Whatever happened to Johnny Cecotto?

Published: 16 August 2016

He was Barry Sheene’s great mate and a world champion at just 19 – and all these years later he’s still involved in racing.

Fact File

Born 1956, Venezuela

Famous for winning the 350cc world title at 19 years of age

Best mate Barry Sheene

Venezuela’s Alberto ‘Johnny’ Cecotto was a double world champion in the 350cc and Formula 750 classes in the 1970s and also had success in the 250cc and 500cc world championships, winning a total of 14 Grand Prix and taking 26 podiums. He was 350 world champ at just 19 years old, great mates with Barry Sheene, and went on to compete in the Formula 1 car racing world championship where he was team-mates with Ayrton Senna. So where is he now and what’s he up to?

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How did Cecotto make his name?

After winning the national Venezuelan championships in 1973 and ‘74, Cecotto arrived on the international scene with an astonishing ride at the Daytona 200 in 1975. On a standard Yamaha TZ250, he started from the back of the grid and worked his way up to third place – a performance that saw him fast-tracked into Grand Prix racing that very year. In his first ever GP he won both the 250cc and 350cc classes and by the end of the season had become the youngest ever world champion at just 19. Even more impressive was the man he deposed as 350cc world champ – Giacomo Agostini.

So he arrived with a bit of a bang then?

Yes. Cecotto was the new sensation of the GP paddock and was signed up by the Yamaha factory for the 1976 season. This time he beat Kenny Roberts to win Daytona when it was the biggest one-off race in the world. 

Did he ever try his hand in 500cc Grands Prix?

Yamaha put Cecotto on their factory 500 for the 1977 season and he finished fourth behind Barry Sheene, Steve Baker and Pat Hennen, despite being badly injured at the start of the year in a multi-bike crash at the Austrian GP that claimed the life of Swiss rider Hans Stadelmann. He went one better the following year to take third behind Roberts and Sheene but a succession of injuries meant he never improved on that result. A badly broken kneecap meant he missed half of the 1979 season and he retired from bike racing after finishing seventh in 1980. From 27 starts in 500cc Grand Prix, Cecotto only won three races but his sheer speed was shown by the fact that he took 12 pole positions – one of the highest pole-position-per-start ratios in GP history. 

But he did win another world title, right?

As well as contesting GPs in 1978, Cecotto also raced in, and won, the often-forgotten Formula 750 world championship. The series had just been upgraded from European to world status by the FIM that year but only lasted one more season before being abandoned. 

How good was he at car racing?

Pretty damned good. He finished the 1982 Formula 2 season joint top of the points table but was relegated to second overall because of the tie-break rules. But he’d done enough to earn a drive in F1 for the 1983 season. In only his second race he finished sixth but it was to be his best result from 23 starts due to his team folding and further serious injuries. In 1984, as team-mate to Senna in the Toleman Racing Team, Cecotto broke both legs in qualifying for the British GP and retired from F1.

But even then he wasn’t finished was he?

No. After recovering from his broken legs, Cecotto took up touring car racing and won the Italian championship in 1989 and the German championship in 1994 and 1998. He even competed in the British Touring Car Championship in 1995 (though only finished 12th) and also won the German V8 Star Series in 2001 and 2002. 

What’s he doing now?

The boy wonder of bike racing is now 60 years old and these days concentrates on helping his son who is also a car racer. Johnny Cecotto Jnr has raced mostly in the GP 2 series with a best championship position of fifth in 2014. He now races in the Formula V8 3.5 Series. Cecotto senior also commentates on F1 for Venezuelan TV. He still makes the occasional appearance on British soil and was at the Goodwood Festival
of Speed last year. 

 

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