1956 he won both the 125 (by a margin of five minutes) and the 250 classes. He also took eight Italian titles.
He retired in 1960, aged 30, a decision prompted by his recent marriage and by the premature death from cancer of his brother. The costs of racing had greatly increased, and Agusta was planning to leave the sport, aware that the new Japanese two-stroke engines were about to transform it.
But for Agusta’s policy of not giving rides on its 350 and 500cc machines to lighter men – Ubbiali was a slight 8st 6lb – he might have won more titles. As it was, he was the first racer to win nine, a feat only surpassed by Angel Nieto (with 13) and Giacomo Agostini (15). It was Ubbiali who pressed Agusta to sign the younger Agostini, who also came from Bergamo.
Ubbiali took over his father’s business, although his career in commerce experienced more bumps than that in racing. In later years he felt rather forgotten by the sport he had graced, though between 1998 and 2000 he returned to it as an adviser to the LCR 125 team.
He is survived by his wife Mariella, with whom he had two sons and two daughters.
Carlo Ubbiali, born September 22 1929, died June 2 2020