It’s hard to imagine a more significant date in Grand Prix racing history than September 4, at least as far as Americans are concerned.
On September 4, 1983 King Kenny Roberts won the Italian Grand Prix at Imola. Second place was Honda rider Freddie Spencer. The third place rider that day was Eddie Lawson.
The 1983 GP season was a titanic battle between the respected veteran Roberts and the new meteor in racing, Freddie Spencer. Between the two they won every single Grand Prix held that season. Spencer’s second place finish at Imola was enough for him to seal the championship by two points.
That 1983 season had intrigue to spare. There were odd mechanicals–Roberts, leading the race, ran off the track at Monza, then pushed hard to re-gain positions but his Kel Carruthers led crew had fitted a smaller tank and the bike ran out of fuel. At Salzburgring, Spencer’s Honda V3 tied its crankshaft in knots, giving him a DNF.
All of that led to Anderstorp, the last but one round of the world championship. In that now infamous race Roberts and Spencer came together, with Roberts almost crashing. Video of the incident does not exist, however Roberts has maintained for years that Spencer stuffed his way past and almost knocked him–actually the both of them–down. Roberts said it was a desperate move.
As the season wore on much of the championship focus wasn’t directed at so much Spencer and Roberts, but the men who had the ability to finish on the podium–namely Roberts’ teammate Eddie Lawson.
1983 was Lawson’s first full season in Europe. He’d raced a 250 a few times in Grand Prixs but he was very new to the European vagabond GP racer life, plus the Yamaha 500 and of course the European tracks. He went from being a kid who told people Kenny Roberts, who he’d seen race at Ascot as a teen, was his hero, to being considered an instrumental part of how Roberts was going to win the 1983 world championship in just a few months. Going in, the plan with Lawson was to learn the tracks and acclimate to the European life for 1983 and then challenge for the title in 1984. Instead he was thrust into a position where he had to finish in front of Spencer at every race. Eddie never liked to ride over his head and to beat Spencer he’d need to jump into that zone of uncomfortably.
The political issues around the Yamaha GP effort did not end with Lawson trying to do championship math at 140 mph. Back then the Yamaha Grand Prix team was run by former racer Giacomo Agostini. Ago’ had movie star good looks, came from an affluent family and had grown up in an environment where he was treated as small town royalty. Conversely, Roberts was a dirt tracker: he clawed his way out of an Okie life with his riding, and by 1983 he had been referring to Ago as “that butt head” for nine years or more. They were polar opposites and they did not like each other.
On the Honda side Spencer was Honda’s single factory rider and the entire effort was bolstered by American tuning genius Erv Kanemoto.
Freddie Spencer won the 1983 500cc world championship on September 4 at Imola. Roberts won the race, from pole but it wasn’t enough for the title. That date simultaneously closed and opened a chapter in Grand Prix. Roberts retired from GP racing, but with a plan in the back of his head to come back and finally send Ago packing. Lawson finished third at Imola, with Roberts refusing to speak to him afterward, but he came back hard in 1984, winning the world championship, which was the plan when he signed on the Yamaha’s GP team.
Italian fans mobbed Roberts after the race. Journalist Paolo Scalera grabbed young Kenny Roberts Junior’s hand in the mass of people and brought him to the podium, and did not let go of him until he passed the lad to his father on the rostrum.
Seventeen years later he would win the world championship.