Featured: Five Of Our Favorite Racers Who Did It On Two And Four Wheels

Five Of Our Favorite Racers Who Did It On Two And Four Wheels

By Colm Murphy
March 20, 2018

I still remember the first time I rode a motorcycle. I had been driving a car for a couple of years by that point, so I arrogantly assumed the transition to two wheels would be a piece of cake. Convinced I would be the next Max Biaggi, I was in for a rude awakening. My body and brain struggled to grasp the fact the clutch was at my fingertips and the gears were at my toes. As I wobbled through the carpark, I thought to myself “How in God’s name do people stay upright on these things, let alone race them?” I consoled myself by assuming that those Moto GP riders I marveled at on television had probably been riding since they were kids and probably weren’t much good on four wheels.

To a certain extent that is true of motorcyclists. Many will admit they are terrible behind the wheel of a car. My motorcycle instructor, for example, confessed to me that he hadn’t learned to drive a car until he was in his 30s, finding the controls extremely cumbersome and unintuitive.

But when it comes to competition, racing is racing isn’t it? Surely it’s a “if you’ve got it you’ve got it” situation. Only a few have made the transition successfully though at the top levels of the sport. These are superhuman feats as far as I’m concerned,  so let’s take a look at a few who’ve mastered both car and bike.

Tazio Nuvolari

Described by Ferdinand Porsche as “The greatest driver of the past, the present, and the future,” Nuvolari was the racing world’s original jack-of-all-trades. His accolades include wins at Le Mans, the Mille Miglia, the Targa Florio, and multiple Grands Prix.

Before he became an icon of auto racing though, Nuvolari was officially competing on motorcycles at age 23. World War I interrupted his career, but he put his talents to good use as an ambulance driver during the fighting. After the war, Nuvolari campaigned his 350cc Bianchi on the European circuit, and then, in 1925, following the death of Alfa Romeo driver Antonio Ascari, he was offered a test drive at the Italian team. A seized transmission caused him to crash on this outing and the powers-that-be at Alfa were not impressed. Sustaining deep cuts to his back in the accident, he raced the Nations Cup at Monza with a cushion strapped to his stomach and had to be lifted on to his Bianchi by his crew.

In 1935 it’s said that Nuvolari was determined to move to the German Auto Union team, but was rejected due to internal politics. Italian Prime Minister Mussolini stepped in and pressured Enzo Ferrari to offer Nuvolari a drive for the season instead. His career was interrupted once again with the outbreak of World War II, but the man who has become an icon of Italian car racing had plenty of good years atop a motorcycle too.

John Surtees

Born in South London in 1934, John Surtees was the son of a motorcycle dealer. His first professional outing was at the age of 14 in the sidecar of his father’s Vincent. He then began working on the Vincent assembly line before being poached to ride for the Norton factory team after having given one of their star riders a run for his money at a local club race. Following Norton’s financial difficulties, he accepted an offer to ride for MV Agusta instead, winning the 500cc World Championship four times, the first in 1956 which gave MV its first win in the top class. Having made himself a household name in motorcycle racing, Surtees was invited to test an Aston Martin DBR1 in 1959. A year later he left the two-wheeled life behind and moved into Grand Prix racing, piloting a Lotus. In his debut season he managed a second place finish in only his second ever Grand Prix race. He went on to win the 1964 World Driver’s Championship with his Ferrari 158.

Christened Figlio del vento (“son of the wind”) by his Italian employers at MV Agusta, Surtees had a reputation for his very smooth and flowing riding and driving style. “You try and go along and become part of it,” he said, “through the seat of your pants and the way your hands are on the steering wheel, you get that essence of what the car is telling you and that is how you decide how close to the limit you can go and what the limit is.”

This ethos was surely informed by his time racing motorcycles. The primary difference of course between cars and motorcycles is that a car can move in theory without a human inside but a motorcycle needs the presence, weight, and full physical input from the rider; man and machine are more co-dependent when the wheel count goes down. Surtees brought this intuition with him to Grand Prix racing and his formidable talents made him a champion once again.

Surtees passed away last year, just before the Goodwood Members’ Meeting, where a moving tribute was made to the racing giant.

Mike Hailwood

Like his contemporary, John Surtees, Mike Hailwood was the son of a motorcycle dealer and worked for another British motorcycle manufacturer: Triumph. He entered his first official motorcycle race at the age of 17 and finished a respectable 11th, and after a series of clubman and TT races that followed, Hailwood came to the attention of a relatively lesser-known Japanese manufacturer, Honda, who would recruit them for their factory team.

Hailwood quickly earned himself the nickname “Mike the Bike” due to his natural abilities on any motorcycle and any engine capacity. MV Agusta’s dominance in motorcycle racing had lead to many manufacturers falling away from the sport to save face and money, and as a result Hailwood began to lose interest as well, and so he turned towards car racing. He went on compete in 50 Formula 1 Grands Prix, but never managed to win one, only reaching the steps of the podium on two occasions.

Teaming up with David Hobbs though, Hailwood took on the ‘69 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Ford GT40, finishing in third by the end of the day. While he never quite matched his two-wheeled success in the four-wheeled world, Hailwood certainly showed himself to be incredibly versatile and in possession of that raw and translatable talent.

Johnny Cecotto

Italian-Venezuelan Johnny Cecotto was yet again another son of a bike shop owner (are you seeing a pattern here?). Cecotto began road racing in his teens, and by the tender age of 17 he had become National Champion in Venezuela. He then burst on to the world stage at the Daytona 200 motorcycle race where he arrived as an unknown contender and managed to qualify on the front row of the grid, much to the surprise of the motoring press at the time. A scrutineering hiccup meant that Cecotto was pulled from the race, but once the misunderstanding was cleared up he was allowed to rejoin the pack—albeit in last place. In one of the most remarkable rides ever seen at Daytona, the young Venezuelan climbed his way back up through the pack and managed to finish in third. Cecotto went on to the European motorcycle Grand Prix circuit for much of the 1970s.

1980 then saw Johnny’s four-wheel debut for the Minardi Formula 2 team, and by 1983 he had graduated to Formula 1, driving for Theodore Racing. The following year he moved to the Toleman Hart team, alongside young Brazilian upstart Ayrton Senna, racing the bizarre, double-winged Toleman TG183B.

Following a crash that broke both his legs, he decided to leave Formula 1 for the relative safety of saloon car racing. He quickly became a legend of the touring car circuit in the ‘80s and ‘90s, piloting the legendary E30 M3, the later E36 M3 GTR, and the cult classic Mercedes 190E in the World, German, Italian, and other touring car championships. Though he was a 24 Hours of Spa and 24 Hours of Nürburgring winner among other accolades (like driving a McLaren F1 at Le Mans), another pair of achievements worth mentioning are the special edition M3s and M5s built bearing his name.

Steve Parrish

If you don’t recognize Steve Parrish’s face, you may recognize his voice. Parrish has been a commentator for the last few years, and can be heard presenting everything from the Isle of Man TT to the Red Bull Air Race. Years before all that though, Parrish began racing motorcycles in his teens and he turned professional at the age of 22. He enjoyed a moderately successful 10-year career that followed, winning a British Championship and racing alongside the infamous Barry Sheene on the Suzuki factory team. When Parrish retired in 1986, he turned to management and did quite well in his new role, guiding the Yamaha factory team to three consecutive British Superbike Championships.

Alas, itchy feet got the better of him, and this is where Mr. Parrish becomes somewhat of an anomaly in this list. He made the leap from two wheels to four alright, but decided mere cars weren’t quite enough of a departure. So Steve turned his attention to the bonkers sport of truck racing. While this may seem like something out of Smokey and the Bandit, there has been an official FIA-sanctioned European Truck Racing Championship since 1985. The hotly contested series sees 1,200bhp semi tractor units pitted against one another on tight circuits around Europe like the Nürburgring GP course. The sheer size of the rigs means contact is frequent, and as speed is limited to 100mph, it is never short of thrills, with drivers seeking to carry momentum through the turns sometimes without much concern for what gets in the way. Parrish was a stalwart of the BP-Mercedes Truck Racing team, and despite retiring in 2002, is still ranked as the most successful driver in the relatively short history of the championship.

Image sources:
Tazio Nuvolari: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
John Surtees: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Mike Hailwood: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
Johnny Cecotto: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
Steve Parrish: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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Rhys Nolan
Rhys Nolan

I would have added Piero Taruffiin that list, but who to leave out? He drove for Ferrari, Mercedes, Formula 1, won the Mille Miglia…..

Martin Hone
Martin Hone

There is two pics that I feel are incorrect. In the John Surtees selection, that knee-down style is far from what Surtees is known for, and if it is him, he is hamming it up for the camera. In the Mike Hailwoods pics, bike no. 12 is Hailwood’s bike but ridden here by well known journalist, Alan Cathcart.

Wayne Giles
Wayne Giles

In Australia Gregg Hansford would have to feature high on this list.

Martin Hone
Martin Hone

Indeed ! Though Hansford was successful in the hotly contested Aussie Touring Car events, he didn’t take it to the world stage unlike his bike exploits.


I think that’s Jacky Ickx in the GT40