The Baron and I

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Some readers will see the above name and say out loud….“Who?” … But, in my household this name is all too familiar, so much so that I have acquired the Christian name as my middle name.

Jarno Saarinen was a Finnish ice bike rider speedway rider and motor bike rider, who my Dad (an avid motorbike fan) adored.

In his time racing Saarinen revolutionised the riding of bikes by introducing a new style. The Finn rode in a “hang off” style, with his body hanging off the bike and his knee on the ground whilst going round corners.

He also lowered the handle bars and angled them downwards. This style is now commonplace in modern motorcycle racing; however, modern day bikers have Saarinen’s innovation to thank.

Saarinen began his career as an ice bike rider; this is a relatively famous sport in his native Finland and it was through his numerous successes in this sport that he earned a move to Grand Prix racing.

In only his third season (after signing for Yamaha) he won the 250cc championship in 1972 and remains the only Finn to win a motorbike world title. He finished 2nd in the 350cc world championship in the same year.

Amazingly, in 1973, Saarinen managed to beat riders on 750cc engines, whilst riding a mere 350cc at the Imola 200. This achievement goes someway to understanding his skill, as he held off riders of greater stature on bikes much more powerful, and at one stage in the race he managed to be half a minute in front!

In 1973 came Saarinen’s big chance, he was allowed to challenge Giacomo Agostini, for the 500cc world championship, and he began well, winning two of the opening three 500cc races and all three of the 250cc races.

The fourth race of the season, however, would end in tragedy. Saarinen was cruelly robbed from the racing world at Monza, in May 1973.

In tragic circumstances, oil remained on the track from a previous race, and Saarinen couldn’t avoid race leader Renzo Pasolini who had fallen from his bike, he and Saarinen lost their lives that day and it led to major re-shaping of the rules of Grand Prix, after Suzuki, MV, Harley and Yamaha factories all campaigned for better racing conditions, Yamaha took the protest one step further by pulling out of the races for a full year.

Despite his brief 3 years in Grand Prix riding Saarinen had gained himself hero status not only with my Dad, but also within Italy, there remains a fan club to this day, and Jarno has become a popular Italian name, as I’m sure F1 driver Jarno Trulli can testify.

In his native Finland, Saarinen earned the nickname “paroni” which means the baron, the English simply referred to him as the “Flying Finn.” Saarinen stuck to the same designed red and white helmet throughout his career; this became a trademark of Saarinen, almost as much as his usual after race trek to the podium.

Saarinen was famed for his skill and my Dad (who rode some races in the 70’s) could appreciate such talents more than those that haven’t witnessed the high speed weaving of chicanes and the tight overtaking on bends.

Saarinen’s masterful style and determination has brought praise from fellow riders, Phil Read said “He was a fantastic rider, and he really had everyone else on their toes – he made me a better rider.” Charles Mortimer added “Jarno was so incredibly confident that he had himself and other riders believing that he’d won the race before it had even began. You came to believe that there was no way of beating him.”

Legendary rider and biking documentary maker Geoff Duke paid his own personal tribute to Saarinen “In any sport there are performers who can be called brilliant, but every once in a while, along comes a champion who stands head and shoulders above the rest. Not just for skill and courage, but for warmth, charm and personality- such a man was Jarno Saarinen.”

Researching Saarinen and watching the DVD entitled ‘Saarinen – Against the Odds’, has made me realise why my Dad admired him so much, his talent in modern day terms would’ve made him a worldwide star and his mild mannered and humorous personality would have endeared him to the general public.

I feel rather proud to be named after such a sporting talent.

Thanks Dad.

Ashley Ball

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By Ashley Ball