The Best Ever Part III
by toby hirst
Thursday, November 04, 2004

Mike Hailwood, the author considers him the best of the '60s GP era.
image from the adams archives
In Part I of this retrospective we looked at the "Best Ever" in Grand Prix motorcycle roadracing, and covered the legends from the 1960s, and I put Mike Hailwood into my personal Hall of Fame.

In Part II, which featured the 1970s, we detailed the emergence of the Americans in the premier class and the way politics played a part in revolutionizing the organization of the series. Kenny Roberts was my pick for the most influential rider of that generation of competitors.

Kenny Roberts—the most influential American rider of all time.
image from the adams archives

In Part III, we move on to the 1980s and take a look at the pivotal moments from that decade, the key players, the machinery and the continuing progression of professionalism within the sport. We saw an escalation of monetary and technological involvement within the premier class as we moved toward the 1990s, as well as the results from a radical improvement in race rubber. All these ingredients contributed to the rollercoaster ride into one of the most successful eras we have ever seen in Grand Prix motorcycle racing—a decade long battle of the legends was about to commence.

The 80s: As the 1980s began, the 500cc class was starting to receive increased television and press coverage and, with a fantastic array of talent on show, the series was about to spark an explosion of interest among race fans the world over. The "Big Show" was here and it was to give us some of the most intense periods of competition and rivalry we had ever seen.

At the end of the 1979 season, Kenny Roberts ruled supreme in the 500cc class after taking successive titles on board his two-stroke factory Yamaha, beating out such names as Barry Sheene and Johnny Cecotto to sit in the seat of power as a new season and a new decade beckoned.

We had to wait a little longer than expected for the first action of 1980 as the first two rounds were cancelled. The political shenanigans that had been seen in 1979, including the threat of a breakaway World Championship Series, seemed a distant memory. However, it had prompted the FIM to think long and hard about what it intended to do to improve the organizational structure of the championship.

The depth of the field was again impressive with the likes of Mamola, Hartog, Lucchinelli, Cecotto, Roberts and Sheene being joined by two Italians who were pretty useful Suzuki riders.

Franco Uncini joined the 500cc ranks full-time after a strong showing in the support classes during the previous few seasons, and he was joined by none other than Graziano Rossi, father of Valentino. Graziano's laid-back character would be in stark contrast to the playboy image of Sheene and the ruthlessly determined Roberts, but he was a naturally gifted racer--something that obviously exists in the gene pool of the Rossi men.

During the latter half of the 1970s, the Americans had served notice that they were here to stay, and to win. British legend Barry Sheene found himself deposed at Suzuki by Randy Mamola, another young-gun US competitor. For the most part, it was another Yamaha versus Suzuki shoot-out for the 1980 World Championship, and we saw Mamola riding the aforementioned factory Suzuki with great aplomb while Sheene, the 1976 and 1977 World Champion, was reduced to riding a privateer Yamaha machine upon which he would finish way down the finishing order in 15th spot come season's end. The housewives' favorite was struggling.

Kawasaki had returned to the series after a four-year absence from the premier class and had double 250cc World Champion Kork Ballington in the hot seat on their disc-valve, four-cylinder, two-stroke bike. The South African would record a season's best placing of fifth at the Finnish GP. The Kawasaki factory showing that big research and development budgets were going to be needed to keep themselves in the field and competitive.

Reigning champion Kenny Roberts strode out to a points lead in the championship after winning the opening three rounds, including an emphatic victory at the French Grand Prix. Mamola, though, was determined to show that he wasn't around simply to back up Roberts as a secondary American. He finished on the podium in two of the first three rounds and, for round five at the daunting Spa Francorchamps circuit, Mamola put in a strong showing right through the weekend and was rewarded with his first 500cc race victory. Another win at the British Grand Prix and some impressive performances elsewhere gave Randy Mamola second place in the championship. Jack Middelburg, Wil Hartog and Marco Lucchinelli also won races during the 1980 season with Lucchinelli leading home a trio of Italians for third, fourth and fifth in the final points standings--Lucchinelli from Uncini from Rossi.

But, it was the consistency of Roberts and his early season form that landed the Californian his third World title and the legend grew further still. His understanding of the power delivery from his Yamaha, coupled with his ability to control a sliding, spinning rear wheel, was amazing. Roberts had also decided that he could prioritize with his riding style so that what was important with the Yamaha was impactful on results. For example, he would use his dirt-track experience to the maximum. Roberts would worry less about corner speed and concentrate on getting the bike out of the turn and upright so he could get the power down and fire the machine up the next straight.

We saw Roberts' labor bear fruit since the next-best Yamaha was that of Johnny Cecotto, who could only manage seventh place in the standings after a dismal season.

But, did the new kid in town, Mamola, have what it took to progress from a promising first season as the young apprentice to "snatch the pebbles" and depose King Kenny?

Well, it sure looked like he had all the attributes to give it a good go. He had impressed many in the paddock with his assured application of self-belief and his dedication to hard work over a race weekend, and Mamola was another American who could control the back wheel of a motorcycle as it slid away and spun up under power delivery. That said, compared to Roberts, he looked rough around the edges at times but he certainly had the skill there in spades. Could he mature quickly enough and refine those rough edges and be the next US hero of Grand Prix?

1981 had the usual suspects in place in the premier class, including Kenny Roberts on the factory Yamaha trying to defend his 500cc title against the increasingly serious onslaught from Suzuki factory riders Randy Mamola and Marco Lucchinelli. Kork Ballington on the Kawasaki was the only non-Yamaha/Suzuki rider in the field for most of the season, with the ill-fated Honda NS500 proving to be a waste of a grid slot and a waste of time for Takazumi Katayama. Even a young Freddie Spencer couldn't make the Honda work and, after the British Grand Prix, Honda withdrew the bike from the series. Barry Sheene had a better season finishing fourth overall, and New Zealander Graeme Crosby featured early on with Franco Uncini. The Dutch duo of Jack Middelburg and Boet Van Dulmen challenged for a chunk of the season, but it was a battle between Roberts, Mamola, and Lucchinelli for the title.

Roberts had an awful start to the year with suspension failure at the Salzburgring in Austria, which left Mamola to win the race. The triple World Champion bounced back to win two races in succession at rounds two and three, but they proved to be his only race wins that season. As we moved on through the season, all was not going to plan for Roberts. Some under-par performances from the Champion and his Yamaha had him chasing the rampaging Mamola and Lucchinelli while he fell further and further back in the points standings. It was to prove too high a mountain to climb for the Californian master, especially after he was forced to miss the San Marino round at Imola with food poisoning. The aspirations he had for a fourth title were not to be fulfilled, and the battle between Mamola and Lucchinelli went all the way to the last round in Sweden.

Although Mamola became known as a rain-master as his career progressed, in 1981, he got caught out at a soaked Anderstorp. A fierce battle between the two factory Suzuki riders ensued early on but Mamola struggled with the conditions and eventually finished 13th. Although Lucchinelli only managed ninth, he was crowned Champion after leading Mamola by nine points going into the Swedish Grand Prix. The race was won by Barry Sheene, and it goes down in history as the last 500cc race to be won by a British rider. In conclusion, the three-year American title-winning sequence was not to be added to, in 1981. Italy triumphed over America, but the US ranks were about to swell as a future great was to join the 500cc ranks in 1982. Freddie Spencer was coming.

1982 was to be a season of change to some degree with new bikes entering the fray, advanced technology being introduced, and the US had a new young hopeful aiming just as high as Kenny Roberts had when he entered the series in 1978.

Hard-charging 'Fast' Freddie Spencer had been employed by Honda to ride alongside Japanese star Takazumi Katayama and recently defected World Champion Marco Lucchinelli. The reigning Champion had endured protracted talks with Honda about bringing the number one plate with him to adorn the front of the new 500cc triple but eventually, he signed and Honda began its charge to wrestle the premier class crown away from Japanese factory rivals Suzuki. Freddie Spencer didn't come alone; he brought with him from the States tuner extraordinaire Erv Kanemoto, and the pair were to lay the groundwork for much future success.

At the start of the season, the Honda V3 had a distinct advantage over the heavier fours, and Yamaha, seeing this advantage, responded by building a V4 for Kenny Roberts. But, the introduction of that new Yamaha came too late in the day, and although Roberts started the season off strongly with two wins from the first three rounds in Argentina and Spain, he couldn't match the V3 Hondas for pace as the season wore on. Neither could Roberts match the astoundingly consistent performances from Suzuki's new factory rider Franco Uncini or Yamaha stalwart Graeme Crosby. The Honda may have been the new bike and may have been fast, but Uncini and Crosby had an inspired season. On "lesser" machinery, Uncini, for so long the privateer for Suzuki, repaid the factory for its faith in him by taking the 1982 title from Crosby who rode a brilliant campaign to beat Spencer by four points for second in the championship, with Roberts fourth and Sheene fifth. Uncini had, indeed, won five races that season and had the title wrapped up at the British Grand Prix with three rounds still to go—a phenomenal performance from the Suzuki man. Together with Crosby, they had not only beaten the legends that were King Kenny and Bazza, they had beaten a resurgent Honda effort, too. Randy Mamola had a difficult year and finished in sixth spot.

For the record, Roberts and Sheene had suffered with injury mid-season which ruined their title push, and Sheene was to be involved in one of the most horrific incidents ever seen in Grand Prix.

The British rider was testing the new V4 Yamaha during a practice session at Silverstone, and he collided with Patrick Igoa's stricken 250cc bike at over 100mph. He was thrown almost 200 metres down the track and the resulting injuries were terrible; Sheene had multiple breaks to both legs and one arm, and he was lucky to escape with his life. Surgeons rebuilt his shattered legs using metal plates held together by 27 screws. All of this, of course, added to the toll that a 175mph crash at Daytona in 1975 had already taken on his body. The British legend actually had to take his X-rays to the airport with him every time he flew because all the metal in his body would set the detectors off. Amazingly, Sheene was back in 1983, this time resuming his partnership with Suzuki after three seasons on a Yamaha.

For Freddie Spencer, a third-place finish in the title chase on board the Honda V3 was a sign of things to come--for both Honda and for Spencer.

1983 was to be a classic season in the 500cc class of Grand Prix racing. Barry Sheene returned after his 1982 injuries on a factory-supported privateer Suzuki, but the UK had its hopes pinned on "Rocket" Ron Haslam on a full-factory Honda. Although he had the factory bike, Haslam was to play second fiddle to the real Honda hope for glory, and a first-ever 500cc championship, in the form of Fast Freddie and his 500cc Triple, ably assisted by the guru of tuning Erv Kanemoto. 1981 World Champion Marco Lucchinelli and Takazumi Katayama filled out the other main Honda rides for 1983.

Kenny Roberts was again riding the Yamaha V4, but a lack of winter testing severely hampered his challenge, and the bike suffered all season with handling problems. However, despite this formidable challenge, Roberts fought a season-long battle for the title with fellow American Spencer.

Joining them was another American and legend-to-be, one Mr. Eddie Lawson who was riding for the Agostini Yamaha squad. Randy Mamola was still with Suzuki but was left standing, relatively speaking, by the titanic battle between Roberts and Spencer. Franco Uncini was also left behind on the next-best Suzuki, never matching the heights performance-wise from his 1982 title-winning campaign. We did, however, see a Frenchman have some success in 1983; Marc Fontan on a privateer Yamaha became the top European finisher in the series that season.

Freddie Spencer won the first three races of 1983, Kenny Roberts then came back with a win in West Germany, but Spencer piled on the pressure with a fourth win in five races. Roberts won in Austria but again Spencer turned up the heat by taking the next round in Yugoslavia. At the Dutch TT in Assen, the tit-for-tat battle continued, a win for Roberts and the three-time World Champion was about to reverse the pressure game and put Spencer under the spotlight as he also won in Belgium and the UK before the title saw a mammoth battle in Sweden that saw Spencer win, but only after making a move on Roberts at the penultimate corner of the penultimate round which had Roberts claiming he was harshly passed by his fellow countryman. Spencer dived for the pass, and both riders ran into the dirt, although they stayed upright. Roberts claimed it was a dangerous move and lamented he would never have made such a brash pass on a competitor with a title up for grabs.

Going into the final round, the San Marino Grand Prix, all Spencer had to do to beat Roberts was finish one place behind him. Roberts won the last race but Spencer did, indeed, follow him home to take second place and Freddie was crowned World Champion. Not only was it his first title, but also, it was Honda's first-ever 500cc Grand Prix World Championship, and the points margin between Roberts and the victorious Spencer was just two points. It was the final 500cc race for Roberts, who retired to take up a new career as a team owner.

Randy Mamola finished in third place, and Eddie Lawson had an impressive debut year finishing fourth which meant the American domination of the premier class was now in full flow—the top four at the end of 1983 were all US riders. The Japanese had Takazumi Katayama in fifth place come season's end. No European could even touch them.

1984 started without the King for the first time since 1978. Kenny Roberts was now a team boss, although there had been one last Spencer versus Roberts dual at Daytona. Spencer rode the new V4 Honda that he would take all the way to the Championship that year. And, although Roberts was gone, Lawson and Mamola held up the Californian end of business.

The Honda that year was fast but a cruel blow ruined Freddie Spencer's chances at the first race meeting of the season in South Africa. The Louisiana rider's rear wheel collapsed in the closing moments of qualifying, flinging the 1983 World Champion down the road--an accident that left him with torn ligaments in his right ankle. Mamola didn't start the first two races of the season, the South African Grand Prix and the Nations Grand Prix, as he hadn't been able to agree to contract terms with Honda after leaving Suzuki. Eddie Lawson took advantage of all Honda's problems by winning in the rain on the new twin-spar-framed 500 in South Africa, and Spencer won out at round two on the factory Honda.

Spencer was struggling for fitness at round three in Spain, leaving Lawson free to win with Mamola, finally riding, claiming second. At round four, with Spencer down on points in the series, he again finished second to Lawson with Mamola in third. Lawson was the epitome of consistency, getting three wins and three second-place finishes from the first six rounds.

For rounds five, six, and seven, Spencer took the wins but that early-season injury was still leaving him playing catch-up as he tried to regain his crown. The Dutch TT saw Spencer fail to finish, with Mamola taking the win and Lawson getting a podium in third. This was the beginning of the realization for Freddie Spencer that 1984 was not to be his year, even though he had ditched his V4 in favor of the established V3 machine in a last-gasp attempt to regain his championship. The fear about losing his crown was compounded after a non-championship crash at California's Laguna Seca Raceway that resulted in a broken collarbone and ultimately ended his chances. He finished the season in fourth spot with British duo Ron Haslam and Barry Sheene in fifth and sixth, respectively. Sheene retired from the series at the end of the season and headed for the warmer climate of Australia where his injuries wouldn't plague him as badly as they might in the UK. A British national icon, Sheene was a true legend.

Mamola's stunning end-of-season burst and Lawson's knack of gaining good points meant that it would have been tough for Spencer anyway should he have been fit for the remaining rounds. For Mamola, the delay over a contract cost him dearly. He rode a great season to finish only 32 points behind Lawson but mathematically, with 15 points available for a win, Mamola may have had a chance at the 500cc title but it wasn't to be. There had been, though, a tough battle all season with his teammate and fellow Honda V3 rider Raymond Roche. The strong-willed Roche clinched third in front of Spencer at season's end.

Eddie Lawson was World Champion for the first time and rightly so after a season of getting the job done. A season of what if's, and maybe's, for sure, but to finish first, first you must finish, and Lawson was the king of consistency.

1985 came thundering over the horizon and simply put, it was Spencer's year--and boy, did he work for it. Honda entered him in both the Premier class and the 250cc class and the petulant star had a difficult season that was probably responsible for many of his later struggles as it left the young racer exhausted. Honda ran a vast 500cc squad in 1985; they threw down the gauntlet of political and monetary power with Spencer as the main rider on the revised NSR500 V4. Ron Haslam, Australian Wayne Gardner and Randy Mamola supported on the factory NS500 triples.

Eddie Lawson was, again, leading Yamaha factory efforts. He rode the latest version of the V4 Yamaha, the OW81, and was Michelin-shod. The tire swap was a success but Lawson complained that the bike had serious carburetion problems and those problems made the Yamaha difficult to start. In an era when the racers still push-started their bikes, Lawson found the cost of those poor starts a high one. He could only sit and watch as the clean-starting Honda with Spencer aboard, would disappear to an early lead as his Yamaha coughed and spluttered on the grids the world over, sometimes leaving him mid-pack by the end of the first lap.

1982 World Champion Franco Uncini and talented Spaniard Sito Pons rode the Suzuki four while Britain's Rob McElnea rode a Heron-supported Suzuki, Heron being the UK importer for Suzuki. Christian Sarron, a fast 250cc rider joined the Yamaha ranks and impressed but the same could not be said for fellow Frenchman Raymond Roche who had moved from Honda to Yamaha but suffered with unreliable machinery.

For the most part, 1985 turned out to be the Lawson and Spencer Show. Lawson took three wins and the greater number of second places but Spencer took seven wins and a number of fastest-lap records, plus a staggering ten pole positions along the way. He took the 250cc title on the only Honda NSR250 in the field, and after he wrapped that title up with two races remaining, he withdrew from the class to concentrate on the push for the 500cc title. With four race wins from the last five meetings in Belgium, France, the UK, and Sweden, the American promptly delivered the double World Championship for Honda. To this day, Spencer is still the last man to win World Championships in both the Premier and the 250cc class in a single season. Astonishing.

Christian Sarron had an impressive season in the 500cc class, finishing third on the season, and he even won a race in West Germany, beating Spencer by 11 seconds. Randy Mamola won the Dutch TT but had mechanical failures at several of the rounds which left him finishing sixth in the standings, although he scored consistently. While the star of the year was undoubtedly "Fast" Freddie, with double titles, there were other riders who distinguished themselves that year. Wayne Gardner finished fourth for the title, sharing the position with Haslam. With a strong finish to the year, he showed that the Australians were no pushovers and that he was a serious talent for the future.

So, to 1986 and the question that everyone was asking, "Could Spencer match the feats of 1985, or did that double-title push take its toll on the man both physically and emotionally?"

The answer was all too painful to take for race fans worldwide and was a story that would dominate the headlines. After the glory of 1985, the following year proved to be a dreadful season for the kid from Louisiana. He spent the off-season suffering from a virus that he had trouble shaking off. He returned for preseason testing in 1986 thinner and weaker than ever before. He tried to build himself up in the gym, a place he hadn't frequented in the past, but it seemed to work. He returned for the first race of the season at Jarama in Spain looking fit and muscular but he had a new problem. He had started to suffer from "arm-pump", a condition that causes riders to lose feeling in their hands due to the stresses on the arms from constant acceleration and braking. The condition plagued Freddie throughout the year, and it forced him to retire from the first Grand Prix even though he had led the race for many laps.

It was later discovered that Spencer was suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome. Freddie Spencer retired from racing in 1987 at an age when most GP500 riders would be starting to hit their peak. Even a series of ill-fated comebacks that stretched to 1993 failed to bring out the real Freddie Spencer from the shadows of relative obscurity--a legend had simply burnt out.

It was Wayne Gardner who benefited most from Freddie's demise, winning the opening Grand Prix, his first ever 500cc race win, at Jarama, after Spencer pulled out. Although Spencer's withdrawal had left Gardner in a position of power, it also had its downside. Now, the Australian found himself the lone Honda V4 rider pitted against a host of Yamaha talent.

"Steady" Eddie Lawson and Rob McElnea rode for Marlboro Agostini whilst Randy Mamola and Mike Baldwin raced for the Lucky Strike Yamaha team--Mamola moving to Yamaha after becoming disenchanted with the Honda factory. Suzuki was still flogging along with their outdated four, but they had the new XR70 V4 nearly ready. Ron Haslam and ELF were trying to change the face of the sport with the experimental V3 Honda bike that featured a hub-center-steering front end. Unfortunately, the bike wasn't competitive at a time when the factory bikes were benefiting from huge R&D budgets.

There were further political movements in 1986 after a start-line incident saw Wayne Gardner rammed from behind and injured while attempting to push-start his Honda. That incident and a growing feeling of resentment from some--that the governing body was, once again, dragging their heels where safety was concerned--led the F.I.M. to introduce clutch starts in 1987, a change in the rulings that many riders had been campaigning toward for several years.

The 11-round season saw the title fought out between Eddie Lawson, Randy Mamola, and Wayne Gardner with Lawson taking the early season advantage with five wins from the first six meetings. The winning run for the 1984 World Champion, was ended at Assen by Gardner and at the following round at Spa Francorchamps, Mamola took his only win of the year. Gardner won the British Grand Prix and, even though Lawson didn't win, he did finish strongly enough in the points so that, when he took the wins at the final two rounds at the Swedish and San Marino events, it resulted in a second World title for the implacable American. Mamola finished third, Baldwin was fourth and the top five was rounded out by British rider Rob McElnea. Lawson, now a double World Champion, wasn't about to stop there. He wanted more success, but would he get it?

The 1987 season would be important both technologically and politically. We saw a return to Japan for the series for the first time in 20 years. Rounds in both Brazil and Argentina complemented that visit. The Premier class was truly becoming a "World" series both in terms of location for the racing and the riding talent. Tires would start to play a much more important role in the package that a rider would sign to ride with--not quite the technological monster they are now, perhaps, but the differences between the tire brands and the power they got from their various machines would suit different riders differently.

Randy Mamola, for example, rode a Roberts Yamaha on Dunlop tires for 1987, and the US rider won an impressive opening race at the rain-soaked Suzuka circuit. That Suzuka race was an early indication of how things would go that season with Wayne Gardner inheriting the second spot from Mamola's teammate Mike Baldwin, the American crashing out with just four laps remaining.

Eddie Lawson's season got off to a poor start. His team put him out on intermediates, thinking conditions would improve, then withdrew him from the race when he came in to change tires. There were so many crashes that, had Lawson re-entered the race, he would have almost assuredly scored vital points. Britain's new hope for glory, Niall McKenzie crashed out of third place on the last lap, having taken pole on his Honda prepared by Erv Kanemoto. Freddie Spencer was already out with a pre-season injury. One name to add to that list that will feature strongly as we close out the 80s and enter the 9's is a certain Texan rider, Kevin Schwantz, who was to turn around the ailing fortunes of the Suzuki factory.

Ron Haslam was riding the ELF-Honda, Pierfrancesco Chili was also on a satellite Honda and Kevin Magee, another budding Australian, was present riding a privateer Yamaha. Niall Mackenzie, Ron Haslam, Christian Sarron and Japanese rider Tadahiko Taira battled with Chili for most of the season for the non-podium places, but the battle for the title once again featured gritty Randy Mamola, double World Champ Lawson, and the hard-charging Wayne Gardner.

The Gardner/Mamola/Lawson battle ran through the bulk of the 15-round season with the three swapping race wins almost per meeting. There were some titanic struggles for supremacy between the three. Gardner and Lawson slugged it out at the Swedish event, with the Australian winning by just under two seconds after swapping paint all race long. The following round in the Czech Republic saw the same outcome, again Gardner winning and again a race-long battle-and, again, the win came by just two seconds as per the previous triumph.

Mamola had gotten in on the act with a crushing win at the French Grand Prix, and he also beat Lawson to the spoils at the San Marino round. With a victory at Suzuka, he won three races that season and regularly hauled in big championship points. He was to beat Lawson to second in the title chase by just one point and was the only rider to score at every round in 1987. However, even with Mamola splitting the two, it was the Lawson versus Gardner battle that stood out, both not prepared to give an inch to each other all season. A real grudge match developed, and a new level of competitiveness in Grand Prix's elite class was in its genesis stages.

Wayne Gardner stamped his intention on the season from the start and won seven races to Lawson's five. He also took three seconds and two third places that year and completed the stunning stat sheet for 1987 by taking ten pole positions from the 15 events contested. The Australians and the US riders had swept all before them. Gardner was the World Champion, and Lawson was disappointed not only to lose out to Gardner but to Mamola, too. Eddie wanted another title badly and he wanted to beat Gardner more than anything.

As 1988 rolled around, Lawson had to deal with the notion that to win another World title, not only would he have to beat a marauding Australian Wayne Gardner but he would also have to contend with the crop of fast Americans who were either already on the scene or filtering through. Texan Kevin Schwantz had started to signal his intent in 1987 that he wanted a piece of the front-running action and, in 1988, another Californian joined the ranks, a man who would become a legend in his own right--Wayne Rainey. Gardner had the number one plate on his Honda, a much-deserved honor after the tantalizing performance given by him in 1987. Randy Mamola was now Cagiva-mounted, and Kevin Schwantz was riding the Pepsi-sponsored Suzuki V4 with Britain's Rob McElnea as teammate. Kevin Magee joined Gardner in the paddock as another strong Australian hope and, with names like Niall Mackenzie, Christian Sarron, and Belgium's Didier de Radrigues out there, the depth of the field was incredible--as were the bikes.

The bikes were fierce missiles. The power of the top V4s took some taming and, in the heat of a race, even the best riders in the 500cc class were quickly bitten by the vicious power that the modern bikes produced. All the top riders were now sliding mid-corner because power-sliding was a necessity. The riders would spin up the rear tire to straighten the bike's exit form a turn, allowing them to get that awesome power down for the straights. New kids on the block Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz quickly showed that they had this riding style mastered and could show a wheel to any of the more-established GP stars. Kevin's riding was perhaps the most entertaining, but he tended to pay the price with crashes, and his knees took the brunt of the damage over the years.

The opening Grand Prix saw Schwantz delight the home Suzuki hierarchy with a win at Suzuka. The second round at Laguna Seca is rightly in the history books as one of the best races of the decade. Britain's Niall Mackenzie could have won it but his tires went off and that left 1987 rivals Eddie Lawson and Wayne Gardner battling for the lead, sometimes swapping position several times on the same lap. Lawson eventually broke Gardner for a famous win with the Australian slipping back into the clutches of Mackenzie. Rainey and Schwantz came home fourth and fifth, respectively.

Full-time rookie Kevin Magee won round three at Jarama with a tremendous fight for second behind him between Lawson and Gardner--the two gladiators dead-heating for the podium places--with Lawson beating the reigning World Champion.

The Lawson versus Gardner theme continued right through the heart of the season with Schwantz and Rainey now getting regular podiums. "Revvin" Kevin won the Nations Grand Prix and Rainey took his debut 500cc class win at the British Grand Prix at Donington Park--both riders serving notice of future intent. Randy Mamola, ever the showman, was having an awful time on the Cagiva but was determined to wow the crowd with some fantastic bike control down the order.

The year produced some marvelous racing that was close and hard-fought. Perhaps the most crucial battle was at Paul Ricard. Lawson was recovering from a damaged shoulder which he dislocated in the prior round in Yugoslavia during qualifying for that event. He entered the round 20 points in the lead. A titanic battle ensued on track between Gardner, Lawson, Sarron, and Schwantz. Gardner looked to have a crucial win sewn up when he struck mechanical difficulties. He limped home in fourth with his Honda overheating. Lawson clinched the win from Sarron, and Schwantz came home third, the top three covered by less than four-tenths of a second.

Lawson won two of the next three rounds in Sweden and in Brazil, while Gardner only took one win at the Czech Republic Grand Prix--with Rainey's British triumph sandwiched in-between. Gardner only had a mathematical chance anyway after the Argentinean round was cancelled, effectively handing the title to Lawson. The Rookie of the Year Award went to Rainey; his third place was down to consistency. It was a taste of what the California wizard was capable of. By contrast, Schwantz finished eighth with mid-season crashes, and Lawson showed his class by avoiding the major incidents and rarely slipped off his factory Yamaha. His seven wins in 1988 and his cool demeanor made the American a triple World Champion and had put Gardner in his place--the seek-and-destroy operation was a resounding success.

A classic decade of racecraft was coming to an end, but not before another barnstormer of a season. What can you say about 1989 that hasn't already been said? It was an all-time classic; an unbelievable season of racing that had six riders out there who had either won, or would go on to take the 500cc world title--they being Eddie Lawson, Wayne Gardner, Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz, Michael Doohan, and Freddie Spencer. The supporting cast was no walkover, either, with the likes of Christian Sarron, Kevin Magee, Niall Mackenzie, Ron Haslam, and Randy Mamola in the field. The eventual winner would have to put in a "miracle" season to land the spoils.

The victor was Eddie Lawson, but it was the way he gained his title against the listed competitors above and in his first season with a new bike underneath him that made the win even more remarkable. In fact, it was one hell of an accomplishment. Valentino Rossi is attempting the same feat in 2004.

The backdrop to 1989 was that, after his epic 1988 battle with Wayne Gardner--which saw him go on to win the title--Eddie Lawson defected from Yamaha to Honda--one eye possibly on the check offered--to ride the evil NSR500. He was in a one-man team run by Erv Kanemoto and, along with the official factory team of Wayne Gardner and Mick Doohan, ran under Rothmans sponsorship and shared factory machinery--something that niggled at Gardner, particularly.

With Lawson's departure to Honda, Giacomo Agostini's team had suffered the loss of Lawson so much that Ago grasped at straws by hiring the returning Spencer--a move that didn't work out for either party.

There was an important tire decision to make for many. Rainey, for instance, had decided to stay with Dunlop for 1989, a decision that suited him at the time, but a decision that came back to haunt him.

The Michelins were better for side grip and tended not to step out under acceleration and were better at handling the heat and wet. For the Dunlop-shod Rainey, the Japanese tires suited his riding and sliding style and were great for corner speed conversion, and they allowed Rainey to be quick in the early laps of a race. The downside was that the tires tended to blister as the race wore on. A tough choice, but the Roberts Yamaha team who had Rainey leading the charge and Kevin Magee in a support role stayed with the ever-evolving tire manufacturer while many of the other top riders and their bikes were Michelin-shod for 1989.

Throughout the season, Lawson ended up throwing the NSR around certain circuits, showing some of the most skillful bike control I have ever seen. The win at Le Mans, where Lawson outfought Kevin Schwantz for the spoils, was a case in point. The smooth Lawson style was altered to get the NSR to respond. Fearsome power delivery, a stiff chassis, and awesome straight-line speed were the benchmark of that bike but the ability to manhandle the beast into and out of the corners and not rip the tires to shreds won the day at the French circuit. It was a masterful display, as was the win at Spa Francorchamps in Belgium. That meeting, however, didn't pass without major controversy.

The race at Spa was rain-affected and the organizers made a major mess of proceedings after they re-started the race twice, something expressly forbidden in the rules. The race result then had to be changed, with half-points being given for the positions at the end of the second leg.

The season, though, had started with Schwantz looking strong at Suzuka, again taking the win in Japan, as he did in 1988. The Texan then threw it away on the first lap at Phillip Island, with Gardner prevailing at the Australian circuit. Rainey placed second place at both events. Lawson was on the podium at Suzuka, but he then finished an injured fifth, after a practice incident, in Australia.

Round three at Laguna Seca saw a Rainey win with Schwantz and Lawson rounding out an all-U.S. podium but it was a bad round for others. Wayne Gardner broke his leg and Bubba Shobert's career was ended after a terrible accident in which he collided with Kevin Magee's Yamaha while Magee was performing a burnout on the cool-down lap. Shobert was in a coma for 11 days and never rode again after a long recovery. Magee himself suffered a broken ankle.

In Spain for round four, Lawson turned the tables on Rainey and beat him into second with Schwantz lobbing his RGV down the road after leading by a country mile. On to round five and the Misano circuit where all the factory riders refused to ride after an aborted first start in the changeable conditions left the racing surface dangerous to ride. The majority of the field followed the lead of the factory riders. A race of some sort did take place with the remaining non-disgruntled riders taking part, and Pierfrancesco Chili won the "non-race" with only five riders finishing.

Rainey won in Germany, the meeting that saw the first 500cc podium for Mick Doohan, who placed third. Schwantz then won in Austria and Yugoslavia. Assen was next and, with the RGV of Schwantz breaking a piston on the last lap, Wayne Rainey took his only-ever Dutch TT win. As mentioned above, Lawson won the Belgium GP at Spa in brilliant style, beating Schwantz and Rainey again but only just, with the top three covered by just 1.5 seconds at the finish. It was the same finishing order at Le Mans for Round 11 but, again, a brilliant ride was turned in by Lawson for the win.

The British Grand Prix was next and Kevin Schwantz triumphed over a consistent Lawson, with Rainey a distant third. Rainey was, by now, struggling with the Dunlops, the last quarter of the race distance proving to be too much for the Japanese rubber.

Rainey was leading the title chase for a good part of the season but, with tire problems, he finally lost his way in Sweden even though he started on pole, falling out and losing all momentum. The four race wins he took earlier in the season were not enough to save his title challenge. Schwantz also went out of the race while Eddie Lawson won from Christian Sarron and Wayne Gardner.

Two rounds were left and, at Brno in the Czech Republic, Rainey couldn't keep up with the Michelin-shod machines of Schwantz and Lawson and, again, he finished a distant third. This essentially gave the title to Eddie Lawson who only needed to avoid a disaster in Brazil to wrap up his fourth World title.

At the final round at the Goiania circuit, Schwantz won again, beating Lawson into second with Rainey third on the day. After a global trek of hectic action between the three legends, Lawson took his fourth and last World title by 17.5 points from Wayne Rainey, with Christian Sarron in an almost unnoticed third place in the final championship standings. Sarron was, on many occasions, beaten to the podium by the legendary trio but had a consistent season of strong finishes, hardly failing to finish all year and deserved his third place. Kevin Schwantz finished in fourth place overall.

In summary, Rainey succumbed to tires, Sarron only got one podium all year but was a strong points-scorer and Schwantz had made friends with the gravel traps around the world--falling off more than a few times on the RGV Suzuki. Kevin had a couple of untimely mechanical failures too. The Texan did, however, win the most races with six. Add the nine pole positions he took, and the fastest lap tally he amassed, and it's the "down-the-road" moments that lost it for "Revvin" Kevin.

While the others all faltered at certain stages of the season, "Steady Eddie" just kept the consistent performances coming. With just four wins, the greater number of podiums, and solid finishes otherwise, the legend that is Eddie Lawson won a memorable title. It was like seeing an old Errol Flynn movie as we watched the swashbuckling Lawson fight his way to the 1989 500cc World crown, a tumultuous season, indeed, and it was a real pleasure to see it all unfold before my eyes.

As for my pick of "the best" from this decade, well, I have no hesitation in naming Eddie Lawson as the man who left all the other contenders trailing in his exhaust fumes.

There was a stronger depth to the field for most of the 80s, as detailed many times in this article, but when you can tell your grandchildren that you were four times a 500cc World Champion, having beaten the likes of Gardner, Mamola, Doohan, Sarron, Schwantz, Rainey, Lucchinelli, and Spencer, to name but a few, you really do stand head and shoulders above the rest. To have won consecutive World titles on different brands of motorcycle, too, and contend with the listed competition, then you deserve to be placed as highly as I place Lawson among the all-time greats.

Determined, cunning even, resourceful, and supremely skilled, as well as damn fast, Eddie Lawson is, for me anyway, "the best" of the 1980s.

In Part IV, our final part to this mini-series, we will get to see another great era of racing at the very top of the sport as we witness the absolutely mouth-watering, ferocious rivalry between Kevin Schwantz and Wayne Rainey and also get inside the career of a five-time World Champion, the Thunder from Down Under, Mick Doohan.


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