PHIL READ MBE - A TRIBUTE
Thursday 6th October 2022 marked the passing of one of the greatest motorcycle racers the UK has ever produced – Phil Read MBE.
In a long and distinguished career, the ‘Prince of Speed’ won eight World Championships, took 52 Grand Prix victories and stood on a GP podium 121 times. The last two figures remain the ninth and seventh highest figures of all-time, despite the number of races contested in the 1960s and 70s being half the number of what they are today, ranking him alongside the sport’s greatest names.
Read was also the first rider to win world titles in the 125cc, 250cc and 500cc categories, a feat only matched by Valentino Rossi, and had it not been for contemporary, rival, fellow countryman and friend Mike Hailwood, his career achievements would have been even greater.
The Luton-born rider gave Yamaha their first ever World Championship success in 1964 and also won eight races at the Isle of Man TT Races where, like everywhere else he rode, he was one of the very best.
Born on 1st January, 1939, Read’s first ever race was at Mallory Park in 1956, and he made his debut on the 37.73-mile circuit at the 1958 Manx Grand Prix. Immediately successful, he finished third in the Junior Race and then, at his third attempt and still only aged 21, he won the 1960 Senior Race.
A move to the TT followed in 1961 and his talents were clearly evident when he won the Junior Race on his Norton, ahead of Gary Hocking and the more powerful MV Agusta, becoming one of the few riders to win a TT race at his very first attempt.
Two years later, the young Read was drafted into the Scuderia Gilera team to replace the injured Derek Minter, and he more than justified his call-up with third place in the Senior behind race winner Hailwood and team-mate John Hartle. With two second-place finishes in Holland and Belgium, Read took fourth in that year’s 500cc World Championship despite the six-year old machines being far from competitive.
By now, Read had come to the attention of the fledging Yamaha team, and it’s with the Japanese manufacturer that he’s most associated with and most remembered for. Pitched against some of the sport’s greatest riders, Read competed against Hailwood, Jim Redman, Giacomo Agostini and Bill Ivy over the next few years, beating them all, and although TT success wasn’t immediate, he won the 1964 250cc World Championship – the first of four in the class – to give Yamaha their first world title.
He took second in that year’s Junior TT, behind Redman, and in 1965 took victory in the 125cc race for his second TT win. History was made in the 250cc race as he set the first ever 100mph lap on a 250cc machine around the Mountain Course and although he was forced to retire, he dominated that year’s World Championship with seven Grand Prix wins.
The next two years saw him go head-to-head with Hailwood in the 250cc class and so evenly were they matched, they ended the 1967 season tied on net points after a hard-fought 13-race season, although Hailwood took the title with five wins to Phil’s four.
It was even closer in 1968 when he battled for both the 125cc and 250cc Championships with Yamaha team-mate Ivy. With Honda having already pulled out of the sport, Yamaha wanted Phil to win the 125cc title and Ivy the 250cc category but during the year, Read got wind that Yamaha too were to withdraw from the sport and went back on team orders, winning both World Championships.
It was, and remains, one of the most controversial stories in Grand Prix racing and Read, who won both the 1967 and 1968 125cc TT Races, never rode a factory Yamaha again.
After sitting out most of the 1969 and ’70 seasons, Read returned in 1971 with a production Yamaha twin prepared by former World Sidecar Champion Helmut Fath and took his fifth TT victory with success in the 250cc race. Further wins and podiums during the season helped him clinch his fifth world title.
Yamaha, who had by now returned to the sport, continued to overlook him and instead gave backing to rising star Jarno Saarinen and that freed him up to accept a ride with MV Agusta in 1972, initially in the 350cc class. Forced to retire from the Junior TT, he did, however, take another 250cc TT win ahead of fellow Yamaha rider Rodney Gould.
Read was well-known within the racing paddock for his forthright views and this came to a head in 1972 after the death of Agostini’s close friend Gilberto Parlotti in the 125cc TT race, which was held in torrential rain and thick fog.
Agostini publicly stated he would never compete at the TT again, a moved backed by Read and many of the other leading GP competitors as they now felt the Mountain Course was too dangerous for World Championship competition. It ultimately led to the TT losing its World Championship status after the 1976 event.
The main point of contention for Read and Agostini was not the circuit itself – they both enjoyed the challenge the Mountain Course presented – but the fact riders were being contractually obliged to race there rather than having freedom of choice. The financial rewards were also well short of the levels required.
At the time, and for a number of years afterwards, Agostini, Read and Barry Sheene were all condemned by road racing fans for their move although, as the years progressed, Agostini and Read became welcome and popular returnees to the Island.
Read added two more World Championships to his haul in 1973 and 1974 as he claimed the 500cc titles for MV Agusta. He finished second in 1975 but the writing was on the wall for the four-strokes and Read recognised this, moving to a private Suzuki in 1976. At the age of 37, he was still as competitive as ever with second and third place finishes in the 500cc Italian and Austrian Grand Prix.
However, he didn’t have the backing required to compete against the factory Suzuki and Yamaha teams and quit Grand Prix racing midway through the season. However, he continued to compete elsewhere and in 1977 he made a surprise, and controversial return to the TT.
As a consequence of losing its World Championship status, TT organisers were now paying considerably more start and prize money in 1977 compared to 1972 and Read took full advantage. He didn’t just take the money and run though, winning both the Formula One and Senior TT Races to make it eight TT wins in total and prove he was still a formidable TT competitor, lapping at more than 110mph. It could, and maybe should, have been a hat-trick too as he was well placed to win the Classic Race only to break his collarbone after crashing at Brandish during unofficial testing the day before.
He returned with Honda in 1978, taking fourth in the Classic Race, and although he retired from second in the Formula One Race, he enjoyed an on-track battle with fellow TT returnee Hailwood for a number of laps which kept the thousands of trackside fans fully entertained.
He had one more attempt at the TT in 1982 with his best result being a fine fourth place in the Senior Race where he posted his quickest ever lap of the Mountain Course at 111.09mph, aged 43.
It wasn’t the complete end though as he was back at the 1998 Manx Grand Prix recording a respectable 16th place finish in the Classic Senior Race.
Having finally retired for good, Read turned his attention to the fledgling classic racing scene where, together with old rival Agostini and countless other former stars, he attended events all round the world to parade some of the exotic machinery they raced back in the 60s and 70s. The TT was one such place where Read continued to attract the fans and ride on track right up until his late 70s.
His health began to deteriorate in recent years, but he didn’t want to let his fans down and continued to attend as many events as he could. As recently as two weeks ago, he was a popular attendee at the Assen Classic GP meeting.
Recognised by the Queen with an MBE in 1979 and by the FIM in 2002 as a ‘MotoGP Legend,’ Phil Read had a remarkable career and was, undoubtedly, one of the all-time greats. He passed away peacefully at the age of 83. The thoughts and best wishes from all of us at the Isle of Man TT Races are with Phil’s family, loved ones and friends.