Ginger kids, grands prix and donkeys
From Cyril's memoirs dated 5 January 2006
These short January days put me in mind of pre-season testing for MotoGP – or the 500 class as it was during my working life. As wind batters the shutters, logs crackle on the fire and while my lovely young wife Francesca nips upstairs to slip into something a little more comfortable I shall relax my grip on my stiff hot toddy and put into writing something which, were it ever to get into the public domain, could cause ructions. Is this the alcohol talking? I fear so, but...
The final four years of my full-time employment, leading up to my retirement at the end of 2000, were spent at Yamaha in the UK. While not officially linked to the 500 GP race team I was lucky enough to have close access due to my friendship with certain movers and shakers.
Back in 1997 Valentino Rossi first began scaling the slippery pole of GP stardom when he won the 125 World Championship at his second attempt. It was clear to us all that here was a star of the future. That year we’d had plucky Luca Cadalora and that lovely chap Norick Abe on the YZR but certain besuited gentlemen high up in Yamaha made it clear that for the next season they’d be bringing in a pocket rocket youngster. The team would get the latest YZR, the OWK1 (or the Owki-Cokey as it was ‘hilariously’ dubbed – I hasten to add not by me. Which reminds me, that coming season, following Simon Crafar’s first ever GP win at Donington Park, several of us performed, by way of celebration, a spirited late-night and rather adult version of the hokey-cokey in the paddock, with plenty of ins, outs and an abundance of shaking it all about. I could be wrong but I seem to recall a rather disgruntled Kenny Roberts Jr appearing outside his motorhome in tartan dressing gown and Kermit slippers, complaining about the noise. But poor old Kenny had had a terrible day on his dad’s KR3, so if indeed it was him then all must be forgiven as I sympathise utterly. My own father insisted on building me a bicycle instead of buying me the Elswick Hopper I’d been admiring in the local shop window. The result was acute embarrassment outside the school gates followed by a broken front tooth and a punctured lung. I now regret being so rough with father, but I was only 15, had a bit of a temper and didn’t know my own strength. After all, he'd tried his best with that bicycle given the restrictions of his wheelchair. I digress…).
We were at pre-season testing somewhere in Spain, can't recall where exactly. All was going well, with Simon and Norick putting in good times on the OWK1, but by the end of the first day there was still no sign of this fabled new boy. Just as the team was packing up for the evening, a taxi appeared and out stepped a diminutive figure with a shock of wild, curly, bright ginger hair. He introduced himself as Flamoes Beffen, an 18-year-old Dutch lad who, until now, was unknown to any of us. It was too late for any riding, so I offered to give little Flamoes – or ‘Flam’ as I very quickly dubbed him – a lift back to the hotel in my hire car.
As I drove we chatted. Like most Dutch, who are ever happy to accommodate foreign tongues, his English was excellent. He told me of his racing in the domestic 250 championship, where he’d finished a lowly 12th the previous season. However, despite uncompetitive machinery his talent must have shone through as Japanese talent scouts had approached him with a view to riding for Yamaha – and here he was. He seemed a nice lad, softly spoken and even a little star-struck, hardly daring to believe his luck, I don’t suppose. If only that luck had lasted just a little longer.
I’ve never had a good sense of direction (it was once said of me that I couldn’t find my own cock with both hands, but then my grandmother did have a colourful turn of phrase). So, becoming ever more enmeshed in one-way systems and crowded back streets, we found ourselves in a lively part of town as night fell. It was a very warm evening and I was absolutely parched, so I suggested we park up, have a beer at a bar and get our bearings. If I’m honest, I’d pinpoint that decision as being the catalyst for what was to unfold.
Well, one beer led to another, which led to another bar and another beer and some tapas. Flam started to relax and in fact became very animated, laughing at anything and anyone and singing Dutch drinking songs at the top of his voice. I quickly learned a chorus or two and we became quite a hit, the more we sang the more beer the barman provided for free. We must have been a strange sight, a grey-haired 62-year-old and a ginger dwarf both caterwauling in Dutch. If only it had ended there.
As I told the Spanish police, I remember nothing after crawling to the toilet, where I was found some time later, having divested myself of troublesome clothing, lying with my cheek on the soothingly cool porcelain footplate of one of those distinctive ‘hole-in-the-floor’ Continental toilets. Not my most dignified moment. The police were very keen to learn how I knew Flam and questioned me for some time – keeping me at arm’s length you understand – before letting me go. I never did find out why Flamoes Beffen was deported back to Holland and I refuse to go on rumour alone, because, as we all know, gossip and hearsay can distort things terribly. I mean, the donkey possibly, but the Jack Russell? He was only a small chap, but I just can’t see it.
So, things might have been very different for Yamaha’s 1998 season and after several more years, despite great riders such as Bayle, Abe, Crafar, Biaggi and Checa, it took Vale Rossi, as many of us had always thought, to finally wrest the laurels from Honda. But, you know, whenever I catch a glimpse of a ginger youngster, or indeed Ronald McDonald, or hear the distant braying of a donkey, I wonder what truly happened that night, and of what might have been.