Ernst Degner

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Ernst Degner
Degner.jpg
Ernst Degner in 1963
NationalityGerman
Motorcycle racing career statistics
Grand Prix motorcycle racing
Active years1956 - 1966
First race1956 125cc German Grand Prix
Last race1966 50cc "Ultra-Lightweight" Isle of Man TT
First win1959 125cc Nations Grand Prix
Last win1965 125cc Ulster Grand Prix
Team(s)MZ, Suzuki
Championships50cc - 1962
Starts Wins Podiums Poles F. laps Points
57 15 38 N/A 11 269

Ernst Degner (born Ernst Eugen Wotzlawek on 22 September 1931 in Gleiwitz, Upper Silesia, Germany - died 10 September 1983 in Arona, Tenerife, Spain) was a German professional Grand Prix motorcycle road racer.[1] Degner was noted for defecting to the west in 1961, taking MZ's tuning techniques to Suzuki, and winning Suzuki's first Grand Prix championship in 1962.

Early life and early career[edit]

Degner's father died just before the end of World War II. Degner, his older sister and their mother fled from their home in Gleiwitz (now Gliwice, Poland) to avoid the advancing Russian army and wound up in Luckau German Democratic Republic (East Germany) at the end of the war. Degner's mother died shortly thereafter. He attended Potsdam Technical High School and was awarded a diploma in development engineering in 1950. He became an apprentice motorcycle mechanic in Potsdam.

In 1950, Degner joined the Potsdam Motorcycle Club where he met Daniel Zimmermann who had built an exceptionally fast 125cc racing motorcycle based on the DKW RT125. It was called the ZPH in recognition of its designer and engineer (Daniel Zimmermann) and its riders at that time (Bernhard Petruschke) and (Diethart Henkel). The ZPH proved faster than the East German factory IFAs (later renamed MZ) whose machines were also based on the DKW RT125. Degner started racing in 1952 and after a successful season he obtained his licence to ride in the "Ausweisklasse" in 1953. The 1953 season saw Degner record his first victories at the Leipziger Stadtpark and Bernau meetings. He ended the season as runner up in the 125cc Ausweisklasse. Zimmermann provided him with a ZPH engine which Degner used to finish runner up to Horst Fugner in the 1955 East German 125cc Championship.

Racing with MZ[edit]

His racing successes on the ZPH were noted by the MZ team manager, Walter Kaaden, who signed Degner as an engineer/rider for the Zschopau factory, but only after Degner had secured employment for his girl friend Gerda Bastian with the factory. Degner started his employment with MZ on 1 March 1956. Degner raced successfully for the East German manufacturer which used two-stroke engines, for which Kaaden had discovered principles regarding how sound waves and expansion chambers affect engine tuning.[2] In 1957, he won 11 out of 14 125cc races which he contested for the factory, and finished the season as the 1957 East German 125cc road racing national champion. From 1958 the factory entered Degner in all the world Championship races and he scored his first world championship victory at the 1959 125cc Nations Grand Prix at Monza.[1][2] He ended the season ranked fifth in the 125cc world championship and fourth in the 250cc world championship.[1] A fall in practice at the Isle of Man TT races, the opening round of the 1960 World Championship series damaged his quest for the 125cc World Title, but his second Grand Prix victory at the Belgian Grand Prix meant that he finished third in the 125cc world championship.[1]

Defection[edit]

After the Berlin Wall was built in August 1961, Degner arranged the escape of his family from the GDR on the weekend he was racing in the Swedish Grand Prix at Kristianstad.[2] In that race he could have secured the 125cc World Championship for himself and for MZ, but his engine failed early in the race.[2] Ironically, his main rival for the 125cc World Title, Honda rider Tom Phillis, was unable to clinch the 125cc title at this race, as he finished sixth in the Swedish race, but two laps in arrears of the race winner. After the race, Degner drove his Wartburg car to Gedser, Denmark where he caught the ferry to Holstein-Grossenbrode, West Germany. From there, he drove to Dillingen on the France/German border and met up with his wife and family who had already safely defected to West Germany.[2][3]

After the MZ team had discovered his defection, the East Germans accused Degner of deliberately destroying his engine in the Swedish race and lodged a complaint with the FIM.[2] The East Germans' accusations resulted in Degner's East German racing licence being revoked.[2] Degner had, however, acquired a West German racing licence and with the help of Dr Joe Ehrlich, who owned EMC motorcycles, he was entered to ride a 125cc EMC at the Argentine GP. Cables from the organisers to the carriers of the EMC resulted in the machine being delayed on its journey to Argentina. Degner was thus prevented from racing this EMC 125cc racer in the final 125cc World Championship round in Argentina.[2] Phillis won the race and the World Title. Had Degner won that race, he could still have been crowned 125cc World Champion.[4] At an FIM court in Geneva, Switzerland, on 25 and 26 November 1961, the court dismissed the complaint by MZ that Degner had deliberately wrecked the engine of his MZ.

Racing with Suzuki[edit]

In November 1961, the Japanese company Suzuki hired him and he moved to Hamamatsu, Japan to work in the Suzuki race-shop over the winter.[2] Using the specialist two-stroke knowledge he had gained at MZ, Degner designed Suzuki's new 50cc and 125cc racers. The following year, in 1962, Degner won Suzuki's first World Championship in the 50 cc class.[1][5]

On 3 November 1962 at Suzuka's inaugural race meeting, Degner crashed his Suzuki 50cc racer when a gust of wind lifted his front wheel as he rounded Turn 8.[6] At that time Turn 8 was a single constant radius single curve that was changed into two 'curves' in 1983).[citation needed] To mark Suzuka's first ever crash site, Turn 8, where Degner had crashed, was named Degner Curve.[7]

At the Japanese Grand Prix of 10 November 1963, after a bad start, Degner crashed his Suzuki 250cc racer on his first lap at the exit to Turn 2 of the Suzuka Circuit. His Suzuki fuel tank was full and it burst into flames, enveloping the rider. In his autobiography,[8] Degner's Suzuki team-mate Hugh Anderson says: 'As we came out of the first corner on the start of the second lap', we were confronted with frantically waved yellow flags and a great cloud of smoke and flames. Ernst had crashed heavily and was lying unconscious. Frank [Perris] had stopped and marshals, after dragging Ernst from the flames, were busy with their fire extinguishers trying to control the inferno fuelled by 25 litres of petrol. The race carried on.

Degner's horrific burns required over fifty skin grafts and he was unable to return to race in the Suzuki team until September 1964. Later that year he won the 125cc Japanese Grand Prix.[1] He won three more Grands Prix in 1965 before retiring from motorcycle racing at the end of the 1966 season.[1]

Later years and death[edit]

After dabbling with single-seater car racing, he worked for a spell as Technical Manager at Suzuki's German importer in Munich. He then moved to Tenerife where he ran a car hire business. It was there, in 1983, that he died under mysterious circumstances.[2] Degner had become dependent on medication after his crash in Japan, and his death possibly occurred from an overdose.[2] Rumors persisted for years that Degner committed suicide or that he was murdered by the East German secret police (Stasi) to avenge his defection.[2][9] None of these caused Degner's untimely passing at just 51 years old; his death certificate shows that he died of a heart attack.

Motorcycle Grand Prix results[edit]

Sources:[1][10]

Position 1 2 3 4 5 6
Points 8 6 4 3 2 1

(key) (Races in italics indicate fastest lap)

Year Class Team 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 Points Rank Wins
1956 125cc MZ IOM
-
NED
-
BEL
-
GER
10
ULS
-
NAT
-
0 0
1957 125cc MZ GER
6
IOM
-
NED
-
BEL
-
ULS
-
NAT
-
1 13th 0
1958 125cc MZ IOM
5
NED
6
BEL
-
GER
3
SWE
5
ULS
-
NAT
-
9 7th 0
250cc MZ IOM
-
NED
-
GER
-
SWE
-
ULS
4
NAT
-
3 14th 0
1959 125cc MZ IOM
NC
GER
6
NED
-
BEL
-
SWE
-
ULS
3
NAT
1
13 5th 1
250cc MZ IOM
NC
GER
-
NED
6
BEL
-
SWE
4
ULS
3
NAT
2
14 4th 0
1960 125cc MZ IOM
-
NED
5
BEL
1
ULS
3
NAT
3
16 3rd 1
250cc MZ IOM
-
NED
6
BEL
-
GER
-
ULS
-
NAT
3
5 8th 0
1961 125cc MZ ESP
2
GER
1
FRA
2
IOM
NC
NED
-
BEL
4
DDR
1
ULS
2
NAT
1
SWE
-
ARG
-
42 2nd 3
250cc MZ ESP
-
GER
4
FRA
-
IOM
-
NED
-
BEL
-
DDR
-
ULS
-
NAT
-
SWE
-
ARG
-
3 13th 0
1962 50cc Suzuki ESP
-
FRA
-
IOM
1
NED
1
BEL
1
GER
1
DDR
-
NAT
-
FIN
4
ARG
2
47 1st 4
125 cc Suzuki ESP
-
FRA
5
IOM
8
NED
4
BEL
-
GER
-
ULS
-
DDR
-
NAT
-
FIN
-
ARG
-
5 11th 0
1963 50cc Suzuki ESP
-
GER
3
FRA
2
IOM
NC
NED
1
BEL
2
ARG
2
JPN
-
30 3rd 1
125cc Suzuki ESP
-
GER
1
FRA
6
IOM
3
NED
-
BEL
-
ULS
-
DDR
-
FIN
-
NAT
-
ARG
-
JPN
3
17 6th 1
1964 125cc Suzuki USA
-
ESP
-
FRA
-
IOM
-
NED
-
GER
-
DDR
-
ULS
-
FIN
-
NAT
3
JPN
1
12 6th 1
1965 50cc Suzuki USA
1
GER
-
ESP
-
FRA
3
IOM
3
NED
5
BEL
1
JPN
-
26 4th 2
125cc Suzuki USA
2
GER
4
ESP
-
FRA
2
IOM
8
NED
-
DDR
-
CZE
-
ULS
1
FIN
-
NAT
-
JPN
-
23 4th 1
1966 50cc Suzuki ESP
-
GER
-
NED
-
IOM
4
NAT
-
JPN
-
3 6th 0

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h "Ernst Degner career statistics at MotoGP.com". motogp.com. Retrieved 2 December 2011.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "Ernst Degner at Motorsport Memorial". motorsportmemorial.org. Retrieved 2 December 2011.
  3. ^ "East Germany's Star Cyclist Defects to West". The Milwaukee Sentinel. Associated Press. 27 September 1961. p. 4. Retrieved 2 December 2011.
  4. ^ TEAM SUZUKI by Ray Battersby (2008) Parker House Publishing ISBN 0-9796891-5-5
  5. ^ Evan Williams. "Racing behind the Iron Curtain". SuperbikePlanet.com. Archived from the original on 13 November 2006. Retrieved 8 November 2006.
  6. ^ Yoshimura, Nobuya. "Good Old Days". europark.com. Retrieved 2018-12-13.
  7. ^ "1962-Degner Curve named". www.iom1960.com. Retrieved 2018-12-13.
  8. ^ Anderson, Hugh (2017). BEING THERE. Hugh Anderson MBE. pp. 182–183. ISBN 978-0-473-29994-1.
  9. ^ Dean Adams. "History Mystery: Ernst Degner". SuperbikePlanet.com. Archived from the original on 27 April 2012. Retrieved 2 December 2011.
  10. ^ "Ernst Degner Isle of Man TT results". iomtt.com. Retrieved 2 December 2011.

Further reading[edit]