Glory in France for the young gun
Glory in France Debut season in the GP... making history a t Le Mans... ones that got away.
THE 1983 season promised to be a great year for me and that’s how it proved. I had everything going for me. I was in the 250cc grand prix series for the first time, the youngest kid on the grid, I had a great coach in n Mal and one of the best GP mechanics in the world in Howard Gregory, while the cream of Yamaha had produced a gem of a bike for the 83 season. The 11-round 1983 world championship campaign began on March 19 in South Africa, where I felt great in practice and was doing even better in my first-ever GP race. There were five riders, including me, swapping places until I ground to a halt after the chain snapped. Although out of the race, I’d at least shown that I could run with the fastest guys in the world on a track I’d never seen. On the trip to SA I noticed a stunt rider at the track wearing all black. I didn’t recognise him at first until my great friend and teammate, Ireland’s Donny Robinson, pointed out that it was in fact Eddie Kidd, the then golden boy of stunt riding and a right good looking chap. On the flight home Eddie was sat two rows behind us so, being a big fan of his, I introduced myself and chatted to him all the way home. After the disappointment of South Africa, we were off to France. For some reason we were late getting to Le Mans, where Yamaha had produced a factory upgrade kit for their top riders. We’d been blown away in Kyalami by the straight line speed of Patrick Fernandez’s Hummel cylinder Yamaha and you couldn’t slipstream the rapid Chevallier Yamahas of Balde, de Radigues and Espie. We paid the price for arriving late because Christian Sarron, Carlos Lavado and the other factory riders got first pick of Yamaha’s new go-faster kits, while me and Donny got what was left, which wasn’t a lot. If I felt robbed of a podium position in Jo’burg, that was nothing compared to the disastrous start I had in France, where my bike seized – both cylinders – on each practice day. Talk about being on a downer. I qualified in 32nd place – or, to put it another way, last. On the start line for the race the front guys were so far in front on the grid I couldn’t even see them. Another problem was that Dunlop made all the new tyres we used in Europe way too hard. The tyres were identified by numbers — 8 was soft, 16 was medium and 32 hard. All week everyone had been crashing their brains out because the front tyres were too hard. And believe it or not, it snowed on that morning of the French GP. Warm-up before the race went well for me, though. I got the bike set-up right and had some valuable track time. My trump card was that I had one tyre left from the previous year, a 724 super-soft front. Well, Dunlop got wind of this and asked if we’d give to Lavado, who was on pole position. Dad being dad, he said: “Go get f*****,” so it was on my bike for the race. When Sunday, April 3 dawned, no one expected anything special from me that day. But I made a good start – in the days when they still used push-starts – kept out of trouble and picked riders off one at a time. I remember catching Tournadre, the world champion, and pushing him so hard that he lost the front and crashed out. I was lucky to miss him. Next Sito Pons was leading but when he missed the first turn, out-braking himself, he ended up going down on the long Mistral straight. I kept passing riders on the start and finish line but was so focused I didn’t see my pit board. Three laps from the end, it started spitting with rain and Rapicault, a young French rider, slowed too much just before the last lap through the esses, so I dived under him at a rapid pace and passed him. Starting the last lap, I didn’t even know I was leading, I just felt assured of a place in the top three. I was so excited. I was on it, setting a new track record and winning the French GP – all from the back. Donny Robinson, my team-mate, had crashed on the first corner in the race and as I passed him on the slow down lap, I remember thinking how happy he looked for me to have won, jumping up and down as if he’d won the race himself. As I pulled into the pits veteran journalist, the late Norrie White, a giant of a man, was the first to reach me. I took my helmet off and asked him excitedly: “Who won?”
He looked at me dumbfounded and said: “You did!” It turned out I’d finished just less than two-and-a-half seconds ahead of the Swiss, Jacques Cornu. I created history that day by becoming the youngest ever 250cc GP winner, a record that stood for well over 20 years and not even the greatest rider of all time, Valentino Rossi, could beat it. There were other GPS I could, and should, have won and many people in later years said I was a ‘one-race wonder’. Just to put the record straight, here’s a brief summary of the ones that got away…
GPS THAT GOT AWAY
1. South Africa GP, 1983: Was in the leading group when the chain snapped. 2. Swedish GP, 1983: The frame snapped in half when I was placed third within the leading pack. 3. South Africa GP, 1984: It rained like you have never seen before. I held a 10 second lead but the sun came out, my tyres disintegrated and I finished 10th. 4. French GP, 1984: One of the best rides of my life. Came from mid-pack to fourth when the engine failed. 5. British GP, 1985: Leading by 13 seconds, crashed, got back on and finished seventh. 6. British GP, 1986: Rev counter stopped working after two laps, which made it very hard to ride. Placed second and going for the win until last lap crash. 7. Belgium GP, 1986: Lying second and waiting to pounce until water in the electrics reduced the power of the engine, so had to settle for fifth. There were others where I was in contention but fate restricted me to that one GP victory at Le Mans. After winning the French grand prix we had a great night, drinking with our team and other teams’ sponsors and some amazing new fans. I think we were all in shock and just drank until we all dropped. It was like a fairytale and I was all over the papers on my return to England. A new star was born, with the press again building me up to be ‘the next Barry Sheene’.
Helmet scam... babe-magnets... Donny dies.
VICTORY in the French GP at 18 was like American tennis star Tracy Austin winning the 1979 US Open at 16. People were so shocked to see inexperienced youngsters achieving such great feats, because it was largely unheard of in that era. But for me, it was just too much too soon. I’d raised everyone’s expectations of me to a massive level and the pressure was surely going to get a lot tougher. In fact, the biggest high in my life was soon to become the biggest low point. You see Mal seemed to focus on the now, the instant, not the future. Decisions like turning down CCM, when the deal was all but done, meant I’d burnt that bridge forever and in such a small community you just couldn’t afford to burn any bridges. Also, for the 1983 season, we switched helmets. I went from a fantastic-fitting AGV to the Swiss ‘Kiwi’ helmet, which was about as much use as tits to a bull. After telling dad that the Kiwi helmet was causing me bad headaches, he said: “No problem, we’ll paint an AGV helmet and make it look the same – and put Kiwi stickers on it.” “What a top idea” I was thinking, except for one problem. On the visor there was a tiny AGV logo, which we’d missed! I mean, come on, I was on the front cover of every motorbike mag worldwide, so of course Kiwi picked up on it and terminated my contract with them worth £5000. And you know what, fair play to them. It wasn’t nice what we did, but I just couldn’t use their helmets because I found them uncomfortable.
To my surprise, dad then sorted me out a new sports car, the latest Mazda RX7 in blue with my Mighty Mouse logo on the bonnet. It was a fantastic car and I loved it. “That’s eight grand, kid.”cheers, dad. Knowing Mal, he probably paid £7k for it. I travelled to all the grands prix in it and was on cloud nine. I had some great laughs with Keith Huewen, the ex-gp racer and TV’S top motorcycle presenter. Keith drove a blue 2.8 Capri and we once raced each other all the way from the Spanish GP, near Madrid, to Salzburg in Austria, hitting speeds of over 140mph. The greatest part was the bit before we reached the pay booths. Just before braking we’d look across at each other, smile and then slam the brakes on, sliding and snaking the cars to a halt with rubber burning smoke everywhere, and then trying to give your cash to the attendants, who must have thought they were witnessing an armed robbery. If you got out first, it felt better than winning a GP! Not that the Mazda lasted long. One day dad told me to pick our Lucy up from school. It was snowing cats and dogs but little sis had a great idea: “Shall we go to the pub car park and spin around in the snow and ice?” We were doing big ‘donuts’ in the snow, it was ace, but then I lost control and hit a corner wall at full speed. The car was a writeoff... and so was I after facing dad. Mal said it needed a new shell from Japan because I’d given it a right bananaring. “You’re the biggest prick that walked the earth, all you’re fit for is a banger,” he told me. So my next car was a Mini Traveller in orange, which cost £150 and the only way it started was by bumping it. It meant I always had to park on a big hill. What a babe magnet of a motor this was. Almost overnight, I’d gone from owning a flash sports car to pulling the choke out of the dash on a banger of a mini. I love people and the funny stories you hear along the road of life. I had a sponsor called Bob who used to tell me things about his dad that would crack me up. He once told me how, one Father’s Day, he invited his dad to his place for a barbeque. He explained how his dad always had a problem chewing meat and that many times he’d nearly choke to death before they managed to hit him on the back very hard and a piece of meat would fly out of his mouth, much to everyone’s relief and no little amusement. Well, on this Father’s Day Bob’s old man did actually choke to death on the meat that his son had cooked for him. I know this sounds awful but I could see the funny side, too. Imagine the headlines: ‘SON KILLS DAD ON FATHER’S DAY’. After arriving home from the French GP I got a hero’s welcome at Donington Park the next weekend, where they staged a big British race meeting. But from here on my confidence took a big battering. I made a very bad start, became impatient and was pushing way too hard on cold tyres before having a massive crash on the very first lap and knocking myself out cold. Talk about being brought down a peg or two. The third round of the GP was Italy but because I was still suffering from the injuries sustained at Donington, I wasn’t up to it. In the cut-throat 250 world championship, if you weren’t on it, you simply weren’t going to qualify. It was held at Monza, the most famous race track in the world, and it’s true that when you go under the tunnel there, the hairs on your neck stand up. It’s a very eerie feeling indeed. Practice at Monza went well and now it was race day. I’m just about to start my first Italian Grand Prix, only my third ever GP, and I get a flier of a start. I’m in the leading group going into the first chicane, where Sarron goes down and I run him over, ending up in the gravel trap on my arse. And that was it, my Italian GP debut all over in the first corner. That’s racing. One of the things I loved about my career was my racing kit. I liked to look like a gladiator, immaculate, and I was always cleaning my leathers, boots and gloves, and my helmets had to look beautiful, too. On the bikes we always tried to do things to baffle our opponents. All the barrels on the race engines that came out of Japan were in black, so Howard Gregory would put them in a bucket of paintstripper overnight and then clean up in the morning so that they were now a silver colour. So everybody thought I
was using ‘trick’ barrels from the factory but it was a load of bollocks. All we’d done was change the look of them, and maybe ground some numbers and letters on the side to try and confuse them even more. It was so funny watching other mechanics taking a close look at my kit during the pre-race inspections. After Italy I was on a mission to show people what I could do. I felt like I should have been leading the championship by now not just finishing one race. Next stop was Spain’s Jarama, one of the best tracks. It suited my style – short and twisty and no giant straight. I was 10th fastest in practice and gunning for a podium place but had another big crash – although no broken bones – which again put me out of the race. On to Salzburg in Austria, one of the fastest tracks in the world and pretty dangerous, too, but nothing compared to the circuits Sheene and co. raced on in the 1960s and 70s. We didn’t do well here, our bikes were too slow, but that was irrelevant because this was the weekend my team-mate Donny Robinson had his career-ending accident in which he suffered serious breaks to both legs. But he didn’t have the giant pins removed and made a fatal comeback. In 1999 he crashed and was killed at the North West 200 – held on public roads in his homeland of Coleraine, Northern Ireland and the second most famous road-race in the world after the Isle of MANTT. Donny was a great guy, I loved him just like a brother. He was one of Ireland’s most successful and popular racers and more than a match for Joey Dunlop on his day. Poor Mrs Robinson. She and Donny’s dad were both such lovely people and would lose all three of their precious sons to road racing. I often think about her and how sad she must feel, bless her. Road racing is obviously dangerous and accidents will happen but the tragic loss of a team-mate and many other riders through the years never put me off doing it. I never considered quitting. We set off for Yugoslavia for the next GP and it turned into a long trip. Mal and I travelled there in the Mazda but the gearbox broke, so we could only use second and fourth gears. I crashed in the first practice at Rijeka. It was a strange one – I lost the front end, something I’d never done until then – it was always the high side for me. I broke both ankles that day and Mal made me put them in freezing cold buckets of ice for 20 minutes at a time. He then took me to see the famous Dr Claudio Costa to see if he could do anything to help. The Italian ‘Medicine Man’ made some small pots for my ankles. I couldn’t walk in them but I could still throw my leg over the bike, so the next day Mal sent me out for practice in total agony. I did a few laps but it was useless, I couldn’t go on and we were on our way home. So my GP record for 1983 now read: One win and five DNFS and lucky to be in one piece. After a few weeks off we were back on the road again, this time heading to Holland for the Dutch GP at Assen. Remember, every track was new to me. I’d never even been outside the UK until now. I should have been learning all about GP life and getting to grips with the new tracks, not being pushed to win every GP at the age of 18. My sensational early season victory in France was fast becoming a heavy burden to bear. But I adapted quickly to the Assen track and loved it. I always did perform a bit slowly in the early practice sessions but this was going to be my best GP practice placing so far. I was running about ninth going into the final practice when Mal offered me an amazing bonus – a free ‘shopping trip’ to Groningen if I made it onto the front row. And boy, was I up for it! The grid positions at all GPS by then saw five riders on the front row, four on the next, etc, with 40 riders lined up on the wide tracks and 36 on the narrow ones. There were so many trying to qualify – about 65 riders in all – they split us into odd and even practice groups.
With one minute to go after three days’ practice I was in fifth place, heading for the front row and feeling like the man again. Later that day we received the grid sheet for starting positions and saw to our disgust that it was 4/3, not 5/4 as expected. Never! So I’m the first man on the second row and feeling gutted. But this time Mal appreciated the effort I’d put it and how well I’d ridden, so he said: “You did fantastic, kid, so go shopping in Groningen – and enjoy it.” In the race the next day I’d made a great start and was up to third place when, on cold tyres, I had another massive crash at the chicane just before the start and finish line. I’d got on the gas too hard. I really hurt myself that day, my second big crash of the year and my fifth in about seven races and a non-qualifier too. Now my confidence had been shattered again. Before my first British GP, at Silverstone, eight rounds of the world championship had produced one win, one breakdown, one midfield finish in Austria, plus four crashes and another one at Donington. And in the last round, the Belgium GP at Spa, the most dangerous track in the world, I didn’t even qualify due to a complete lack of confidence. On arriving at Spa I remember saying to Barry Sheene: “This is a bit dangerous, Barry.” But he just laughed at me, saying “here, get in”, so I jumped in this big, flash Merc, just like dad used to drive, and off we went. Barry was taking me for a lap of the old track at Spa – at warp speed. Now this was a bad track and he told me how lucky I was to be riding on the new Spa and not the circuit he used to race on. He was right and I felt lucky to get out of the car in one piece after the speeds he was doing. Barry was a great guy and his wife Stephanie was the princess of the GP paddock. The lucky bugger, Barry, he had it all – and I wanted it too. To be honest, I think by now even my head had gone and I don’t even reckon I could have won a club race, let alone a GP. I had no confidence at all at Silverstone, the other guys had got their stuff going even faster and that was basically it. But, unbeknown to me, I’d caught the eye of three time 500cc world champion Kenny Roberts, which I’ll come on to later in the book. The funny thing is, I was also keeping a close eye on him at the time, hoping he’d kick Freddie Spencer’s arse. Their own fight for the 500cc title was going down to the wire and it was Kenny’s last year in the GPS. I qualified mid-pack at Silverstone. That’s when Mal came up to me and said: “Look, yer f****** miles back on the grid.” I’d be starting in about 19th position but dad added: “I’ve sorted the start out with Bill Smith.” He was a top ACU official at the time and a friend of dad’s. Mal said: “Look, when Bill drops his handkerchief, start pushing and get a flier.” “Okay dad.” Remember I was only just turned 19 and wet behind the lugs. Bill Smith dropped his hankie and I’d passed two rows of riders before a guy grabbed me and ordered me to go back to my original starting position. As I was pushing the bike back, the race starter dropped the flag and that was me knackered – stone last. I finished the race in mid-pack but, given my record at the time, 11th place felt as if I’d won a GP. On the last lap of the race you could’ve covered six or seven riders with a blanket. A young French kid called Jacques Bolle won his only ever GP race with a fantastic performance. It was now down to the final race of the year, at Anderstorp in Sweden. As usual, we set off from Yorkshire and headed for the North Sea ferry at Hull – it made much more sense to depart from there rather than go all the way down to the port at Dover in Kent. We always had a great night on the overnight boat disco and enjoyed everything else that was going on. The last race in Sweden was going to be a cracker. I loved the track and Roberts and Spencer were only two points apart in the 500cc championship. I qualified well and could easily have finished in the top three in the race but my frame snapped in half. It was shaking violently but I wasn’t going to stop at any cost after such a nightmare season. I’d been among the leading group but dropped back to fifth due to the bike shaking like you have no idea. Afterwards, Howard Gregory checked the bike over and initially could find nothing wrong. It was only when he took the petrol tank off and pushed the suspension down that he saw a two-inch gap. The frame had snapped clean in half down the tubes and only stayed in one piece because of the shock absorber. In the 500s there was a titanic battle, with Kenny Roberts on the Yamaha leading Spencer all the way, then on the final lap Freddie ran Kenny off the track to win a race that is still disputed by these two great rivals to this day. Freddie Spencer, on the Honda, had snatched his first world championship by two points. My new mate Christian Sarron had just won the 250 GP race and we all celebrated by jumping in the pool at Anderstorp. Seeing the joy on the Frenchman’s face that day made me want to become world champion even more. In 1983 that honour deservedly went to Carlos Lavado – and what a great guy he was. On many occasions during the year most riders would just shut off the throttle in practice, not letting me follow in their tyre tracks while I was trying to learn how to ride the tracks, but not Carlos. He was a true gent and tried to help me whenever he could.
Alan Carter and Donny Robinson at the 1983 British GP. Pensive mood before the off. the Carterinfull flighton 1982 Pharoah Armstrong.
Alan with dad, Mal, having a chat at Silverstone.
Sarron, Rapicault Toffolo,carter, 1983. et al.austria
First time out with his new Mazda. Carterposes in1983.
Main image and inset: Donny Robinson’s huge crash at the 1983 Austrian GP. Carter rides around Sarron at Monza, 1983.
Brands Hatch. 1982. Carter (28) takes the wide, sweeping line into Druids.
British Grand Prix,1983.
Carter rides aorund the outside of Bruno Luscher in 1983.
Farleftand left: From the backofthe grid to the front. France 1983. Winning the 1983 French GP from Jacques Cornu.
The helmets tell astory all of their own. Carter, Roberts and Rainey. What aline-up!