By Kenneth Olausson
In 1968 Torsten Hallman fought for his fifth 250 cc world title up against his Belgian rival Joel Robert. After 13 rounds, the deciding event was to be held in Austria and the two riders were equal on points ahead of the last two dramatic motos. Would Torsten win the title?
The venue was Klagenfurt, a small town in southern Austria and the Husqvarna team went there full of hope. It was autumn. The leaves on the trees had already begun to colour but back in 1968 the mud was as sticky as it is today. After one and a half months of waiting, preparations finally got under way. Joel Robert had won the previous round in England in mid-August, so now everyone wanted to see the outcome of the battle between these two motocross icons.
The long break between these two races was all but pleasant, Torsten remembers: “The waiting, the thinking, the planning, and the knowledge that it was all about this final race between us. Out of the previous 13 Grand Prix events we had won nine of them, tying on points. My life would be decided here and it strained my nerves, almost to a breaking point.”
Hallman arrived two days before the start and had excellent backup from the factory. Chief engineer and designer, Ruben Helmin of the racing division, was naturally the first among the support crew of mechanics to arrive. And by the time they were all there it was almost overcrowded in the paddock area. The all-important members of the press were also present. Many had travelled from Sweden to follow this historic moment, which, if Hallman was to win, could change the course of MX history. First on Torsten’s "to-do list" was to walk the track for an inspection. He realised that the course suited him well and he was satisfied enough. Unlike Robert, Hallman liked hard, grassy and bumpy tracks where you had to be fast to win. "You use third and fourth gears a lot,” he remembered. Robert rather favoured mud or sand tracks where he outperformed most people with his spectacular broad sliding and balanced riding style, a favourite among the spectators.
The weather was fine on Friday - so far so good for the Swedish team. Then came Saturday’s practice. Hallman concentrated on getting in a lot of laps so he could learn how to take the corners efficiently. Both teams had backup riders who were in Austria to help their star riders win the all-important final round. The Husqvarna team members were also confident because the engineering department had brought some new cylinders, which gave a little extra boost that was to come in handy for this decider. Or at least, that was what the Swedes thought before the race.
Sunday was race day and the media and fans were posing the usual inconsequential questions, like "how do you feel?" As if that mattered right now! Meanwhile, Hallman tried to retreat to his own world during the final preparation just minutes ahead of the start. Helmet, gloves and goggles were ready, as was his 250 cc factory machine. The one and a half months of waiting were finally over.
Torsten got away well in the first moto. He was in fourth place after the start while Joel was further down the field and trying to catch up. Hallman was in the lead after just one lap. His backup rider Torleif Hansen was a close second and was looking over his shoulder to check on Robert. Signals came to Hallman that Robert was catching up quickly so Torsten changed gear and accelerated to speed up the pace of the race. Torsten had a 23-second margin over Joel after 10 laps then suddenly everything took a turn for the worse. A punctured rear tyre put an abrupt end to Hallman's superiority. Joel caught up fast and quickly slipped past his Swedish opponent. As if that was not enough, Torsten then had technical problems towards the end of this first moto. "There were still four laps to go when my engine began to lose power. I had to get off my bike and push it up one of the steep hills before I cold continue,” Torsten, now 75, recalls with a laugh. Despite these difficulties Hallman still managed to finish second, just 32 seconds behind the winner. Chances were still even between the two riders.
Between the heats there was a frenzy of activity in the paddocks. Everyone wanted to help while Torsten fled the field so he could have some time on his own to prepare for the decider. The mechanics, led by Helmin, could see that the new cylinder had a compression ratio that was set too high, so it had lost power after being pushed hard in the first moto. Torsten: “I had a lead of 23 seconds and lost by 32,” he tells us. The chances of things being the other way around were still on the cards, right?
The second and final race began just like the first moto. Torsten took an early lead and about one-third into the moto he had an advantage of 13 seconds on Joel. Everything went well for a while but then disaster struck. The engine overheated and again lost power. Joel Robert came from behind and once again easily overtook the ‘Super Swede’. It was at this point that Torsten Hallman had to give up his hopes for a fifth world championship title, but he was still in the race and was lying second behind the Belgian rider. Then, a couple of laps later the chain jumped off the sprocket and Hallman’s race was over. Sweating and disappointed he left the arena. Then Joel came by after having won the race. The riders congratulated each other, but it was Joel Robert who was the better man on the day. Still, Torsten had proved he was the fastest rider, even though it did not last all the way to the chequered flag.
This had been the most gruelling event in Torsten's 14-year long career. He did lose, but as Torsten said: "You can't win 'em all!" Instead, it was Joel Robert' s second world championship title and he would go on to win many more. At the same time Torsten Hallman realized that his career was beginning to come to an end, although Mister Motocross went on to race successfully for another few years before finally putting helmet and gloves in his garage.