As World Championship motorcycle racing prepares to bake the cake to celebrate its 70th birthday next year, nowhere reflects the history of Europe more than the Sachsenring. Seven decades of conflict, divide and ultimately unification played out on and around the tarmac snaking through the forest above the town of Hohenstein – Ernsttal.
The East German Grand Prix that ran from behind the Iron Curtain between 1961 until 1972. The nearby MZ factory who took on the world from their humble premises to pioneer the two-stroke racing engine. The defection of their talisman Ernst Degner with the MZ secrets to Suzuki, the playing of the West German National anthem after the 1971 250 cc victory of Dieter Braun and finally the return of the German Grand Prix in 1998 tells so much. Throughout, it was motorcycle racing that provided a ray of light and hope for the millions of people caught in the web of post war conflict and divide. They have never forgotten.
Folklore tells us every week for the last 69 years a fresh bunch of flowers is carefully laid on the simple stone memorial in the woods on the twisty undulating road near the entrance to the Sachsenring. Certainly, there was a fresh bunch of locally picked flowers there last year as we drove through the forest on the old road circuit on route to the first day of practice for the German Grand Prix at the new Sachsenring.
Fifteen hundred kilometres away, across Europe and across both the North and Irish seas, another memorial to the same person glints in some rare Isle of Man sunshine. On the famous mountain climb out of Ramsey looking back towards the Point of Ayre, a kiln of stones is lovingly preserved to commemorate the life of a great motor cycle racer and six times TT winner.
On the eighth of August 1937, 40-year-old Scotsman Jimmy Guthrie was leading the German Grand Prix on the Sachsenring road circuit. Riding the Norton, he was chasing his third successive victory in Germany where the rumble of war was looming fast. He’d already taken 19 Grand Prix victories and going into the last lap he was leading comfortably. The 300,000-crowd packed around the 8.73 kms long road circuit that cut through the woods and around the hills surrounding the city of Hohenstein – Ernsttal, situated between Dresden and Leipzig prepared to celebrate. He never arrived at the finish. Guthrie died in hospital after crashing into the woods on that fateful last lap.
A year later, World War 2 was declared and the Hohenstein-Ernstthal area around the Sachsenring was never going to be the same. When World War 2 ended, they found themselves part of East Germany, a very different place to where they lived before war started. However, the people had never forgotten a Scottish gentleman who won two Grands Prix at their circuit before the hostilities split the world wide apart. In 1949 a memorial at the location he crashed was their own special tribute to him.
Colour, creed or nationality made no difference. He was their motorcycle racing hero.