The calculating German

German 250cc GP sensation Toni Mang upset the Honda applecart with a masterful display of riding

Anton (Toni) Mang was, bizarrely enough, a child film star when he was a nipper. He then became a German and European downhill skiing champion and all this before he took up motorcycle racing. He started, like a lot of others did in those days - on a cut-down moped, which he’d tuned with one of his best friends from school, Sepp Schloegl. He went on to win the 250cc world title five times and won 42 GPs, which is more than all but half-a-dozen riders have achieved. He was a very taciturn guy, who none of the world’s press got to know. He had all the time in the world for the German press and forgot about the wider stage.

In 1983 he signed up to ride the 500 Suzuki, then had a big skiing accident and didn’t ride much until halfway through the season. At the time, I was Suzuki’s photographer, so that was when I started to get to know him. I found him a really awkward sod and I think a lot of this was because of his circumstances. He probably shouldn’t have bothered to start the season, it was a disaster. But, somewhere along the line we must have struck up a level of respect. He decided to go back to 250cc, I think for Yamaha, and won the world title.

Then he went to Honda, the same year that Freddie did the double, but he was conned. Honda signed up nearly every worthwhile 250 rider and gave them all rubbish bikes, except Spencer. They weren’t even given the same model of bike, let alone good ones. I began to take more and more notice of Mang, because he was doing far too well, even Honda was a little concerned by his pace on an inferior bike. This was largely down to Schloegl tuning the bike. Sepp was a tuner par excellence who had built all of Mang’s bikes from the start of his career.

We went to Japan, and by then I had come to the conclusion that for me Mang was the motorcycling Rommel, the desert rat. He was the one guy among all the others of any class who really used his head. He never took needless chances, always preferred to come from behind but always finished up the front. If he only needed a second or third place that’s what he rode for, he really was the master tactician. We went to the Japanese GP in 1987. Again, Honda had nearly all of the top 250 riders on their books. Honda then pulled a trick that I’ve seen it do so many times. It drops it in that there will be no favourite, it’s going to be a free for all and whoever wins will get the trick parts for the rest of the season. Honda also told Toni that he had to sack Sepp.

Toni was heartbroken, and he didn’t do a lot of practising. But wherever I went around the circuit to shoot, I saw him walking out and measuring the track temperature. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen a racer doing that. I didn’t really know what he was up to. Come the race, Toni hung way back. I thought that’s a bloody brave thing to do, because if he doesn’t win he knows that the parts will go to the other Honda riders. All the youngsters went off like lunatics and started taking each other out in terrible conditions.

Toni just sat back, then towards the end of the race he picked them off one by one. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more masterful display of riding. What was so obvious to me was that it was Toni saying “up yours” to the Japanese. As far as I remember, he went on to win that year. He retired from racing at the end of the season and told Honda to stuff it. I don’t think I’ve ever known a more calculated, professional rider.