The last time grand prix racing was properly interrupted was in September 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland, triggering the Second World War. Those circumstances and the circumstances of the coronavirus crisis may be very different, but the effect on racers is the same: young men in the prime of their lives having their careers stalled through no fault of their own.
Who knows when Marc Márquez, Maverick Viñales and the rest of the MotoGP grid (and every other grid, for that matter) will go racing again, and who knows what racing will look like? Teams and manufacturers are facing an unprecedented crisis, which mirrors the larger crisis that’s unfolding all around us. Even if race teams survive the pandemic, what about airlines and all the other industries that racing relies upon?
During the months leading up to the outbreak of war in the summer of 1939, German Georg Meier and Italian Dorino Serafini fought an epic battle for that year’s 500cc championship, at that time a European title rather than a world title. Both rode supercharged multi-cylinder machines, which finally defeated Norton’s venerable single (difficult to supercharge) that had ruled most of the 1930s.
Meier’s back injury turned out to be the luckiest break of his life. He was declared unfit for military service.
Meier was a Wehrmacht soldier and a factory BMW rider, famed for brave rides that won him an audience with Adolf Hitler and the nickname Der Gusseiserne Schorsch (Ironman Georg). He scored numerous victories aboard BMW’s fearsome Type 255 Kompressor boxer twin, including the 1938 European championship, celebrating each success with a Nazi salute.
Serafini was the son of a carriage maker in Pesaro, the birthplace of Graziano Rossi, Valentino’s father, and a centre of Italian motorcycling history. He joined Gilera in 1938, riding the factory’s blown inline-four, the great-granddaddy of today’s Suzuki and Yamaha MotoGP machines. Like Germany, Italy had a fascist leader, so Serafini also marked his victories with a fascist salute in honour of dictator Benito Mussolini.
Mussolini was a keen motorcyclist – the Italian Moto Club proclaimed him the First Rider of Italy. He was good friends with fellow black-shirt Count Giovanni Bonmartini, who developed Italy’s seminal inline-four before Guiseppe Gilera, who sometimes decorated his machines with Mussolini’s preferred symbol, the Fascio Littorio.
Dorino Serafini with the Gilera four, great-granddaddy of today’s YZR-M1 and GSX-RR MotoGP bikes
Meier won the first three rounds of the 1939 500cc season, at the Isle of Man TT, Assen and Spa-Francorchamps. But he made a big mistake in July, when he skipped the French motorcycle GP to drive an Auto Union in the French car GP. Next time out at Saxtorp in Sweden Meier and Serafini once again disputed the lead, until Meier crashed heavily, sustaining a serious back injury.
Serafini won the next race at the Nürburgring and the one after that at Clady, Northern Ireland, where the grid was half empty, because most people knew what was coming. Just days later war broke out, cancelling 1939’s final two GPs at Berne, Switzerland, and Monza, Italy.
And that was that, the racing careers of Meier, Serafini and all their fellow racers were stalled, through no fault of their own.
Meier’s back injury turned out to be the luckiest break of his life. He was declared unfit for military service and spent the war as a motorcycle instructor and chauffeur to Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, chief of German military intelligence. Canaris was executed in 1944 for plotting against Hitler. After the war Meier returned to racing, but only in the German championship, because Germany was excluded from international events until 1951.