The New Year is usually a time to look forward. But the past is an easier place to talk about than the future, so please forgive me for looking backward as I struggle into 2013, having rather overdone it on too many occasions during the past week or so.
This year it’s 20 years since one of the most thrilling, weird and anguished battles for the premier-class World Championship. The 1993 duel between Americans Kevin Schwantz and Wayne Rainey will never be forgotten, and not only for good reasons.
Schwantz versus Rainey will always be one of ‘bike racing’s all-time greatest rivalries – much more real and much nastier than anything we’ve had in MotoGP. The pair hated each other from the moment their career paths collided in US Superbikes in 1986.
“I don’t know why I disliked him,” says Schwantz. “Except that I knew how much he disliked me, so I figured I’d dislike him just as much.”
The pair’s fulltime GP careers began at exactly the same time, in 1988, so 1993 was their sixth year together on the World Championship trail. By then Rainey had won three titles, Schwantz none.
1993 was different from the get-go. Yamaha had taken a wrong turn in chassis development, building a chassis of extruded sections of aluminium that was far too stiff and thus overworked the tyres. This episode was almost certainly the start of the factory’s understanding of the science of controlled flex in chassis design. It’s worth remembering that Yamaha’s current MotoGP boss Masahiko Nakajima worked on Rainey’s YZR500s. At the same time Suzuki had finally got their fickle RGV500 properly dialled in, so for once, Yamaha didn’t have the best bike.
Schwantz won first time out at Eastern Creek, then the home of GP racing in Australia, but Rainey bounced back with wins at Shah Alam and at Suzuka, where he beat Schwantz by 0.08 seconds in a classic duel. That was when Rainey had his out-of-body experience.
“I was looking down at myself, laughing smiling and giggling,” said the Californian many years later. “I remember being at the press conference after the race and thinking, I can’t tell them what just happened – they won’t let me on the racetrack.” Even now, Rainey admits he’s spooked by the feeling he had that day.
Then it was Schwantz’s turn for back-to-back wins, Rainey struggling so badly that he junked his factory chassis and switched to a Swiss-made ROC.
By now the usually calm and collected Rainey was almost 30 points down and very badly rattled. At the Salzburgring he qualified seventh, more than a second slower than Schwantz.
“After qualifying I had a little tizzy,” he recalls. “I was so pissed I kicked my leathers around the motorhome, but after that I felt pretty calm.”
Rainey would’ve finished the Salzburgring race in fourth place, but for a bizarre incident on the final lap, which he started two seconds down on third-placed Alex Barros. Schwantz’s team-mate had been trying to get past a problematic backmarker and became so incensed that he rolled off on the back straight and started punching the backmarker’s helmet. That outburst gifted third place to Rainey.
And the luck kept going Rainey’s way, for now at least. At Donington Mick Doohan – still in a real mess with a wonky right leg – took out Schwantz on the first lap, so now the two Americans were just about even on points.
Schwantz’s Donington disaster seemed to unravel the sometimes highly strung Texan. At the next race he struggled home a distant fifth while a revitalised Rainey crushed everyone. But that Brno victory came too easily for Rainey who later admitted “in some strange way I felt empty. Something was lost there and I’m not sure why I felt that way, even to this day”.
Perhaps it was some kind of a premonition. Everyone knows what happened next time out at Misano. Rainey was ahead of Schwantz when he crashed and severed his spine, so Schwantz was World Champion and only an idiot would suggest that he didn’t deserve it.
But Rainey’s downfall also took Schwantz to pieces. “That’s when I realised: f**k, you’re really not bulletproof, you’re not ten feet tall.” Schwantz retired 18 months later, having won just two more races.
We still see Rainey occasionally. Last September he visited Misano for the first time since 1993. Following his accident Dorna said that MotoGP would never return to Misano, but when the circuit changed from anti-clockwise to clockwise, Dorna decided that was a good enough excuse to forget their promise.
Ironically, the circuit’s change of direction robbed the place of its best section, which also happened to be Rainey’s all-time favourite sequence of corners – a breathtaking series of three high-speed lefts that took riders onto the back straight at ever-increasing velocity. It was always a joy to watch ex-dirt tracker Rainey through there, the rear tyre spinning and jumping around as he kept the throttle pinned, almost like he was riding the Ascot mile back home in the States.
Rainey is still alive and still full of life, and somehow it feels like we miss him more because he’s still around. Two years ago I visited him at home in Monterey. It’s always emotional meeting the great man, because the frustration at his situation is still there in his eyes which continue to burn with the same intensity that carried him to those three world titles.
While we were talking, a workman arrived to fix a roof leak. “There’s nothing that makes me madder than having to depend on somebody else to do such a simple task,” he told me. “But that’s where I’ve had to grow and learn to be patient.”
Like I said, we will always remember 1993, even if many of the memories are far from happy.