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 News (UK) - - Best Brit Racers - By Mat Ox­ley MCN’S GP EX­PERT

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

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