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Spa 1989: The Weird Belgian GP

April 27, 2016 - Races
Spa 1989: The Weird Belgian GP

Very like the real thing

Any resemblance between the events depicted in the following race report and the real world is entirely coincidental. This being so, perhaps some metaphysics can be called upon to lighten the mood.How about a lucky number's game - and today's lucky number is "3".
At Spa, every race (three solo classes, one for three-wheelers) was won by the machine carrying the racing number three. The 500cc was run on three legs. Three hours after the event, the FIM Jury voted by a majority of three to discount the results of the third leg. This dropped the provisional winner Wayne Rainey to third.

This state of affairs counted for little in the championship battle. In the end, neither did the Belgian GP. Which was just as well, for if it had, and if the process of appeal and counter-appeal had been followed to its logical conclusion, the final results would not have been known for several weeks after the final race in Brazil.

The way all this came about is described separately. It was an extraordinary set of events, and a show-piece of confusion that again illustrated not only the FIM's aptitude for incompetence, but also current management crisis in racing. In its basic elements, it was a clash of politics versus commerce - the FIM's rule book and their right to apply it versus hard-nosed business decisions designed to keep the show on the road.

The Clerk of the Course Claude Danis managed to give the TV networks and potentially riotous trackside spectators at least some sort of a race, while at the same time safeguarding the riders from unnecessary risks by sanctioning their voluntary cessation of racing. They had also obviously been willing to race full distance, and to count the results towards the world championship. It seemed at first that Monsieur Danis had done well in keeping as many people as possible happy.

But when politics and sportsmanship collide, the outcome is entirely predictable. The FIM made everybody look like idiots... most especially the riders, for risking their necks at Spa of all places in a race that didn't count.
The Belgian GP was not perhaps the most auspicious event for Bernie Ecclestone's debut as promoter. On the other hand, perhaps the event chose him!

Rainey, Lawson, Schwantz, Sarron

Rainey, Lawson, Schwantz, Sarron

Spa-Francorchamps has been a GP black spot for years - scene of a riders' walkout in 1979 and a last-minute cancellation in 1987. Major works were required this year, and were inspected by the FIM on the day before untimed practice - luckily enough, they passed.
The riders were forced to agree - this time the Spa authorities had done more than the minimum requested. Unfortunately, because the original request had been too imprecise, it was still not enough.
The first trouble spot was the Raidillon, the uphill right-hander that follow Eau Rouge to make the much- photographed high-speed Esses at the end of the pit straight, where substantial run-off had been scooped from the hillside ... much safer, although not yet quite benign.
The second, as ever, was the widow-making Blanchimont double-lefts leading to the bus-stop chicane, also part of the original public-roads circuit. Here, major earth works has given a respectable amount of run-off to the first sixth- gear bend tapered back to the trackside far too soon, because the organisers had been unable to secure a plot of land there. as a dismay Kevin Magee said "Before, you stood a chance of hitting the barrier a glancing blow, and bouncing back across the track, where there is a chance you may not be hit by a following bike. Now you'd just hit the barrier and stop." Four riders crashed there in practice, but all were lucky enough to find some run-off. And the most magnificient and most frightening GP course got through another year without killing anybody.

The advent of Ecclestone took second place to another new dawn - of the John Kocinski years. The pale 21-year-old's first 500 GP was simply brilliant, not only because of the result, but because of the way he just kept on going faster and faster, lap by lap, even bend by bend. At one stage in the wet final 500 race he was lapping faster not only than Eddie Lawson, but also leader leader Kevin Schwantz, and all this on a bike he'd never ridden before. Magee's spare YZR. "They were still adjusting levers on the line." A star is born.
Oddly enough, there was also a bike looking for a rider - with Dominique Sarron still out, the Elf equipe turned up with an empty NSR. They hoped to get Didier de Radigues on board, but this was blocked both by the Belgian's Aprilia boss and HRC. They then had a go at getting top privateer Simon Buckmaster on board, but again HRC said no.

Spa fullfils many superlatives. As well as the danger, it is also one of the most beautiful and certainly the most exhilarating of tracks. When races go well here, they usually turn out to be classics. So should this year have been, with the Rainey / Lawson battle at a crucial stage. Instead, the weather wrecked the race, then the FIM wrecked the results. Both men won, or neither of them. Only their lawyers knew for sure.

First Heat, 5 laps: So Far So Good

A wet start to the morning saw an extended 25-minute morning warm-up in all classes, to give teams a chance to test rain tyres. By race time, the showers had lifted and the track was dry, but the weather was still iffy when the 500s lined up for the first time, all on slicks.
For once, Lawson led away and up the hill, but Rainey closed again on the twists at the top, and moved past into the fast doublelefts at the bottom. In the next tighter bends before rejoining the public roads section, Schwantz flicked the nimble Suzuki inside the ponderous Honda, and at the end of lap one it was Rainey, Schwantz, Lawson and Sarron.
Lawson powered ahead up the hill again, Rainey outbraked him at the top. Schwantz was crawling all over both of them, switching lines as he looked for a gap. And so it went until lap four, when Rainey lost the lead to Lawson up the hill again, and this time he didn’t fight back. In the next long right-hand bend, Schwantz slipped by him; then Sarron also. From first to fourth ... Rainey was in trouble - his gear lever was sticking. 19890702_Spa_GP_500_4
Schwantz was still in the lead when they approached the final bend. La Source hairpin, for the fifth time, and he was the first to notice drops of rain. He lifted his hand from the bars - but Lawson and Sarron were both about to slip past inside him, and didn’t see his signal. Rainey did, and the two of them somewhat dubiously toured around at reduced speed as Lawson and Sarron drew away. Parts of the long track were dry, but wet pavement - and trouble - lay ahead.
They hit it just after Sarron had moved past Lawson as they ran back down the hill. The Frenchman fell at once, rolling spectacularly alongside his cartwheeling blue Yamaha, but escaping unhurt. Now Lawson got the message, and backed off, half-expecting to be overtaken. "When they didn’t come by, I realised they’d already slowed down.”
At this point, the red flag was already out, and crossed flags were shown around the circuit; and they all toured back to the pits as the short sharp shower moved across the valley.
Lap five positions set the grid for heat two - Lawson, Sarron, Rainey then Schwantz, with Kocinski fifth, and thus on row one, eight seconds adrift of Lawson, but three ahead of Chili, Spencer, Doohan, McElnea, Mackenzie et al.
Gardner was a non-finisher, after a brake
disc disintegrated while he was in the notorious Blanchimont double-lefts, with shrapnel putting holes in his fairing, and caused him to take to the escape road at I ho bus-stop chicane. The cause was diagnosed as experimental rivets that had fidgeted loose, allowing the disc to twist in the caliper. Gardner was lucky that the wheel didn't lock.
Mamola was also out, having pitted at the start of lap five with his Cagiva’s primary drive gears disintegrating. But he was allowed to restart - the first of a number of anomalies in a day that grew steadily more bizarre.

Heat Two, 3 laps: Play it Again, Rain

The track was predominately dry again on heat two, and slick tyres were the choice. Sarron took his place on the grid on his spare bike; also Mamola, at the back. Some 20 minutes had elapsed since the race stoppage.
Lawson jetted away from the start again;
Kocinski, Schwantz and Mackenzie in pursuit. By the end of lap one the Big Three were back in front, Lawson leading Schwantz and Rainey - Kocinski in fourth then Magee and Chili.
Once more. Schwantz flicked his Suzuk underneath Lawson in the twists, and then
followed some fine duelling between the dominant trio. On lap three, Schwantz led Lawson by half-a-second, with Rainey a similar distance behind. They were almost side by side up the hill, then Rainey led, then Schwantz, and then Lawson again - but before the lap was over the raindrops began, the hands went up, and the race was over; the red flag this time definitely coming in rapid response to action by the riders.19890702_Spa_GP_500_3
Kocinski was fourth this time, narrowly ahead of Chili, Magee, Doohan. Sarron, Mackenzie and McElnea. Mamola had fought his way from the back of the grid to 12th, behind Spencer, who actually failed to complete lap four with yet another crankshaft failure, but was still classified as a finisher.
Doohan’s group didn’t see the flag at first, and he was still racing when he tangled with Kocinski, each afterwards blaming the other. Doohan was thrown clear as the Honda and the Yamaha locked together, still upright -but brilliant though he is, Kocinski was not equal to riding two GP bikes, and he also fell a little distance further on. Neither was hurt.
Aggregate times of the first two legs put Lawson ahead of Schwantz, by less than a second, Rainey third by 1.5 seconds; then Sarron, Kocinski, Chili, Magee and Doohan. Later that evening, the FIM jury declared these the final results. But before all that, there was another race to come ...

Heat Three, 9 laps: And this One didn't Count

The third restart was scheduled in another 20 minutes, although it took a little longer to assemble the grid. Spencer and Doohan were now on their spare bikes, but Kocinski didn't have one. In another piece of frantic rule-bending, the Clerk of the Course gave permission for him to race Magee’s spare, which was hastily readied with the racing number “5” replaced by “49”.
Now it was at least raining properly, and full-wet tyres were the obvious choice. Rainey used an experimental 19-inch rear Dunlop that he'd tested satisfactorily in the extended wet morning practice session. Schwantz also had a prototype Michelin that he’d tested that morning, and pronounced a major improvement.
The race started with Rainey getting the jump, and immediately getting a big slither into Eau Rouge. He disputed the lead with Schwantz, both sliding about, and the Suzuki won the battle. From lap one onwards, Schwantz drew away rapidly, until he was 9.6 seconds ahead on lap four, almost half distance. His Michelins were working well, but Rainey’s new Dunlops were taking time to settle in.
As this pattern developed, Lawson was gradually losing ground in third, with Chili, Sarron and Magee some way back, then a handy little dice between McElnea, Doohan, Kocinski, Mamola and Spencer. Kocinski and Doohan were getting the better of it, and the stunning young American was also getting to grips with Magee’s faster bike.
By lap three, both had passed Sarron; and Kocinski just kept on going faster, hauling in Lawson quickly enough to make the triple-champion only a temporary problem. Kocinski moved inside him on the big right hander that starts the plunge back down the hill, and though Lawson fought back, it was to no avail. Take it as a milestone in Kocinski’s career.
He may have caught Rainey too, except that after he (Rainey) had stopped trying to catch Schwantz. his rear tyre had started working better and his lap times went down. “I didn’t know if Kevin was slowing up or if 1 was going faster, but I kept pushing,” the Californian said.19890702_Spa_GP_500_011
By lap eight, the nine-second gap had dropped to four seconds ... quite possible for Schwantz to defend over the last remaining lap. But he wanted to be absolutely sure, and turned up the wick. It was a fatal error. In the same hilltop right-hander, he flicked it in too hard, lost the front wheel, and slid off into the dirt.
“1 hadn’t had any trouble during the race, and I must have hit a slick patch,” was his official explanation, but unofficially he admitted that the pressure had affected his concentration. “1 was thinking too far ahead again, to some slick comers on the old part of the circuit. It took me by surprise.” It was his third such error of the year, and his second while holding a commanding lead.
So Rainey inherited another win, on the road and on aggregate times. Kocinski was 10 seconds adrift, Lawson another six seconds, with three more to Doohan. Mamola had put up a spirited wet-weather ride to take fifth; Spencer won a last-lap tussle for sixth from Sarron. Mackenzie and Chili,
1.5-seconds covering all four.
Aggregate times were issued at once, and they put Lawson second to Rainey, with Kocinski third; then Doohan, Sarron, Chili, Spencer. Mackenzie and Magee ninth. Mamola’s first-leg non-finish dropped him to 13th. behind top privateers Gentile, Laycock and Buckmaster.
But then it turned out that this had all been a waste of time, not to mention a foolish risk of life and limb, for the jury decreed that with no third restart mentioned in the rules, the third heat hadn't been part of the grand prix at all.

How this happened and why?

 

The root cause of the farce of the 500 race was the immutable fact that 160bhp 500cc racers on slick tyres are unrideable and ridiculously dangerous on a wet track. The subsequent shenanigans, however, fell under a wide variety of influences - from a desire to placate a potentially troublesome crowd to the convoluted politics of this year's FIM presidential elections.
The protagonists, apart from the competitors, were the FIM’s race management. The chief executive is the Clerk of the Course, who makes all the decision. The “board of directors” is the international FIM jury, present to ratify all race results, and to adjudicate on any other matters that may arise.
The Clerk of Spa was Mr Claude Danis, a man with a good record; while the seven-member international jury was presided over by Max Deubel, former sidecar world champion. Normally, these two would work together. At Spa, they found themselves at loggerheads, with the jury countermanding their chief executive's decisions, long after they'd been carried out. In the course of this extraordinary day, the rule book was squeezed and bent by the unfortunate Danis, victim of circumstances, doing his best to keep the show on the road, and personally sanctioning the unprecedented third leg of the race. Then the international jury decided he had acted beyond the power of the rule book, and felt obliged to declare the third leg a non-championship race. Not surprisingly, this enraged not only dispossessed teams, but more especially the riders who had ridden one of the world's most dangerous circuits in the mistaken belief that they were racing for world championship points.
So how did it come about that they weren’t?
At first, the meeting was run by the book. When it rained soon after the 500c start, the race was stopped. The machine were allowed into the pits to change tyres and reassembled soon afterwards. The rain, however, had stopped, and all were back on the same slick tyres they had used before. Crasher Sarron's machine change was also quite legal; but the jury were disturbed that Mamola was permitted to restart on his spare bike, even though he had pulled in to the pits on the lap before the race stoppage, and had technicall retired. They felt they should have been consulted. The second leg was even shorter, with the riders slowing at the start of lap five. Now, according to precedent, and to the Jury’s subsequent interpretation of the rule: they were at liberty to change tyres, or to retire, as they wished ... but the race must go on. But Danis made another quick decision calculated not only to please the riders but also in the interests of safety (“capitulated to the riders,” as one FIM man said) and stopped the race. Since it had stopped anyway, he had little choice ... but Schwantz's team at least was expecting to change his tyres and send him out again, when instead they saw the red flag.
Now Danis had a mess on his hands. There was also the question of the troublesome crowd, although a rumour - that he’d been told if he didn't put on some sort of a 500 race the police could not guarantee to control the crowd - was later denied. So he sanctioned a first-ever third GP start, with a race of nine laps. Now he might as well be hung for a sheep as a Iamb, and he also took the irregular step of allowing Kocinski to race on a machine he had not ridden in practice (Magee’s spare). At this stage, Deubel tried to tell Danis that the third start was illegal. On opposite sides of the track, their only possible contact was by telephone (you don’t expect an FIM jury man to walk across the track, do you), and Danis couldn’t or wouldn't be reached. This compounded the “series of errors that made us very worried,” as a jury member said.
Half-an-hour after the last race, the jury automatically meets to homologate the results. This was devoted to discussing the 500cc race, and examining the rules; which make no mention of the possibility of a third leg, though they do not specifically forbid one either. In the end they voted seven to four that the third leg was invalid. Delegates from France, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden were in favour of supporting the Clerk of the Course; but they were over-ruled by Ireland, Germany, Spain, Italy, Venezuela, Great Britain and the Netherlands. Amid accusations of vote trading in election year, the jury now followed the rule book to the letter, and declared the results after two legs as final. Since less than 75 percent of full distance had been completed, only half points were awarded. Both Lucky Strike and Gauloises teams immediately protested this decision, the Frenchmen very nobly, since their man Christian Sarron actually came off better the jury’s way. Certainly, nobody at Honda was anxious to join in, and thus strip Lawson of a badly-needed if rather fortuitous race win. Pier-Francesco Chili also joined the protest. The protesters asserted that the rules were not clear, and did not forbid Mr Danis’s interpretation. A week after Assen’s twin-cylinder “single”, the suggestion that other FIM regulations may be badly framed found widespread support. The teams also felt they had “natural justice” on their side, since the third heat had been run on the instructions of the FIM’s own official.

Some five weeks later, the FIM convened a three-man jury to hear the case; they unanimously over-ruled the protest, and Lawson’s half-point victory stood.It was not over yet. Both Lucky Strike and Gauloises exercised their right to appeal, obliging the FIM to convene a five-man tribunal. This they were not able to do until the Brazilian GP, after which the appellants withdrew, after requesting that the FIM should in turn promise some sort of disciplinary action against their errant Clerks of the Course in Belgium and in Germany.

19890702_Spa_GP_500_018

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