Monthly Archives: May 2020

ITALY BROUGHT TO A HALT

Twenty years ago today Mugello, as only Mugello can, prepared itself for the battle of all battles. They packed those magnificent Tuscan hillsides dressed in yellow, red and fewer in black and white accompanied by a symphony of unsilenced engines and air horns. The smell and smoke of coloured flares filled the warm Sunday morning air as the leather clad gladiators arrived in the Colosseum.

They had been there for most of the night and when the Italian trio finally appeared in the morning sunshine Mugello went completely crazy. This was the Italian Grand Prix and a home rider had never won the premier class 500cc race at this legendary venue nestling between the hills 20 miles from Florence.

The likes of Agostini, Lucchinelli and Uncini may have captured the ultimate prize but never the premier class win in front of the Tifosi at Mugello. This year was surely going to be different.

It was the fight those passionate Italian fans had been savouring for a long time. Bitter rivals Valentino Rossi and Max Biaggi meeting head to head for the first time in a grand prix race on home soil. Completing the trio Loris Capirossi who had already joined a legendary club by winning 125,250 and 500cc grands prix. Prodigal son Rossi’s first season in the 500cc class after winning both 125 and 250 cc World titles. Four times 250 cc World Champion the Roman Emperor Biaggi who had won first time out in the 500cc class two years earlier at Suzuka. Capirossi was probably the underdog with so much media hype focusing on Rossi and Biaggi, but Loris had already been round the block and back. Two 125 cc World titles and then that controversial 1998 World 250 cc title after he ‘collided’ with teammate and Championship rival Tetsuya Harada at the final bend in the final round in Argentina. Sandwiched between those titles Capirossi had won the 500cc race in the 1996 Australian Grand Prix when Alex Criville brought down team-mate Mick Doohan in the last corner at Eastern Creek.

The three Italians had not won at the opening five rounds of the 2000 World Championship, but this was a battle that was fought with far more than 25 world championship points at stake. This was the race everybody in Italy had been waiting for and the trio put on a show that brought the country to a halt.

The real fun and games started with seven of the 23 laps remaining with the three exchanging blows and the lead at the front. Something had to give and Rossi was the first when he lost the front end of the Honda under braking. Then there was two and going into the last lap Capirossi on the Pons Honda led the Yamaha of Biaggi who momentarily got to the front before being pushed back to second. He came back at Capirossi at the last right-hand bend but preparing for a final corner assault got too close. His front brake lever touched the rear seat of the Honda and down Biaggi went in a cloud of dust and gravel.

A triumphant Capirossi crossed the line with arms aloft to celebrate just his second 500cc victory. Rossi returned to Mugello to win seven times in a row. Biaggi never won a premier class race at Mugello. Capirossi went on to win seven more grands prix, none at Mugello but May 28th, 2000 was his day.

Not only did number 65 become the first Italian to win the 500-cc race at Mugello but the win brought Honda their 140th 500cc grand prix win. Ironically, it was one more than the Italian MV Agusta factory.

By |2020-05-28T08:23:10+00:00May 28th, 2020|News and Events, Nick's Blog|0 Comments

IT SEEMS LIKE YESTERDAY

It was 47 years ago today, but it seems like yesterday. The announcement on the BBC News that there had been a tragic accident at Monza in Italy and that two riders Jarno Saarinen and Renzo Pasolini had lost their lives. I just could not believe the news as I stared at the radio on that sunny Sunday afternoon.

Two of my heroes killed in a split second in an avoidable accident in the 250-cc race at the Nations Grand Prix in Monza just did not seem logical or possible but it was.

The Finn Jarno Saarinen who we had followed, admired and even idolised watching him enjoy the complexities of British short circuit racing when he like many other grand prix stars came to ride in the International meetings. The TT races in the Isle of Man were still the British round of the World Championships and it was at the likes of Mallory Park, Silverstone and Brands Hatch we realised we were watching somebody so special.

Much to the disgust of some of our friends we had even decided to forgo our annual trip to the TT races on the Isle of Man that year. Instead we decided it was time to go to grand prix to watch Saarinen in World Championship action at the 1973 Dutch TT in Assen. At least it was a TT but a very different one to the mountain circuit that we had so enjoyed for many years. It was the right time to go because Saarinen had taken the World Championship by storm, in a similar style to Rossi and Marquez in later years. The previous year he won the 250 cc World Championship for Yamaha. The Japanese factory launched a two-stroke attack on the four stroke – dominated 500cc World Championship in 1973. They knew Saarinen was the man capable of their first and the first 500 cc two-stroke title. Of course, he did not let them down. He won the opening two rounds in France and Austria and only a broken chain prevented the hat trick in Germany. In addition, Saarinen won the opening three rounds in the defence of his 250-cc title. No wonder he was nicknamed the ‘Flying Finn.’

Such was the impact of his death that Yamaha immediately withdrew from the 500cc Championship for the remainder of the season and Monza did not stage another motorcycle grand prix for many years.

Ironically, it was at the TT races we fell in love with Italian Renzo Pasolini. The bespectacled Elvis Costello look alike on board that glorious looking and sounding Benelli won our hearts in the 1968 350 cc TT race in the Isle of Man. We sat on the wall at Greeba Castle and could hear at least five miles away first Giacomo Agostini on the MV Agusta and then Pasolini on the Benelli racing through the gears towards us with that glorious sound bouncing between the Manx stone walls and houses. The master Agostini arrived first, fast, smooth and so immaculate. It took us a good minute to catch our breath before Pasolini arrived in a very different but equally quick manner. He was all over the place and almost mounted the grass verge in front of us before disappearing leaving just the haze of exhaust fumes and that wailing sound as he stormed on towards Ballacraine. We were totally hooked.

I don’t think it’s fair to try and work out or compare how sportsman from different eras would have fared against each other but perhaps Jarno Saarinen should be the exception. Would he have been the greatest grand prix motorcycle racer in the 71-year history of World Championship racing?

I think he would.

By |2020-05-20T10:04:40+00:00May 20th, 2020|News and Events, Nick's Blog|1 Comment

NOT TOO MANY THURSDAY AFTERNOONS LIKE THAT ONE

We would have been enjoying the Shark Helmets French Grand Prix at Le Mans this weekend. On the Thursday afternoon the usual pre-event press conference would be underway. Eight years ago Championship leader Casey Stoner more than brightened up the proceedings at one such conference

Let us be honest those essential pre-event press conferences on a Thursday afternoon were usually bland and boring most of the time. The riders would explain how they liked the circuit and everybody in the team was working so hard preparing for the race. There were some notable exceptions especially when Valentino Rossi was involved. The Gibernau and later Marquez condemnations in Sepang and the announcement that he was sacking Crew Chief Jerry Burgess in Valencia stand out. However, that Thursday afternoon in Le Mans eight years ago when Casey Stoner informed us he was retiring at the peak of his career came right of the blue. It caught everybody and especially Rossi by surprise.

Just 15 minutes before the conference was due to start in that tiny, dusty and dark press conference room at the back of the towering start and finish straight grandstand in Le Mans I was asked to get there early. On arrival in an even smaller room more like a Village Hall and full of stacked chairs behind the stage of the Conference room I met Casey and Repsol Honda Media Manager Rhys Edwards. They told me Casey would like to make an announcement before the start of the press conference. Dorna Communications Manager Ignacio Sagnier agreed, and I thought along with everybody else that Casey was going to announce a renewal of his Honda contract. A bit of real news to brighten up the Thursday proceedings.

The media duly assembled and jammed into the room. The riders sat down in their allocated places and I announced that Casey would like to make a statement. The World Champion did not bat an eyelid and calmly revealed that he’d enough of MotoGP in no uncertain terms and announced he was retiring at the end of the season. There was total silence for around ten seconds. The other riders and Valentino in particular were visibly shocked.

After all this was Casey Stoner. One of the great Australians who had brought Ducati their first premier class title and Honda their first 800 cc crown. Casey who had won 35 premier class grands prix including the last two in Jerez and Estoril. This was Casey who typically told Rossi that his ambition had outweighed his talent when the Italian went down pit lane to apologise after crashing the Ducati, that was once the Australian’s property, into him at turn one in Jerez the previous year. Casey who had made the legendary Phillip Island circuit his very own by winning the Australian Grand Prix for the previous five years. This was Casey who had won over the sceptical Rossi loving British fans with a stunning display of wet weather mastery at a cold wet Silverstone a year earlier.

With the stunned ten second silence coming to end people all around started to rise to their feet clapping. Soon everybody was standing and clapping a very special rider and World Champion.

There were not too many Thursday afternoons like that one before or after that.

 

By |2020-05-13T15:05:41+00:00May 13th, 2020|News and Events, Nick's Blog|1 Comment

SPEACHLESS AT VALE’S GREATEST TRIUMPH

Nick Harris has witnessed all of Valentino Rossi’s 89 MotoGP wins but has commentated on only 88. It is hard to believe but it was 19 long years ago today that Valentino Rossi made it three wins in a row with victory on the 500 cc Honda at the 2001 Spanish Grand Prix at a packed crazy Jerez. It was the fifth of his 89 MotoGP wins and a real indication, not that we needed one, to what lay ahead.

 

I witnessed every one of those 89 victories but it would be a lie to state that I commentated on all of them because I was speechless at probably the greatest of them all.

What a time and place to lose your voice but it happened in the Californian sunshine at Laguna Seca in 2008. I started to croak during qualifying and the press conference on Saturday. By Sunday morning after BBC World Service had to curtail my pre-race chat back to London when that usually so loud voice finally gave up the ghost, I knew I had no chance. I sat at the back of the commentary box on the finish line at Laguna croaking with excitement as the brilliant Gavin Emmett and John Hopkins described that head to head confrontations of all confrontations between Rossi and Casey Stoner. That move at the legendary Corkscrew is still regarded by many but not Ducati, as one of Rossi’s greatest. This was a true World Champion at his very best and showing the World why regaining the title meant so much to him, Yamaha and Italy.

I remember that first win at the British Grand Prix at Donington Park in 2000. It was crucial to MotoGP in Britain with World Superbikes led by Carl Fogarty ruling the roost. Just 18,500 spectators turned up that whole weekend but Rossi’s win and Jeremy McWilliam’s third place lit the fire. There was three times the number one year later to cheer their new hero Rossi to victory.

Seventeen amazing years later in 2017 I was on the microphone at Assen when ‘the Doctor’ fought off the considerable challenge of Daniel Petrucci chasing his first grand prix win. It was his 89 th win in the Premier class and he came mighty close to making it 90 a year later in Malaysia when he crashed while leading with the chequered flag beckoning.

After my speechless performance at Laguna perhaps I am biased but my favourite victory in those 89 came at Welkom in South Africa in 2004. You could not have written the script. Rossi’s debut for Yamaha after leaving Honda going head to head with his bitter rival Max Biaggi who had left Yamaha to join Honda. Nobody, including myself gave Rossi much of a chance. Yamaha were in a big mess and had not won a race the previous year. Rossi changed all that in 28 laps of pure drama around the Phakisa Freeway circuit. Sliding the Yamaha and braking so late somehow he won the duel after an amazing last lap in which Biaggi set the fastest lap of the race.  At the finish Vale parked the M1 Yamaha against the guardrail kissed the number 46 as the tears flowed inside his helmet.

I was so lucky to commentate on the performance of somebody so special as I was for the other 88 wins minus one.

 

By |2020-05-06T08:53:45+00:00May 6th, 2020|News and Events, Nick's Blog|Comments Off on SPEACHLESS AT VALE’S GREATEST TRIUMPH