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Competitor Profile: Barry Sheene

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Motorcycle racing was revolutionised by Barry Sheene, but painfully. His spectacular crash at Daytona in 1975 inflicted enough injuries to fill several pages in a medical dictionary. The scars and metalwork left on and in his body were horrific and everyone knew about them because the crash was seen on television and replayed time and again. Suddenly, watching his body seemingly being battered to destruction morbidly fascinated an audience that had never taken much interest in bike racing.

The interest was heightened when, after he had recovered, his next appearances on television were the inevitable interviews and chat shows in which with extraordinary coherence he recalled the incident. Here was a biker who did not fit the perceived mould of scruffy character in dreary black leathers. Sheene wore white and was seen to be immensely likeable, witty, fashionable and certainly fun-loving. But his determination to be paid what he thought he was worth put the Isle of Man out of bounds. He raced there once, in 1971, and that was enough to convince him that the risks were not worth the potential rewards.

Born in London in 1950, he inherited his interest in motorcycling from his father, Frank, who had himself raced. With parental encouragement, he had his first race on his father’s Bultaco when he was seventeen and at twenty became the British 125cc champion. His career moved forward as rapidly as he raced. Riding an ex-works Suzuki, he finished second in the world championship 125cc class in 1971, the year that saw him win his first grand prix, the Belgian, followed by two more. That was also the year in which he made his only appearance on the Isle of Man. Riding in the Lightweight race on the Suzuki he fell off at Quarter Bridge and retired in the 250cc Production race.

The 1972 season brought so many indifferent results that he almost despaired of improving his career but Yamaha had been watching and knew his potential. They offered him their latest water-cooled 250 twin which he rode in South Africa. Back in Europe he soon found that the machine was not competitive. Not only that he crashed at Imola and spent time in hospital. By the time he was fit again he had decided to abandon Yamaha. The following year he was signed up by Suzuki GB. This time everything gelled. He rode impressively in the 1974 British Superbike championship as well as in the FIM Formula 750cc races and won the first British Grand Prix at Silverstone at a record 107.74mph.

It was on the Suzuki that the following year he crashed in practice at Daytona at some 175mph and after sliding for several hundred yards lay still on the grass. Astonishingly, he was still alive but had a broken left thigh, right arm, two ribs and right collarbone. He had twisted his back and had burns.

Typical of the man’s courage and determination, he was racing again after a month but with an eighteen inch pin holding a leg together. Later in the season he came off again, resulting in another leg fracture. Yet his indomitable spirit was still intact. His ambition was to restore Britain’s prestige in the 500ccworld championship (only Phil Read in 1973 and 1974 had won the title over a ten year period).

So in 1976 he won five grands prix, not only bringing him the title but sweeping all opposition aside. His bluntness in negotiations for what he considered a fair days pay for a tough and dangerous days work was never far away. In that world title winning season he refused to ride in the last three rounds.

His retained his world title in 1977 by a huge margin. The Suzuki was clearly superior to all the other machines and Sheene’s image had given motorcycling a huge boost. The predictions were that he would continue to win world championships at will. Kenny Roberts, the American champion, had other ideas. The experts reckoned he would find the European circuits a lot different to those in the States and probably soon be on his way home.

Roberts made no initial impression on the grand prix circuit but then he won the 1978 Spanish Grand Prix and consistently beat Sheene who was not fully fit because of a severe virus infection but reluctantly conceded that the American on his enormously quick Yamaha, was a worthy champion. Sheene never tired of making quips about Roberts’ ability, or as he saw it, his lack of it, but the pair linked to fight for better financial rewards for all riders.

By 1979 Roberts was the king of a changed sport: one that had become brighter, vastly more popular and media-friendly than it had ever been. Sheene was unhappy with the machine Suzuki had developed and he was right. Roberts kept his title. In 1980 Sheene formed his own team with Yamaha machinery. He struggled against the works bikes but determinedly continued racing and in 1981 was offered a works ride by Yamaha and came fifth in the world championship while winning several domestic events.

With his confidence returned, he got on the podium five times in the early part of the 1982 season but without a win. He was determined to change that at the British GP at Silverstone but it was there that he suffered a crash even more damaging than that at Daytona. Falling from an enormously quick Yamaha V-4 that Roberts had been using earlier in the season, his life came perilously close to ending.

In free practice he was lapping near the record. At almost 160mph he hit a machine of a fallen rider. His bike burst into flames. He slid for 150 yards. Few people there thought he had survived. His girl-friend Stephanie Maclean, who had been portrayed as a steadying influence on Sheene but knew that he was obsessed with racing, was quickly on the scene, as was Sheene’s father. His son was again a crumpled mess with two broken legs and a badly broken left arm.

Amazingly Sheene decided that he was not finished with racing. He took up an offer from Heron Suzuki GB and rode surprisingly well on the 1983 GP circuits and finished eighth at Silverstone, one year after his terrible crash. The following season he continued to race competitively on the semi-works machinery but in 1985 he decided to move into car racing, competing in the British saloon car series. He went on to enjoy racing trucks, riding in classic bike events (with almost inevitable success) and moved to Australia where he become a hugely popular commentator on motor sport.

His lively personality seemed indestructible, which made it all the more astounding that in 2002 he announced that he had cancer, to which he finally succumbed on Sunday 9th March 2003.

Copyright Norman Fox

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