Jarno Saarinen 50th Anniversary Career Retrospective: The Flying Finn

In the late 1960s, Jarno Saarinen was still a young engineering student in Turku, Finland, but he was also an aspiring motorcycle ice and road racer. Saarinen was doing his own wrenching and tuning, and largely bankrolling his racing out of his own meager resources. Eventually, he got noticed as he won national championships in ice racing and won the Finnish national road racing championship six times.

Jarno Saarinen: Yamaha

In 1971, Saarinen burst onto the world stage when he won his first GP event in Czechoslovakia and beat World Champion Giacomo Agostini twice, including a stunning victory on Agostini’s home track in Monza, Italy. By the end of the 1971 season, Saarinen finished third overall in the 250cc class and second to Agostini in the 350cc class.

Jarno Saarinen: Motorcycle Road Racer

The 1972 GP racing season was Saarinen’s breakout year as he went into it with Yamaha factory backing. He racked up wins all season long, winning 250 races at the Belgian GP, the Czech GP, the East German GP, the Finnish GP, and won the World Championship in the 250 class. Also in 1972, Saarinen won races in the 350 class at the Czech GP, the French GP, and the West German GP.

At Pesaro in 1972, Saarinen changed up his brand briefly, and rode four-cylinder Benellis to beat Agostini in both the 350 class and the premier 500 class. Back on his factory Yamahas, at Silverstone, Saarinen won the 250 and 350 races, plus the 250, 350, and 750 at Scarborough. He also won the Mallory Race of the Year on his TR-3, though these events did not count toward GP title points.

Saarinen made history in that fabulous GP season 50 years ago, becoming the first Finnish rider to win a GP Road Racing World Championship. In addition, he took second overall to Agostini in the 350 class.

Jarno Saarinen: Daytona 200 winner

The 1973 GP season looked to be completely dominated by the Flying Finn, as he was becoming known. He crossed the Atlantic to win the Daytona 200, sharing the podium with runner-up Kel Carruthers and Jim Evans. Saarinen became the first European to win the Daytona 200.

Back to Europe for the GP racing season, Saarinen roared out to the points lead in both the 250 and 500 classes. He won both classes at the Austrian and French GPs, and won the 250 class at the West German GP.

The fourth event in 1973 was the Italian GP in May at Monza, Italy. In the 250 final, Saarinen trailed Aermacchi-mounted Renzo Pasolini into the Curva Grande corner on the first lap. According to initial accounts, Pasolini struck an oil slick at 135 mph and crashed. Other accounts said Pasolini’s engine may have seized, locking the rear wheel, and causing the crash. Either way, the YZR250-mounted Saarinen could not avoid Pasolini’s downed motorcycle. Both Saarinen and Pasolini were killed. Saarinen had won every 250 and 500 race he finished in 1973.

Jarno Saarinen: The Flying Finn motorcycle racer

His career was cut short but in the words of Peter Carrick, writing in his 1977 book, The Encyclopedia of Motorcycle Sport, “There is little doubt that, had not Jarno Saarinen been killed at Monza in 1973, he would have become one of the most successful international racers of all time.” Saarinen was inducted into the FIM MotoGP Hall of Fame in 2009.

Photos courtesy of Yamaha Motor Co.