Mat Oxley

The darkest day

Jarno Saarinen was so good at motorcycle racing that he taught 'King' Kenny Roberts to road race without even knowing it When the Finn went racing in the States — in March 1973 he became the first European to win the Daytona 200 — he was watched all the way by Roberts, then a young dirt track champ with Tarmac aspirations.

Saarinen was one of the first racers to hang off his motorcycle, shifting his weight to the inside to force the machine through the turns and reduce lean angle, which increased cornering speed. He won the 1972 250 World Championship for Yamaha, who promoted him to the 500 class. Saarinen dominated the first two races of 1973, at Paul Picard and the Salzburgring, so by the time the circus arrived at Monza he was firm favourite to win the title.

This should have been history in the making. Not only would Yamaha's success have ended MV Agusta's 17-year reign as premier-class king, it would also have been the first time Japan and the two-stroke had conquered the category.

Instead, Saarinen's brilliance was snuffed out at the first corner of the Monza 250 Grand Prix. Ironically, it was the curse of the two-stroke that ended his life. Hurtling into the 140mph Curva Grande for the first time, Renzo Pasolini's Harley-Davidson seized, causing the Italian to fall into Saarinen's path. The Finn too went down, bike and rider ricocheting off the Armco, triggering a domino effect among the pack. By the time the accident was over, the track was a raging inferno, a further dozen riders had fallen and Saarinen and Pasolini were dead.

The death of two of bike racing's best riders — Pasolini had chased Saarinen all the way to the 1972 250 crown — still stands out as the sport's darkest day. Anyone who followed motorcycling at the time remembers exactly where they were when they heard the news.

Saarinen was undoubtedly a genius and destined for all-time greatness. People who knew him ranked him with Mike Hailwood and Giacomo Agostini. He was Finnish ice-racing champion before he moved into Grands Prix, so he could slide a road race bike, even before Roberts. And because he had studied mechanical engineering at university he had a more technical approach to racing than other riders of his era. His death prompted Yamaha's stunned management to withdraw from the 500 championship, delaying its takeover of the class until Ago made history with them in 1975.

The Monza pile-up caused huge controversy at a time when riders were waking up to the fact that something needed to be done about safety. Not only were street circuits highly dangerous, but the new trend for installing guardrails at purpose-built tracks increased the risks for bike racers. Most people in Fl believed steel barriers would improve safety for car racers and spectators, but they had the opposite effect for bikers who christened the installations "death rails". Certainly, most riders believed Saarinen and Pasolini (the pair are pictured above, at the Salzburgring) might have survived if they had instead tumbled into undergrowth.

When he arrived at Monza, Saarinen had complained about the Armco, but it stayed. His fear that a fallen rider would bounce into the path of traffic proved tragically prophetic.

Seven weeks later bikes raced again at Monza in a junior national meeting. No changes had been made and three riders lost their lives in another pile-up. Incredibly, it took some years before most circuits underwent major changes, with barriers pushed back behind run-off areas.

They did things differently in the 1970s. Some sections of the industry regarded riders as disposable and safety was often overlooked. In many ways, they weren't the good old days.