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7 days ago
By Nick Harris

Grand Prix apprenticeship – still learning

Brad Binder’s win reminds former commentator Nick Harris of an event that happened 40 years ago, involving another South African rider

Brad Binder’s truly memorable ride into the history books and then his immaculate calm TV interview with Simon Crafar in the Brno pit lane afterwards made me smile. Memories of another great South African World Champion, the Brno road circuit and the apprenticeship as a Grand Prix reporter.

Forty years ago, I travelled to report on the Czechoslovakian Grand Prix on the old Brno road circuit. It was my first season as a Grand Prix reporter, and I was keen, very keen, too keen. There was massive interest in the 350-cc race which was the penultimate round of the Championship. It was a fight between the toughest Grand Prix rider I have ever met, South African Jon Ekerold and the talented German Toni Mang. Privateer Ekerold arrived at the 10.920 kms road circuit on a sweltering afternoon with a 14-point lead in the Championship. It was not easy for a South African to get a visa to race in Czechoslovakia.

His two Bimoto Yamaha mechanics had been refused entry and he only managed to get a precious visa because he had inherited a Norwegian passport from his father. Ekerold looked so much the likely World Champion as he trailed leader Mang through the villages, corn fields and forest. Suddenly the Champion elect started to slow, which we discovered later was with a broken piston ring. He limped home in tenth place, with Mang’s victory ensuring the pair would go into the final round in Germany on equal points.

I was first there with pen and notebook in hands as Ekerold limped into the pits and took off his helmet. Others with a bit more experience and nouse than the novice waited for the dust to settle. I had dived in as Jon was still removing his helmet with a breathless enquiry about why he had slowed and how he felt about not winning the World title. His reply was unprintable, and he made it very clear what he thought about me.

A week later I drove to an iconic venue for the final round of the 350 cc World Championship. The Nürburgring road circuit nestling in the Eifel mountains was on its last legs. As I drove into the paddock Jon Ekerold was waiting for me at the gate. I was ready for another ear bashing but instead he apologised for his outburst, said he was out of order and I was only doing my job and shook my hand. He then went out to produce a ride of pure genius and guts that you had to be there to appreciate.

His victory over Mang brought him that World title and left me with memories I will never forget. His last lap between the trees and barriers that lined the 22.835 kms deteriorating surface was one of the greatest single laps I have ever witnessed. His last lap would have qualified him in second place on the 500cc grid and his race time would have placed him fourth in the 500cc race.

Onto Austria on Sunday and I loved both the old Salzburgring and in recent years to the similar picturesque location of the Red Bull Ring. The Salzburgring was special especially watching those 500cc grand prix motorcycles at such a high speed. It was the ultimate amphitheatre for riders to show not only skill but so much nerve and courage. A little Alpine stream used to trickle between the trees past the media centre and a family ran the communication service, charging extortionate prices. Upset Mother, Father and especially Daughter and there was no chance of copy being filed.

 

In 1983 Kenny Roberts was fighting like a true champion to win back the World title he had last won three years earlier. It was a crucial sixth round of his fight with Freddie Spencer at the Salzburging. I had organised with Yamaha that if he won, the presenter back in London could interview him live for BBC Radio at the end of his victory lap on the finish line before he went to the podium. Kenny completed his part of the deal perfectly. A classic six second win over Eddie Lawson and he stopped in front of me, took off his helmet and put on the headphones ready to speak to the BBC.

Unfortunately, the people back in London had not grasped the situation. Instead of coming straight to Kenny they asked him if he would mind waiting a couple of minutes because they were doing a cricket round up around the county club grounds. Kenny may have just completed 131.440 kms at over 190 kph but he never lost that wicked sense of humour. He asked them if that was the same game of cricket in which the match can last five days and still end in a draw. Kenny waited, the rostrum ceremony waited and eventually the interview with the winner was completed.

Four decades later and I am still learning.

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