“INTHOSEDAYS THEGRAVELWAS ABITCOARSER”

Driv­ing in to the Au­to­mo­to­drom Brno to­day is much like any other Euro­pean race­track: masses of traf­fic in modern hatch­backs, rowdy bik­ers in colour­ful leath­ery clus­ters, seas of con­ces­sion stalls sell­ing mem­o­ra­bilia, and swathes of yel­low-clad Rossi fans.

Classic Racer - - THE 1992 DUTCH 500CC GP - Words: Michael Scott Pho­tographs: Don Mor­ley

It is al­most im­pos­si­ble to reimag­ine what it was like when the fine new Brno cir­cuit was opened back in 1987. The Iron Cur­tain still di­vided Europe, the Berlin Wall was still stand­ing, and while there were at least as many race fans there as to­day, and prob­a­bly more, it was hard to know ex­actly how they’d got there. Their smoky Tra­bants and bat­tered Sko­das were nowhere to be seen, hid­den over the hills in the of­fi­cial (i.e. com­pul­sory) camp­site. The traf­fic jams out­side the cir­cuit were made up of trudg­ing lines of pedes­tri­ans, whose weary grey faces and care-worn cloth­ing made them look like refugees. And ev­ery so of­ten one of those dra­matic split-rear-win­dow Ta­tras would come beetle­back­ing past at con­temp­tu­ous speed, the ap­pa­ratchiks within in­vis­i­ble be­hind shaded win­dows. Of­fi­cial fig­ures put at­ten­dance at 140,000 com­pared with 2018’s race­day, 84,678; and there were ru­mours of mas­sive queues at the near­est bor­der with race-starved East Ger­many. It was modern rac­ing (fast 500cc twostrokes … Mo­togp four-strokes are post­mod­ern) but in an at­mos­phere that was any­thing but modern. To tell the truth, it was ac­tu­ally heart-rend­ing. Per­haps I am be­ing overly sen­ti­men­tal, but that is how it struck me then, and still does when I look back. The sub­ju­gated peo­ple of what would be­come to­day’s lib­er­ated Czech Repub­lic were modern Euro­peans in ev­ery way. Ex­cept in terms of free­dom. They were re­duced to beg­ging for the most pal­try of sou­venirs – a sticker or an empty Coca Cola can was a prized ob­ject. They pressed up against the fences iso­lat­ing the pad­dock, pa­trolled by po­lice­men in sin­is­ter uni­forms, with ter­ri­fy­ing dogs strain­ing at their leashes, look­ing fully ca­pa­ble of shak­ing off their

IT WAS THE START OF WHAT OLD-TIMERS LOOK BACK ON AS THE FIRST GOLDEN AGE, WITH A VA­RI­ETY OF BIKES AND A GROW­ING TAL­ENT POOL OF GLAM­OROUS STAR RID­ERS.

mas­sive steel muz­zle-guards and tak­ing off the leg of any­one who stepped out of line. It was piti­ful. And ironic, for the re­turn to Brno co­in­cided with a big step for­ward to­wards pros­per­ity and moder­nity for mo­tor­cy­cle Grand Prix rac­ing; and in terms of com­pe­ti­tion it was the start of what old-timers look back on as the first golden age, with a va­ri­ety of bikes and a grow­ing tal­ent pool of glam­orous star rid­ers. It was 13 years since two-strokes had taken over the 500 class; and there was a com­fort­ing va­ri­ety of ma­chin­ery avail­able. At fac­tory level (they used to be called ‘works bikes’ back then) Honda’s V4 NSR had taken a step for­ward in its jour­ney to­wards be­com­ing the de­fin­i­tive 500cc two-stroke; al­though the land­mark Big Bang was yet to come. But 1985 dou­ble-cham­pion Fred­die Spencer was by now well into the melt­down that brought his bril­liance to a pre­ma­ture end. Sundry, rel­a­tively mi­nor in­juries meant Brno would be only his sec­ond race so far this year, and there was more of the same to fol­low at sub­se­quent rounds. Spencer’s with­drawals had started at the first race, and Honda’s big ba­ton was per­force passed to thrust­ing Aus­tralian Wayne Gard­ner; while Niall Macken­zie had been re­cruited, rid­ing in HB rather than Roth­mans colours; with sev­eral oth­ers on works V4s and V3s.

Yamaha had won in 1986 with Ed­die Law­son, so in the cu­ri­ous way in which they shared honours with Honda their V4 YZR had im­proved lit­tle over the win­ter. His Marl­boro-backed team-mates were Rob Mcel­nea and Tadahiko Taira; the new Lucky Strike Team Roberts fielded Randy Mamola and Mike Bald­win, and Chris­tian Sar­ron rode a sixth YZR. And Suzuki was back with a new V4, to be rid­den by Kenny Irons, and oc­ca­sion­ally (and bril­liantly) by the newly dis­cov­ered Kevin Sch­wantz. Ca­giva im­proved their Yamaha clone dur­ing the year; the in­de­pen­dent Ital­ian Paton sol­diered on; while Ron Haslam was to cam­paign the new Nsr-pow­ered Elf 4, though brake trou­ble meant that this lat­est ver­sion of the French non-con­form­ist didn’t ac­tu­ally race un­til Brno, and most of the time he rode a nor­mal Honda. There were pri­va­teers on three-cylin­der Hon­das and a hand­ful of ob­so­les­cent square-four RG500 Suzukis. And the un­con­ven­tional Honda triple-pow­ered Fior, with wish­bone/girder front sus­pen­sion. Full grids. To­bacco money was start­ing to flood in. Roth­mans and Marl­boro were al­ready there; Lucky Strike was new. HB, Bas­tos and Du­ca­dos con­trib­uted fur­ther riches. Po­lit­i­cally IRTA had gained strength and power; while re­spected FIM road-rac­ing chief Luigi Brenni had done a lot to im­prove the fed­er­a­tion’s fusty im­age. The se­ries was grow­ing; the cal­en­dar ex­panded to a new record of 15 races. It was also the most widely-trav­elled year so far; with Ja­pan on the cal­en­dar for the first time in 20 years, Ar­gentina also af­ter five years’ ab­sence, and Brazil for the first time, at the in­land cir­cuit at Goia­nia. And we were go­ing back to Brno. This meant much more, in terms of his­tory. Cze­choslo­vakia’s sec­ond city was steeped in mo­tor sport. There had been rac­ing on a daunt­ing 18-mile pub­lic roads cir­cuit since 1930 … the hair­pins up the hill on the back way into the modern track were part of it. Af­ter the war came a ma­jor cut in length, and in 1965 mo­tor­cy­cle Grand Prix rac­ing came to an even shorter ver­sion, now 8.6 miles long. Mike Hail­wood won the first 500 race, spear­ing his MV Agusta through vil­lages and across farm land. As was usual for that era, it was des­per­ately dan­ger­ous. Back in 1987, I took a car run round that loop, with the late Jack Find­lay as guide. The Aus­tralian, now the FIM’S tech­ni­cal chief, was a for­mer GP stal­wart renowned as top pri­va­teer. In a 17-year ca­reer he’d been run­ner-up to Agostini’s MV Agusta in 1968, head and shoul­ders above the rest rid­ing Nor­ton and Match­less, with wins and podium fin­ishes ga­lore. An­other for­mer rider now run­ning a team in the pad­dock was Chas Mor­timer, whose view of the old track was that “it’s amaz­ing that any of us are still alive to­day”. Jack was a la­conic sort, and just smiled at the ob­vi­ous per­ils of the wide-open sec­tions and the close­ness of the bar­ri­ers on fast cor­ners. Not­ing the pres­ence of large boul­ders lin­ing some bends, he quipped: “Of course, in those days the gravel was a bit coarser.” The 500 class had last faced the road track’s per­ils in 1977, one year af­ter the Isle of Man had been deemed too dan­ger­ous for the world cham­pi­onships. But the smaller classes had no such favour, and con­tin­ued un­til 1982. Now con­certed ef­forts by lo­cal en­thu­si­asts, along with the all-im­por­tant back­ing of a com­mu­nist Gov­ern­ment mind­ful of the value of a world-class show­case, had man­aged to work a mir­a­cle: to get the world cham­pi­onships back. They did a hell of a job with the cir­cuit. In sharp and de­press­ing con­trast to the grim sur­round­ings just out of range of the TV cam­eras – poor ac­cess roads, no sign­post­ing, grim con­crete tower blocks on the city out­skirts – the fa­cil­i­ties were first rate and the track it­self quite splen­did in lay­out, safety and sur­face.

It was so good in fact that it took a few years for its full majesty to be ap­pre­ci­ated. First time there, some rid­ers had their doubts, which con­sid­er­ing they were fresh from the Mickey Mouse An­der­storp in Swe­den was a bit sur­pris­ing. That was flat, at an air­field; Brno made great use of the hilly ter­rain. It meant that a lot of cor­ners were ap­proached un­der brak­ing down­hill. Rob Mcel­nea told me: “None of the bends come up to meet you … you feel like you’re go­ing to lose the front all the time.” Gard­ner how­ever, rather liked it from the off. “It’s dif­fer­ent, quite en­joy­able. You need smooth­ness and rhythm, and the cor­ners hang on, so you’re rid­ing the front wheel a lot. There are very few places where you can steer by slid­ing.” Life in the in­ter­na­tional ho­tels was as grim as in the tower blocks, though in a dif­fer­ent way. They were in­fested with pros­ti­tutes and il­le­gal money-chang­ers, them­selves con­stantly hounded by se­cu­rity staff, all in fear of po­lice in­ter­fer­ence. And the food was ter­ri­ble. Nor was cov­er­ing the eight odd miles to and from the track with­out its per­ils. There weren’t many cars, but plenty of traf­fic po­lice­men. One pad­dock denizen claimed to have been stopped and breathal­ysed four times on one jour­ney; Wayne Gard­ner and his team nar­rowly es­caped ar­rest, and even the saintly Fred­die Spencer was fined for some in­com­pre­hen­si­ble traf­fic of­fence. At the cir­cuit, the pad­dock it­self had all the char­ac­ter of a prison camp. But the pris­on­ers were out­side look­ing in, plead­ing for scraps, while if those within could ig­nore their be­seech­ing faces it was just an­other mo­tor­cy­cle Grand Prix – the 11th of 15 rounds, and the cham­pi­onship was still open, al­though not ex­actly in the bal­ance. Gard­ner on the Honda was draw­ing clear, with more than one race ad­van­tage, on 120 points to Mamola on 101 (there were 15 points for a win, and only the top were re­warded). The Aus­tralian had won five races so far, Mamola just one, but he was 10 points clear of de­fend­ing cham­pion Law­son, in spite of the lat­ter’s three wins. Gard­ner took pole, al­most a sec­ond quicker than Law­son, with sec­ond fac­tory Yamaha rider Tadahiko Taira in be­tween them. Spencer led row two from Sar­ron and Mcel­nea, but it would prove yet an­other abortive out­ing for Fast Fred­die … drop­ping to 11th af­ter, as he ex­plained it, his right con­tact lens had shifted on the warm-up lap. In con­se­quence, he’d had trou­ble judg­ing brak­ing dis­tances, and ran straight on into pit lane, mak­ing a U-turn to fin­ish 11th, out of the points. The race was in fact some­what un­event­ful. Gard­ner made a break from pole, and by the fifth of 24 laps had a five-sec­ond gap. It would be enough for his sixth win of the year. Three races later, in Brazil, he took his seventh, to se­cure the cham­pi­onship. Law­son was trou­bled by a front tyre that took time to warm up, but re­gained sec­ond from team-mate Taira be­fore half dis­tance. By race end he had closed to within just over two sec­onds of his ri­val, but ran out of laps. “I was the fastest guy on the track, and I could only get sec­ond,” he said. Taira was a dis­tant third, and Randy Mamola just two sec­onds away from tak­ing it off him on the Lucky Strike Suzuki, af­ter a heroic come­back ride fol­low­ing his own in­ad­ver­tent run into pit lane and U-turn to re­gain the track. His last vic­tim, as he sliced through, had been Macken­zie in fifth; Mcel­nea fell back to eighth be­hind Yat­sushiro’s works Honda and Sar­ron’s blue Gauloises Yamaha.

I WAS THE FASTEST GUY ON THE TRACK, AND I COULD ONLY GET SEC­OND

Wayne Gard­ner and Stu­art Shen­ton on the Swan Se­ries Grid, Aus­tralia, 1985, With for­mer Kawasaki Ace Greg Hans­ford.

Ed­die Law­son, test­ing prior to the sea­son.

Ed­die Law­son car­ries the num­ber 1 plate well.

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