Grand Prix motorcycling has known few riders as wild as Wayne Gardner, who gave Australia its first premier-class world title 30 years ago this summer.
Gardner won the 500cc championship when 500 two-strokes were at their nastiest, when engineers had worked out how to make huge horsepower but had yet to learn how to soften its delivery. Like every champion from that era, Gardner started racing on the dirt, so he knew what to do when the rear tyre ran out of grip and the motorcycle slid sideways.
Well, most of the time, because in those days the bike was often too far gone before the rider had a chance to catch it. Gardner spent more time than most in Dr Claudio Costa’s Clinica Mobile, getting patched up after he had been ejected over the handlebars.
Gardner’s riding technique was that era’s version of Marc Márquez’s, except even more out of control. He rode a motorcycle like it was a bucking bronco, grabbing big handfuls of throttle and hanging on for dear life.
He contested GPs from 1984-92, always staying faithful to Honda. Many of those years were marked by a bitter rivalry with Eddie Lawson, the dry-as-dust Californian to Gardner’s wild man of Wollongong, a tough, steelmaking town near Sydney. Lawson won four world titles, Gardner one.
He made his name in Australia riding four-stroke superbikes and came to Europe in 1981 with a thousand dollars in his pocket. “I slept on people’s floors and hitchhiked around to meet people and plead and beg to get on a bike to show my skills,” he says.
Honda Britain signed him the following year to ride its four-stroke TT F1 bikes. Gardner became the man to beat on British tracks and eventually made his way onto 500s. In 1986 he joined the Rothmans-backed factory Honda squad, as understudy to world champion Freddie Spencer. When Spencer was sidelined by injury problems at the first race, the 26-year-old became Honda’s number one.
The unexpected change of circumstances didn’t do him any good. Gardner determined to forsake his wild youth, cut out the booze and get himself a sports psychiatrist. However, the new regime was counter-productive. Soundly defeated by Lawson at the next few races, he turned to friend and former British championship rival Roger Marshall for help. Marshall’s idea of psychotherapy was to take Gardner out on the eve of the Dutch TT and get him smashed. “I got in at 3am, blind drunk. Next morning I had a massive hangover and was heaving up during warm-up.” But Marshall’s unlikely medicine did the trick – Gardner scored his first win in five races.
The ‘ride hard, party hard’ mantra stayed for the rest of his career. Sometimes he didn’t even wait for the party, rehydrating with a beer during the post-race press conference.
“After a race I’d be dying for a beer. I’m a typical Australian: I had worked up a thirst so I’d have a beer. Later on there’d be a barbecue, or we’d end up trashing my motorhome or someone else’s. There was a big sense of relief after the races, so we needed a pressure release to let off steam.”
In 1987 Gardner dominated the world championship, using a very quick NSR500 to leave Lawson’s Yamaha trailing. However, Honda’s engineers took some wrong turnings over the next few seasons – the company’s policy of rotating its design groups every few years worked wonders for education but not always so well for race results.
The NSR became yet more difficult, even for Gardner, who suffered injury after injury and missed much of 1989 with a broken leg. Honda regained the right road in 1990, when he won his most famous victory, beating new team-mate Mick Doohan at Phillip Island, despite a busted wrist and broken fairing.
This was typical Gardner: riding on emotion and producing a superhuman result. “Emotion was a big thing for me,” he says. “That emotion sometimes pushed me past what’s humanly possible and sometimes it got me into trouble.”
Honda finally got the NSR right in 1992, creating its user-friendly ‘big bang’ engine that transformed 500 racing. Gardner scored his final victory on this bike, just days after announcing his retirement, a decision taken following another fall. “I was knocked out. In hospital they put me in a scanner and I was in and out of consciousness; I thought I was dying. That scared the shit out of me and I told myself, ‘I’m not enjoying this anymore’.”
Gardner spent the next few years contesting the All-Japan touring car and Australian V8 Supercar championships. More recently his focus has been older son Remy, who rides in MotoGP’s Moto2 championship.
Now nearing his sixties, Gardner has mellowed, but not much. Last October he spent 12 days in a Japanese jail for his alleged involvement in a road-rage incident at the entrance to the Twin Ring Motegi circuit. This was on race morning of the Japanese GP. Remy was also arrested but was freed in time to take part in his race.