We’re sad to report 250cc Grand Prix Hero Ralf Waldmann has died aged 51. The German rider was born in July 1966, and made his Grand Prix debut on an 80cc Rieju in 1986. Having competed in a full season of 125cc Grand Prix racing in 1990 on a JJ Cobas motorcycle (the year after Alex Criville won the championship on one), Waldmann switched to a Honda 125cc GP bike and recorded his first win at the West German Grand Prix.
Waldmann took a total of 2 wins in 1991, finishing 3rd in the championship. He finished 3rd again in 1992 with 3 wins amongst 6 podiums, and followed that with a 4th in the series in 1993 with another victory and four further podiums before switching to 250cc GPs for almost all of his remaining career.
Riding a Honda from 1995 to 1997, he never finished outside the top five in the championship, racking up 11 victories and finished as runner-up twice in 1996 and 1997 to Max Biaggi. He came back to the 250cc championship on an Aprilia in 1999 after an unproductive 500cc GP season with Modenas, and claimed further race wins and podiums before retiring in 2002. He did come out of retirement in 2009 to race at the British Grand Prix, the venue of his most famous race win, in the same year as he also became an investor in the buyout of motorcycle brand MZ. His share of the company was sold in 2011 to Peter Ertel.
With a 15 year Grand Prix career including 20 wins, Waldmann remains one the most successful motorcycle racers to never win a world championship. Discussing that fact in an interview with Mat Oxley published in the book ‘The Fast Stuff’, he reveals that 1992 saw his 30-point mid-season lead turn to failure after a bitter feud between his two chief mechanics turned into a pit-lane brawl. And in 1997, finishing fourth at the penultimate Grand Prix in Indonesia would win Waldmann the title, but a wrong compound tyre saw him just 10 places further back in seventh.
The 250cc British Grand Prix in 2000 at Donington Park:
The turn of the century saw two momentous events at the British Grand Prix. That year, a young Italian named Valentino Rossi took his first-ever 500cc GP win at Doninton Park, before winning five world championships in a row.
And Ralf Waldmann achieved a legendary race win by gambling on full wet tyres in debatable conditions. Most of the 250cc grid were on a mix of wet front tyres and intermediate rears. After surviving the wet conditions which already claimed notable names including Anthony West, Marco Melandri and British riders including Jamie Robinson and Tom Tunstall, the top three in the final laps were Olivier Jacque, Tohru Ukawa and Jason Vincent on for a podium on the privateer Padgetts Aprilia.
With 13 laps to go, Waldmann was 90 seconds behind Jacque and one corner away from being lapped.
But then it began to rain. Waldmann, along with Naoki Matsudo, started working their way back towards to the front, clawing between 5-11 seconds a lap from the top three. In the final three laps , Waldmann passed Vincent and Ukawa, pulled away from Matsudo, and closed in on Olivier Jacque coming into the final corner of the final lap. Between the exit of the corner and the finish line, Waldmann was able to easily out-accelerate the Frenchman, and took a fairytale win that has enthralled motorcycle race fans ever since. Speaking about the decision to make a gamble on his race rubber, Waldmann said, “I insisted on wet weather tyres so I prayed for rain. I thought it might be a mistake but stupidity and heroism are so close.”
It was the final 250cc Grand Prix victory for the German star, but what a race win to culminate his career. After retiring from racing, Ralf Waldmann had been working with Eurosport for their Grand Prix coverage. The cause of death has not been confirmed, but it’s suspected to have been the result of a heart attack.
Tributes have come from around the world for Waldmann, including from his close rival Max Biaggi.
Ci hai lasciato troppo presto Waldy!
Gran pilota e bellissima persona, ci mancherai❤️
Du hast uns viel zu früh verlassen Waldy!
Du wirst uns fehlen!❤️ pic.twitter.com/MeJiscZi6o
— Max Biaggi (@maxbiaggi) 11 March 2018
— Jorge Lorenzo (@lorenzo99) 11 March 2018
Ralf Waldmann: Winner of the most amazing race you will ever see. pic.twitter.com/0r0aR9RD7x
— Toby Moody (@TobyMoody) March 11, 2018