MotoMatters.com is delighted to feature the work of iconic MotoGP writer Mat Oxley. Oxley is a former racer, TT winner and highly respected author of biographies of world champions Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi, and currently writes for Motor Sport Magazine, where he is MotoGP correspondent. We are featuring sections from Oxley's blogs, which are posted in full on the Motor Sport Magazine website.
The day MotoGP nearly died
The late 1980s and early 1990s was the age of superheroes in 500cc GPs, but at the same time the premier class nearly became extinct
I did an office clear-out during the festive season and found a pile of old stories that I’d printed on rolls of perforated computer paper and faxed to editors. Yep, that old.
Among the papers was something I’d written in 1990, when the premier 500cc class was on the brink of oblivion. At April’s US GP there were just 14 starters and at June’s Yugoslav GP there were only nine finishers.
The reasons for the empty grids were simple: there was no money, there were no bikes and the bikes that were there kept hurling their riders to the ground and breaking their bones. Too many riders were skint, too many were in hospital.
If MotoGP is currently enjoying a golden age, then 1990 and 1991 were the premier-class’s nadir. The racing at the front – Wayne Rainey versus Kevin Schwantz and the rest of the superheroes – was awesome, but many fans don’t realise how close the premier class came to extinction during that period.
The day MotoGP came closest to death was probably June 17, 1990, when there were nine finishers at Rijeka, venue for the Yugoslav GP on what is now the Croatian coast.
Rainey won the race, from Schwantz and Niall Mackenzie. More than 30 seconds separated the top three, then came Mick Doohan and Jean-Philippe Ruggia, all of these men riding factory Yamaha, Suzuki and Honda 500 V4s. The category’s other star riders – Eddie Lawson, Wayne Gardner and Christian Sarron – were all injured.
The last four finishers at Rijeka rode Honda RS500 triples, the only bike available to privateer riders and all of them around five years old.
Sixth-placed Marco Papa was lapped once, Kees Doorakkers, Karl Truchsess and Niggi Schmassman were next, lapped between two or four times, their lap times up to eight seconds slower than Rainey’s.
If they had been able to complete full distance, they would have finished four minutes and 30 seconds behind the winner. Compare that to 2019 when the entire grid of 22 riders was usually separated by less than 50 seconds.
I remember standing trackside at Rijeka, watching this dire procession (no TVs in the dilapidated press room, so you had to watch by the side of the track). I was entranced by the Rainey/Schwantz show, while at the same time I wondered how long the show could go on.
Read the rest of Mat Oxley's blog on the Motor Sport Magazine website.