Do Barry’s GP facts and figures stack up?
Most of Sheene’s racing peers don’t consider Britain’s last premier class world champ to be an all-time great. But what do they know?
Motorcycle racing is largely about numbers: race wins, lap times, dyno figures and how many teeth on the rear sprocket. Barry Sheene’s numbers go like this: 23 Grand Prix victories, including 19 in the premier class, and two world premier class titles.
That puts the crafty Cockney just behind Freddie Spencer, King Kenny Roberts, Wayne Rainey and Kevin Schwantz in the roll call of premier class GP winners. If you judge people by the company they keep, that’s pretty good going.
Sheene dominated the 1976 and 1977 world championships, scoring more than half his race wins during those two seasons. In that brief moment of racing history he utterly ruled the Grand Prix scene and surely would have won more races if he had needed to. In 1976 he wrapped up the title after seven of 10 races and went to the beach while his rivals raced on. He retained the crown the following year with two races remaining and would’ve gone on holiday again if the final round hadn’t been at Silverstone.
There is no doubt Sheene was helped by having the best bike beneath him. During those two years a factory Suzuki RG500 was the only machine capable of winning the title.
So, just how good was Sheene? Does his talent allow him to be spoken of in the same breath as riders like Giacomo Agostini, Mick Doohan, Geoff Duke, Mike Hailwood, Marc Marquez, Rainey, Roberts, Valentino Rossi, Spencer and John Surtees?
Probably not. Sheene was a great rider but he wasn’t one of the greatest, at least according to those who rode against him. However, his talent, bravery and personality certainly have him knocking on the door of the all-time greats club.
Sheene was a natural rider who started racing bikes in the late 1960s, a decade before the start of the so-called modern era.
“He was a wheels-in-line rider, like everyone was at that time,” says Mick Grant, one of Sheene’s greatest rivals. “You didn’t see Barry sliding. If he was sideways he had made a mistake, unlike Roberts and all those guys who had grown up doing dirt track.”
Sheene and Roberts were bitter rivals during the late 1970s and early 1980s because the Briton never forgave the Californian for stealing the 500 crown in his rookie GP season. The pair said bad things about each other but shared mutual respect.
“Any time I could beat Sheene was special,” says Roberts, who most famously defeated his rival at the 1979 British GP. “For that reason, Silverstone ’79 is definitely one of my most special wins, especially because I beat him on the last lap.”
Sheene grew up helping dad Franco fettle the Bultaco two-stroke racers the family imported into Britain. Those early years made him a handy mechanic, an important factor at a time when racing was as much about mechanical sympathy and technical know-how as anything else.
That upbringing (Sheene didn’t spend much time at school) helped him understand how to
‘ To go around Spa at 135mph average on a bike that could only go 30mph faster was unbelievable’
‘If he was sideways he had made a mistake, unlike Roberts and the dirt track guys’
get the best out of a bike, so if the RG was the best machine on the grid in the late 1970s, Sheene was largely responsible for that. He dedicated a lot of time to testing and developing the square-four, including a five-week stint in Japan during the winter of 1974/75.
One of the greatest rides of his title-winning seasons came at Spa-francorchamps in July 1977 when he rode the fastest GP ever, averaging 135mph around the lethal Belgian street circuit. Sheene may have got plenty of criticism for turning his back on the Isle of Man TT, but any fans who doubted his bravery would’ve soon changed their minds had they ridden pillion with him around the nine-mile circuit in the Ardennes forest.
“For Barry to go around the old circuit at Spa at 135mph on a bike that could only go 30mph faster was unbelievable,” says Grant, a seven-times TT winner. “The only two circuits that frightened me were Spa and the Ulster. Anyone who says Barry was frightened of the TT is absolutely wrong. He just had a bee in his bonnet about the TT, as he went well at other road circuits like Scarborough.”
Sheene’s bravery had nothing to do with innocence of the dangers. He skimmed the walls and barriers at Spa to establish that jaw-dropping speed record just two years after he came close to death on the Daytona banking. His ability to shrug off pain and the subsequent psychological angst was superhuman. If he wasn’t one of the greatest riders, he was certainly one of the toughest.
Bravery was just one part of Sheene’s rock-solid self-belief that was a cornerstone of his career. “Mental strength got Barry through things a lot of the time,” says friend and team-mate Steve Parrish. “He had so much self-belief that if his mechanics told him what he wanted to hear, he would ride the wheels off the bike. So long as he believed, that was enough, he could do it.”
Alongside Sheene’s bravery and self-belief was his ego. “Barry was his own worst enemy in many ways,” says Grant. “He liked his comfort zone and he liked to keep everything in the family, so he had Franco working on his bikes for way too long. Franco was a lovely man but he wasn’t up to the job. I think Barry would’ve gone a lot fur- ther without him. Franco made a lot of mistakes, like fitting the front brake pads back to front and forgetting to insert the pins in the pads – which is why Barry came flying past me at Snetterton once and straight on into a carrot field!”
Like many racers, Sheene was a control freak. He was determined to remain Suzuki’s number one, so tried to veto team-mates who might beat him.
Most importantly, Sheene’s ego had him quit Suzuki at the end of 1979, after Roberts beat him to the 500 title. Sheene could have remained a factory Suzuki rider but he walked out after one too many bust-ups and became a Yamaha privateer. It was the biggest mistake of his career.
Sheene assumed Yamaha’s brand-new production TZ500 would be on a par with Roberts’s factory bikes, just as Suzuki’s production RG500 was almost as quick as the factory RG. But the TZ was a slug and Sheene wasted a season and a half before Yamaha gave him used factory equipment.
His final win at Anderstorp in August 1981 proved he still had it, but even more impressive was his pace during practice for the following year’s British GP, when Yamaha finally gave him what he wanted: the same spec bikes as Roberts. He was faster than anyone, until he crashed into the wreckage of a fallen bike at around 160mph.
Just like Daytona, this was another ‘airplane crash.’ Debris spread across the track and Sheene lying crumpled, apparently lifeless. Most would have called it day there and then; not Sheene.
He came back the following year and scored his final GP podium at Kyalami, South Africa, in 1984, when he went from last to third in the rain. “I proved to everybody what I already knew – I could still ride as well as ever,” he said at the time.
Just as Sheene had the best bike on the grid during his championship-winning seasons, he had some of the worst machinery in subsequent years, so where would he stand in the roll call of greatness if he had ridden better bikes for longer?
“When Barry was winning he was on it, but I wouldn’t put him in the all-time top ten,” adds Grant. “But then, I’ve always regarded Kenny as one of the greatest, and on his day Barry could beat him. You can’t say fairer than that, can you?”
1976: Sheene jumps out on Phil Read from a hedge
Sheene with father Franco during his first title-winning season If he’d needed to, Bazza could have won more races in 1976-77 People say Sheene was scared of the TT. His performance at Spa in 1977 proves otherwise
Stephanie, Rolls Royce, Bultaco T-shirt. Vintage Sheene Anderstorp, 1976: scene of his final win, five years later Sheene vs Roberts: the rivalry that just kept on giving. Pictured above at Paul Ricard in 1981 Sheene’s race at Spa in 1977 was one for the history books