It’s the 20th of May and, on this date, motorcycling enthusiasts all around the world pause and remember the tragic events of the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. On that day, two of the brightest stars of motorcycle road racing were extinguished in one horrific accident.
The excellent Jan Burgers photo above (from his “Continental Circus” book) shows the two stars and says so much more about the two of them than words ever could. Renzo Pasolini was the darling of the Italian press and renowned for his unconventional riding and actions on the track. By the time of his death the best of his career was behind him being already 34 years old. He was the epitome of the “old skool” racer. It wasn’t that long ago, for example, that he had discarded the “pudding basin” helmet and adopted the more modern open face helmet. Studious-looking with his black, horn-rimmed glasses, he eschewed the more modern full face helmet to the end and he looked anachronistic amongst his peers as he lined up on the grid. He had also not long before adopted coloured leathers in place of his usual all-black set but “Paso” as he we was known, was not all that he seemed.
His career was typified by “might have been” A rider who seemed to change teams just when they were coming good, he lost the battle for the 1972 250cc World Championship, for example, by a single point to his fierce rival, Saarinen.
Saarinen, in complete contrast, represented everything that was “new” about the coming ear of grand prix racing. Young, flamboyant, colourful, and blessed with an almost mystical talent, Jarno was the precursor of the greats whose names we still revere. Accompanied to the races by his stunningly beautiful wife, Soili, they were the pride of their native Finland and even today his name is mentioned with the same reverence as Finland’s other immortal, the composer Jean Sibelius. Arguably the first rider to hang off the seat to assist his cornering, he also adopted a strange setup on his bike where he would flip his clip-ons upside down so that the ends were pointing almost to the ground. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did. If Renzo was the old skool, Jarno was the new. Their battles on track were legendary but it all came to a shocking end on this day 44 years ago.
On the first lap of the 250cc Grand Prix, Renzo lost control of his bike and crashed. Jarno, travelling right behind him, was unable to avoid the fallen bike and also crashed, causing a domino-effect crash that involved a total of 12 riders. When the dust had settled, many of those riders were injured but Renzo and Jarno were dead.
Their deaths did lead to improvements in circuit safety and we are grateful for that, but improvements should have already been made and should not have come at such a high price.
May 20th is a sad day for every motorcyclist, and we should ever allow the deaths of these two great gladiators to slip away from the corporate memory.
On a similar subject, the shocking bicycle accident involving a car and Nicky Hayden is keeping us all focussed at the moment and, despite the indications we are all hoping for a miracle.
French Grand Prix is on this weekend. Johan Zarco is carrying the weight of millions of Frenchmen on his shoulders, I’m glad I’m not him!