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22 days ago
By Nick Harris

The first time - never forgotten

Ahead of the Motul TT Assen round, Nick Harris tells us about his first memories of the iconic circuit

I can thank Assen for my first ever Grand Prix, witnessing Barry Sheene win his first 500cc Grand Prix and then my first Grand Prix as a proper newspaper reporter, which was won by a Dutchman. No wonder the very mention of that strip of hallowed tarmac in the northern extremities of Holland moistens the old eyes - and it’s not the dreaded hay fever.

It all came back to me last year on a glorious Wednesday evening as we raced through the flat Dutch countryside towards Assen. The windmills, the canals, the cows, the bicycles and the June sunshine took me back 44 long years. Sitting in the back of the Tee Mill tours coach at 5am in the morning on the very same roads en route to my first Grand Prix – what an adventure at the 1973 Dutch TT.

In those distant dark days there was no British Grand Prix to witness the World Championship stars in action. The British round of the World Championship was still held every June at the TT races on the Isle of Man. We did get a glimpse of our heroes at the big international races on the mainland at events like the John Player International at Silverstone and the Race of the year at Mallory Park. Of course, we made the annual pilgrimage to the Island but the trouble was many of the top World Championship riders had already decided the TT was too dangerous. One such rider was my ultimate hero Jarno Saarinen. We’d seen him ride at Silverstone and Mallory and after many council meetings at the local pub we made the momentous decision to give the TT a miss and go abroad, well Europe, to the Dutch TT. At least it was still a TT but we never imagined just how different it was to the Isle of Man.

Saarinen was spearheading Yamaha’s two-stroke assault on the World 500cc Championship and had already won in France and Austria. Then came the bombshell. The BBC Light Programme’s seven o’clock news on Sunday May 20th announced that both Jarno Saarinen and Renzo Pasolini had been killed in a truly terrible accident at Monza in Italy. We were shattered but were even more determined to travel to Holland to pay our respects. We were in good company with around 25 packed coaches of fans meeting at Dover to cross the channel and drive to the legendary Assen.

It was a trip into a completely new world and learning about so much. We had a great courier on board our coach with Brands Hatch star Pat Mahoney keeping us amused all the way there and especially on the way back, via Amsterdam. At 6am in the morning we’d never seen so many people and bicycles at a race meeting. You could buy beer and chips covered in mayonnaise at that time in the morning and the sun never stopped shining. Six World Championship races, including sidecars around the most famous circuit in the World. The icing on the cake, Phil Read winning the 500cc race on the MV Agusta, four strokes still ruled the roost - but not for much longer.

Then, we were all back on the coach and stopped for a night in Amsterdam, where we thought the barman liked us so much he didn’t charge us for each round of drinks. It was only when we were leaving the bill appeared. All part of the education that stood me in good stead for the next 45 years.