22 September 2017

Carlo Ubbiali - motorcycle world champion

Racer from Bergamo won nine GP titles

(This article was written in 2017; sadly, Ubbiali passed away in 2020 at the age of 90)

Carlo Ubbiali, who preceded Giacomo Agostini and Valentino Rossi as Italy’s first great motorcycling world champion, was born on this day in 1929 in Bergamo.

Ubbiali, racing a bike equipped with subsequently outlawed 'dustbin' fairing, in action at his peak in the 1950s
Ubbiali, racing a bike equipped with subsequently outlawed
'dustbin' fairing, in action at his peak in the 1950s
Between 1951 and 1960, he won nine Grand Prix titles, in the 250cc and 125cc categories, setting a record for the most world championships that was equalled by Britain’s Mike Hailwood in 1967 but not surpassed until Agostini won the 10th of his 15 world titles in 1971.

Ubbiali is the second oldest surviving Grand Prix champion after Britain’s Cecil Sandford, who was his teammate in the 1950s. Ubbiali’s compatriot Agostini, who came from nearby Lovere, in Bergamo province, is 75.

Ubbiali won a total of 39 Grand Prix races, all bar two of them for the MV Agusta team.  Three times – in 1956, 1959 and 1960 – he was world champion in 125cc and 250cc classes, and on no fewer than five occasions, including both categories in 1956, he won the title with the maximum number of points possible under the scoring system.

He was also a five-times winner at the prestigious Isle of Man TT festival and six-times Italian champion.

Even at the age of 71, pictured here riding in a MV Agusta reunion event, Ubbiali had not lost his skills
Even at the age of 71, pictured here riding in a MV Agusta
reunion event, Ubbiali had not lost his skills
Unlike many of his contemporaries in a sport that was even more dangerous in his era than it is today, Ubbiali retired in 1960 without ever having suffered a major crash.

During his active years, motorcycle Grand Prix races claimed 34 fatalities in competition. He had just lost his brother, Maurizio, and was also planning a wedding when he decided to call time, reasoning that motorcycle racing was not a suitable career for a prospective husband and father.

Ubbiali was familiar with bikes from an early age, thanks to his father, who sold and maintained motorcycles from his workshop/showroom in Bergamo.

He competed for the first time in the Coppa di Bergamo in 1946, alongside brothers Maurizio and Franco, and won, although it was a triumph tainted by tragedy.  Following the post-race celebrations, two family friends were killed in an accident on their way home.

Ubbiali’s relationship with MV Agusta began in 1948, when his father obtained the rights to sell the bikes from his showroom. The company – Meccanica Verghera Agusta – was a new and ambitious enterprise set up in a small town northwest of Milan, as a postwar offshoot of the Agusta aviation company.

Carlo Ubbiali, pictured in 2010
Carlo Ubbiali, pictured in 2010
Invited to take part in some trial races for MV Agusta, Ubbiali impressed enough that, after finishing second in a race to mark the re-opening of the Monza circuit – badly damaged during the Second World War – he earned a place on their team in the inaugural GP world championship in 1949, making his debut in the Swiss GP

In the same year he won the gold medal at the prestigious International Six-Day Time Trial, on that occasion held in Wales.

Soon in demand, he accepted an offer to ride for FB-Mondial, which was the most successful manufacturer at the time and after scoring his first race victory in the Ulster GP of 1950 Ubbiali was crowned 125cc world champion for the first time in 1951, winning a five-race series.  It was a reflection of how Italy dominated motorcycle racing at the time that 12 of the 17 riders who took part were Italian.

Beaten to the 1952 title by Sandford, he accepted MV Agusta’s offer to join the Englishman in their garage the following year, beginning a relationship with the team that would yield eight world titles in six seasons between 1955 and 1960.

Ubbiali’s racing style earned him the nickname “The Fox” on the basis that he was a cunning tactician, content to bide his time in a race while he studied the behaviour and tactics of his opponents, before attacking in the final stages.

In an era that was much less politically correct than today, he was also known as Il Cinesino - “The Little Chinaman” – on account of nothing more than his physical appearance, quite small and with almond shaped eyes.

Nine times a winner of what was then called the Nations Grand Prix on his home circuit at Monza, he finished his career there by winning in both the 125cc and 250cc categories, which gave him the title in both classes for the second year running.

After his retirement, he took over the running of his father’s business in Bergamo and continued to attend motorcycle events in consultancy roles.  He was also instrumental, through his friendship with Count Domenico Agusta, the company’s co-owner, in securing a place for a then 21-year-old Agostini on the MV Agusta team,

Ubbiali was indicted into the MotoGP Hall of Fame in 2001.

Bergamo's Piazza Vecchia is a beautiful square
Travel tip:

Bergamo, situated 40km (25 miles) northeast of Milan, is in a way two cities in one.  Its historic heart, perched on a ridge, is the Città Alta, which boasts many examples of magnificent architecture of the 12th century onwards; spreading out below is the vast expanse of the Città Bassa, more modern but with an elegance of its own.  The old, upper city is surrounded by impressively forbidding walls, built by the Venetians in the 16th century and granted UNESCO Heritage Site status in 2017. The Città Alta, with the beautiful Piazza Vecchia at its core, is small and can be explored easily on foot; the Città Bassa and suburbs cover a broad area of around 500,000 residents.

Motorcycles on display at Museo Agusto
Motorcycles on display at Museo Agusto
Travel tip:

Examples of MV Agusta’s historic motorcycles can be seen at the fascinating Museo Agusta at the company’s original headquarters in Cascina Costa, a district of Samarate, about 45km (28 miles) northwest of Milan. Agusta was formerly a aviation company manufacturing helicopters and continued to do so until it disappeared in a merger in 2000. The motorcycle manufacturing offshoot is now based in Varese.  The museum is open on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons and both in the morning and afternoon on Saturday and Sunday, with an entrance fee of just €2.50 (€1.50 concessions).

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