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
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.