Venezuela produced two amazing racers in the most formative years of international racing on track and Lavado was one them. He won two world championships and came close to a third. We tell his story.
C“Who the hell is this guy?” they asked after his first-ever practice day in a 250cc GP round. The answer: a young rider from Caracas with a point to prove, so don’t get in his way.
aracas, Venezuela’s capital, is a good 250 kilometres from the San Carlos circuit that hosted the Grand Prix in question and in 1978 Carlos Lavado made his presence felt there during a daring debut on a standard Yamaha TZ. He remembers: “It was my fifth ever race on a GP bike. It’s fair to say that I didn’t have much experience...” The Venezuelan was 21 years old, fresh faced and full of ambition. He took a second place finish (this was in the very competitive 250cc class, remember), almost 15 seconds behind Yamaha’s factory rider Kenny Roberts who took the top step of the podium. Behind Lavado in that first GP outing proper was the French duo of Patrick Fernandez and Olivier Chevallier. Impressive for Yamaha (a top four) and Venezuela. One year later, Lavado tried again as a wild card in the 350 and won that race, finishing a whole 15 seconds ahead of Italian Walter Villa. As you might expect, a factory offer came fast: ‘Would you like to race the whole championship?’ But it wasn’t quite as simple as a straightforward yes, as Carlos explains: “I had to ask my mum, because I had a deep respect for her and she was the only person who had really helped me in my racing career until that point.
“I was a student in the mechanical engineering department of the Caracas University. The truth was that I wanted to become an airplane pilot like my father, but I had to wait one year after high school to access that school, so I decided to give college a try. “Anyway, my mother said ‘yes’, so one year later, in 1980, I was able to race in Europe thanks to the Bieffe helmets factory and Venemotos, who was Yamaha’s importer in my country and had been behind the success of my idol, Johnny Cecotto, who was also from Venezuela, and beat king Giacomo Agostini at his debut, in 1975, in the 350cc class. “He was 19, he didn’t know the tracks, anything. But he did it.” In his first proper season, Lavado won in Assen on the 250, but that was a learning year and the following season he knew which way the tracks went, pulling in eight podiums in the 250 and 350 classes. Onto 1982 and he found the top step of the podium with three wins. That was the last year of the 350 category, so for the following season Lavado focused only on the 250. With the room and ability to concentrate on one class it was a singular push for the title which came after four strong wins and two more podiums. “That year I remember very close races, you could pass from first to seventh in the blink of an eye, it was similar to today’s Moto3.”
Yamaha’s factory team, run by Giacomo Agostini, noted his talent and for the last round of the 500cc championship asked Lavado to run as traffic for Honda’s Freddie Spencer, helping King Kenny in the top class. “We were in Imola and they handed me the 500, which was a beast with a lot of power that I had never ridden before. Nowadays, it seems that the first laps of a rider on a new bike are done with no pressure, the team tells him to take it easy, to relax and understand the power delivery, the tyres and things like that. “That was not the case in 1983. The team told me immediately to go fast and that’s what I tried to do. I had to be second after Kenny and ahead of Freddie. But I crashed, so I wasn’t able to put myself between the two.” Spencer took the crown, Roberts and Yamaha lost the title. When Lavado won his first world championship he was riding a bike with a tubular chassis, the most common layout used at the time. But in the mid-eighties he was a much-favoured son of Yamaha, so much so that he was given a first, an at-the-time revolutionary frame that used the same concept adopted today in motorcycle racing by most manufacturers. “I still remember when my team got the bike, the first thing we did was change some parts in order to make it lighter, because it initially weighed a lot more than 100 kilograms.
“We replaced rim wheels with Campagnolo alloy wheels, iron bolts with titanium bolts, and similar things. Speaking about how it worked, I can’t say that the twin-spar frame allowed me to enter with more speed into the corners. “It was more stable, especially in the fast turns. But I was not interested in having a bike that didn’t move too much. I wanted horsepower, and that’s what I kept saying to Yamaha. “The thing is that I wanted to win, that was my boost. I didn’t care about anything else and frankly I don’t understand the riders that today race in Moto3 and Moto2 and have the goal of reaching Motogp even if they don’t win in the small categories. It doesn’t make any sense to me. They want to be in the top class, and if they’re last there, it’s okay. I was different, I wanted to be first.” That was proved many times on the track, especially in 1986, one of his years as a Yamaha factory rider, bringing on track the iconic yellow and white HB livery. “At the Rijeka circuit, for example, I started badly and during the first lap I went in the gravel while trying to pass a rival on the outside. I started to recover, but in the middle of another corner I found parts of another rider’s bike who had just crashed and I had to go out again in order to avoid them. “After 15 laps I was first, but I soon crashed. “Five weeks later, in the French GP, I started so poorly that at the first corner I was maybe 20th. I won that race by two seconds.” The relationship with Yamaha lasted until 1988, followed by four more seasons that saw him on Italian bikes like Aprilia and Gilera. Today, Lavado lives in Italy, in a small town close to the Imola circuit. He often travels to Venezuela and attends classic motorcycle events, bringing with him the unique personality of someone who grew up in South America and expressed himself in Europe. The moustache is the same, the hair is not as wild as it was and the accent is a curious mix of Italian and Spanish influences. “What I do miss the most about racing is the thrill of doing what you love. When you dedicate yourself 100% to a goal, when you put all your effort into it. And, of course, the buzz of the win. “I lived for it.”
Main image:the eyes have it. Carlos looks small on the Yamaha at the French GP in 1981. Right: If a picture truly does paint a thousand words then what we have here is a prime example of tension before the off.
Lavado wins the 1986 German GP from Martin Winner and Anton Mang.
Lavado #1, chasing down Juan Garriga #12, at the 1987 Italian GP.
1984 Spanish GP. Neat and tidy.
A long slide on the knees whilst crashing did this.
A title lost in a moment. Carlos was set to win the 1984 crown at Yugoslavia. All he had to do was finish the race. But the bike cried ‘enough’. Game over.
Left: The man on the far left looks worried as he notices the damage to Carlos’ lower legs and feet following a spill. Walking wounded.
Motorcycle language is a universal language. We all know what Carlos is saying here.
1981 350 podium with Mang and Jean-françois Baldé.
Excuse me, guv’nor, can we have a moment for a serious pre-race photograph? Ta very much. That’ll do us nicely.