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Motorcycle Racing Career

Cecotto conquers Europe and becomes the youngest World Champion Johnny    Cecotto    always    intended    to    get    into    car    racing.    In    Venezuela however   he   couldn't   because   he   was   too   young.   So   in   1972    on   the   age   of 16   he   started   racing   motorcycles.   His   father   Giovanni,   who   also   had   been a   successful   motorcycle   racing   driver   himself,   bought   Johnny   a   Honda CB750cc.   After   some   races   he   did   get   a   Kawasaki   750cc   H2R   from   a   local importer    and    because    his    results    were    very    good    he    was    soon    to    be discovered   by   Andrea   Ippolito,   the   Venezuelan   Yamaha   importer.   Johnny Cecotto   became   a   Yamaha   350cc   and   the   next   two   years   a   total   of   64 races   were   won   in   Venezuela   and   surrounding   countries   and   he   became Venezuelan   champion   in   1973    and   1974.   So   far   Johnny   always   raced   with a   complete   white   helmet.   His   great   example   Jarno   Saarinen   was   killed   in the   Grand   Prix   of   Italy   at   Monza   on   May   20th   1973   and   therefore   Johnny developed   a   new   helmet   design   based   on   Saarinen's   helmet.   Cecotto's white   helmet   with   the   two   pointed   stripes   in   red   was   born.   He   would never   change   this   design   again   in   his   career.   Johnny   also   became   the   1974   Latin-American   champion.   In   1974    Cecotto   did   2   races   outside   South- America   in   international   motorcycle   racing.   First   at   the   Daytona   200   miles   he   finished   35th   overall   on   a   Yamaha   350cc   and   was   2nd   in   his   class.   The other   race   was   in   Europe   at   the   Imola   200   miles   where   his   Yamaha   TZ   750cc   broke   down   after   5   laps.   He   went   back   to   South-America   but   planned to   return.   Cecotto   started   in   1975    to   compete   in   international   motorcycle racing.   The   first   race   was   the   Daytona   200   where   he   had   to   start   from   the back   after   he   became   a   failing   machine   just   before   the   beginning   of   the race.   He   came   home   in   a   fine   3rd   position   ahead   of   no   less   than   Giacomo Agostini.    He    was    sent    to    Europe    to    start    in    the    world    championship Grand   Prix's   in   the   250cc   and   350cc.   Johnny   would   also   start   in   some Formula   750cc   races   for   Yamaha.   In   his   very   first   European   Grand   Prix   in France,   at   the   circuit   of   Paul   Ricard,   Johnny   Cecotto   won   both   250cc   and 350cc   races:   "A   new   hero   was   born".   Click   on   FRENCH   GRAND   PRIX   1975   to    see    a    small    movie    of    Cecotto’s    famous    European    debut.    The    first European   750cc   race   on   the   circuit   of   Imola   in   Italy   was   also   won   by Johnny.   The   whole   racing   world   knew   his   name   now.   Further   on   he   won   a total   of   4   Grand   Prix's   in   the   350cc   class   and   at   the   end   of   the   1975 season   he   became   world   champion   and   dethroned   reigning   champion Giacomo   Agostini.   Also   Johnny   Cecotto   had   good   chances   in   the   250cc but   he   had   very   much   mechanical   problems   so   regrettably   he   couldn't win    that    title.    Memorable    however    was    his    victory    at    Francorchamps after   he   had   a   tremendous   battle   with   Walter   Villa   and   Michel   Rougerie on   their   Harley   Davidson's.   I   had   the   privilege   to   be   at   that   Grand   Prix   to witness   that   great   victory.   At   Assen   during   the   Dutch   Formula   750cc   race he   fell   and   landed   in   a   ditch   and   broke   his   left   foot.   But   the   season   was over and he had enough time to recover. The   motorcycle   racing   season   of   1976    started   hopefully   with   a   big   win   in the   200   miles   of   Daytona   beating   American   star   Kenny   Roberts.   In   the   first Grand   Prix   at   Le   Mans   in   France   he   had   two   second   places   in   the   350cc and    500cc.    He    had    switched    from    250cc    to    500cc.    The    Yamaha    500cc wasn’t   very   reliable   and   didn’t   have   the   power   to   compete   to   his   friend and    rival    Barry    Sheene    on    his    Suzuki.    So    the    rest    of    the    season    was disappointing   and   there   wasn't   much   luck   any   more.   People   said   his   mind wasn't   always   at   racing   and   he   didn't   have   the   right   person   in   Andrea Ippolito    to    companion    him.    Who    knows?    Johnny    did    have    quiet    a    lot crashes   in   1976   or   didn't   finish   at   all   because   of   mechanical   problems. After   a   few   Grand   Prix’s   Johnny’s   500cc   Yamaha   was   even   taken   out   of competition   for   the   rest   of   the   season.   At   the   end   of   1976   his   350cc   world title   was   gone   and   was   taken   by   Walter   Villa.   The   season   ended   in   an   even bigger   deception   at   the   Formula   705cc   races   at   Assen   in   Holland.   I   guess everybody    still    remembers    Johnny    Cecotto’s    ACCIDENT     (click    to    see    a picture)   when   he   lost   control   of   his   750cc   Yamaha   and   fell   at   the   end   of the   first   lap   on   a   still   wet   track   coming   out   of   the   chicane   towards   the straight.   His   bike   caught   fire   and   ignited   into   a   big   fireball.   That   fireball became   even   bigger   when   Dutchman   Wil   Hartog   hit   the   fuel   tank   and exploded.   Luckily   everyone   escaped   unharmed   although   Johnny   Cecotto himself   was   a   bit   in   a   shock   of   what   happened.   It   was   the   last   time   we   saw Cecotto   in   action   in   1976.   The   Yamaha   factory   still   had   confidence   in   him though   and   would   give   Johnny   factory   machines   for   both   500cc   and   750cc for the next motorcycle racing Grand Prix season. In   1977   Johnny   formed   the   Yamaha   team   together   with   Canadian   Steve Baker   to   battle   the   Suzuki's   of   Barry   Sheene   (his   best   friend   in   motorcycle racing)   and   Pat   Hennen.   Also   he   would   compete   the   350cc   class   again   as well   as   the   750cc   class.   The   1977   season   opened   promising   with   a   350cc victory   in   his   home   GP   in   Venezuela   and   a   4th   place   in   500cc.   But   then disaster   struck.   In   the   350cc   race   at   the   Salzburgring   in   Austria   Johnny against     his     fault was   involved   in   a     horrible     multiple crash    and    broke his     left     arm     in multiple       places. The    bike    of    Franco    Uncini    seized    and    crashed    just    in    front    of    Cecotto    who    massively crashed   into   the   barrier.   Also   Patrick   Fernandez   and   Dieter   Braun   couldn’t   avoid   the   crash and   went   down.   Some   time   later   Swiss   Hans   Stadelmann   hit   the   debris   and   crashed. Regrettably   he   lost   his   life.   There   is   some   video   footage   of   that   accident   but   it   isn’t   very   nice to   watch.   Click   CRASH   SALZBURGRING    to   see   a   small   movie   of   this   terrible   moment. Johnny   Cecotto’s   chances   for   a   world   championship   title   in   1977   were   gone.   Johnny   came back   at   the   Swedish   Grand   Prix   at   Anderstorp   where   he   finished   2nd   behind   Barry   Sheene in   the   500cc.   At   the   Finish   GP   on   the   Imatra   circuit   he   won   the   500cc   race.   One   week   later he   proved   the   world   he   still   was   one   of   the   best   riders   and   won   both   the   350cc   and   500cc on   the   Brno   circuit   in   Czechoslovakia.   He   finished   4th   in   the   500cc   world   championship. Nobody   knows   what   would   have   happened   if   he   didn't   had   that   crash   in   Austria.   I   think   he could have been world champion in both 350cc and 500cc. In   1978    Cecotto   was   on   factory   Yamaha's   for   500cc   and   750cc.   He   had withdrawn   from   the   350cc   class.   He   formed   a   team   with   American   Kenny Roberts   and   Japanese   Takazumi   Katayama   but   conditions   in   the   Yamaha camp   weren't   that   friendly.   Johnny   raced   for   the   official   Japanese   Yamaha factory   while   Roberts   drove   for   Yamaha   USA.   They   had   to   battle   a   legion of    Suzuki's    though    driven    by    Barry    Sheene,    Pat    Hennen,    Wil    Hartog, Marco   Lucchinelli   and   Steve   Baker,   who   lost   his   Yamaha   contract   after 1977.   Cecotto      retired   in   4   races   with   mechanical   problems   but   managed to   finish   in   the   top   7   places   in   all   the   other   Grand   Prix   races.   His   best result   was   a   fine victory      in      the Dutch   TT   at   the Assen    circuit    in Holland    after    a huge   battle   with two        of        his biggest        rivals, Kenny      Roberts and   Barry   Sheene.   Two   weeks   before   that   victory   I   had   the   chance   to   see   Johnny   Cecotto in   action   on   his   500cc   Yamaha   at   the   International   motorcycle   races   in   Raalte   at   the Luttenbergring.   He   finally   finished   in   3rd   position   at   the   end   of   the   1978   season   in      500cc. The   world   championship   title   went   to   Yamaha   rival   Kenny   Roberts.   With   10   points   distance Johnny's   fellow      Barry   Sheene   was   second   in   the   championship.   Also   in   the   750cc   Johnny had   to   battle   against   Kenny   Roberts.   Although   he   won   three   races   and   finished   2nd   in three   others,   his   championship   title   wasn't   secured   until   the   last   race   at   Mosport   Park   in Canada.   He   managed   to   finish   5th   and   gained   6   points,   enough   to   take   his   2nd   world championship   title   in   his   motorcycle   racing   career.   In   1979    we   saw   Johnny again   race   in   500cc   and   750cc   with   Yamaha.   His   motorcycles   promised   to be   better   than   ever.   But   once   again   at   the   Salzburgring   in   Austria   bad   luck stroke   him.   He   fell   on   the   wet   track   and   also   involved   Gianni   Rolando   to go   down.   With   this   crash   his   kneepan   was   splintered.   He   had   to   recover again   for   a   few   months   and   missed   four   Grand   Prix's.   Cecotto   returned   at Opatija   for   the   Yugoslavian   Grand   Prix   but   he   had   too   much   pain   and obstacle   from   his   knee   during   the   push   start   and   the   race   to   get   a   good result.   It   lasted   for   the   rest   of   the   season   and   therefore   he   didn't   finish   in the   top   spots.   In   Formula   750cc   there   were   rolling   starts   so   he   didn’t   have to   push   the   bike.   Nevertheless   he   lost   his   750cc   title   to   Frenchman   Patrick Pons   and   Johnny   finally   finished   3rd   in   that   championship.   This   Formula 750cc world championship was to be abandoned after this 1979 season. The   Yamaha   factory   lost   fate   in   him   and   so   he   had   to   start   on   a   production   Yamaha   in   the 500cc   world   championship   in   the   1980    season.   His   chances   were   very   little.   The   best result   Johnny   managed   was   a   4th   place   in   the   first   Grand   Prix   of   the   season   at   Misano   in Italy.   Together   with   my   friend   Ardie   I   visited   the   Grand   Prix   of   Belgium   at   the   Zolder circuit.   But   also   there   he   retired   after   some   14   laps.   I   could   not   know   at   that   moment   it would   be   the   last   time   I   saw   him   race   in   motorcycle   Grand   Prix   race.   In   the   350cc   in   which Cecotto   also   participated   while   the   750cc   was   abandoned,   he   had   some   good   results though.   But   technical   failures   with   his   Bimota   Yamaha   made   his   chances   increase   for   the title.   He   could   do   no   better   than   finish   in   4th   position   at   the   end   of   the   season   while   Jon   Ekerold   took the   350cc   world   title.    Meanwhile Johnny    had    one eye   fixed   on   car racing    for    years now.   And   so   he was    going    to    make    a    dreadful    decision    for    all    the    motorcycle    racing enthusiasts   at   the   end   of   1980.   Click   below   to   go   back   to   the   Career overview page to look at another section.....
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