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Who is the greatest racer? GP riders and paddock insiders argue it out

It is an age old argument, largely conducted in pubs and bars (when they were open) and debated recently in motor racing circles upon the death of Stirling Moss. It raises the question: Which is the more important statistic, total wins or winning percentage?

The line “Lies, damned lies and statistics”, attributed to the great American author Mark Twain or a more recent and perhaps more relevant one “Liars, outrageous liars and politicians” might apply here.

A mildly damning quote, although not quite so cynical, came from John Surtees when asked, following Valentino Rossi’s much heralded flirtation with Formula 1, if the Italian boy wonder could make it: ”The stop watch doesn’t lie!”


Surtees, of course, was a sensation the moment he stepped into a Grand Prix car.

There is, of course, no absolute answer to the question even if confined only to Rossi and Hailwood. Which is why it makes for constant argument with those who will say: “Well, there wasn’t much competition then” or “There are more races now” or “A lot of the circuits then, including the TT, were on roads. It was a lot more dangerous then.”

Indeed it was. Hence the famous quote from Grand Prix driver Tony Brooks when asked to compare todays drivers with those, like him of yesteryear. After thinking carefully he said: “Well, they are very good but I would describe them as ‘performers’. We could be described as ‘gladiators.’”

But back to the stats. In terms of races won Giacomo Agostini still heads the field with 122 but he doesn’t make Peter Williams top four.

The former Norton rider, designer and engineer with wins on a variety of circuits, including the TT on a Norton and Ulster GP on an MZ, opined: “I would definitely include Marquez alongside Rossi and Hailwood. But Rossi is in decline and although still a candidate for the podium he’s not capable of beating Marquez. However, twenty years of winning Grand Prix races is quite remarkable.

I have never actually seen Marquez ride, other than on TV, but some of the tricks he does, like falling off and saving it, are remarkable. Nobody else can do it. It’s incredible.

“Hailwood? I saw him ride many times, and competed against him even beating him once at a wet Snetterton, and he was equally magic although, in those days, you couldn’t simply fall off and save it.

“I would put Rossi and Marquez together but Hailwood better than both of them. He did have a lot of competition, as do they, but it was a different era so comparisons are difficult and can’t be properly made.

“So, as much out of loyalty to my era, I would say Hailwood. He did ride on all sorts of circuits so he was an all rounder. And he came back to the Isle of Man after being out of racing for ten years and a huge car crash and winning, beating Phil Read in the process.

“But I also feel a but guilty about not also saying Surtees. I saw him racing and he didn’t always have the intensity of competition but he was a fabulous rider, a beautiful thing to watch. I love to watch riders like that. Dovizioso when he’s leading on that Ducati is a great example. Unfortunately, he’s got Marquez!


“Oh and what about Stoner. He mastered that Ducati which defeated Rossi. And Mick Doohan. The list goes on…”

A different angle was taken by Mick Grant: “If you are looking at a list of actual results then it is quite easy. Just tot it up. But if you are looking for the greatest do you look at the guy who has done the most or the most outstanding. If you are looking at modern riders you have to say Valentino.

“But going back to my day, the most outstanding rider I ever came across was Jarno Saarinen. Without a shadow of a doubt. If you are looking at guys right at the top of their game, then the rider who was just one percent or maybe half a percent quicker than his contemporaries, it’s a country mile. And he was.

Jarno’s career was cut short by that terrible accident at Monza, which also killed Renzo Pasolini. He would have gone on to greater things.


“At the time he was just head and shoulders above everybody’s else. Readie could give him a good run but I think the MV triple was an easier bike to ride than the Yamaha four. I was watching at Hockenheim from the infield.T hey had a real battle, Jarno got the bike sideways and just didn’t shut off.

“Just like Marquez but 40 years ago and on old tyres. Kenny Roberts said he borrowed Jarno’s riding style. He was just outstanding.

“What was interesting was his intention to stay in bikes for the next couple of years and then go onto something else. Most bike racers are a bit like Blackpool rock, cut them in half and both are the same. All they want to do is to go on motor bike racing. When Jarno had achieved what he set out to do, he wanted to move on. He was a very talented and a very nice guy.”

He went on: “The last guy to win a double world championship was Freddie Spencer. Even Rossi would not want to be doing MotoGP and Moto2 on the same day. But the law of diminishing returns prevails.

“Races are won and lap records set in split seconds. You just ride one bike. People ask if the TT is getting too quick. It’s not. The speeds have gone up but, unlike many years ago, it’s not getting quicker. But the returns are smaller.

In 1975 I knocked seven mph off the record at the NW200. That would be unheard of now. You’d be knocking tenths off. But that will continue and it should.

“Of course the circuits were much different then and more dangerous. It was Spa Francorchamps that’s frightened me not the TT. Hailwood crashed between an avenue of trees at Imatra. He went between the trees. How the hell he got between them and didn’t hurt himself God only knows. Joey did the same thing in Estonia. But he hit one.

“In the sixties - and Hailwood was one of the all time greats - there were some lesser riders - no names - who got a factory ride and and had it made. They took an opportunity but they were nowhere near the calibre of Hailwood or Redman. And they were battling against Manx Nortons or Bianchis so they were on a bit of a winner.

“I cannot leave Joey Dunlop out of this. There’s something called charisma and if you could bottle it you would be onto a winner. When he first started, and became popular, you couldn’t understand a word he said. But I have to admit he was a little bit better than me.

“He could ride a 125 and a 750 in the same TT week. I couldn’t have done that. Hailwood did some quirky things. Readie did all the things that they did but was a bit lacking in charisma. Jarno had it and Rossi has a bundle of it. The others don’t have it at all.”

Mike Trimby, founder and boss of the International Racing Teams Association (IRTA), was in no doubt about his choice. Enjoying the sun at his Isle of Man home but frustrated by the lack of MotoGP action he declared: “Hailwood. Oh yes. Agostini benefited from superior machinery for most of his career, I know Mike had a wealthy father but the diversity of his achievements and particularly the Ducati deal on the Island were incredible. He would definitely be my best ever.

“I would put him ahead of Valentino although his 20 years at the top are incredible also. It was, of course, a different era and I have lived through both. But my memory and my affection with Hailwood and what he did week in and week out on all sorts of horrible circuits, on varying machinery, made him the best for me.

“Who would I put up there with him. Well, Ago and Rossi obviously, but I still lean towards Hailwood and partly because of the human aspect. What he did in Formula 1 rescuing Regazzoni from that blazing car. And I also remember when we had out first show at Alexandra Palace in 1979 we found him wandering round the show. He had queued up and paid his pound to come in. He was that sort of man, unassuming.

“My top five? Well, Kenny Roberts was a rider who would make my spine go funny when I watched him. I once saw him in Yugoslavia going through the whole field after losing 20 seconds at the start. He was overtaking people like they were going backwards.

And again at Daytona when something had gone wrong and he was coming through the field. We were stood on the chicane and he made me shiver just watching him. And he won lots of GPs.

“But going back to Ago, yes part of his career was against the Continental Circus on Manx Nortons but he was a great rider. And on the Isle of Man which, he told me, he hated but was paid to do it. And he did it very well.”

Phil Read, himself winner of 52 Grand Prix races and seven world championships, has the final word: ”I think you’ve got to hand it Rossi. He has been fantastic over the years - 20 of them - and he has won world championships at 125 and 250 and has been consistently at the top for the last ten.

“Obviously Mike. He won races at all sorts of circuits including roads, the TT, the Ulster and places like Czechoslovakia whereas today’s riders are relatively safe with 70 meters of runoff and without the curves, lamp posts and trees to hit. So Mike has obviously been very brave. But as an absolute master of motorcycles I think Valentino scores on that.

“Obviously Ago was a brilliant rider on all circuits. He had great backing from MV but for five years he won ten world championships with virtually no opposition other than Nortons, G50s and 7Rs.

“I was knocking on the door but for a lot of the time I didn’t have the full backing, even from Yamaha. I had to take the bikes around myself to some of the circuits like East Germany and Czecho.

“One of my best races, which I didn’t win was with Sheene at Mugello. We dropped Ago and diced neck and neck for about 15 laps but I just made a mistake passing into the last corner, I rode down the white line so he couldn’t slipstream me but he beat me by about half a wheel.

But I have to give credit to Rossi. He’s been up against tough competition against younger riders and shown incredible mastery cutting through the field to win. And he has obviously helped Yamaha because his name brings in the sponsors to the team like no other.

Does the famous John Surtees quote, “The stop watch doesn’t lie” apply here? Or is it “Lies, damned lies and statistics.” On the stats obtained from various sources, Giacomo Agostini is the greatest with 122 wins from 223 races, a winning percentage of 54.7.

Interestingly, on the percentage wins criteria he is defeated by fellow Italian Carlo Ubbiali whose 39 wins from 71 races, all in the 125 and 250cc class in which he won eight world championships, give him a percentage of 54.9.

But Surtees had a winning percentage of 74.5 per cent from just 51 races before turning to four wheels and becoming a world champion. It has to be said that while riding for MV his main competition was team-mate John Hartle who believed he was the best he had ever ridden against.

The difference between then and now in terms of circuits, machinery, the quality of opposition and, it has to be said, the pleasure of wallowing in nostalgia make these sort of comparisons interesting, enjoyable but irrelevant.

Footnote: In Grand Prix motor racing Michael Schumacher with 91 wins (29.64%) remains just ahead of Lewis Hamilton with 84 (33.60%). But the greatest on percentage is Juan Manuel Fangio at 47.06% from 24 wins. Stirling Moss, our British hero, had 16 wins at 24.24% but he is widely acknowledged as the best never to win a world championship…

The stats

Rider GP races Wins Championships Fastest laps Years active Win %
Ubbiali 71 39 9 30 11 54.9
Agostini 223 122 15 117 14 54.7
Nieto 186 90 13 63 22 48.4
Hailwood 162 76 9 79 11 46.9
Marquez 205 82 8 72 9 40.0
Roberts 60 24 3 27 6 40.0
Spencer 72 27 3 24 9 37.5
Duke 89 33 6 n/a 10 37.1
Read 152 52 7 31 16 34.2
Redman 135 45 6 35 8 33.3
Rossi 402 115 9 96 20 28.6
Sheene 102 23 2 20 15 22.5

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