Glory in France for the young gun

Classic Racer - - FRONT PAGE - Words: Alan Carter Pho­tos: Don Mor­ley

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…


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’.

Shat­tered Con­fi­dence

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!

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