Back to the future
The golden era of road racing – 1970s – was known of the heroes like 15 times World Champion Giacomo Agostini, 13 times World Champion Ángel Nieto, 7 times World Champion Phil Read and many others. This was the decade of Continental Circus, era of heroes and tough battles, legendary paddock life and true friendship when all the riders were like one big family.
But this was also the time when safety was not playing that big role in races as nowadays. Many riders got killed and the places where Grand Prix were organized will today take your breath away. Usually at the street circuits there were no safety areas what so ever. Often when riders lined up to the start they knew that by the end of the day they have lost yet another friend.
One of these extremely dangerous GPs was Opatija in Croatia – those days Yugoslavia – that hosted World Championship battles between 1969 and 1977 and was known as “Monaco of the Grand Prix Motorcycle racing” due to its magnificent views of the Adriatic Sea. We visited the place this year to witness the extreme conditions where the heroes of the 1970s battled for their lifes. We also invited a special guest to join us for this remarkable time travel and we had a particular reason to have especially her with us.
Exactly 40 years ago, in 1975 the Finnish flag was the highest of all on the podium of the Yugoslavian GP. Pentti Korhonen from Finland had won the battle in 350cc class in the final race of the season. At the same time he also achieved the 350cc World Championship bronze medal while Venezuelan star Johnny Cecotto and the ultimate RR legend, Italian Giacomo Agostini took the title and the silver medal. Korhonen was one of the top racers of the 1970s. He competed as a professional rider at World Championship level in all classes (125cc – 1000cc) between 1973 and 1979 achieving ten podium finishes and 337 World Championship points, also winning the Barcelona 24 hours race together with Christian Huguet in 1977.
Pentti Korhonen won the Opatija GP with Arwidson Team´s 350 TZ Yamaha that had 70hp and a two-cylinder 2-stroke piston valved engine. The bike that came from Japan as a production racer in spring time and was modified during the season. For the Yugoslavian GP they also needed to adjust the carb, the ignition timing and cylinder in order to get maximal torque. In Opatija the start line was followed by a right hair pin that went uphill and was extremely hard and especially demanding for the clutch so that´s why his first gear sprocket was specially made in Austria before the season finale.
To acknowledge the 40 year anniversary of the achievements of the Finn, we invited his daughter Nita Korhonen to visit the Opatija circuit for the first time. Despite being an active street rider, competing at ATV Supermoto series and being involved in motorsport all her life, she had never properly ridden on a road racing circuit before. But before we were going to give her our KTM RC 390 bike to test on the Rijeka circuit next to the Opatija town, we naturally needed to visit the legendary old track.
The deep cliff to the Adriatic Sea surrounded us on the right side and rocks and houses blocked the left side while we rode the narrow asphalt road under the Croatian sun. 40 years ago the scene was exactly the same but back then Nita´s dad was fighting for the victory top speed being around 250km/h. Today it seems unbelievable that World Championship events were organized under such extreme conditions. We also visited the old paddock, grand stand that you can still see under the long grass and camping area which most likely still has some of the same caravans than at the time when her parents were here. It is easy to imagine how everything looked 40 years ago. This must be one of the legendary GP places that has lasted all these decades unchanged.
We continued our journey with Nita to the current circuit of Grobnik near Rijeka to get ready to have her first experience with the KTM RC 390.
Despite having basically no previous experience of the circuit riding, Nita felt immediately comfortable with the new bike. Especially the light weight and easy handling made it possible that she enjoyed following in her dad´s footsteps already from the first laps onwards. In 40 years the bikes and circuits have changed completely so that today we can enjoy safe riding and racing. However, after all these decades it´s easy to imagine the face of Pentti Korhonen after his victory. You just have to look at the big smile on his daughter´s face when she takes off the helmet after the first laps. One thing hasn´t changed: For some of us motorsport is everything!
Photos: Pentti & Nita Korhonen, Peter Ziegler | Video: Jester Entertainment