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Phil Read - 1939 to 2022

In an era where motorcycle racing has been dominated by just a few riders - Valentino Rossi and Marc Marquez in MotoGP, Jonathon Rea in WSB and Shane Byrne in BSB are the obvious examples - it's easy to overlook some of the riders from previous generations when the debates over "best racer of all time" begin.


But Phil Read, who died last Thursday aged 83, must be right up there in the conversation.


He rode - and was successful on - a huge range of machinery, including delivering Yamaha their first World Title when he won the 250cc class in 1964. He was the first man to win world championships in the 125cc, 250cc and 500cc classes, whilst competing with Giacomo Agostini and Mike Hailwood, making his achievements all the more impressive.


Racing between the early 60s and 1982, his career started on classic British racers. His first race was on a BSA Gold Star in 1958, he won the Junior 350cc TTs in 1960 and 61 on Manx Nortons, and he had two wins of the Thruxton 500 endurance race on Norton Dominator 650SS machines.


His introduction to GPs came in 1963 when he was drafted into the injury-hit Gilera team, claiming a 3rd at that year's Senior TT with 2nd places at Assen and Spa on the four cylinder four stroke bikes.


His first world championship came in 1964 when he won the 250cc world title on a Yamaha two-stroke, a title he claimed again in 1965. In 1968, having sewn up the 125 world title with six wins from nine races, he also took the 250 crown against team orders defeating fellow Yamaha rider Bill Ivy. With five wins from ten races, and level on points with Ivy, he took the crown on elapsed time over the season, and was promptly sacked by the Japanese team.


He returned to grands prix in 1971 on a privateer Yamaha and won his fourth 250 title.


Moving to MV Agusta in 1972, he took the last two championships to be won by the legendary four-strokes, in 1973 and 1974, and finished 2nd to Agostini's Yamaha two-stroke in 1975. He had one final season in GPs on a privateer Suzuki 500 before retiring from GP racing.


Moving to big four-strokes, he claimed the Formula TT title in 1977 and his last big wins were at the 1977 TT where he won the F1 and Senior races. Honda duly created a limited edition 'Phil Read Replica' special based on their CB750F2.


His best years were over by the time I started watching racing and I have a memory of him cartwheeling a Honda onto the grass at Brands Hatch, with the bike catching fire. After the 1982 TT he retired at the age of 43.





Towards the end of his racing career, Read had also started a business distributing Premier Helmets in the UK, which is what led to me having a chat with him one morning.


I was sitting on the bike waiting for a call from my controller when someone behind me and said "nice helmet". I was a bit surprised and said something like "thanks, I rather like it" to the slim, suited figure as he walked past.


It was a slow morning, and I was still there some half-hour later when the man came back the other way and said "are you still here - is it quiet today?"


At that point I recognised Phil Read, and remembered I had my Phil Read replica helmet, with the distinctive black and white design (still one of my favourites, as it happens), hanging up on the mirror.


I probably said something gormless like "blimey, you're Phil Read".


He stayed to chat for quite a few minutes. He asked me a few questions about whether I enjoyed being a courier. I think he'd just retired and I asked him about his plans for the future. And we just had a natter about bikes generally. He had a reputation for being arrogant, but that wasn't the impression I got from our brief meeting.





The next time I saw Read was at Spa, for the Bikers Classic events, back in June 2009. Now almost 70, he was 'demonstrating' a Manx Norton, but I have to say he was hardly hanging around, given the wet conditions.


His final Grand Prix tally was seven championships, 52 wins and 121 podiums from just 152 starts, and 8 TT wins from 14 starts.


That's a pretty remarkable record in any era.



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