Born in 1957 in Bergamo, Franco Gualdi approached the world of motorcycles for the passion transmitted by his father who was riding Motobi, MV and Devil and so as a young man he took part in the very first regional enduro races. His biography tells of only two Dakar, one of which is not even finished and a solid career in the enduro.
He earned the nickname “The German of Bergamo”, for his impeccable guidance and for the precision with which he studied the routes. As a starting point for his professional career, eighteen-year-old, chose to join the Fiamme Oro group where he met Azzalin, also active in the same body, but with a few more years: when Gualdi came in, Azzalin was one of the “Old” who were stopping running.
Franco made his first races with Sachs, from 1974 at 1978, and then switch to Italian motorcycles.
Was the 1984 when he approached the Cagiva, who wanted him to participate in the famous Baya 1000, in Spain: his teammate was Gian Paolo Marinoni, but with them were also Roberto Azzalin and Ostorero. If the latter faced the race with the sole goal of having fun, Gualdi and Marinoni, Instead, they were thirsty for important results.
The Baya it was a race with two rings of 500 Km and the first one that came, regardless of the category to which you belong, he would win. Every 70 Km there were service points of alternate types: one refueling, the other of mechanics.
The race was in July and the course was not marked with the road book. That year there was Gaston Rahier, that was kinda the “Master” of the twin-cylinder. Gualdi at one point found himself in front of him, overtaking him on a very technical stretch of road and more akin to an endurist like him, that to a crossman like the Belgian. Shortly thereafter, with the exuberance typical of his young age, Gualdi came along at a bend and went off the road: didn't fall, but he took a big rock and the top plate of the fork broke. But Gualdi didn't give up: took a strap, he used it to tie the plate to the steering tank and left. He and his partner came to the bottom taking a eighth place overall, behind their rivals in BMW.
His first participation in dakar is dated 1987: Auriol and De Petri were the leading drivers, while Franco and Picard were their gregarious. In one stage, Gualdi's bike was like dead: very wide track, by 2 km and all the pilots passed away from each other. He stood still, with the fear that the assistance would not see it.
He left his bike on the ground and placed his jacket at 300 meters, so you get noticed without risking your life. I start disassembling the bike but without finding the fault, until towards evening came the service truck and loaded the he and the bike. They arrived at the camp at the 2 At night, a few km from the arrival. Edwards, hidden in the truck in the middle of the bike and tires, thus crossed the finish line.
They then unloaded the bike and did an engine change operation. At 5 in the morning, took his Cagiva, came back from an external track, hanging up on the main one and crossed the finish line. By now it was late and only an hour was missing at the start of the new stage, so he quickly drank a sip of water, he rinsed himself and left immediately for the next stage. In general, that was an unfortunate edition for Gualdi: all it took was a start and his bike was stationary and in addition, la Cagiva was really challenging. He had a very high centre of gravity and the weight and speed did not forgive: in the event of falls, lifting it up was a struggle, even for the most trained physicists.
Bad game, the race could only continue worse. A few kilometers from the beginning, found colleague Ciro with the broken gearbox: stopped and gave him a hand to fix the bike. They mistakenly reassembled the two exchanged tanks and – just before they noticed and reversed them-someone passed by and took a picture. That year he went to the annals for their disqualification, that came right after this fact and just because of that shot, where you could clearly see a motorcycle with the number 99 on the front and the number 97 on the side, which was used as evidence of an exchange of motion that could never be concretely proven.
It was a kind of divine punishment: the Cagiva team was not really an example of ligio compliance with the regulations, but he was almost never punished for lack of evidence. That time, Instead, the protagonists swore they had done nothing wrong, but they were penalized on the basis of a photo that showed nothing. However, there was no possibility of appeal, since the disqualification did not arrive immediately after the race, nor the following day, that was resting, but at seven o'clock in the morning the next day yet, just before the stage began.
Azzalin could only take note of the disqualification and De Petri and Gualdi stood still, with the threat that, if they had tried to travel even a single kilometer, would have been disqualified for “undue assistance” even the two teammates still in the race. Since Auriol was in the lead, it wasn't worth the risk, so the two gregarious left for Italy and the following day, found themselves on the front page of the Equipe for a cunning that they had never accomplished, And that, Obviously, they would never admit. In 1987 Gualdi dedicated himself to proto: went up there, he guided her, developed it and made it reliable. He did a great job on carburetors., together with Franco Farnè: one even pierced him to figure out the level of gasoline.
Farnè recovered the surplus gasoline from the carburetor and put it back in the tank with a small tube. In the end they prepared about 20 Carburetors: the Weber was the top, really deadly as soon as the gas handle was wide open. He then tried the forks in Tunisia, together with Ciro, in no man's land, while in Savona and on the poorly trafficked Gravellona Toce, did the with michelin mousse tests. Gualdi was nailed, To 100 Km/h, then he came back and the technicians tested the tires. The problem, that remained unresolved even during the Dakar, was that in 170 / 175 Km/h the wheel cleats came off.
While he was trying, Gualdi had to make a’ U-turn: the bike died out and seemed to no longer want to start again. The traffic police arrived and found him there, in the middle of the street, with a bolide without even the license plate. Franco's fortune was to be a colleague of the Fiamme Oro: a quick greeting and had already become their idol. They even gave him a boost and so he managed to restart the bike. Things that were quietly done then, but today they would be unthinkable… In 1988, found himself almost without realizing it at the Dakar: started by de Petri's gregarious, he was the only one of the Cagiva drivers to finish the race. He was in his second participation, as always he did assistance and was under no illusions of doing great results.
Ciro could surely have won some Dakar, if he hadn't always wanted to cross the line: even though we know that more than 170 Km/h tires were ripped off, he never slowed down and so he ripped them. It was then up to Franco to retrieve it, in the middle of the Sahara: certain, even he would have liked to go faster, maybe in the hope of recovering 15 minutes, because that desert looked like asphalt, but instead he went to 150 Km/h safely. So much did he know that he would then find De Petri with the tires bursting: he would stop and give him his gum and, with this little game, Ciro maintained a good position in the standings, as he slipped further and further back.
He once met Ciro who had a devil for hair, went to 90 Km/h and swore at himself and his bike: the engine went to one, and passing him close, Gualdi immediately realized that had the pipette of the candle detached. He didn't have time to report the fault to him., who never saw him again, because he had started to focus: 50 km with only one cylinder and then gave him pay. Ciro was so: from some points of view really incorrigible. The Cagiva team was respected and feared: De Petri eventually retired and Azzalin called Franco and told him to show him what he was capable of. He was five hours away from the first and at least wanted to get to the end of the race with the same detachment, without going crazy to make up for lost time.
Azzalin told him to attack and he was trying to do his best, but without overdoing it: eventually came sixth. He was really pleased with the result: on balance, if there hadn't been all those stops to help others, probably could have achieved an even more important result. Franco kept a diary during the Dakar, in both editions: when in the evening he came to the camp, wrote a few lines. At the end of the race, he put it back and today admits that it was precisely those writings that led him to no longer participate in that race, wonderfully cursed.
He kept wonderful memories, but on those diaries he wrote quite a few things that no one knows yet: one day, Maybe, will pull them out and make them public. Gualdi was always very wise and never left anything to chance: if you needed three levers to change the tire, he was trying to have four rather than two; if the bike had a limit, knew it was better not to tease her; if the change was delicate, it was definitely advisable to drive carefully; avoided overcoming in the dust, not to risk taking a rock that he couldn't see.
His philosophy was: “Pull the rowing in the boat and take home the result.” Certain, this approach, sometimes it frenzied him from achieving more important successes, but he always took it to the bottom and today, all in all, he's glad so. Staying in the Team with Cagiva was an unforgettable experience: in every situation, you did what you could and also the impossible. Getting to the bivouac was already a good result for Gualdi and from that moment, began the work of the mechanics. Probably, then, risked them more than the pilots, making transfers with those unlikely planes!
Also with Azzalin, Gualdi had a nice relationship: even at the first Dakar they were expected to sleep in tents together, but it only lasted one night, because Robert snoring to such an extent that he did not turn a blind eye to the pilot and even waking himself up to assault. After that first night, Azzalin went to sleep under the truck to allow Franco to rest. Thanks to all the experiences they shared, the friendship between them was strengthened: Today, looking back, for Gualdi the Cagiva was embodied in Roberto Azzalin. He obviously also met Claudio Castiglioni, but he never entered his world and their relationship always remained formal and linked to pure labor issues.
Gualdi's salary was also partly given by his role as a test driver: over the years, was no longer at the height of his career as an endurist and, getting away with it well as a mechanic, carried on the development of motorcycles and engines that then became standard and a 750 single-cylinder that was never made. He had a good sensitivity and liked to try until he got a satisfactory final result, as he did with marzocchi forks or with an engine to 45 horses that he managed to bring to 50. The mechanics were at his complete disposal, whatever he said or asked. But he did a relatively short job: broadcast what he could but all the tests were done with Ciro De Petri: he was the leading man and the bike was made according to his needs. Gualdi had to test what Ciro wanted: they asked him to fix some things, but in the end it was De Petri who decided.
Orioli's arrival was decisive for the growth of the Cagiva: started from a Ducati engine, it was brought to maximum power and work was carried out on reliability. On the motion of the 1987 it would have suffi only a 750, instead of a 850, but with development you couldn't go back, and with that bike Ciro won so much. And if in the 1990 you got to win, was certainly also thanks to the great work done in terms of growth and development. At that time the French were the big, while the Italians were not yet ready to win a Dakar. De Petri was the best of our, however anyone was aware that the pilot to beat wasn't him, but the French, as Auriol.
When Gualdi had the chance to have him as a teammate, took advantage of it to steal some secrets from him and his driving improved noticeably. Hubert turned out to be a serious man, more attentive and precise than fast. But it was a “French”: of him, as of all his countrymen, Gualdi learned never to trust too much, because cousins across the alps are a little jealous of the dakar. They consider it a race of their own. The Italians, on the other hand, were all a little special: good and scaramantic, full of rituals, like that of De Petri who every night had hot water prepared by Forchini, his trusted man, to wash your head.
Gualdi also faced many other competitions, like the Titan rally, but the Dakar always remained a unique race: everyone else went into the background. From an edition he took home all the road books with the intention of redoing it as a tourist, calmly, making the stops not in 5 hours but in 12, looking at the wonderful places he couldn't see as a pilot. He never did.. As a pilot there was no time to think too much, reflected only in the evening, once you reach the finish line. Franco once ended up in a lost village, where everyone was naked and looked at him like an alien. The women and children took refuge in the houses and there was only one man left who understood the French: Gualdi was not the first stranger they saw; tried to get directions and then left.
He promised that he would return, but he never did. The race involved risks, Obvious, but it was also joy and fun, and the dangerous part was always less than all positive and unforgettable situations. Even today, many times Gualdi wonders why he ran and answered that it was not for adrenaline and the desire to risk. The risk was there, he was aware of it and was part of the game, but he wasn't necessarily looking for him. He was aware that every time he left he might be the last, but he didn't enjoy defying death for the sake of it.
He just left. The Dakar was certainly not the safest situation in the world: you didn't sleep, you didn't eat, he was suffering… but you knew people for what they were, without masks. And then, when you came back, you found yourself with the “Mal d'africa”. Only those who have lived experiences like those can understand it and Gualdi knows it now very well: the sense of melancholy and nostalgia for those places will accompany him throughout his life.