Sar­ron: Sacre Bleu

They called him Tarzan, jok­ingly, be­cause Chris­tian Sar­ron was not a typ­i­cal mus­cle man, swing­ing from tree to tree. On two wheels Sar­ron seemed like a fear­less French­man, but fear was al­ways in the back of his mind when he raced his Yamaha YZR500. He bou

Classic Racer - - WHAT'S INSIDE -

Chris­tian Sar­ron was one of the big names in 500GP rac­ing at a time when the giants of the sport reigned supreme. On a wet day in 1985 it all came to­gether for the French man in typ­i­cally Gal­lic style.

When Chris­tian Sar­ron moved up to the 500cc class, he did so as the 1984 250cc World Cham­pion, the fastest of a very com­pet­i­tive field of rid­ers, with seven of them win­ning races. But it was Sar­ron who clinched the ti­tle, beat­ing the likes of Man­fred Her­weh, Car­los Lavado, Sito Pons and Toni Mang, af­ter hav­ing been run­ner-up in the pre­vi­ous year. When he turned 30 in March of 1985, Sar­ron was one of the old­est rid­ers in the 500cc class, but no stranger to big and bru­tal bikes. Aged 22 he fin­ished run­ner-up to Steve Baker in the 1977 F750 World Cham­pi­onship and dur­ing 1979 and 1981 he raced in 14 500cc grands prix, with a best fin­ish of fifth at the 1979 Fin­nish Grand Prix and 11th over­all in that year’s cham­pi­onship. “The only rea­son I raced 250s and 350s was that I didn’t have the bud­get to race a 500,” ex­plains 61-year-old Chris­tian. “That was un­til 1985. I loved hav­ing huge amounts of horse­power.” Sar­ron’s style was rem­i­nis­cent of rid­ers of the Six­ties. The French­man hardly moved on the bike, de­fy­ing grav­ity with un­be­liev­able lean an­gles and he was a master of the brakes. His rather static po­si­tion on his Yamaha was a huge con­trast to, for in­stance, Randy Mamola, who was all over the bike, with his feet hang­ing of the foot pegs. But Sar­ron’s speed and tenac­ity could not be de­nied. “Ob­vi­ously, I had to adapt my style and my lines – that’s what you do when you switch classes or even go from one man­u­fac­turer to an­other,” says Sar­ron. “I had to find out how I could ride the bike as fast and as ef­fec­tive as pos­si­ble. Be­fore the sea­son started I hadn’t set my­self any goals. I knew it would be dif­fi­cult, with guys like Fred­die (Spencer) and Law­son. On the other hand, I also knew that I could be fast at some of the cir­cuits.” A Yamaha man dur­ing all his grand prix ca­reer and sup­ported by French im­porter So­nauto, Sar­ron was one of just three YZR500 rid­ers in 1985, along­side de­fend­ing cham­pion Eddie Law­son and his Marl­boro Yamaha team-mate Ray­mond Roche. “I was given the same bike as Eddie, but he had proper fac­tory sup­port”, Sar­ron points out. “And of course, he had Kel Car­ruthers, who was ex­tremely gifted and able to de­velop the bike. I didn’t get to try my bike un­til the first grand prix and I did not have much time to get to grips with it. Dur­ing the sea­son we re­ceived some help from the Ja­panese en­gi­neers, but I do not be­lieve my bike had the same up­dates that Eddie was given. But the big­gest problem... ac­tu­ally dur­ing all my years on 500s... was that Miche­lin never gave me their lat­est tyres. I knew I was on the back foot when it came to tyres. I was given the best avail­able tyres for satel­lite rid­ers. In those days Miche­lin sup­plied one Honda team and one Yamaha team and we were just a cus­tomer team. The en­gine and the bike were good, but those tyres held me back. When it rained it was a dif­fer­ent story.”

The 1985 grand prix sea­son took off at the Kyalami cir­cuit in South Africa. It was the first time Sar­ron had set eyes on his bike. “Prior to that first grand prix weekend I did not test the bike. The Ja­panese sent the bike straight from the fac­tory to South Africa. So the first time I got on the bike was when prac­tice started on Fri­day. That went quite well, but un­for­tu­nately my me­chan­ics didn’t know the en­gine well enough and dur­ing the af­ter­noon prac­tice, it seized. I crashed re­ally hard go­ing into the first cor­ner. That didn’t do my self-con­fi­dence any favours. I more or less woke up in hos­pi­tal. I suf­fered a con­cus­sion and hurt my ankle and knee. That was quite an­noy­ing, since of course we had to push-start the bike for the race. Still, I qual­i­fied third be­hind Spencer and Law­son. I re­ally suf­fered dur­ing the race, but I man­aged to fin­ish sixth.” Sar­ron was al­ready in the process of start­ing a love and hate af­fair with his YZR500. “The en­gine was enor­mously pow­er­ful and keep­ing the front wheel down was a hard job! The bike wheel­ied like crazy and, of course, that cost time. The V4 had a lot of top-end power, which gave it a very ag­gres­sive char­ac­ter. It was dif­fi­cult to ride and easy to high-side. I’m not ashamed to ad­mit that all the time I was rid­ing 500s I was scared. Just look at how my brother Do­minique (a four-time 250 grand prix win­ner) did when he first rode a 500, or Juan Gar­riga and even John Kocin­ski. In the be­gin­ning those guys couldn’t match their 250 times on a 500. But I wanted to race that bike. It was kind of am­biva­lent: I loved the power, but at the same time I felt that fear.” Six weeks later a third on the beau­ti­ful blue Gauloises Yamaha at Jarama be­hind Spencer and Law­son proved Sar­ron could do much bet­ter than sixth. If he could get a podium in the dry, how well would he fare on a wet track, in­sid­ers won­dered. Two weeks later they got their an­swer in the third grand prix of the sea­son. Sar­ron loved the ul­tra-fast Hock­en­heim Ring. He had been very suc­cess­ful there in the past: he’d won his first 250cc grand prix at the 4.218-mile-long track in 1977 and had also heard the Mar­seil­laise played for him af­ter a F750 win there. For the 1985 500cc race at the legendary cir­cuit Sar­ron qual­i­fied in fourth, more than two sec­onds slower than cham­pi­onship leader Spencer. The Amer­i­can claimed pole with a record break­ing lap, av­er­ag­ing 121.136mph, clearly putting him head and shoul­ders above the chas­ing Law­son, Roche and Sar­ron. But on Satur­day evening the rain came – and didn’t go away for more than a day. Sar­ron knew Sun­day could be his day. He said: “The rain added an ex­tra psy­cho­log­i­cal chal­lenge. I knew I was afraid on the 500 and the rain might make it even worse. But I also knew that ev­ery­body would be more cau­tious on a wet track. I knew some fear would creep into ev­ery­one’s mind. But my be­lief was I could be fast in the rain. I also knew that I just had to ac­cept the con­di­tions and that we all had to cope with them. Ac­cept­ing that, as well as con­vinc­ing my­self I was strong in the wet would give me a psy­cho­log­i­cal advantage. I think it was my

way of rid­ing, which made me fast in the rain. I was a smooth rider and al­ways used the track as much as pos­si­ble. That was very ben­e­fi­cial in the rain, whereas my front tyre gave me some ex­tra con­fi­dence.” A last-minute change to his spare bike, as his num­ber one bike wouldn’t start for the race, def­i­nitely wasn’t in the script, but Sar­ron re­mained calm – even af­ter an­other poor start. “That wasn’t un­com­mon for me. I don’t re­ally know why, but I never seemed to be able to get a good start. Go­ing into the first cor­ner in Hock­en­heim I was 18th or 20th. But then, af­ter I had got­ten a feel for the track, I got go­ing and started pass­ing rid­ers. That was dan­ger­ous be­cause of the spray and vis­i­bil­ity was very poor.” Nar­rowly avoid­ing the fallen Mike Bald­win in the first cor­ner, Sar­ron had moved up to eighth in lap three. Two laps later a roar rolled from the packed stands in the fa­mous Mo­to­drome when Sar­ron supremely out-braked Law­son on the in­side, putting him into third, with only Haslam and Spencer ahead of him. Even Haslam, a re­spected wet weather rider in his own right, was un­able to stop the charg­ing French­man. Sar­ron mas­tered the treach­er­ous con­di­tions per­fectly and once again proved he was a wizard in the wet – also on a 500. With six laps to go Spencer was merely a sit­ting duck for Sar­ron. The Roth­mans Honda rider had been look­ing over his shoul­der for some time, sens­ing the in­evitable would hap­pen. Al­though back-marker Klaus Klein left the door wide open on the in­side, Spencer hes­i­tated. Sar­ron did not and even made it look easy. “Then I passed him round the out­side”, copy­ing the ex­act move that he’d made in 1977 when he passed Kawasaki rider Ak­i­hiko Kiy­ohara on his way to his maiden grand prix vic­tory. “I wasn’t sure whether I was lead­ing the race. I kept push­ing. Look­ing back, there was no need to do that, but I did it be­cause I felt com­fort­able. In all those years I never passed a fac­tory rider on the straight, be­cause I wasn’t given the lat­est tech­ni­cal up­dates or the best tyres. The best I could do was try and stay in their slip­stream. But when it came to brak­ing I could have them all and also my cor­ner speed was good. That day in Hock­en­heim all I knew was that I was hav­ing a good rhythm and to be hon­est it was, in fact, an easy race.” With his heroic ride Sar­ron ended a string of 28 con­sec­u­tive Amer­i­can 500cc wins and was the first French win­ner of a 500cc grand prix since 1954. Spencer fin­ished over 11sec back in sec­ond and Haslam was an­other four sec­onds adrift. There were un­der­stand­able tears of joy within Sar­ron’s team. “Of course, ev­ery­body was de­lighted, es­pe­cially af­ter that dis­as­trous start. That win was im­por­tant for us all, for me as a rider, but also for Yamaha, for my team and for our main spon­sor Gauloises (al­though the to­bacco com­pany’s name was miss­ing on Sar­ron’s fair­ing be­cause of the strict Ger­man rules on to­bacco adds). Ac­tu­ally, it was their first 500 win. Fred­die and I were friends. I re­mem­ber him con­grat­u­lat­ing me on the podium.” Sar­ron moved from fourth to third in the over­all stand­ings be­hind Spencer and Law­son. That tremen­dous tri­umvi­rate climbed the podium in that order on an­other three oc­ca­sions in Aus­tria, Bel­gium and Sil­ver­stone – all three super-fast tracks. But even a ‘rainman’ like Sar­ron could be caught out, as he showed when he tried to make up for an­other bad start in a soaked Assen. Fight­ing his way through the pack, Sar­ron crashed and took his friend Spencer down with him. Five podium fin­ishes, in­clud­ing the im­pres­sive vic­tory at the Hock­en­heim Ring, put Sar­ron in a more than cred­itable third po­si­tion in the fi­nal stand­ings be­hind Spencer and Law­son. Of course, says Sar­ron, the win at Hock­en­heim qual­i­fied as a ca­reer high­light. “That was es­pe­cially for the people in­volved in the team. But I wouldn’t go as far as to claim it was my best race ever. To me, that was the 1989 Swedish Grand Prix. Once again I had a ter­ri­ble start, but I fin­ished sec­ond to Eddie, with a new lap record.” Sar­ron be­came an es­tab­lished, re­spected and, most of all, blind­ingly fast 500cc racer, but his un­ortho­dox style never brought him a sec­ond grand prix win in the 500cc class. Even five con­sec­u­tive poles in 1988 at the Salzbur­gring, Assen, Fran­cor­champs, Ri­jeka and in front of his home crowd at Paul Ri­card did not get the golden fin­ish that many ex­pected Sar­ron was ca­pa­ble of. At the end of 1990 he re­tired, as ninth in the cham­pi­onship – his worst po­si­tion in six sea­sons of hard 500cc rac­ing. In those six sea­sons he fin­ished on the podium 17 times – a de­cent record, but look­ing back Sar­ron rues lost op­por­tu­ni­ties next to the chances he did take. “I think I could have done bet­ter if I’d had bet­ter tyres. That made me an­gry some­times. It gravely in­flu­enced my 500 ca­reer and maybe even ru­ined it. I was never able to go into battle with equal arms. Miche­lin al­ways promised me they’d give me the best tyres they had if I would fin­ish in the top three in the stand­ings. Well, I fin­ished third twice (in 1985 and 1989). but they didn’t keep their promise.”

Words: Frank Weeink Pho­to­graphs: Don Mor­ley

Right: Wide line, no. Tight line, no. Sar­ron takes the mid­dle line en route to the win. Tip-toe­ing the Yamaha around a slip­pery Ger­man GP.

Left: Sar­ron al­ways had time for an au­to­graph or two, even more so on that most suc­cess­ful of days in 1985.

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