Eyewitness: Another Honda-Yamaha Suzuka showdown that ended in tears

Published: 07 October 2015

In July 1985 King Kenny Roberts came out of retirement to ride Yamaha’s first serious four-stroke race bike, the YZF750 Genesis. Partnered by Japanese ace Tadahiko Taira, the three-time 500 world champ went head to head with an up-and-coming young Aussie, Wayne Gardner, riding Honda’s first RVF750 with another local star, Masaki Tokuno.

espite this being Roberts’ first four-stroke roadrace, the American set pole and took the lead, while Gardner’s heroics were blunted by the slow pace of his team-mate. Honda’s hopes of a dream RVF debut looked over, until the race took a dramatic turn in the final hour.  It was a huge deal for Yamaha and Honda and it was a massive deal for Roberts and Gardner.

Kenny Roberts: Nobody told me anything about the race, so I turned up with one set of non-vented leathers, boots, a helmet and gloves. When I arrived the weather was just horrible.

Wayne Gardner: You only had to walk out of your hotel and you were drowning in sweat. It was almost 40 degrees and the humidity was so high. When you’re on the bike it’s like you’ve got your head in an oven. 

Roberts: Yamaha said we need you and Taira to find some settings you’re both happy with. I said, don’t worry about it, set it up the way he likes it, so Taira set it up, I rode it and got pole. But I messed up the start. Everyone was gone by the time the engine started. I was thinking, what a dip-shit, it’s going to be a nine-hour race now!

Gardner: I started and pitted in the lead, but Tokuno was two or three seconds a lap slower, so he went backwards. We were 30 seconds off the lead when I went back out again and caught up, then he got on and went backwards again. We did that all day, until the last session.

Roberts: I got up to fourth in my first stint, then Taira got us up to second and we took the lead in my next stint. My riding was still 100 per cent, I hadn’t lost anything as far as being fast because I still rode dirt track virtually every day. But it was so hot – if you put your head under the bubble you couldn’t breathe. After my second stint I’m lying there with ice all over me, trying to cool down, and I said to Dean [Miller, Roberts’ trainer], I don’t think I’m going to make it. Dean goes, that’s OK because Taira’s not going to make it either! He said he put a block of ice on Taira’s head and it melted like it was on a stove.

Gardner: The plan was to do four one-hour stints each, but it didn’t turn out that way. When I came in from what should’ve been my last stint I’d just about caught the Yamaha. Tokuno went to get on to do the last hour and I said no, no, no, I’m staying on. I knew if I didn’t do the last session we wouldn’t have a chance of winning.

Roberts: We were 90 seconds in front when Taira went out for his last ride; we’d have won the race easily. Then 20 minutes from the end he pulls up by the pit wall. I go, what the hell’s he doing? He says something’s wrong with the bike and everybody starts crying. I was like, whaaaaat?! All the mechanics and photographers were crying. It was crazy.

Gardner: I pushed really hard in the last session, trying to catch Taira. The darkness came down and I was still riding with a dark visor, thinking how am I going to do this? I was slowly pulling him in and pushing, pushing, pushing, because I wasn’t going to give up til the chequered flag. The circuit lights came on and I started seeing things. I was shattered, completely dehydrated, getting a headache and hallucinating. 20 minutes from the end I saw this bike stopped and I went, is that Kenny’s? I was confused, so I kept pushing harder and harder because my team didn’t tell me I was leading.

Roberts: I’d had disappointments before, so the DNF didn’t bother me; there’s always another race, so no problem. But to the Japanese it was like the end of the world.

Gardner: I was so dizzy they had to carry me off the bike and hold me up on the podium. Then they took me to the doctors. I was a mess; I’ve never been so ill after a race. It was the toughest race of my career but it did me a lot of good because in Honda’s eyes I was a hero, so it was instrumental in getting me a factory 500 ride the following year.