Thursday, February 18, 2010

1983: Kenny Roberts’ Last Stand


By Eric Jonhson

It’s been said, since the beginning of time, that a picture is worth 1000 words.

Holding true to that adage is a photograph of “King” Kenny Roberts preparing to start the final race of his illustrious Grand Prix Roadracing career. The date was Sunday, September 4, 1983, and the race, the Gran Premio di San Marino.

All along the 1983 was an epic season of 500cc Grand Prix racing. Barry Sheene had returned to the fray after his 1982 injuries on a factory-supported privateer Suzuki. Meanwhile, Honda’s hope for glory, and a first-ever 500cc championship, was pinned on American Fast Freddie Spencer and his 500cc Triple. 1981 World Champion Marco Lucchinelli and Takazumi Katayama filled out the other main Honda rides for 1983.
Kenny Roberts was again riding the Yamaha V4. Despite bike handling problems, fought a season-long battle for the title with fellow American Spencer. Joining them was another American and legend-to-be, one Mr. Eddie Lawson who was riding for the Agostini Yamaha squad. Randy Mamola was still with Suzuki but was left standing, relatively speaking, by the titanic battle between Roberts and Spencer. Franco Uncini was also left behind on the next-best Suzuki, never matching the heights performance-wise from his 1982 title-winning campaign. We did, however, see a Frenchman have some success in 1983; Marc Fontan on a privateer Yamaha became the top European finisher in the series that season.

Freddie Spencer won the first three races of 1983, Kenny Roberts then came back with a win in West Germany, but Spencer piled on the pressure with a fourth win in five races. Roberts won in Austria but again Spencer turned up the heat by taking the next round in Yugoslavia. At the Dutch TT in Assen, the tit-for-tat battle continued, a win for Roberts and the three-time World Champion was about to reverse the pressure game and put Spencer under the spotlight as he also won in Belgium and the UK before the title saw a mammoth battle in Sweden that saw Spencer win, but only after making a move on Roberts at the penultimate corner of the penultimate round which had Roberts claiming he was harshly passed by his fellow countryman. Spencer dived for the pass, and both riders ran into the dirt, although they stayed upright. Roberts claimed it was a dangerous move and lamented he would never have made such a brash pass on a competitor with a title up for grabs.

Kenny Roberts 1983 Yamaha

Going into the final round, the San Marino Grand Prix, all Spencer had to do to beat Roberts was finish one place behind him. Roberts won the last race but Spencer did, indeed, follow him home to take second place and Freddie was crowned World Champion. Not only was it his first title, but also, it was Honda's first-ever 500cc Grand Prix World Championship, and the points margin between Roberts and the victorious Spencer was just two points. It was the final 500cc race for Roberts, who retired to take up a new career as a team owner. A brilliant end to a brilliant career.


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