Formula 1 drivers who started racing motorcycles
SEPTEMBER 1, 1991
BY JOE SAWARD
There is nothing new about Grand Prix drivers who started their careers, racing on motorcycles. A quick look back through the record books reveal some great names in Grand Prix racing started out on two-wheels: Tazio Nuvolari was a top bik racer in the 1020s in Italy and his motor racing rival Achille Varzi started out as one of his to-wheeled rivals on bike, Varzi being the first Italian to compete in the Isle of Man TT bike races. German Bernd Rosemeyer was also an accmplished bike racer before he joined Auto Union.
That was before the Formula 1 World Championship began in 1950, but the link between the two sports is still a strong one. Piero Taruffi, who didn't retire from racing until 1957, raced motocycles in Italy as early as 1925. In the late 1930s Alberto Ascari, who would become World F1 Champion in 1952 and 1953, regularly competed in Italian bike races.
It was a similar story in France with Jean Behra a three-time French motorcycle champion before he switched to cars in 1949. That tradition would continue with Jean-Pierre Beltoise, who won 11 national titles in motorcycling, before going car racing and later still Patrick Deapiller.
The British too had great champions who switched: the most famous of them being Mike 'the Bike' Hailwood and John Surtees, who in 1964 became the first and only man to win World Championships on two wheel and on four wheels.
Just looking at the names it is clear that there is a crossover between talented bike racers and talented racing drivers.
Team Lotus's Peter Collins, one of F1's top talent spotters, explains: "It is an obvious thing to do. These guys know all about the speed and what you have to do. A man who is quick on two wheels will usually be quick on four because he understands the sort of things he has to do."
Of the current F1 drivers only a couple have competed in motorcycle events, although others such as Gerhard Berger and Michael Andretti admit that they love to ride motorcycles in their spare time - just for fun.
The most successful biker-turned-racer of the current generation is Williams driver Damon Hill. His story is unusual because he went bike racing because he wanted to show he was different from his father, the late F1 World Champion Graham Hill.
"I wanted to do my own thing," explains Damon, "so I started racing bikes. I wanted to do everything myself. I drove the van to the circuit, mechaniced the bike, changed the tyres, everything. By the time it got to the race I was exhausted. All the other guys had these tuned-up machines and I would just arrive, take off the air filter and get out there. It was slow learning process but I was competitive in the end. Now I've got a dustbin liner full of trophies that I don't know what to do with.'
Hill competed in both motorbike trials and road racing, scoring 40 wins at Brands Hatch. It was through the circuit in Kent that his racing career began. He was invited to race, he tried it and he liked it. Quietly he will admit that he was under pressure from his mother, who thought motorcycle too dangerous and in the hope that he would switch, paid for him to attend the famous Winfield School at Magny-Cours in France. He wasn't really interested at the time, but he went along to keep mum happy... And unlike many of the current F1 stars, he didn't win the Winfield/Elf competition.
The other current F1 star who competed on bikes is another Briton Mark Blundell. He spent three years in motocross from the age of 14. He couldn't race cars because he didn't have a licence, so he competed on bikes instead. As soon as he was old enough he bought a Formula Ford 1600 and in his first year he competed in 70 races and won 25 of them.
But this is not a question of preference, often wild youngsters channel their competitive instincts into bike racing because they don't know about karting; or because they cannot afford to buy karts, but can find the money for bikes.
Sometimes, in the tradition of Hailwood and Surtees, top bike racers realise that life on two wheels after a certain age is too dangerous for them to accept and they look for a sport which will give them the same thrills, without exposing them to the same sort of dangers.
There are many good examples of this: Barry Sheene competed in British touring car racing after he quit motorcycling, Gregg Hansford did the same in Australia and Steve Parrish has built himself a very successful second career in the world of truck racing.
The most recent man to switch sides is Wayne Gardner, who has given up bikes to race for Holden in Australian touring car racing. Recently Gardner was spotted testing an F1 Lotus at Snetterton, so perhaps we can look forward to the Australian trying to find a way into F1 - in the finest traditions of the sport. He'd probably be quite quick.