MotoGP’s darkest day


Dodgy two-stroke technology and a nauseatingly callous racing establishment were the causes of Monza 1973 – a fiery multiple pile-up that claimed the lives of two of the sport’s biggest stars and changed the course of racing

Saarinen races away from Phil Read’s MV at the season-opening French GP, four weeks before Monza

Saarinen races away from Phil Read’s MV at the season-opening French GP, four weeks before Monza


Motorcycle racing changed forever at 3.17pm on May 20, 1973. The Italian 250cc grand prix had just got underway at Monza and the pack was accelerating flat-out towards the first turn: the daunting, Armco-lined 140mph Curve Grande; no chicane in those days.

German Dieter Braun led the way on his Yamaha TZ250, chased hard by Renzo Pasolini on his Harley-Davidson and Yamaha’s Jarno Saarinen, who had narrowly beaten Pasolini to the previous year’s 250 world title. At that moment Saarinen was the greatest rider in the world and firm favourite for the 1973 500 title after he had dominated the opening two rounds on Yamaha’s first 500 GP bike, the 0W19 inline-four.

As the pack charged through the Curva Grande, Pasolini’s Harley two-stroke seized a piston at about 130mph, locked its rear wheel and hurled him to the ground, where Saarinen was unable to avoid him. The 27-year-old Finn crashed, cannoned into the trackside guardrail and rebounded into the track where he too was run over by the pursuing pack.

No warning flags were shown and the race wasn’t stopped. Many of the survivors kept racing, threading their way through the chaos

Fuel tanks were ruptured, sparks flew and a ball of fame engulfed the circuit, setting alight the hay bales uselessly lining the Armco. Riders rode through the blinding inferno at high speed, trying but mostly failing to avoid the fallen. In all, 14 riders crashed. Only one or two walked away; several were seriously injured. Saarinen and Pasolini were dead.

And yet in spite of this scene of horror no warning flags were shown and the race wasn’t stopped. For several minutes many of the survivors kept racing, threading their way through the chaos each lap, until they pulled into the pits of their own volition and the race ended.

Two months later bikes raced again at Monza. Before this national meeting, Dr Claudio Costa – later in charge of MotoGP’s Clinica Mobile – asked the organisers to place an ambulance at Curve Grande. His request was refused. Once again there was a pile-up at the corner. It took 20 minutes for an ambulance to get to the scene – too late for the three riders who perished.

Health and safety are usually dirty words these days, but it wasn’t so long ago that race organisers happily got away with jaw-dropping callousness. Monza was by no means the only circuit guilty of such sins.

The people who survived the Saarinen/Pasolini tragedy are still scarred by the events. Briton Chas Mortimer was a top privateer of the time and suffered serious leg injuries in the accident. He still finds it difficult to talk about what happened.

“I was the third person that crashed,” says Mortimer, the only rider to have been victorious in 125, 250, 350 and 500 GPs and F750 races. “I killed Pasolini, actually. There’s a picture of me coming out of the flames with Pasolini lying right across the road and I ran straight into him.

“It was like what happened when Marco Simoncelli was killed (during the 2011 Malaysian GP), except there was no fire at Sepang. That accident really brought Monza back to me – I feel so sorry for Colin Edwards and Valentino Rossi [who were unable to avoid the fallen Simoncelli].

“It was Pasolini and Saarinen and their bikes hitting the barriers and coming back onto the circuit that started it all, then the hay bales caught alight and it was just bloody carnage. I was about the only person that was able to walk away from it. Everyone else was stretchered away. I remember running over see Jarno – all his head had gone virtually – it was bloody horrendous… It was a bloody enormous accident, the biggest there’s ever been in Grand Prix racing.”

Monza 73 crash

The start of the Monza multiple pile-up that claimed the lives of Saarinen and Pasolini


After the crash Yamaha withdrew its factory team for the rest of the year. An investigation was then established to examine the causes of the accident.

Most people blamed Walter Villa, whose Benelli four-stroke had sprung an oil leak during the preceding 350 race. Several riders had pleaded with the organisers to clean the track before the 250s went out. The organisers refused and then called the police to eject the protesting riders from their office.

Neither Villa – who was one of the 250 fallers and remained in shock and mute for several days after the accident – nor Benelli management proclaimed their innocence, so they were presumed guilty. Thus Villa went to his grave in 2002 without being forgiven by some of Saarinen’s loved ones.

But the investigation found that the accident wasn’t Villa’s fault at all. When Saarinen’s and Pasolini’s machines were stripped the investigators discovered that the Harley’s right-side piston had seized. They concluded that the bike’s rudimentary water-cooling system was to blame.

However, Villa was never publically exonerated because the results of the investigation were never fully published and remained largely unknown until Italian magazine Tuttomoto published them in 1993.

Monza 1973 changed many things, some for the good – it’s been a sad constant in racing that safety improvements are only made after riders pay the highest price for doing what they love. The accident was one of many during the 1960s and 1970s that made riders realise they were being taken for a ride. Something had to be done to improve safety.

“As long as tracks like Monza are used, the rider’s life isn’t worth more than that of a mouse in a mousetrap – nothing,” said Braun after that fateful day.

Jarno Saarinen cornering

Saarinen on his way to the 1972 250cc world championship


Blame it on the ‘death rails’

Although a flaky two-stroke caused the Monza pile-up the accident might not have proved fatal if the circuit hadn’t been ringed by Armco. Both Saarinen and Pasolini died after they hit the guardrail and bounced back into the oncoming traffic.

Thus two big lessons were learned: the bike builders needed to improve lubrication, metallurgy and cooling, while the track builders needed to get rid of the Armco,

“The riders called the barriers ‘death rails and at that time they were rising like mushrooms out of the ground at every circuit,” recalls famed Yamaha mechanic Ferry Brouwer.

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Armco (the name derives from the American Rolling Mill Company) became a serious problem in the early 1970s after Formula 1 drivers demanded crash barriers to prevent out-of-control cars launching off the track with potentially fatal results for them and for spectators. For bike racers, however, the cold steel rails were every bit as dangerous as a dry-stone wall on the Isle of Man. One step forward for car racers was one giant leap backwards for bike racers.

“At one of my first GPs I remember a British rider called Rob Fitton hitting the Armco at the Nürburgring,” says Chas Mortimer. “It nearly took his leg off and he bled to death because there was no one around to stop it.”

Although bike riders lobbied circuits and organisers they had little chance of being heard.

“We were second-class citizens because the cars pulled in more punters,” adds Mortimer. “The other problem was that the organisers were a law unto themselves. They were a lot of terrible men who just weren’t interested. They’d say, on your bike, mate. There were worse places than Monza – Salzburgring was the worst because the track was completely ringed by barriers.”

In 1977 the Salzburgring was still encircled by Armco when a massive Monza-style pile-up left one rider dead and several seriously injured, including 1982 500 World Champion Franco Uncini, who is now MotoGP’s safety officer.

Although safety didn’t improve overnight, perhaps Monza was the start of the long road towards today’s much safer circuits. But while some venues did start removing the Armco and installing runoff areas, it was a slow process.

“At Mugello in ’83, the circuit took out the fencing, then told us, ‘Right, your hay bales are here, so go and put them out'”

“For many years I pushed very hard to get organisers to take out the f**king barriers,” says 15-times world champion Giacomo Agostini. “I think the Monza crash did make everyone realise the barriers were bad, but the real reason they were removed was that Formula 1 also realised the barriers were dangerous because they could break fuel tanks and cause fires. Finally people understood they must take out the barriers, but it happened very slowly.”

By 1982 the riders were so fed up with lack of progress that they hired former racer Mike Trimby – now general secretary of MotoGP teams’ association IRTA – to fight for their rights.

“By the time I arrived there was more run-off, but this was before gravel beds, so they had catch fencing, which the car guys wanted to slow the cars down,” says Trimby. “The problem was that the fencing was held up by wooden posts – 500 rider Michel Frutschi was killed by one of the posts at Le Mans in 1983. It was like planting trees around racetracks!

“We had loads of arguments with circuits. We ended up removing a lot of catch fencing ourselves. What we wanted was something that would gradually collapse to slow riders after they’d crashed, which meant good old hay bales. I remember at Mugello in ’83, the circuit took out the fencing, then told us, ‘Right, your hay bales are here, they’re on that tractor over there, so go and put them out’, which we did – us and the riders.’

Bit by bit the riders began to have more of a dialogue with the organisers. “Once IRTA was launched in 1986 we had a formal voice. The other turning point was 1992 when Dorna came in. The deal with them was that we didn’t have to race anywhere we didn’t want to race. Now, when someone like Hermann Tilke [creator of Sepang, Shanghai, Austin and other tracks] designs a new circuit, they incorporate what we want for bikes. The situation can never be perfect but it’s about as close as it can get.”

A few weeks after Saarinen’s death, Yamaha published its own (rather hurried and lightweight) investigation into the Monza accident. The report concluded with a statement that reveals how differently danger was perceived in those days – you won’t find Valentino Rossi’s team boss discussing the necessity of danger in bike racing.

“Motorcycle racing will always involve an element of danger,” said the report. “It may be said that danger is necessary to bring out the qualities of a champion when man and machine are striving for the ultimate performance. But unnecessary and senseless danger can, and should be, eliminated as a duty to the competitors.”

Jarno Saarinen in action

Saarinen took the brand-new 0W19 to victory at Paul Ricard and Salzburgring


The genius of Jarno

Jarno Saarinen was a genius, a game-changer and all set to become an all-time great. He had learned to slide bikes as a champion ice racer, so he brought a whole new way of riding to GP racing. His skills inspired Kenny Roberts to do what he did: drag his knees and ride sideways.

“I started hanging off at Ontario Motor Speedway in 1972,” recalls Roberts. “The track had this horseshoe where I felt so uncomfortable, like I was going to crash. So I watched Jarno – he leaned off the bike with his knee out, so I leaned off and all of a sudden I didn’t have that bad feeling.”

Finnish ice racers like Saarinen made an earlier impact in GPs than American dirt trackers like Roberts and Freddie Spencer. During Saarinen’s era there were plenty more Finns in the GP paddock, including GP winners Tepi Lansivouri and Pentti Korhonen.

Saarinen studied mechanical engineering at university and was known for his meticulous machine preparation. He thought very hard about how to go faster, using both riding technique and machine technology. He was famous for positioning his handlebars at an unusually steep angle, which he claimed helped him to control slides. In little more than one season – between September 1971 and May 1973 – he won 17 GPs across the 250, 350 and 500 classes.

And what if Saarinen had lived?

Bike racing might have had a very different look for the next half decade if Saarinen hadn’t perished at Monza.

The brilliant Finn was running away with the 1973 500cc world championship when fate intervened, so he was already set to make history by winning the first two-stroke 500 crown. His death prompted Yamaha to withdraw from racing, so history was deferred and the two-stroke had to wait another two years before it conquered the premier class.

His passing poses several other questions. If he had lived, would Phil Read have won the 1973 and 1974 500 world titles on the MV Agusta? Possibly not, because the MV four-stroke was being rapidly overtaken by Yamaha’s considerably faster two-stroke.

And if Saarinen’s star had still been in the ascendance would Barry Sheene have won his two world titles in 1976 and 1977? And if Yamaha had had all the riding talent they needed, would Agostini have signed for the factory in 1974 and won his final world title the following year? And would Kenny Roberts have come to Europe in 1978?

It’s all ifs and buts, but there’s no doubt that losing a genius rider at a relatively young age had multiple ramifications for GP racing.

Maty Oxley Zen

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