CHRISTIAN SARRON: “I STARTED RACING BECAUSE I WAS SCARED” | LOOKING BACK | MotoGP
Conquering his rivals wasn’t Frenchman Christian Sarron’s primary goal during his 18-year Grand Prix career. There was one other thing he needed to beat first
Christian Sarron is famous for three things: winning the 1984 250cc GP World Championship, putting the wind up Australian and American 500cc Grand Prix superheroes – and getting hurt, a lot.
During the late 1980s the skinny little Frenchman was the only European who could regularly take the fight to men like Mick Doohan, Wayne Gardner, Freddie Spencer, Kevin Schwantz, Wayne Rainey and Eddie Lawson. In fact he was the only European rider to win a 500cc GP between 1982 and 1992.
The former dirt trackers from Australia and the USA ruled the era because they were the only men who could handle too much power and too little rear tyre. Sarron went fast in a very different way, hammering the front tyre into corners, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t – which explains his horribly gnarled and crooked hands.
“I had more than 50 fractures in my hands alone – everything is destroyed,” he says, wincing at the memories.
Sarron dealt with a lot of pain during his career, both physical and psychological. He raced at a time when serious injury and worse were still far too just two seasons he lost four friends and compatriots: Patrick Pons, Michel Rougerie, Christian Leon and Olivier Chevallier. Ironic, considering what got him started.
“I know it sounds weird, but I started racing because I was scared of everything,” Sarron says.
“When I was quite young I told myself: no, I don’t want to live as a slave to fear – so I had to do things to overcome the fear. I was scared of heights, so I went free-fall parachuting. I was scared of water, so I went deep-sea diving without an instructor.
Then motorcycles became a passion and I wanted to push my limits.”
And push his limits he did. Sarron’s first roadbike was a Motobecane 125, which he replaced with a Kawasaki KH400 triple so he could contest the Coupe Kawasaki – a one-make series that produced a whole generation of fast French riders. He won his first race on the KH400, despite never having set a wheel on a racetrack.
“I never had any advice what to do, what were the lines, what were the riding techniques,” he says. “And I had no spare jets, sprockets or tyres – and no toolbox.”
That was in the summer of 1975. Just one year later he scored his first grand prix points for the Gauloises Yamaha team. The year after that he finished second in the Formula 750 World Championship, behind Steve Baker.
His fears had been conquered, but next he would have to conquer them all over again. In April 1979 Sarron crashed during the Brands Hatch F750 race and broke three vertebrae, an injury that would cause him balance problems for years to come. The following May he crashed at Jarama in Spain, breaking a wrist so badly that surgeons told him he might never ride again.
The following weekend, friend and former GP winner Olivier Chevallier lost his life at the French GP; 10 weeks later Sarron’s best friend Patrick Pons was killed at the British GP. That November, World Endurance Champion Christian Leon died following a crash at Suzuki’s Ryuyo test track and in May 1981 Michel Rougerie was killed at Rijeka, in Croatia.
“I was friends with them all,” Sarron says. “Obviously you think my turn is going to come… why not? Patrick was the guy who asked me to be his teammate at Yamaha, even though he knew I’d be a tough rival. We became extremely good friends. We went on holiday together and I had a bedroom in his flat in Paris.
“When I heard Patrick was dead I was at home with a broken wrist. The hand was completely destroyed, and I was thinking I might be finished. The year before I’d broken my vertebrae and the surgeons had told me that if I crashed again I could easily be paralysed. It was a very bad period of my life, so I asked myself – what must I do?
“Sincerely, I did think of stopping, but I clearly remember having one thought: what would Patrick do if it had been the other way around? We had discussed it: life, racing, dying. I know he would’ve continued and tried to do his best, so I’m going to continue and try to achieve something. When I crossed the finish line at Anderstorp in 1984 (to win the 250cc world championship) I dedicated my title to Patrick. Then I carried on. I accepted the risk.”
Sarron’s 250cc title success gained him a promotion to the premier 500cc class – which always his ultimate goal.
The Frenchman explains: “I hated 250s – too slow! I only rode 250s because I had no choice. What has always stayed in my mind is the physical and mental memory of the 750s and the 500 screamers I rode at the end of my career. Everything else is like a game for girls!”
In May 1985, Sarron famously beat Freddie Spencer to win a rain-soaked West German Grand Prix. In any other era he would’ve won more. Instead, he spent his six seasons on 500cc bikes battling with the dirt trackers and never quite managing to win again. However, he was a huge thorn in their side and beat all of them at one race or another.
And he did so with inferior machinery. Unlike the factory-backed Marlboro Yamaha squad, he had neither top-spec YZR500s nor the best Michelin tyres, despite the fact that he was born and bred just down the road from Michelin’s Clermont-Ferrand headquarters.
“Marlboro didn’t want the Gauloises guy winning, so they had a contract which said we couldn’t have the best bikes or tyres,” he recalls.
“The 500 of that time was an almost uncontrollable bike and because I had an inferior bike and tyres I had to take more risks – this is why I crashed more. Every time you went out on a 500 it was a big moment: heart beating, thinking I have to try and control this bike: that was the challenge.
“There was that very difficult moment when you went from gas closed to a little open. But the thing I battled the most was being able to use all the power in a straight line, because keeping the front down was so difficult, especially on short tracks with low gearing. It took me a while to understand that the solution was spinning the tyre and over-revving the engine.”
Sarron did have some advantages over his rivals. He was usually faster into corners, while the dirt trackers focused on corner exits.
“I had no choice but to pass them on entry because I could never pass them on the straights,” he says. “So I was compensating for that, plus I had a good feeling with the front. I know they complained about me, especially when I beat them on lap times. At Spa in 1988 I was more than two seconds ahead of everyone in qualifying!
“In the races I could’ve said: oh, I don’t want to crash, I’ll take it easy and do what my bike can do – but I had no ideas like that. I had to push, 100 percent, always. I was my main opponent.”
One of Sarron’s main challenges was that he didn’t have the right tyres to go full distance – and when his tyres started sliding, he didn’t have the technique to deal with it.
“After my five poles I told myself: you have proved you are fast as them, but you have another weakness – you crash too much,” he says.
“If you want to win the championship you must score points at every GP. So in 1989 I scored points at every GP, just like Eddie who won the title.”
All these personal challenges were leading towards the holy grail: winning the 500cc title in 1990, his last season.
“I thought now I must put all this together for my last season and play the game,” Sarron says.
“But I needed the best tyres, so in 1989 I started talking to Michelin. They told me: ‘if you finish in the top three we will give you the latest development tyres’ – so in 1989 I took great care and ended the season third overall, behind Eddie and Rainey.
“Then I went to see Michelin in Clermont-Ferrand and they told me they would not give me development tyres. But you said… No, and with no explanation! I cried on the way home. I thought: what can I do? I have nothing to lose, so I switched to Dunlop and 1990 was my worst season.”
If Sarron had been a born a few years later, his career might have been very different. In 1992 so-called big-bang engines tamed the worst excesses of 500cc GP bikes and crucial front-tyre development made mid-corner speed a race-winning weapon once again.
But Sarron has no regrets: “I didn’t like the big bang because I was happy with the challenge of dominating the screamers, and that challenge ended with the big bang. The screamers were more stress, more heart beat, more everything!”
There’s no doubting Sarron’s amazing bravery and there’s no doubt he was lucky to come through his career in one piece.
Story Mat Oxley Photography Gold & Goose, Francois Beau & AMCN Archives