Bike racers were never choirboys

This is bike racing, not classical music,” opined former 250cc world champion Max Biaggi after Doriano Romboni accused him of dirty tricks on the last lap of the 1994 250cc German Grand Prix.Pretty obvious, really, because there’s not a half-successful racer in the world who doesn’t get up to some kind of mischief in his quest for glory.

Interestingly, while researching this story I quickly realised that it’s only retired riders who will talk openly about this kind of stuff – the who are guys still racing don’t want to admit what they get up to.

There are many dirty tricks of the track, starting with the standard stuff that everyone does – like gently moving a rival off line when braking into a corner, or easing an opponent away from the grippy line mid-turn. Then there’s the rougher tactics – like shutting the throttle halfway through a corner to force someone into taking drastic avoiding action, thus losing them vital time. And then there’s the serious stuff – like running a rival onto the grass at high speed, or deliberately colliding with them, or hitting their kill switch, or shutting their throttle or punching or kicking them.

Even legends like ‘King’ Kenny Roberts and Mick Doohan happily admit to getting dirty. It’s just what goes on – it’s a war out there. Like it or not, bike racing is a ferocious game of testosterone-charged heavyweight boxing with high-powered engines attached. Maybe it would be cool if it was nice and gentlemanly but that’s not how it works. Even back in the so-called chivalrous days of the 1950s and 1960s there were tales of nefarious happenings, like racers in their pudding-basin helmets spitting at each other during races. And if these revelations make you watch bike racing with a more cynical eye, so be it. If you want peace and love, you’d better go elsewhere.

Roberts wasn’t one of the really bad guys. He insists that he never knocked anyone off when he was doing Grands Prix, but the hard-knocks dirt-track scene in the States was different.

“One time going through a turn I felt this guy’s clutch lever on my right foot, so I just gassed it and flipped him off,” says Roberts, who won a heap of dirt-track crowns before taking the 500cc world title in 1978, 1979 and 1980. “The guy came over after and wanted to know why I’d knocked him down and I said, ‘well, the reason I knocked you down is that you put your clutch lever on my foot’, so he started shouting that I’d knocked him down and I said, ‘yeah, and next time you do that I’ll knock you down again’. You know, it’s just one of the things; if anyone does something like that to you, well, sorry…

Five-time 500cc world champion Doohan, who ruled the late-1990s GP scene with a pitiless talent, was renowned as much for his ruthless aggression as for his awesome skill.

“I wouldn’t say I’ve knocked people off the track but I’ve maybe ‘lifted’ them off the track,” says the Australian. “Like when someone thinks they can go around the outside, you just pick up and modify your line. They’re already committed, so there’s only one place left to go, and that’s normally off the track. I guess it’s a good way to bring cocky people back to earth, just to let them know that it’s not like this is your first race.”

Doohan had a couple of famous run-ins with young Aussie Anthony Gobert during the 1997 500 world championship. Goey had made the mistake of goading Mighty Mick in the press and he paid the price on track.

“As much as everyone thought Goey was so great, he just had no race craft back then,” Doohan recalls. “You’d do quite a clean move on him, then he’d come at you from a different angle, so it was like, ‘hello stupid, try this!’, and the next minute he’d be off the racetrack. Then he’d come in complaining about dirty riding.”

Even former British Superbike champion, Grand Prix podium finisher and all-round nice guy Niall Mackenzie had his moments of malevolence, like during a Snetterton BSB race in 1998, when he rammed Yamaha team-mate Steve Hislop off the track.

“Steve had some kind of effect on me, maybe because he had done something to me earlier in my career, so I had no problem running into him and compromising everyone’s safety,” he says, laughing at the madness of it all, as racers do.

“It was the last lap and I’d considered doing it at the Bomb Hole, but I wasn’t close enough, so I did at the chicane. I just ran into the side of him, we both ran off the track and it cost us first and second, which Rob [McElnea, their team manager] wasn’t too impressed about! I frightened myself thinking about it driving home that night, because if I’d done it at the Bomb Hole we’d have both been in hospital.”

Earlier in his career, Mackenzie remembers competing in the European final of the infamously crazed Yamaha RD350LC Pro-Am series at Hockenheim and dealing with a much-feared French rival in homicidal style.

“The Brits ganged up on this guy,” he remembers. “Me, Ray Swann, Graham Cannell and Kenny Irons decided he was a bit hot, and he was little, so we knew he would be really fast down the long straights, so we took turns bullying him during practice. At Hockenheim you get in a big slipstream thing – you get to the front of the queue, then you get slipstreamed, so every time it was his turn we just ran him off the track.”

This was usually at top speed, so it was no surprise when the Frenchman returned to the pits in tears. He didn’t cause the Brits any problems on race day.

There’s another famous dirty trick that was used frequently in Pro-Am, but works just as well in any other form of bike racing: the front-end chop, which involves drafting past a rival, then pulling in front of him before you are actually in front.

“That still goes on a lot,” explains Mackenzie. “The guy behind has to back off because the rear of the bike is so solid, so when you get a collision, it’s going to be the guy behind who goes down.”

Story by: Mat Oxley Motorsportmagazine