We need a Sheene to shine

British motor racing enthusiasts go into the new Formula 1 season basking in the glow of Lewis Hamilton’s number one plate. British motorcycle racing fans aren’t so lucky. The last man from these shores to win the world’s premier two-wheel championship was cockney playboy Barry Sheene, who took the first of his back-to-back titles in 1976, the same year James Hunt won the F1 crown. That is a long, long time ago, a different generation, another world: Lord Hesketh sauntering up pitlane, Sheene and Hunt prowling the discotheques of the Cote d’Azur, the great smell of Brut and Castrol R.

Since Hunt’s success Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill and Hamilton have brought the F1 crown home. Since Sheene’s victory… nothing. How can this be?

British riders used to rule motorcycle racing. When Sheene won his titles Britain had scored more elite-class Grand Prix victories than any other nation. Indeed British riders were so successful during the first two decades of World Championship racing that we are still the sport’s third most successful nation (after Italy and the United States), even though we haven’t won a single premier-class race since Sheene’s final victory in 1981.

There are all kinds of reasons for this epic drought of Grand Prix glory, among them commercial, cultural and technical.

During the early years of World Championship racing the British motorcycle industry was a global force which gave the sport status and patronage in this country, ensuring that British riders and teams were usually equipped with competitive machinery. But all that changed when once-proud marques like AJS, BSA, Norton and Triumph succumbed to foreign competition.

At about the same time popular culture transformed the motorcycle from perfectly respectable mode of transport to the villain’s steed. Leather-jacketed Marlon Brando started the rot in The Wild One, the original bad boy biker movie which Triumph tried to get stopped, claiming it would damage business because it portrayed the motorcyclist as “a drunken, irresponsible individual”. The film was indeed banned in Britain, though only briefly. If The Wild One was enough to make society wary of bikers, the Mods and Rockers riots of the 1960s made its mind up: motorcyclists were mad, bad and dangerous to know; not nice to sponsor either.

For several decades UK motorcycle racing relied upon trade support, the occasional hit of tobacco money and the generosity of enthusiast patrons; like Lord Hesketh but of a very different class: second-hand car dealers, poultry farmers and haulage millionaires. Wherever the money came from there was never much of it about, rarely enough to allow talented youngsters to embark upon Grand Prix careers.

The recession of the early 1980s seemed to seal our demise as a force in Grand Prix racing. Even UK importers of Japanese machinery could no longer afford to run Grand Prix bikes, so they transformed the British championships into low-cost series based on production machinery. That technical transformation hastened Britain’s isolation from the Grand Prix World Championship scene. While Italy and other countries continued to groom their young stars on 125s and 250s that took them directly into Grands Prix, British riders made their way on wobbly production bikes which threw them in an entirely different direction: the new streetbike-based World Superbike series.

A mouthy kid from Blackburn completed Britain’s metamorphosis from Grand Prix nation to Superbike kingdom. In 1988 ‘King Carl’ Fogarty sold his 250 GP bike and bought a Honda 750 streetbike, not because he was skint but because he had twice broken his right leg and could no longer fit on the little 250. Fogarty went on to win four World Superbike titles, bringing the series massive UK coverage, a huge British following (the Brands Hatch WSB round regularly attracted 120,000 fans on race day) and sterling sponsorship. Fogarty was followed into WSB by several dozen Brits, and while he won his four titles between 1994 and 1998 the most successful British GP racer was Niall Mackenzie, who finished 10th in the 1994 500cc World Championship.

James Toseland is currently our only hope to improve on that. Toseland followed ‘Foggy’ into World Superbikes and won the 2004 and ’07 crowns. Last year he moved up to MotoGP, a promotion not entirely dissimilar to that of a World Touring Car Champion trying his hand at Formula 1. The Yorkshireman ended his debut MotoGP season 11th overall, learning his way round a new machine, new tyres, new circuits and new rivals.

Apprenticeship completed, how will Toseland fare in 2009? Logically, he should perform better: he knows MotoGP, he rides a latest-spec Yamaha YZR-M1 just like Valentino Rossi’s (he started last season on an old M1) and he uses the same tyres as everyone else (MotoGP switches to a control tyre format this season).

“The aim is to build on what I learned last year and to challenge for podiums,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot about MotoGP bikes – they are so much further ahead of the Superbike in terms of braking, corner speed and so on.” If Toseland does achieve a podium finish he will be the first Briton to stand on an elite class podium in almost a decade.

Achieving a top-three Grand Prix finish won’t be easy, however. In theory the single tyre rule should help Toseland: “Last year I was using Michelins, while Rossi ran Bridgestones. He ended up taking bike development in a completely different direction, which made things difficult for me.” But Toseland may need time to adapt his riding technique and bike set-up to suit the Bridgestones.

At least he has proved he is willing to fight. Last October Toseland enjoyed a thrilling Australian GP duel with Rossi, after which the six-time MotoGP champ declared: “Toseland rides like a devil!” And during the winter he poached team-mate Colin Edwards’ crew chief for the 2009 season. American Edwards has promised never to speak to Toseland again; should make for an interesting pit dynamic!