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GP Week : Issue 74
championship as well. Geoff Duke -- master stylist, inventor of one-piece leathers, and six times a champion. Oh -- and Umberto Masetti, winner of the second title in 1950. Soon afterwards he disappeared to South America, leaving a series of scandals behind him. But Stoner and most of the others (Lawson excepted) did have the advantage of knowing the tracks, and being familiar with GP ways. Kenny was a genuine newcomer. So too is the latest candidate for the honour. It's Ben Spies, and while it may be grotesquely unfair to put any such expectation on the new Yankee in the court of King Vale, the idea is impossible to avoid. It's exactly what he did in World Superbikes, after all. And he's pushing on ever closer towards the fast guys in every test session too. Spies' countryman and illustrious predecessor Kenny Roberts, at home in America, is still standing by with plans to relaunch Team Roberts in the GP paddock -- an attempt to join Moto2 this year foundered after promised big- bucks backing melted away, but Kenny still has other irons in the fire. GPWeek put the question to Roberts, in an oblique way at first -- is it still possible to take the biggest prize in bike racing at the first attempt? King Kenny was emphatic. "Of course it's possible. It's just going to takes the right circumstances. And the right guy." Warming to the theme, he continued: "The equipment has never been closer, nor easier to ride. And they're all on the same tyres -- that's a big help. When I came to Europe I was the only guy on Goodyears, and they had never raced in Europe before." But Roberts acknowledged other new-century factors, that count the other way, compared with his arrival in the more happy-go-lucky racing days of the mid-1970s. Back then, privateers made up the bulk of the field. "There are those things you can • • count on -- tyres being the biggest thing. But I wouldn't say it's any easier now. "The level of competition is better now. Back then, Suzuki had three factory bikes, and Yamaha had three. Now there are two more factories involved. [Honda and Ducati.] "There's better equipment, and there's more of it. "And you have a lot of competition. Rossi and Stoner are both very strong," he said. Okay, then narrow the question down -- is Ben Spies the right guy? Roberts pauses, then says: "No. Well, yes and no. "The thing is, Rossi is going towards the end of his career. He is probably the best he will ever be right now. But if something happens ... if his motorcycle quits five times in a row. Well, never say never. "Ben's certainly a good rider, but it's a rough call to win this championship first time out." Failure would certainly be no disgrace. Current company on the grid is of such a high class that many are talking about a new golden age. And one of racing's other greatest ever names, Mike Hailwood, had two goes at it before he won his first 500cc crown. But there is one other rider who looked like he was going to do it. His name was Jarno Saarinen, and he came to the top class in 1973 already 250 champion, riding the new two-stroke Yamaha 500 against the last-ditch four-stroke MV Agustas. The innovative and highly technical Finnish superstar romped to victory in the two opening rounds, breaking down in the third. He also won the first three 250 races. Round four was at Monza, and a tragic day in grand prix racing unfolded. Saarinen and Italian Renzo Pasolini both died in a first- lap multiple crash at one of the fast corners. It was so shocking that Yamaha withdrew its 500 for the rest of the year, and had to wait until 1975 before Agostini achieved the two-stroke turn-over that Saarinen had threatened so Kenny, above, did it in '78, while Spies, left, faces daunting odds to join him. 35 Moto GP FEATURE >>