A recollection of Phil Read and Yamaha's first GP championship
"They gave me four Geisha girls to show their gratitude.” joked Phil Read, a gift from Yamaha in a big celebration for winning the manufacturer's very first Grand Prix championship in 1964.
Recalling his first year with them, a relationship grown from a friendship with Yamaha rider Fumio Ito, "I rode a Gilera for Geoff Duke at the time and I was staying at the same hotel as Fumio and we got talking. He put in a good word for me at Yamaha so I could ride the last race of the year and maybe stop Jim Redman from winning the championship," the friendship opened doors for Read.
"I was leading that race at Suzuka until a broken spark plug caused me to slip down to third. That was a shame, but the Yamaha people were impressed and they asked me 'Read-san, how much money do you want'. I told them how much I wanted to earn and that sort of surprised them, because they were only planning five races for the 1964 season. Then I suggested they provide me with two bikes and two mechanics for the remaining six grands prix. The next day they said 'Phil-san, we agree to your proposal'.”
Riding the Yamaha RD56, a two-stroke twin with a rotary disc value housed in a featherbed cradle frame, Read would go on to take five GP wins in his first full season. "Four of the five races I won I rode the privately entered Yamaha, it became difficult in the end, because Honda introduced their 250 Six, one of the most impressive sounding racers ever.
Then I knew 'I'm in trouble'. I did have two works bikes, but only one English mechanic. The instructions for the carburettor settings were written on the back of a postcard! I sent a telegram to Japan, saying 'send me a Japanese mechanic'. And they did. I won the race at Monza and Mike Duff on the other Yamaha finished second.”
With one race remaining the pair had both secured their first championship wins, with the Hammamatsu manufacturer also taking the constructor's honours. “There was a big celebration at Yamaha," said the 72-year-old, “I was asked to do a speech at the Hammamatsu town hall and all the people at the factory had a day off. It was the start of something very special. I was an engineer and I brought them up a level and helped them to develop the bikes. In a way we made Honda withdraw from racing after the 1967 season and Suzuki from the 125 class.”
As reigning champions in 1965 Yamaha continued with the RD56 as Read was able to retain the number one plate. But to answer Honda's growing challenge of the six-cylinder RC166, Yamaha introduced the RD05 with a V4 two-stroke at the final round. The engine used a rotary disc valve and was designed from the concept of two air-cooled two-cylinder engines stacked atop of each other.
The new bike was rolled out at the Italian GP at Monza in '65, winning the race. Unfortunately for Yamaha and Read, Honda had acquired the services of a certain Mike Hailwood who would dominate the 250cc category in '66 and '67.
"Back in the Sixties it was a steep learning curve,” says Read, “We had to improve the RD56 twin and then also develop the V4. It took a lot of work and we struggled at first, but we made it work. The RD05A is still very nice to ride. It handles brilliantly." The RD05A was the next extension of the previous project, with the aim to make the machine lighter and reduce its overall size.
“I'm still convinced that we could have had a shot at the title in 1966 and 1967, but we had mechanical problems." Yamaha and Read would return to the top of the championship winning both the manufacturer and rider titles in 1968, albeit through Honda withdrawing from racing and taking Hailwood with them.
As the major Japanese manufacturers dropped out of competition in 1969-70, Read was also sidelined. However coming back the following year, the Brit would ride an Eric Cheney-modified privateer Yamaha with no factory support.
"The 1971 title was also very special, because I beat the semi factory riders Rod Gould and Jarno Saarinen on a private bike which we had developed ourselves with the help of Helmuth Fath. Honestly, at the time I did not realize how special that was until people reminded me about it.”
This would mark Read's final 250cc championship as he was signed by MV Agusta to contest the 500cc World championship in 1972. Now back with Yamaha, seven-time champion Read has been reunited with the RD05A, a bike built using the original factory blue-prints by his former mechanic Ferry Brouwer, taking part in the Japanese marque's 50th anniversary celebrations.
Posted: 28/06/2011 at 00:32
Posted: 28/06/2011 at 18:24
Become a fan of Visordown
Follow us on twitter
Other Immediate Media Sites
Our eCommerce Platform
© Immediate Media Company Ltd 2012. This website is owned and published by Immediate Media Company Limited. www.immediatemedia.co.uk