Michael Scott looks back to the enigma that was Freddie Spencer on one of the superstar’s most incredible racing days ever.
It was the British GP round. It was 1985 and it was Freddie Spencer who headed out under a leaden sky to show the world something it had never seen before. Michael Scott tells the story of that day in detail.
It was some 18 months later that I visited Freddie Spencer at home in Shreveport. It was a slightly unearthly experience, but then Freddie – especially as a rider – was more than slightly unearthly. Think Marc Marquez, but then put him on an unruly lightweight two-stroke 500, with a savage power band and squidgy tyres and suspension. And then enter him also in the intermediate class – back then an even lighter 250. And subtract the frequent crashes when looking for the limit. Then you have an idea of Freddie Spencer. He was accustomed to finding the limit in exactly the same way as Marquez – pushing the front until it let go, and then getting it back again. Crashing, without falling off. I remember describing it at the time as more like dancing with the motorcycle than riding it. Freddie was leading with complete confidence and accuracy, ready to anticipate every twist of rhythm and melody. The bike was following, with perfect obedience. To other riders, the 500cc two-strokes had an element of untamed beast. In Freddie’s hands, that was invisible. Freddie’s brilliance, up against the steady bulwark of Eddie Lawson, was to break away from the start. In the first two or three laps, the race would already be won. He’d be four or more seconds clear, and then he’d just have to preserve his lead. One of his contemporary 500 riders, Keith Heuwen, years later gave an explanation, as he spoke in awe of what Freddie would do on the warmup lap. While other riders warmed their tyres gradually, corner by corner, the factory Honda rider would be sliding the front from the very first corner. “You thought: ‘Oh, he’s down’.” But he’d pick it up, and do it again at the next one. So when the flag fell, in spite of having waited four or more minutes on the grid for the push-start, his front Michelin was still piping hot and ready to grip. This did not apply at Silverstone in 1985, when it was horribly wet and extremely cold, but goes some way to explain the legend. Less explicable is what happened next. After that doubly triumphant year, Spencer’s career suddenly fizzled out, and he never won another race. To a large extent, the British GP of 1985 was the reason why.
Fast Freddie had arrived in 1982 to spearhead Honda’s new attack on the premier class, after the embarrassing failure of the oval-piston NR500 of the previous two years. Spencer, from the Louisiana Bible Belt, was just 20 when he won his first GP, the Belgian, in his first season. Then came 1983, an awesome battle between the fresh-faced southerner on the V3 NS500 and tough-asnails Californian veteran Kenny Roberts. Each won six races; it went to the wire … Freddie took it by two points. It was the narrowest margin in the era from 1969 to 1987, when points were awarded to the top 10; and has not been equalled since. In 1984 Honda introduced the V4 NSR, but quirky original thinking had again got the better of common sense, with the fuel tank under the engine and difficult handling, not to mention a scorching riding experience, with the four exhaust expansion chambers looping over the top of the engine under the dummy tank cover. Freddie suffered injuries as well, but still won three races on the unwieldy NSR before switching back to the triple for two more. Lawson and the utterly conventional Yamaha swept to the title. In 1985, however, common sense prevailed at HRC, and the updated NSR had a conventional layout. They’d also built a new V-twin 250. Freddie rode it at the preseason Daytona meeting. He made history there, winning the prestigious Daytona 200, now for four-stroke Superbikes, and the Formula One event on his 500, and became the only triple-Daytona winner by taking the 250 win as well. It was now that the crucial decision was taken. The new 250 was so good that Freddie and his henchman/crew chief/advisor Erv Kanemoto decided then and there to make a double assault on both 250 and 500 championships. This was not unprecedented: in the 1970s riders like Hailwood, Redman, Read and Agostini would regularly ride in two or more
classes, and over the years there had been a number of double-champions, including Ago, five times 350/500 winner, and several 250/350 winners, most recently Anton Mang in 1981. And in Kenny Roberts’ first title year of 1978 he had entered both 250 and 500 classes, but used the 250 mainly to learn tracks that he had never seen before, though he won a couple of races. But in the 1980s, doubling up was now unheard of. The new generation of bikes, it was said, were too intense, too specialised. Freddie would prove this wrong, and – given subsequent events – perhaps also right. Honda backed him to the extent of preserving the RS250R-W for his exclusive use, much to the dismay of fellow Rothmans rider Mang. It was likewise a cut above the Yamaha of the rider he expected would be his greatest rival, Carlos Lavado. A mechanical failure forced retirement from the Spanish GP, but Freddie won seven of the other nine races leading up to Silverstone, and was second at the other. All he needed to do now was finish fourth. This he duly did, but it is of course more easily said than done, and the conditions were gruelling. Luckily, unlike in 2018, Silverstone hadn’t been incompetently resurfaced, although the rain was so bad that the sidecar race was called off. As problematic as the puddles, however, and the difficultly in seeing anything in the spray and with a misted visor, was the cold. Riders were soaked and freezing as they finished 24 laps of the bleak airfield circuit. All but one of them could take off for a hot shower or (perhaps and) a tot of a warming spirit. Freddie Spencer had no such luxury. He was pretty much straight out there again. It was without mercy, although securing the title was a major consolation. It was also the last time he rode a 250. Silverstone was the tenth of 12 rounds, and in the 500 class by now Freddie had regained the momentum interrupted with a painful mishap at Rijeka. The Yugoslav track was a touch primitive, and as a safety measure the pit-lane exit had been extended with a line of straw bales to beyond the first corner apex, to avoid the risk of slow traffic getting mixed up in a fast lap. Early in the race, Freddie squeezed inside fast-starting Rothmans Honda teammate Ron Haslam, but he had misjudged it. He caught his knee on a bale, wrenching it backwards. Determined to finish, he managed second behind Lawson, but had to be lifted off the bike afterwards. A year later, to my continued amusement, dry-as-dust Eddie Lawson told me, when I suggested this had been a courageous ride: “It was also possible to miss the bale.” With both falling out of a drenched Dutch TT, the next round, Freddie had come back to add two more victories. Now he had five to Lawson’s two, and a lead of 111 points to 94. But with three races left and 45 point still available, but neither he nor Honda underestimated the potential of his rival. For the British GP Honda had brought out two more V4s for Wayne Gardner and Randy Mamola. Not, to his distress, for Haslam. But the rainy conditions should suit the Briton, and his lighter, handier triple likewise. Particularly given his familiar skill with the dead-engine push-start, a racing tradition that would last just one more year after this. As usual, Ron got off the line like a rocket, but Spencer – at least familiar with the conditions – had passed him before the lap was done, and the Briton would continue to drop back, struggling to see where he
was going. Eventually he was forced to pit for a change of visor, rejoining out of the points. The same problem put Gardner out of the race. Spencer, however, was sailing away. It would have been serene, except for the foul conditions and the obvious dangers. It was familiar enough that he should win from the front, but it was especially impressive today. I recall standing by the track trying to lap score, as one had to do in those days, before the real-time TV coverage and detailed live timing, taken for granted nowadays, had pulled the press back into the press room. My notebook was too wet, my ballpoint wouldn’t write. Swiss colleague Gunther Wiesinger, in familiar know-all fashion, sidled over and said: “This is why I use a pencil.” But aside from minor discomfort, a pale reflection of a gruelling ordeal for the riders, it wasn’t hard to follow the progress of a race. The Rothmans Honda steadily drew away into a commanding lead. Lawson had got through to second from early fast guy Didier de Radigues, and was within 10 seconds of Spencer’s Honda by the end. But never any threat, as long as Freddie continued with his trademark precision. Third- placed Christian Sarron was almost another 25 seconds away. Looking back at the pictures, after the race Freddie looked cold, blowing on his hands to get some warmth back in; alongside him, Lawson looked half-drowned. He had very little to be cheerful about. The points gap, with two races left, had stretched to 20. Even if he was to win in the next race in Sweden, third place would be good enough for Spencer to be champion with one race to spare. As it turned out, Spencer took his seventh win of the year at Anderstorp, and Lawson, hampered by a tyre choice that went wrong,
only managed to finish second because Gardner’s Honda had broken on the final lap. It was Spencer’s 20th premier-class win. And his last, in any class. Now unassailable for a historic first-ever double 250/500 championship, he chose not to contest the final round at Misano, leaving a somewhat hollow win for title runner-up Lawson. Freddie’s no-show set something of a precedent for a series of them the following two seasons. As well as several injuries, one of the given reasons was tendonitis. Other reasons might be unravelled by any amateur psychologist, but to do so here would be to deny Spencer the dignity he so richly deserves, in spite of several half-hearted come-back attempts in the years to come. It is enough to say that his professional racing career was effectively over. He had burned so bright, even in Silverstone’s monsoon. Then the light went out. And if he had an explanation, it came when I visited him at his Shreveport home, a couple of winters later, and it could have been in direct reference to that afternoon in Northamptonshire. “I don’t think anybody really understands how much riding the 250 and 500 took out of me – just how demanding it was, physically and mentally.”
Spencer takes the 250 victory at the 1985 Silverstone GP.
Freddie, farthest right, without the almost obligatory roll of silver tape masquerading as a breath guard.
1985 BGP 250 start. Spencer (19) gets away clean. Note Joey Dunlop on the second row.
Gerry Burgess pushes Freddie and the 500 off for the warm-up lap.
Spencer leads (amongst others) Ron Haslam and Roger Marshall.
The quarter-litre class in the wet was a treacherous affair. Spencer, Ricci etc...
Job done. Spencer wins the 500cc race at Silverstone.
Ready for the off. Christian Sarron (6), Eddie Lawson (1) and Freddie (4) prepare to push.