Le Mans is always a crazy place but this weekend it is going to be even crazier. Returning home to race for the first time after conquering the World is the stuff of legends. On Sunday MotoGP World Champion Fabio Quartararo sets foot on the hallowed tarmac at the home of French Motorsport to race on home soil for first time since becoming the only Frenchman to win the premier class World Championship. It will be such a special moment for the French Yamaha rider and those fervent French fans who are never afraid to express their emotions and drink plenty of beer. If possible, the support and celebrations could reach another level if this year’s Championship leader wins the race. It has been done by other returning heroes. For some it took just a few weeks. For others it took years, while for some it never happened.
Three weeks after bringing Ducati their first premier class title in 2007 at the home of Honda, Motegi in Japan, Casey Stoner returned home to a hero’s welcome at Phillip Island. I think the adulation he received from the whole sports’ mad country even surprised cool Casey, but he produced the goods on a race track he loved. Not only did he comfortably win the race from team-mate Loris Capirossi and Valentino Rossi but went on to win at Phillip Island for the next five years before retiring
They love their sporting heroes in Australia, and one brought the country to a complete halt. In 1987 Wayne Gardner became the first Australian to win the premier class World title. Australia went Grand Prix mad. Every race was shown live on terrestrial television the Phillip Island circuit, more famous for its penguins, was totally renovated to stage the very first Australian Grand Prix in 1989. Gardner, who been voted Australian Sportsman of the Year in 1987 ahead of Wimbledon tennis champion Pat Cash, had lost his title to Eddie Lawson in 1988. He arrived at the second round of the 1989 Championship in poor shape after almost losing a vital part of his anatomy in a fearsome slide and collision with the fuel tank while finishing fourth at Suzuka in Japan. Australia held its breath and Gardner did not let them down. Just 0.47s separated winner Gardner, Wayne Rainey and Christian Sarron after 30 laps of pure theatre that had the whole nation on hold. First over the barriers opposite pit lane onto the track to celebrate was my sister-in-law, a senior nursing sister at a Perth hospital. She was followed by thousands of others as Australia went crazy. Getting off the Island by the bridge or ferry was impossible that night. The 100 kms trip to Melbourne the next morning took hours with the roads adorned with flags and banners. Front page headlines in every newspaper and television and radio news programmes.
Five times World Champion Mick Doohan returned home for the first race of the 1995 season at Eastern Creek on the outskirts of Sydney after winning his first title the previous year. He celebrated with a comfortable victory over fellow Australian Darryl Beattie.
Jorge Lorenzo only had to wait four weeks after clinching his first MotoGP title at Sepang in 2010. At the final round he celebrated his title with victory over Stoner and Rossi in Valencia. Marc Marquez won at Jerez in 2014 and Valentino Rossi at Mugello in 2002 on their first home appearances as premier class World Champions. Wayne Rainey returned to win at Laguna Seca in 1990 after winning his first World title the previous year.
Not every Local Hero story had a happy ending. Barry Sheene was a national icon in Britain after winning the 1976/77 500cc World titles and fighting back from serious injuries with a cigarette in his mouth, a girl on his arm and a word for everybody. In 1977 the British round of the World Championship switched from the TT circuit in the Isle of Man that had staged the first ever World Championship race in 1949, to Silverstone on the mainland for the first time. Sheene had already retained his World title at Imatra. He was desperate to become the first ever winner of the British Grand and the nation was behind him. Sheene was side-lined with mechanical problems but was on the pit wall hanging out that famous ‘Gas it W…..’ to his great friend Steve Parrish who was leading with a few laps remaining. Spots of rain began to fall. Parrish crashed, followed by second placed John Williams and American Pat Hennen grabbed his second Grand Prix win. A British rider still has never won the Premier class race at his home Grand Prix.
Fabio, prepare yourself for the weekend of all weekends!