A Wednesday afternoon in May 2013 I met up with a few guys after work at a garage in southern Finland. Outside was a fully loaded van with an equally fully loaded trailer hitched to it. The road trip to Horice race meet in Czech Republic was ready to begin.
Finnish road racer Tuukka Korhonen has toured several years exclusively the road circuits of Central Europe and Ireland along with the legendary Isle of Man. The European circuits are a long way away from Finland and during the drive southwards there is time to find out, what makes the man to drive thousands of kilometres every year for a few races.
– The atmosphere is in its own class. When you hear tens of thousands of spectators cheering, that’s really something. You simply don’t get to experience anything like it in Finland, says Korhonen. He also appreciates the comradery of the competitors.
– Nobody is sour or sullen on the pits and everybody honestly want to help each other.
According to Korhonen, racing abroad isn’t necessarily more expensive than in Finland. Especially after becoming a familiar sight on the pits, the invites start coming in. The organizers are eager to get foreign riders on the grid and it further increases the interest if you become known as a fast racer and overall good guy.
– Nowadays for me the cost consists of travelling and bike’s expenses. Usually I don’t have to pay the entry fee and the organizer provides accommodation.
Because time is money, however, Korhonen aims to participate in more than one race on one trip. This time in addition to Horice, he’s going to race in Bremerhaven in Germany. He’s racing in two classes; the main class is GP250, where Korhonen pilots a Honda RS250R.
– The two-fifty is an old acquaintance and it’s quite fast. I’m expecting to be fighting for the podium. I wish I’d beat at least Anders Blacha. I’ve raced him often, but he’s always bested me, Korhonen says on his targets.
The other class is Supersport 600, where Korhonen is aiming to familiarize himself with his rebuilt CBR600RR.
– I started with 600’s last year. Nordgren Racing provided me with a stock CBR, which didn’t really move well at all. This year I got a proper suspension and a heap on HRC parts, so it should be competitive…. But it does feel like a goddamn tank compared to the two-fifty, Korhonen laughs.
Korhonen also has an opinion on the dangers of road circuits. He feels bored of the subject; apparently he’s answered enough questions on the subject.
– The assumption seems to be “make a mistake and die”. That’s simply untrue, typically a mistake means a failed corner, maybe several, says Korhonen. According to him the important thing on a road circuit is to exit the corners quickly and gain a lot of speed on the straights.
The small town of Horice, situated about 100 kilometres east of Prague, is the first stop of Korhonen’s trip. Every spring the quiet town awakes to the greatest road race in Czech Republic. This yea there is even more excitement, as it is the 50th 300 Zatacek Gustava Havla, the 300 turns of Gustav Havel. The race is named after the most famous Czech racer of all time, who regarded Horice his favourite circuit.
The ferry is in Tallinn around midnight and we begin our 1500 kilometre drive to Horice. The driving is slower than anticipated due to massive road works and we’re finally there early on Friday. Although it’s dark, we “must” drive a lap on the track. Roughly 5 kilometres include amazing 90 metres of elevation change and 27 turns. The circuit runs from the middle of the town to the middle of the forest and back. Nearly all the corners are blind. You really need a cool head to race here.
After a short night’s sleep, we start investigating the surroundings. The camping site where we are located is full of racers. The pits extend to the nearby fields. This is despite the fact that 300 ZGH happens to be on the same day as Hengelo IRRC race and North West 200, which means substantially fewer participants. In any case all the classes have over 20 racers, so the spectators really have something to look at.
The classes and bikes are quite colourful. Especially the Supermono bikes seem interesting, but also SP125 class seems to allow some substantial liberties in the search of better performance. In addition to these, there’s Classic 350, 500 and 750 classes along with GP125, GP250, sub-600 and over 600 classes.
Our corner of the pits is a sort of Little Scandinavia, as we’re accompanied by the Swede Anders Larsson (GP125) and the Dane Anders Blacha (GP250 & sub-600). We also provide a tent to the Portugese rider Nuno Caetano (GP250). In addition to us, the international racers come from Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy and Austria.
The Friday is mainly spent setting up the camp. All of a sudden it appears a festival has started on the pits. The food and beer stands, beautiful promo girls and loud music appear basically from nowhere. The crowds seem interested in foreign riders and although occasionally it’s hard to find a common language, it’s clear they welcome and support the visitors.
On Saturday it’s time for the qualifying, first sessions in the morning and the others in the afternoon. There’s a lot of spectators already on Saturday morning, which raises expectations for the race day. Tuukka and Anders have a hard day ahead of them; sub-600 and GP250 classes have 30-minute qualifying sessions directly after each other and by the looks of it it’s going to be an extremely hot day.
First out are the 600’s. Both Tuukka and Anders are fast and happy with the session as they swap bikes to pre-warmed 250’s at the pit entrance. As 125’s qualify in the same sessions as the 250’s, all “our” riders are on the track simultaneously.
The Nordic riders perform as expected, but Caetano, riding 250 for the first time, is very impressive. He’s improving every lap and ends up in the middle of the grid. He’s positive about the bike, but asks for slight adjustments. Larsson, on the other hand, has had problems with the bike. The tank foam has started crumbling, but as an experienced mechanic, he cleans the carburettor in no time.
In the afternoon the temperature is even higher. Although Tuukka says he had taken it slow with the 600 in order to save his strength, he looks totally beaten after the session. Little water down the throat and some inside the leather suit, hop on the 250 and head out again.
When the bikes are prepared for the race day after qualifying, it’s time to head to the festival, which is going on mid-way to the town. The party is cracking; the DJ, other performers and guests live it up. The riders turn in early but the rest of us go on until the morning.
The people on the pits wake up more or less fresh in Sunday morning. During the warm-up the crowds keep amazing us. After warm-up it’s time for the opening ceremony and then it’s time to start racing. Luckily classics race between 600’s and GP250’s, so Tuukka and Anders get to gather their breath after the first race. The atmosphere is really something else; the announcer presents each rider to the TV camera while the massive crowds are cheering. The race is exciting and Blacha finishes on 15th place, while Tuukka is 18th. The winner, Irish Superbike Champion Michael Pearson not only managed to best the tough Czech competition, but also beat both the lap and race records – a feat, he’d repeat later in the over 600cc race.
Both GP classes run in the same race, but the 125’s get 20-second head start. Sadly Larsson retires with technical problems, but the 250-race is extremely exciting on our point of view. As expected the German, Wolfgang Schuster gains the lead from the start and Anders Blacha takes himself to the second in no time. Tuukka must fight slightly more to overtake, but soon he’s on 3rd. The top 3 are fighting quite equally but unable to overtake each other before the chequered flag. Impressively Caetano manages to further increase his pace and finishes on 7th.
The three friends are on top of the world on the GP250 podium. There’s hundreds of people in front of the podium applauding the racers. After the races other teams start packing up, but we’re not going to leave until Monday, which seems extremely fitting. It would be a shame to leave without celebrating Tuukka’s third place finish. The man himself is still sitting on the bike with his leathers on and receiving congratulations from spectators. After the pits quiet down, we walk to town to enjoy the local restaurant scene.
On Monday morning we pack up and I head to the train station and Prague, but Tuukka and his team continue to Bremerhaven for the next race. After the weekend, there’s no need to wonder where the man get his motivation to travel around Europe to race. Here he’s a superstar, who’s living a dream.