There was a lot of hoopla last weekend over the accomplishment of Cal Crutchlow being the first Brit to win a premier-class Grand Prix race since Barry Sheene in 1981. Congratulations, Cal, don’t get cocky. Which is exactly what he did following the race referring to his competitors as “wimps” – an accusation basted with the decorum of his enrollment in “the Donald Trump School of Tact and Grace,” according to Bruce Allen’s post-race autopsy. So let’s put this in perspective; Cal won a race – a rain race due to lucky tire selection – not a championship based on skill and season-long consistency.
In the annals of Grand Prix motorcycle racing, some of the best champions have originated from the island nation and deserve modern recognition. Here’s our list of British GP champs according to their career accomplishments. Sorry, Cal, a lone MotoGP race win isn’t enough to earn a spot beyond the opening paragraph.
Being first is always worth something, and in 1949, the inaugural year of organized Grand Prix motorcycle road racing, Freddie Frith (#53 in above photo) won all five races to claim the 350cc championship that year on a Velocette. He also competed in the 500cc class, but wasn’t as successful. Born in 1909, Frith was already 40 in 1949, and only raced the one year in GP, but his racing career began years earlier. Frith won the Manx Grand Prix in 1930, and is one of only a few to compete in and win TT races before and after WWII.
Fergus Anderson who was Scottish but is known as a British world champion (doesn’t seem fair to Scotland). Like many racers of his day, Anderson competed in numerous classes, winning races in the 250cc, 350cc, and 500cc categories, but only winning championships in the 350cc class – back-to-back in 1953 and 1954. Sadly, Anderson was killed in a racing incident in Belgium in 1956.
Cecil Sandford nearly won three GP world titles but had to settle for second place in the 125cc class in 1953. However, Sandford brought MV Agusta its first world championship in the 125cc class in 1952, and, five years later, won the 250cc championship for Mondial in 1957. Sandford was also a two-time IOM TT winner.
Crutchlow may have won a race in the more glamorous MotoGP class, but it’s only one race. Danny Kent won six of 18 races on his way to capturing the Moto3 championship last year. Unimpressed because of Moto3’s junior class status? Watch any Moto3 race and witness how competitive each race is, when a gaggle of riders – each with viable chance of winning – go at it hammer and tongs until the checkered flag. Kent is struggling some with his transition to the Moto2 class this year, but he might have a better chance of realizing a MotoGP championship than Crutchlow does.
Leslie Graham is the first 500cc Grand Prix world champion, winning the title in the premier class alongside the 1949 350cc world champion, fellow countryman Freddie Frith. This two-fer gives Great Britian the prestige of having two world champions in the inaugural year of Grand Prix competition. Frosting on the cake is both men won their respective championships aboard British machinery: Graham on an AJS, and Frith on a Velocette. Similar to compatriot Fergus Anderson, Graham tragically lost his life at the Isle of Man in 1953.
Barry Sheene won only two premier-class championships (1976, 1977), but he is what many consider a champion’s champion. His outspoken, flamboyant, gregarious personality coupled with intelligence and sportsmanship made him popular in the paddock and the envy of wannabe champions around the globe. He survived two horrific crashes, and many attribute his race against arch nemesis Kenny Roberts at the British Grand Prix at Sliverstone in 1975 to be the best race of the ’70s. Sheene died in 2002 from cancer at the age of 52.
Geoff Duke owns six Grand Prix world championships; three with Norton and three with Gilera. Aboard the one-lunger Norton, Duke won both the 500cc and 350cc titles in 1951, and followed those with another 350cc world title in 1952. Switching to the four-cylinder Gilera, Duke performed the first Grand Prix hat trick, claiming back-to-back-to-back 500cc titles in 1953, ’54, and ’55. Duke, who also owns six IOM TT race wins, lived a long life (especially for a motorcycle racer competing in the time period he did) dieing last year at his home on the Isle of Man at the age of 92. Geoff Duke: 1923-2015.
A decade separates Phil Read’s first and last Grand Prix championships. Read won his first 250cc GP title in 1964 aboard a Yamaha, and doubled-down the next year with a second 250cc title. Three years later, in 1968, Read won both the 125cc and 250cc titles still aboard Yamahas. Read’s last 250cc title, and his last aboard a Yamaha was earned in 1971. Switching to MV Agusta in 1972, Read won his first 500cc title the following year. In 1974 Read claimed his second and last premier-class title, the last world championship for MV Agusta, and the last premier-class championship for a four-stroke racer until the modern four-stroke era began with the MotoGP class in 2002.
Like Phil Read, John Surtees owns seven GP world titles. And like Geoff Duke, Surtees pulled off another hat-trick of titles. Surtees’ accomplishments, however, were more impressive than either Read or Duke. Surtees owns four 500cc titles, and three 350cc titles. His first 500cc championship came in 1956 aboard an MV Agusta. Beginning in 1958 Surtees would win both the 500cc and 350cc GP world titles for three years running, ending in 1960, also aboard the dominant MV machines. Surtees is the only racer in history to leave a successful motorcycle GP career and flourish in the auto-racing world, winning the Formula 1 world title for Ferrari in 1964, becoming the only racer in history to win world championships on both two wheels and four.
Similar to a certain Valentino Rossi, Mike “The Bike” Hailwood is a nine-time Grand Prix champion – the most decorated British GP racer in the history of the sport. In the span of only six years Hailwood managed to attain three 250cc titles (1961, ’66, ’67), two 350cc titles (1966, ’67), and four consecutive 500cc titles (1962, ’63, ’64, ’65); the sport’s first four-peat. All four 500cc titles were aboard MV Agustas, while the smaller-displacement titles came aboard Hondas. Hailwood also owns 14 IOM TT victories, the most notable in 1978, when after 11 years of retirement from motorcycle road racing, he returned aboard a Ducati 900SS, and won the Senior TT that year. Maybe most tragic of all, Hailwood was killed by an illegal-turning truck while driving with his children getting take out in 1981, age 40. All hail the king.