A Tweet from Dutch journalist Frank Weeink reminded me it is over 40 years since I first traveled to a Grand Prix outside the shores of this sceptred isle (as we used to call it, pre-Boris). Frank was remembering Jack Middelburg, one of a trio of Dutch racers who lit up racing in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and who won my first foreign race, the Dutch TT of 1980. He wasn’t the first home hero to win the 500cc class at Assen, that was Will Hartog, The White Giant, two years earlier whose victory sparked national rejoicing. The third man in the triumvirate, Boet van Dulmen, didn’t win his home race but he did stand on top of the podium in Finland.
Riding a motorcycle outside your home country is a big deal. Experiencing the wonder of Assen was an even bigger deal, it fixed ideas in my mind of what racing should be like. Those ideas are still there, as are indelible memories. Here are a few snapshots.
This being the UK in 1980, the ferry was delayed a few hours. A Norton Commando rider stalked down the queue surveying the masses of motorcycles waiting to board: “Good job I brought a real motorcycle.”
Dutch motorway cafes were a new experience. Unidentified fried objects, all served with mayonnaise. Most Brits had a dollop on the back of their hand, delivered as they tried to protect their fries from this strange condiment: “No thanks.. oh..”
As I fuelled my Guzzi up a Dutch biker spotted the number plate and wandered over to tell us Barry Sheene wasn’t on pole but a Dutchman was: “And not the one you think!” It was Middelburg, not Hartog. I was seriously impressed by the fact he was wearing his old army boots sprayed silver. I said I was worried about nothing being open by the time we got to Assen. He laughed at me.
Camped near the track, kept awake by German club whose beer supplies and PA arrived in a VW Combi. Ate fries with mayo, and walked in on race morning among what seemed like a biblical throng. Unnerved by sight of locals necking whole pickled herring for breakfast.
After Hartog’s victory there had been a crowd invasion, first to salute Wil then to remove bits of track as souvenirs. This time the organisers had hired a load of scruffy looking security guards with even scruffier German shepherd dogs to line the track. The Dutch threw bits of sandwich exactly midway between the mutts: result, lots of dog fights.
We saw Ricardo Tormo win the 50s, Angel Nieto the 125s, Carlos Lavado the 250s and Jon Ekerold the 350s. Then the 500s. Roberts led the first two laps before Middelburg took over and pulled out a 14-second lead. In the closing laps you could follow his progress by the Mexican wave (that term hadn’t been invented, but hey) that preceded him. I don’t think anyone noticed Graziano Rossi take second off Franco Uncini on the last lap. It was Jack’s first win and the last for an across-the-frame four in 500. That was a Yamaha and the only time it won in the hands of a privateer. The following season Jumping Jack – so called because of his limp caused by pushing privateer machinery to stay with the factory bikes – won Silverstone on an RG500 Suzuki. That was the last true privateer win in the top class.
I see from my history books that I also witnessed Carlos Lavado’s first GP win, the only time Yamaha beat the Kawasakis all year. Assen was the sort of track that rewarded agility, speed and skill rather than outright speed or brute power. Ago’s last win on an MV was in the 350s at Assen in 1976. In the only time the bike got to the flag all year, Ago blitzed the TZs of Ceccotto and Katayama and the H-Ds of Villa and Bonera by 24 seconds on a boiling hot day. It was a greater achievement than the 500 win in Germany later in the year. Assen is special.
History happens and is, or was, made at Assen. It’s mid-season date meant it was the place deals were finalised and geography ensured you saw number plates from more countries than at any other event. I lost count of the nationalities I spotted on the ride back to the ferry and was seriously taken aback by the crowds lining every motorway bridge and verge to wave. You don’t get that when you leave Brands Hatch.
It is no exaggeration to say this was a weekend that opened my eyes and altered how I saw racing. I have a small piece of tarmac from the Southern Loop that was dug up when Assen was modified in 2005 hanging in my office. I look at it often.