There is nowhere better in the World than Le Mans to witness that undiluted explosion of sound and fury at the start of a MotoGP™ race. It just bounces off those towering legendary grandstands that dwarf the start and finish straight. When empty the noise is further amplified from the concrete terraces. Sunday was no exception as Jack Miller headed the growling pack of 300 bhp monsters into the fast right-hander before the Dunlop chicane. It all used to sound so different. Up to 34 years ago all you could hear was the patter of feet on tarmac when the flag dropped even at Le Mans.
Thirty-eight years into the 73-year history of Grand Prix racing you had to start the race by pushing your bike to fire it into action ready for the battle that lay ahead. From 50 to 500cc and even sidecars, it was the only way to join the fight. So many races were lost as a rider pushed, pushed and pushed to start his bike as his rivals disappeared over the horizon and out of sight. It all changed in 1987 when clutch starts were finally ratified starting at the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, the opening round of the World Championship.
It was a very special event not only for the clutch starts. The first Japanese Grand Prix for 20 years and on a personal note the first time I went to Japan and the first time I ever witnessed a fax machine in action. At the time I forgot those first three memories. A fax machine that saved hours of typing out full results late into a Sunday night and could contain six different classes and sidecar passengers. It was a miracle!
Randy Mamola won that first 500cc race with clutch starts but Randy knew all about and had perfected the art of running and pushing. The Californian had already won ten 500cc Grands Prix before the change. In the 500cc class you either had to be a side saddler or jump on starter. The paddlers were confined to the smaller class.
In the 50 and later 80cc classes and especially when the two-strokes took over, riders would propel themselves off the line sat on the bike. They would paddle and paddle with both legs and hope the engine would fire into action when they prayed they had enough speed to drop the clutch. It was a gamble that worked most times although failure meant the rider would have to jump off and push.
The classic method of starting especially in the four-stroke era in the bigger classes was side saddle. Riders would look more like royalty on a leisurely horse ride round their estate sitting side saddle. There was nothing leisurely about what happened when they dropped the clutch and the engine roared. They would cock their leg over the back of the saddle onto the footrests as they disappeared.
The riders loved the downhill starts and nowhere better than Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. From the start line it was downhill towards the legendary Eau Rouge corner at the bottom of the hill. Most people made good starts at Spa and none better than seven times World Champion Phil Read. My first trip to Spa was in 1974 and Read made the perfect start on the MV Agusta four-stroke with Giacomo Agostini leading the chasing pack on the two-stroke Yamaha. Spa may have been 14.100 kms long but just over four minutes later we first heard and then saw Read racing through the Ardennes forest to complete his first lap with not a single other rider in sight. Perfect start and race for Read who beat Ago by an incredible 72 seconds to win the race and eventually the World title.
It really was a case of the sound of silence until 1987 with just the patter of feet to signify a Grand Prix had actually started. Clutch starts certainly made life easier for riders. Like all changes it also had its disadvantages. Modern technology catches anybody who moves a centimetre before the lights change. Back in the pushing days a small step before the flag dropped would usually go unnoticed. Afterall, there was plenty of pushing ahead.