Before Mick Doohan came along and won five consecutive 500cc motorcycle racing world championship titles, there was another Australian who took the 500cc crown Down Under. Wayne Gardner, who won the 500cc championship in 1987 on a Honda, was a spectacular racer and a tough guy to the core – a man known for his ‘win, or die trying’ attitude which he brought to the racetrack. In fact, along with Kevin Schwantz, Wayne Rainey and Eddie Lawson, Gardner was one of the top motorcycle GP racers of the 1980s.
The wild one, from Woollongong, Australia, got his first podium finish back in the late 1970s, aboard a privateer Yamaha TZ250, soon after which he started racing 350cc and 750cc machines as well. By the early 1980s, Gardner was racing against men like Kenny Roberts, Randy Mamola and Barry Sheene. He was racing in the British Superbike championship and the British TT Formula One championship in 1983 and took 7th place in the 500cc world championship in 1984, the year when Eddie Lawson took his first 500cc crown.
In 1985 and 1986, Gardner took 4th and 2nd place respectively in the 500cc GP class, and was finally 500cc world champ in 1987, also winning a couple of Suzuka 8-hour races in Japan along the way! Gardner continued to race motorcycles till 1992, when he announced his retirement. He was 2nd in the 1988 500 cc world championship, 10th in 1989, 5th in 1990 and 1991, and 6th in 1992, his final year in 500s. He later moved on to racing cars, but even though I don’t know if he’ll ever admit it, I’d bet the maximum amount of fun he ever had was racing motorcycles.
Recently, in a dream-come-true moment, we had a chance to do a quick interview with Wayne. Here's what the man had to say:
Wayne, do you watch MotoGP these days?
Yes, I follow MotoGP closely. I watch all the races on TV and I go to Phillip Island when they are racing down there.
From the mid-1980s to today, what're the biggest changes that have happened in top-flight motorcycle GP racing?
The sport is a lot more professional now, in the sense that there is more money, bigger teams, and bigger budgets. Coverage has increased, speed and technology has advanced. But there isn’t the same camaraderie as there was when I was racing.
Is the rider/team/race organiser relationship the same as it was 20 years ago?
Things have changed a lot in the last 20 years. Since Dorna came in, and has controlling rights over the sport, it is now a lot more professional. It is a lot more money-orientated now, which is really a good thing as far giving the sport a higher profile. But the problem is, Dorna are trying to emulate Formula One standards. I don’t think this concept will totally succeed as it is an entirely different industry. I guess we’ll just wait and see what happens.
Which current day MotoGP rider do you admire most?
Definitely Valentino! I am a huge fan of Rossi and it would have been fun racing against him as he is safe, and fast, and enjoys his racing.
What's more important in racing – man or machine?
The man. The rider puts in at least 70 percent of the result. The team and machine make up the other 30 percent.
Do you, in some way, continue to be associated with HRC?
No, I have no business association, just continuing friendship with some of the Honda staff...
No, I don’t feel it’s moving in the right direction. I think they should have stayed with the 1000cc capacity and tried to reduce the speed by some sort of restrictors, be it air restrictors, or fuel capacities etc. Because going to 800cc is just going to dramatically increase the cost of the sport. The engineering costs will make it extremely difficult for the manufacturers to be able to afford to continue racing at such a high level. This isn’t Formula One!
Your thoughts on World Superbike racing...?
I follow Superbike racing and I think it’s a great series at a relatively controlled cost level. It did lose some steam when it was just a Ducati race, but now that the Japanese manufacturers are in with their 4-cylinder bikes, and also the introduction of controlled tyres (Pirelli) for all the riders, it’s now producing some great racing and is a great breeding ground for future MotoGP racing champions.
Do you ever go to watch motorcycle stunt shows?
I don’t go to stunt shows but I have a great appreciation for the guys who can do those tricks. I wish I could do them!!! Evel Knievel would have to be my favourite stunt rider.
Which motorcycle manufacturer's work do you admire most? Why?
Honda. From what I know about Honda, and their direction and their quality of people, I believe they have the most advanced engine design and engineering in the world.
What do you think of 1000cc, 180-horsepower sportsbikes being available to the average rider?
It’s not a good thing. They are hugely powerful bikes, and fun to ride, but very dangerous to the irresponsible average rider. I’ve been saying for the past few years that the governments will eventually wake up to how powerful and dangerous these machines are and will start to govern the machine by power outlet, or some form of licensing restriction, a bit like when you are restricted when you have your learner’s licence. The 1000cc motorcycles should only be for the highly experienced and sensible rider.
Did you ever feel scared when you were racing?
Yes! But it is very important to feel fear in motorcycle racing as it gives you respect for the motorcycle.
In racing, what was more difficult for you – the physical part (training, diet etc) or the mental part?
The physical part and dieting was the most difficult for me. I enjoyed the mental competition. I am highly competitive by nature and hate losing.
Who were your toughest competitors ever?
Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey.
What is your opinion of some of the recently constructed racing circuits in China and the Middle-East?
I think it’s great. It’s great to see the Middle-East and Asian countries taking an interest in the sport as this just broadens the interest around the world, which is a great thing. I have never ridden on their tracks, but I would love to at some stage in my life….before I get too old!!!
Current street ride: Honda CBR1000
2-strokes or 4-strokes: 4-strokes
Cruisers – yes or no: No
All-time favourite racing motorcycle: 1992 NSR 500 and Honda RVF
Most memorable race ever: 1989, Phillip Island
The motorcycle racer you admire most: Valentino Rossi
All-time favourite street motorcycle: Honda CBR1000 and MV Augusta F4 1000
Ferrari or Lamborghini: Ferrari
Favourite food: Italian and Thai
Most memorable post-race party: World Championship Party in Brazil – 1987
Isle of Man TT or the Paris-Dakar: Paris-Dakar