I DON’T remember where I was on 20 May 1973 any better than where I was on the day President Kennedy was shot; but while it took me a while to appreciate the significance of JFK’s murder, the news of Jarno Saarinen’s death had an impact that was both immediate and profound.
I’d first seen him in action in 1971, back in the days of air-cooled Yamahas, when he’d journeyed to Silverstone for an international meeting that would evolve into the British Grand Prix after the Isle of Man TT lost its place on the world championship calendar. It was a curious meeting. Silverstone had never seemed as enthusiastic about motorcycle racing as had so many other British circuits, and the party had in any case come to an abrupt halt after the 1965 Hutchinson 100 meeting following an altercation between ‘fans’ and the authorities – we were struck from the calendar.
So the 1971 gig was the first Silverstone bike meeting for six years, and the race-day program bore testimony to that by listing lap records that had been set back in the age of dinosaurs when Mike Hailwood was still riding for MV Agusta.
There was further confusion when we realised that motorcycles shared the billing with, um, bicycles.
Yes, the peloton had come to town to entertain us black-leather -jacketed oiks and it amuses me to this day to recall silent cyclists whistling through Woodcote Corner at 50km/h. And out of all this came Jarno and his superbly turned-out Arwidson Yamahas, blowing through the bike world like a strong gust of fresh air. He won everything that day, beating the cream of Europe’s F750 punters to lift the lap record to a blistering 104.95mph.
Things would clearly be more exciting still when he received factory hardware. Remember that in the opening years of the 1970s the bigger classes were still in the grip of the MV Agusta hegemony, and while we miss the yowl of the fire engines from Varese these days back then it was boring beyond endurance to watch Giacomo Agostini win grand prix after grand prix for want of credible opposition (the laps times he set in 350cc races were often faster than in the 500s, because TR2/3 Yamahas would usually push him a little harder than the antique Manx Nortons and G50 Matchlesses in the bigger class).
Suddenly we had something to look forward to. Saarinen got his first batch of factory kit in 1972, still through his local importer, Arwidson, and set about winning a hard-fought 250cc world championship. Indeed it proved the toughest scrap of the year, with no fewer than five riders claiming grand prix wins before Saarinen took four wins from the last six to hoist himself clear of the pack. The Finn gave Ago a fright, too, taking the first two rounds of the 350cc championship before the bellowing MV disappeared into the distance. These were the days when you could expect to see the stars turn out for non-championship meetings and Jarno was back at Silverstone in August.
I was there for that one, too, and saw him make up for the glaring omission of bicycles from the program to show the 750s a clear pair of heels again, raising the bar to 106.65mph.
By this time word had leaked out that Yamaha would be competing in the 500cc class the following year, not with an overbored 350 twin but with a reed-valve across the frame four – effectively two TD2s side by side. Before any of that, however, Saarinen took time out to impress the Yanks by winning the 1973 Daytona 200 on the then-new water-cooled TZ350, returning to Europe to do the same in the Imola 200. And then it was on. Saarinen won the first three rounds of the 250cc world championship on the trot, and threatened to do the same in the 500cc class, picking up wins at Paul Ricard in France and Salzburg in Austria, and looking set to make it three from three at Hockenheim until he rolled to a stop with a broken chain.
And so to Monza on 20 May 1973. Saarinen was running third in the 250 race, tucked in behind Renzo Pasolini’s Benelli, when Pasolini fell at the very fast Curva Grande, taking Saarinen with him.
The crash is usually attributed to Pasolini hitting an overlooked patch of oil dropped by Walter Villa’s Benelli in the 350 race, but it might also have been caused by Pasolini’s bike seizing.
What’s certain is that 14 bikes were caught up in the mayhem and Saarinen and Pasolini were killed.
And so ended one of the shortest but most exciting periods in the history of the sport. I saw Saarinen ride a bare handful of times, and even today it astounds me just how good he was. On his day probably only Agostini and Phil Read could keep him in sight, never mind beat him. In the 40 years since his death there hasn’t been a better rider.