Mat Oxley: Alan Carter’s incredible 250cc win from 31st on the grid — aged 18

Alan Carter made history by winning the French 250cc Grand Prix at Le Mans in 1983 at the age of 18, becoming the youngest-ever intermediate-class GP winner. Carter's father, Mal Carter, was a car dealer, sponsor, boxer, and a gangster who had a scary presence in British race paddocks.

Forty years ago, on April 2, 1983, a British teenager made history at Le Mans. Eighteen-year-old Alan Carter won the French 250cc Grand Prix to become the youngest-ever intermediate-class GP winner, an accolade he retained for the next two decades. Even now, his achievement has only been surpassed by six-times MotoGP world champion Marc Márquez and Dani Pedrosa, the most successful MotoGP rider never to have won the world title.

Alan’s success happened in the strangest circumstances, which perhaps wasn’t all that surprising considering his sadly unusual upbringing. Alan’s father was Mal Carter – car dealer, sponsor, boxer, bit of a gangster and a scary presence in British race paddocks for a couple of decades.

These were the days when riders, mechanics and girlfriends kept their flimsy cardboard paddock passes safe in see-through plastic wallets, attached to their clothes by a giant safety pin. One day at a Continental GP venue Big Mal was stopped at the paddock gate and asked for his pass. “It’s in my back pocket!” he replied angrily. “You must wear your pass,” came the reply. At which point Big Mal took his see-through pouch, pierced one of his ears with its safety pin – punk-rock style – and marched into the paddock.

So this was the kind of background from which Alan came. And his dad only ever expected one result from him and older brother Kenny – twice British speedway champion.

“I was frightened to death of the guy,” Alan recalls of his father. “He was very, very verbally abusive and frightening. He never hit me, though I was scared that he might.”

Alan had blazed his way through British racing to get a ride with the UK Yamaha importers in the 1983 250cc world championship. He was very confident of his talent… “I thought I’d win the title, for sure. I didn’t even think it’d be hard.”

However, his bikes were over-the-counter TZ250s, so he was in for a shock at the season-opening GP at Kyalami, South Africa.

“The top guys’ bikes were phenomenal – all kinds of bespoke gear,” he remembers. “We couldn’t even slipstream half of them.”

Round two was much closer to home, at Le Mans, but this was another new track for the youngster, with grim weather all weekend: cold, rain and a few flurries of snow.

“There were loads of crashes because Dunlop had brought out new tyres for the year and they were all too hard for the conditions.”

And Alan had other worries too. “We had some new ignition parts and the bike kept seizing up on both cylinders. It was only in the last practice session that we got a few good laps in.”

He qualified 31st, dead last. All seemed lost until Saturday evening, when his mechanic was rummaging in the back of the team’s van. There he found an unused super-soft 1982 Dunlop front slick. Suddenly the weather wasn’t so grim after all.

“Dunlop got wind of it and wanted the tyre for one of their guys who had qualified on the front row, but my dad basically told them where they could go.”

Although race-day warm-up went well, Alan was convinced that the challenge of his lowly grid position was insuperable. The back row was 100m behind the front row, where local hero Christian Sarron sat on pole. From his position, Alan couldn’t even see the Frenchman. “I remember thinking, ‘I’ve got no chance.’”

But that sticky front tyre made all the difference on the chilly Le Mans asphalt. Alan was on the attack right from the start – out-braking rivals and stealing the apex from them. By half-distance he was up to eighth, although he had no idea of his race position and was simply pushing on.

“I’d noticed that everyone was riding up the straight just to the right of the white line, which was a couple of feet from the Armco on the left of the track. I kept running over that line and going between the other riders and the Armco, so I couldn’t see my pitboard.”

The cold weather played havoc with even the most skilled and experienced riders…

“There’s three things I can absolutely remember from the race: Sito Pons [250cc world champion in 1988 and 1989] was leading and went straight on at one of the hairpins, then the reigning world champion Jean-Louis Tournadre crashed right in front of me and I nearly ran him over. Then it started to snow a tiny bit towards the end. Thierry Rapicault was just ahead of me and he backed it off a bit, so I went past.

“I didn’t have a clue what position I was in, but it got to a point where I knew I was on the rostrum. It was like, ‘I’m in the top three!’”

“After the chequered flag, when I came into the pits the first guy I saw was [British reporter] Norrie Whyte. He was jumping up and down. I asked him who had won and he looked at me dumbfounded and said, ‘You did!’ I was like, ‘What?!’”

Obviously this should have been the start of a brilliant grand prix career, but it wasn’t. Alan struggled to restrain his aggression, crashed too much and never stood on a podium again.

His life was overtaken by tragedy in 1986, when brother Kenny, aged 25, murdered his wife and then killed himself, leaving their two children orphaned. Alan rode his last grand prix at Donington Park in 1990.

Mat Oxley has covered motorcycle racing for many years – and also has the distinction of being an Isle of Man TT winner
Follow Mat on Twitter @matoxley