Jarno Saarinen

Possibly the fastest ever

Jarno with Phil Read and Ago

The motorcycling world lost one of its greatest riders in 1973. Finnish rider Jarno Saarinen and Italian Renzo Pasolini were both killed in a tragic accident at the Monza circuit in Italy. It was at a time when race organizers showed little respect for the well being of the riders who were the ones that brought the crowds to their circuits. The 1973 Italian Grand Prix at Monza was the fourth round of the World Championships, and tensions were running high between the riders and the organizers. The riders had been battling with race organizers to get better safety standards on many of the tracks used in the world championships and Monza, at the time, was one of the worst. The race promoters knew that none of the riders were prepared to forfeit the points that would be lost by boycotting a round due to safety reasons. The only hope for the riders would be a united stand, something that, due to lack of organization on the riders part, was unlikely to happen.

In the early days Jarno was his own mechanic

At Monza the track had been resurfaced carelessly and there was Armco railing everywhere. Armco railing is designed to stop cars from going off the track and even with hay bales in front of it; it is extremely dangerous for a rider. And for some reason, the officials had refused to run the race using the two chicanes that had been built into the track a year earlier.

Jarno won the 1973 French GP on the TZ500 in its debut race
Image: Yamaha Motor Co

The 350 race was run before the 250 and Walter Villa's Benelli had been losing oil but his team wanted him to carry on to gain some points. Australian rider John Dodds and journalist Christian Lacombe confronted the track officials, asking them to clean up the oil and they called the police threatening to have them removed from the track. Dodds warned as many riders as he could before the start of the 250 race but never got to speak with Saarinen or Pasolini.

On the European 350
Image: Yamaha Motor Co

Jarno Saarinen had boycotted that year's non-championship round at the treacherous Isle of Man along with most of the other top riders and he had said a year earlier "I want to live to be a very old man" and "If I win a world title I will definitely retire." He had won the world 250 title in 1972 but unfortunately neither of these wishes were to come true.

At Monza disaster struck almost immediately as Pasolini hit the oil the super fast Curva Grande and crashed into the guardrail, killing him instantly. Pasolini's motorcycle then bounced back onto the circuit and struck Saarinen on his head. The impact knocked off his helmet and he sustained fatal head injuries. In all, 14 riders were involved in the mayhem that resulted but the organizers allowed the race to go on for another two laps before they stopped it! An official inquiry into the accident, issued in September 1973 found that the cause of the accident was the seizure of the engine in the motorcycle of Renzo Pasolini.

Just a little over a month later three riders in a junior's race were killed in the same turn. From that day until 1981 all motorcycle racing at Monza was banned. The accidents had shocked the motorcycling world to its very foundations and Yamaha pulled out for the rest of the season. The factory-teams of Suzuki, MV Agusta, Harley, and Yamaha all joined together to fight for better race conditions. It was hard to believe that racing's sensational new star had been taken.

An icey start

Jarno was born in Turku, Southern Finland in 1945 and at the age of 15 he was a test rider for the Tunturi-Puch, motorcycle factory in his hometown. Ice racing was popular in Finland for obvious reasons and Jarno decided to try his luck. He was second in his first ice race using normal motocross tyres without spikes. He learned a lot while ice racing and in 1965 won the 250cc Finnish ice racing national championship. He would also ride in speedway and grasstrack with his close friend Teuvo (Teppi) Länsivuori but they both had a burning desire to go roadracing. He went on to win six National Championships and on August 4, 1968 he made his Grand Prix debut at Imatra, riding a 125cc Puch to 11th place in the Finnish Grand Prix. He was later to be called 'The Flying Finn'.

Jarno would race on the ice with no spikes!

Jarno would do his own mechanical work on his bikes and in 1970 he convinced three bank managers to fund his racing career under the mistaken belief that they were financing his education. He finished the season in fourth place despite missing the final three rounds of the championship to complete his education by graduating as an engineer from the Turku Technical Institute.

None of this escaped the attention of Yamaha and in 1972 they offered him a contract to ride their 250 and 350cc bikes. The works bikes were just what he needed and he rewarded them by winning the 250 title. He came second to Ago in the 350, winning three races and the MV Augusta factory were worried enough to build a completely new 350 for Agostini. When the season was over Jarno travelled to Great Britain where he won the Race of the Year invitational held at Mallory Park. Before the 1973 season started, Jarno had been negotiating with the Benelli factory and secretly tested the bikes at Modena. In a pre season race at the Pesaro street circuit he took on Agostini and won both the 350 and 500 races.

On top of the world

Yamaha didn't like the idea of losing their star rider and quickly signed him to ride the newly developed YZR500 for the 1973 GP season. The racing year started before the GP season but it started well when Jarno won the prestigious Daytona 200 in March. His lead at the end was 38 seconds from Yamaha TZ350 teammate and his crew chief for the week Kel Carruthers, having slowed from a 50-second lead late in the race. He was the first European rider to win the event. He then went back to Europe to win the big money Imola 200 race in April, again on the 350 Yamaha. He won the first 100-mile leg from Bruno Spaggiari (Ducati) by over 40 seconds and the second leg from Walter Villa (Kawasaki) by 34 seconds. He was breaking lap records and setting fastest laps almost everywhere he went.

Winning Daytona on the TZ350
Image: Yamaha Motor Co

Saarinen rode in a way that was fairly unique at the time. It was a style that many riders afterwards were to emulate including the great Kenny Roberts. He would keep his chest just above the motorcycle's tank, and on the curves he would move his body towards the inside of the turn while extending his knee out. His years of ice racing had taught him not to be afraid of having the bike sliding and he appeared to be pushing new boundaries. He also had the clip on bars radically angled downward so far they were almost vertical. This was something that also came from his ice racing days. In terms of pure natural ability, his name would be mentioned with the likes of the ledgendary Mike Hailwood.

Racing Ago at Paul Ricard
Image: Yamaha Motor Co

The first championship race of the season was at France's Paul Ricard circuit and the anticipation was palpable as the world waited to see if someone, anyone, could at last challenge MV Agusta's all conquering bikes in the 500 class. Ago had won all of the races he had finished out of the 57 500cc races that had been run since 1966 and for this year, they had Phil Read as well. Jarno had qualified first with Yamaha co rider Hideo Kanaya second and hopes were high.

Phil read won the start with Jarno and Ago close behind. Saarinen soon got past and Ago past read. Ago couldn't match the pace of the Yamaha and uncharacteristically crashed trying to keep up. Jarno went on to win by 16 seconds ahead of Read. Yamaha scored a one-two a fortnight later at the fast Salzburgring circuit with Jarno first and Kanaya 25 seconds behind. Read won the next race in Germay when Jarno, Ago and Kanaya all failed to finish. His winning margins in the first three 250cc grands prix of 1973 were 28, 13 and 22 seconds.

Then the Continental Circus headed for Monza in Italy where disaster struck.

Yamaha team manager and ex racer Rod Gould said "I am absolutely convinced he could have won the 500cc championship in his first year. And I truly believe he would've retained his 250 title too. But unfortunately we'll never know." Jarno had said "Racing is risky and when you have to race all the time like I have to, this risk grows. For two, three years, even four, it is possible to keep racing without getting badly hurt or even killed. After that, the odds start to shorten. I have no intention of racing many more years. Another two or three at the most." Many who were fortunate enough to have watched him race, believed him to be the fastest rider they had ever seen and we'll never know where his supreme talent may have taken him.

Written by Paul Harmon, 24-1-18

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