Early in his career he won the Finnish ice track racing championship. He was also an accomplished motorcycle speedway racer. He had studied mechanical engineering and thus could fix his bike in addition to riding it. These skills allowed him to develop a new riding style. Saarinen was the first to ride corners with his body hanging off the bike with his knee on the ground.
Kenny Roberts would later perfect the style after watching Saarinen race. The style is predominantly still in use today.
Saarinen began his Grand Prix career during the 1970 season, at the age of 25. He would finish in a respectable fourth place in the 250cc class (now GP2). In 1971 Saarinen competed in both 250cc and 350cc classes.
Saarinen won his first Grand Prix that year, claiming the 350cc class in Czechoslovakia. He finished third in 250cc World Championship and second in 350cc. His success didn’t go unnoticed as Yamaha signed him to ride its TZ250 and TZ350 bikes for the 1972 season. Saarinen delivered as expected, winning the 250cc World Championship.
He finished second in 350cc World Championship, giving defending champion Giacomo Agostini a strong challenge.
Yamaha developed a new, four cylinder. two-stroke 500cc bike for the 1973 season and chose Saarinen to ride it. Finally, Saarinen was ready to challenge Giacomo Agostini and Phil Read in the 500cc class with competitive equipment. Saarinen’s 1973 season started amazingly well, given the fact he competed in the 250cc and 500cc classes. He became the first European rider to win the prestigious Daytona 200 race in the United States.
Returning to Europe, he jumped to an early lead in the Grand Prix championship race by winning the first three 250cc rounds and two out of three 500cc rounds. It seemed he was on the brink of running away with the titles.
Unfortunately, the season would end in tragedy. On May 20. 1973. the fourth Grand Prix of the season was held at Monza near Milan, Italy. A crash during the 350cc race left an oil slick at La Curva Grande . the first curve after the pit straight. Race officials had failed to clean the track surface properly between races (some forms of motorsport require a clay-based substance similar to cat litter to be applied on the track after oil leaks).
On the opening lap of the 250cc race, track marshals didn’t wave the yellow and red stripe oil flag warning riders of the oil slicked surface. The race leader, Renzo Pasolini fell in front of Saarinen, who was in second place. He couldn’t avoid the fallen rider and the resulting crash caused a multiple rider pile up.
Not only did this incident take the lives of the two top competitors, but after the race the factory-teams of Suzuki, MV Agusta, Harley, and Yamaha all joined together to fight for better race conditions. Yamaha went even further by pulling out of racing the rest of the year to honour Saarinen’s memory.
His legacy continues to live on. There is still an active Saarinen fan club in Italy. Formula One driver Jarno Trulli was named after Saarinen.
Saarinen remains the only Finn to have won a road racing world championship. He won 15 Grand Prix during his career.
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