If there is an era in sports motorcycling that the more veteran fans remember with nostalgia, that would be the time of the 2 stroke 500cc bikes. Surrounded by a mystic halo, the American and Australian riders suddenly populated the world championship, till then dominated by the Europeans. But how did this change come about in such a short time?
A new style of riding
In 1973 the “Flying Finn”, Jarno Saarinen, convincingly won the Daytona 200 miles with a Yamaha TZ350 in front of a hoard of local racers equipped with more powerful bikes. He was the first European to achieve this and amongst the spectators that historic day was a young Kenny Roberts. Roberts was a Californian with a natural talent for speed on the dirt tracks which constituted most of the Gran National tests, the only AMA championship at that time, which alternated dirt-track events with asphalt. But Roberts didn’t quite feel at home on the tracks….till then.
Roberts changed his way of riding after seeing Saarinen: the Finn shifted all his body towards the inside of a turn thus improving the behaviour of the bike in the curve. Saarinen picked up this habit in the ice-track races that were held in his native land. Roberts soon adapted this style and exaggerated it, sticking his knees out until brushing the asphalt with them. And here began a new era in motorcycling.
Barry Sheene and Kenny Roberts gave to the fans incredible battles on the World Championship circuits
A Martian from America
Years later, Roberts, already crowned champion in the USA, decided to emigrate to Europe for the 1978 world championship title. His innovative style arrived just when the new two stroke 500cc bikes were wining strength with giant strides. The new four cylinder engines introduced by Yamaha and Suzuki in the premier class had a very surly power delivery.
The European riders that came up from the lower categories, where finesse in the control is obligatory, braked late in order to achieve the greatest velocity possible on the curve, whilst Roberts started to use the opposite method: ”killed” the pace in the curve in exchange for accelerating before anyone else and, when the bike skidded because of this, he slid as if he was on a dirt-track.
The tyres of the time, much less sophisticated as regards composites and different tracks, also contributed to this savage style. The old continent riders were surprised by the American school of riding, accustomed to perceiving the skid as an infallible sign of an imminent fall.
The result of this revolution started by Roberts was his coronation as champion that same year, racing each weekend on tracks he hardly knew and against rivals new to him. An incredible feat which earned him the nickname of “The Martian”: come from another planet to win. But soon, it was the very same 500cc category that would become extraterrestrial terrain for the Europeans.
In the mid ‘80s, the 500cc had become the hunting ground of the American and Australian riders. Although many of them came from the four stroke championships of their country, all knew the art of sliding thanks to the dirt-track. Weighing 115 kilos, 150 horse power, those “five hundreds” were diabolical for the rider. The era was characterised by a constant series of epic duels between the transoceanic riders always on the verge of falling.
Freddie Spencer and Kenny Roberts, at the beggining of a Grand Prix
Roberts came up against Spencer in the 1983 season where they finished elbow to elbow. In the penultimate event, in Anderstop, the two Americans made the sparks fly, when, at the end of a long straight, their back ends touched. They both came of the track, but “Fast Fredie” managed to get his light, three cylinder Honda back onto the track and win some vital points. The next race, at Imola, he was crowned 500cc champion, the youngest in history till then and unbeaten until Marc Márquez in 2013.
Randy Mamola, Wayne Gardner, Eddie Lawson…were tough racers, on and off the track. But without a doubt, if there was a relentless rivalry that marked the era, it was the duel between Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz. The former was a Californian that came from Roberts background, like Lawson or John Kocinsky. The latter was a slightly shy Texan family guy. But on the track they were opposites. Rainey contained and smart, Scwantz wild and hasty. Both were Yamaha and Suzuki riders throughout their entire sports careers and as of their first squabbles in the AMA, they hated each other.
Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz talking and walking through the Pit Lane
Their first adventure in Europe was a prelude to what we’d see: Brands Hatch, competing on Superbikes, both knocked against each other round after round, trying to gain the best path in the British rollercoaster. And in the World championship they continued their rivalry: their duels in Suzuka, Hockenheim, Assen…still hold a special place in fans’ video libraries.
Evolution of the protections
A parallel development to the violent 500ccs was the appearance of the new protection system for riders, which would pas from the track to the road bikers. Safe tracks that allowed for more and more risk taking and demanding machines, the number of falls that the racers took increased dramatically and the gear manufacturers started a parallel revolution.
The Honda NSR 500 and Wayne Gardner at Brno Circuit (1990)
More and more sophisticated full face helmets, the then new knee guards, extra protections and reinforcements against grazing the asphalt that the racers caressed even more. From the multitude of falls they learnt valuable lessons, how to improve the areas more vulnerable to lesions on a glove and from tragedies such as Rainey’ fall in Misano, came the creation of ergonomic back protectors.
The protections evolved more in this decade than in the fifty years before, also true for tyres and chassis. This also led to the appearance of replica material: the helmets of track heroes were available in the same colours. The riders became unexpected test pilot and their contracts with the gear brands meant valuable extra earnings and a very successful publicity tool for the companies.
The World Championship that conquered Schwantz was the ending point of the Golden Age, which was followed by the Doohan's Era
End of an era
All good things come to an end and the era of the wild 500cc too. In 1992 Honda introduced the “Big Bang” engine, where the cylinder explosions were grouped and power delivery was softened. This technology was soon adopted by all the brands. The 500cc were far from docile, but they were no longer impossible mounts. The five consecutive titles of Doohan had European and Japanese rivals. European motorcycling was forced to evolve and in the ‘90s it found its way with the appearance of the Supermotard. The art of savage riding stopped being a secret to them.