Rider Of The Week focuses on the career of a famous motorcyclist and one of the greatest of all time has to be Jarno Saarinen. As the only Finn to win a motorbike world racing championship, Saarinen earned an outstanding reputation in the motorbike community. A horrific crash in 1973 led to his career being cut short at the age of 27. Saarinen’s death led to an increased demand in motorbike safety regulations, which formed part of his legacy.
Saarinen grew up in Turku, Southern Finland and at 15 he was working as an apprentice and test-rider for Tunturi-Puch. Saarinen learned how moped and motorbikes were assembled at the Turku based factory. In 1961, he made his racing debut in an ice race at Ylone, coming in second place. Saarinen continued to participate in ice racing, winning the 250 cc Finnish national championship in 1965.
This propelled him into a Grand Prix career, with him debuting on a 125 cc Puth in 1968. Although Saarinen finished in 11th place, he improved for the next year, winning the 1969 125 cc and 250 cc Finnish motorbike national championships. Even more remarkable was that he acted as his own mechanic, harkening back to his time with Tunturi-Puch.
In 1970, Saarinen convinced three bank managers to fund his racing career and he finished the season in fourth place. 1971 saw Saarinen develop a rivalry with Giacomo Agostini by winning his first 350 cc Grand Prix when Agostini had a mechanical failure. He also won the 250 cc race at the Spanish Grand Prix.
Saarinen’s success compelled Yamaha to hire him and he won the 250 cc World Championship. Saarinen proved enough of a threat that MV Agusta was forced to produce a new 350 cc motorbike for Agostini. Not long after the season ended, Saarinen went to the UK and won the Race of the Year invitational at Mallory Park.
Death and legacy
Saarinen had sat out the 1973 Isle of Man TT along with many other riders of safety concerns. He decided to ride on the Monza Circuit, but complained about the steel guardrails lining the track. No action was taken. The day descended into tragedy, starting with Renzo Pasolini’s death after he crashed into the guardrail. Pasolini’s motorbike bounced off the barrier, hit Saarinen in the head and he suffered fatal injuries. The crash set off a chain reaction that involved 14 other riders, including Hideo Kanaya, Victor Palomo, Borje Jansson and Chas Mortimer. Saarinen’s death shook the motorbike community and many race organisers and the FIM faced backlash over poor safety conditions. Many racers boycotted events and ultimately resulted in the FIM making the necessary changes.
Saarinen received several honours, such as a road being named after him in Turku, as well as being inducted into the MotoGP Hall of Fame. He established himself as the world’s greatest Finnish rider and he’ll never be forgotten.