Barry Sheene was the cheeky Londoner who brought sex, drugs and rock and roll to motorcycle racing. A decade after his death, we assess the 1976 and 1977 500cc World Champion's merits as a racer
By Mat Oxley
Ten years after losing his life to cancer, Barry Sheene remains a sporting icon and a totem of the fast and loose 1970s. The fact that Sheene was a heroic racer and twice a 500cc World Champion was probably the smaller part of his allure to most people. He transcended the confines of his sport because he was the London boy made good — effin' and blindin' his way through social conventions at a time of enormous sociocultural change. And he was the bionic man, held together by plates and screws after surviving not one but two horrific accidents that should have killed him.
In the end it turned out that motorcycle racing wasn't his most dangerous habit. The man who drilled a hole in the chin piece of his helmet so he could have a cigarette on the grid died because he had smoked since childhood.
When reappraising Sheene and his career, the good times and bad times always loom as large as the lap times, perhaps even larger. He was bike racing's James Hunt or George Best: a brash, brave and sometimes badly behaved sports star who perfectly fitted the mood of the times. The men wanted to be him, the women...
Like Hunt and Best, Sheene took full advantage of the interest shown in him by the opposite sex. He made the front pages of the tabloids when he stole a supermodel away from her fashion photographer husband and spent most of his life indulging his competitive streak by chasing other women.
"The women were just another massive game," recalls Sheene's great friend and former team-mate Steve Parrish. "It was the chase, not the catch, and there was an awful lot of chasing that went on. People used to say I followed in Barry's slipstream. It was like following Alice in Wonderland — roll along with the rock and roll."
Sheene certainly knew how to rock. He was close friends with Beatle George Harrison, he drove a Rolls-Royce (reg plate: B57) and he enjoyed high times. Legend has it that while holidaying in the Balearics, Sheene and his gang would trace out the racetracks of the world in cocaine: "Okay, you do the hairpin; I'll do the main straight." One of the gang, Marco Lucchinelli, who went on to win the 500cc world title four years after Sheene, fully fell under the spell of the 'devil's dandruff' and was sent down for his involvement with a Peruvian drugs cartel.
"All sorts of experimenting went on," adds Parrish, who chose not to indulge in Sheene's wildest jet-set habits. "But all that went on in winter time, party time. Barry never did stuff when he was racing."
No wonder that Sheene liked to repeat the proud boast of petrol-head actor Steve McQueen: "I won't die wondering."
Sheene's flamboyance and charisma changed motorcycling forever, banishing the stereotype of the black-clad greaser, if only replacing the sickly-sweet whiff of Castrol R with the sicklysweet smell of Brut 33. He was enough of a mainstream star to make after-shave adverts alongside boxer Henry Cooper and he penetrated deep enough into the establishment psyche to be considered a suitable subject for BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs.
Listening to that recording — made shortly after he won his second world title in 1977— is a striking reminder of the breadth of the social divide he bridged: his spiky Cockney twang (though he wasn't quite born within earshot of Bow Bells) a jarring counterpoint to the plummy tones of the BBC's Roy Plomley.
Sheene probably turned up at the BBC wearing cut-off denim shorts, just as he did wherever he went, forcing many a luxury hotel to quietly overlook its stuffy dress code. Depending on your viewpoint, he was either harbinger of a disastrous drop in standards or the vanguard of social progress, even if the only progress he was really interested in was his own. His chosen luxury item for his makebelieve desert island sojourn was an effigy of Labour chancellor Denis Healey and a plentiful supply of pins. Sheene was always a genius at looking after number one or, in his case, number seven.
His taste for rebellion didn't stop when he got to the racetrack. In his debut GP season — 1971, in the 125 class — he fire-bombed the paddock toilets at Finnish circuit Imatra. "They were disgusting, so we burned them down."
Of course, his greater concern was the condition of the circuits. Sheene was one of the first high-profile riders to turn his back on the Isle of Man TT — following a miserable debut in 1971 — and he became a leading light in the crusade to improve safety at all tracks.
"The TT doesn't frighten me in any way," he said. "I just don't see the sense of riding around against the clock in the pissing rain. It's not racing to my mind. The TT is no proof of anything, except how well you know the track."
His refusal to race on the island led to charges of cowardice, a laughable accusation considering his success on other road circuits.
Sheene will almost certainly always have his place in history as the winner of the fastest-ever motorcycle Grand Prix. In July 1977 he averaged 135.07mph around the old SpaFrancorchamps road circuit, threading his way between trees and houses aboard a temperamental 500 two-stroke that might seize and hurl him into the scenery.
"Barry was ballsy, I'd always say that about him," says his former mechanic Martin Brookman. "I always thought his bravery probably greater than his ability. He was a brave little bastard and he just wanted to win."
A year after the history-making Belgian GP victory, Sheene's nemesis Kenny Roberts rode Spa for the first time, fighting the reigning World Champion for second place on a damp track.
"Jesus, I was scared to death," Roberts remembers. "I didn't know where I was going and couldn't see nothing. I'm racing with Sheene, thinking this is so stupid. One time I got sideways and was off the racetrack. I was up against a wall, doing 150 miles an hour. I got it straightened out, looked behind and Sheene's eyes were that big."
Ironically, Sheene suffered his two big smashes at purpose-built racetracks, the first of these disasters transforming him from aspiring World Champion into household name. In March 1975 he was testing for the Daytona 200 when his Suzuki XR11 750 triple suffered a catastrophic machine failure and slewed sideways at 175mph, the ensuing carnage filmed in gruesome detail by a Thames Television crew who were in Florida making a primetime documentary about Britain's rock-star racer. Sheene broke a femur, an arm, a few ribs and several vertebrae in the accident. Surgeons hammered an 18-inch pin into the leg and seven weeks later he was racing again.
During the interim he had the camera crew at his bedside, the cheeky grin and the Gitanes cigarette (with filter torn off) burning brightly between the leg in traction and the arm in plaster. It was genius image-making, but no wonder people decided to love the man.
The cause is still disputed. Sheene always insisted the rear tyre came apart; others believe a broken chain tensioner was to blame.
Seven years later he was testing for the 1982 British Grand Prix at Silverstone when he collided with a fallen machine at 160mph, shattering both legs and a wrist. This time he was out of hospital in just 23 days.
The accident happened as Sheene crested the blind brow exiting Abbey Curve, head behind the screen, shifting into sixth gear. There were no marshals present and therefore no flags to warn him of Patrick Igoa's wrecked Yamaha TZ250 lying directly in his path.
Photos of the aftermath show a horrific scene — more air crash than motorcycle accident.
Once again the world got a grandstand view of his recovery and once again the bravery and the wit shone through. When a TV presenter asked him how his legs were coming along, he replied, "They're great — I wouldn't be without them."
Most people were quite rightly in awe of Sheene's ability to shrug off pain, though Parrish knew there was an ulterior motive to the Lazarus-like comebacks; there nearly always was with everything he did.
"The speed of his recovery was phenomenal," says Parrish. "And I'll tell you why — because he wanted to be faster at recovering than anyone else. It was another competition, like who
could get to the track fastest or who could swim the furthest underwater. Barry knew that if he got out there quicker than anyone else it would get him publicity which would help him get more money from the sponsors and better bikes. It was just part of the big game."
It is telling that the X-rays of Sheene's rebuilt legs — complete with several steel plates and two dozen screws — are as famous as any shot of him actually racing. Which brings us to the subject of the actual racing.
Sheene took the world by storm in the early 1970s. He nearly won the 125 World Championship at his first attempt, and two years later Suzuki signed him for 500 and 750 duties. In his first year as a factory rider he won the Formula 750 world title aboard the XR11 that would hurt him so badly two years hence. More important was the new RG500. It was Sheene's good fortune that his arrival at Suzuki coincided with the introduction of the brilliant square-four RG, which went on to win 50 Grand Prix victories and five world titles.
Sheene worked hard to develop the initially problematic machine, one of the new breed of fast but fickle two-strokes that would end the long reign of the four-stroke.
"The first RG engine I tried at the end of '73 started at nine grand," he told me a few years before he died. "Below that there was nothing, and when I say nothing, I mean nothing. To get it out of the paddock you had to scream it at 10,000rpm or it wouldn't even clear, and it stopped at ten-five, so once you'd got it clear at nine-five, you had precisely 1000rpm to play with.
"I told them it was a waste of time unless they spread the powerband; but they were going, 'but Barry-san, it's got 105 horsepower!'
"Foolishly enough I told Suzuki I'd go to Japan at the end of '74 and stay there until the engine was right. I was there for five weeks, the biggest jail sentence I've ever served in my life, a nightmare, but the bike came good."
Sheene scored the RG's inaugural Grand Prix victory at Assen the following June and used the bike to dominate the 1976 and 1977 500 World Championships.
In '76 he clinched the title with three races to go and took off on holiday, not even bothering to turn up for the final few events.
Then Kenny Roberts arrived. The Californian won the 1978, 1979 and 1980 World Championships, so the usual version of events is that Sheene was the best until the former dirt tracker came on the scene and found him out. Is that a fair assessment?
There's little doubt that Roberts was the better rider. King Kenny raised the game, bringing with him a way-out riding technique learned on America's low-grip dirt ovals. His ability to keep the throttle pinned while the rear tyre scrabbled for grip was too much for the Europeans and changed the sport forever.
Roberts plays down his ab ility. "There wasn't a helluva lot between us — the way I rode was more on the throttle, a little less momentum than him through the corners."
Sheene would certainly have put up a better fight if Suzuki's development programme hadn't gone awry. The factory redesigned the RG500 for 1978, but it was a dog.
The rider also made mistakes, as Roberts recalls. "At the first race of '78 Sheene told me I should run a treaded front tyre like him because racetracks are sometimes dirty, and it's just more comfortable. I was thinking, this is bullshit, there's no way he's going to run a treaded tyre and keep up with me. The first thing that came flying off his bike was that treaded front tyre — he had to go to a slick, but he wasn't used to a front slick which put him at a disadvantage."
The 1979 RG wasn't much better and yet Sheene could still beat Roberts on his day and come very close to beating him on other days, most famously at the British Grand Prix.
Silverstone '79 was Barry Sheene at his bloody-minded best. Thwarted by myriad technical problems, he qualified 1.7 seconds off pole, then turned it around for the race, duking it out with Roberts all the way to the flag.
Sheene liked to tell people he was a genius at bike setup, but others disagree. "He was an excellent mechanic, but his strength was selfbelief, not the ability to set up a bike," says Parrish. "At Silverstone his mechanics told him what he wanted to hear and he rode the wheels off the thing.
"He had such enormous self-belief and confidence in himself and in what he was doing. Kenny was one of the real massive talents, but I'd never put Barry down as one of the real greats. I'd put him down as having a huge amount of self-belief and an incredible ability to get everyone working around him.
He was so good at getting the Japanese making what he wanted and he was good at getting the best equipment because he would use his intelligence — he would speak French to the Michelin guys and Italian to the Brembo guys. He was extraordinary at gathering the best troops around him — and that's what made him so good.
"His technique was preparation. He liked to have everything lined up nicely. On a bike he was incredibly smooth in all conditions, a lot of which came down to his preparation and his intelligence. And despite the injuries, he was anything but a crasher."
Sheene did have another technique — mindgames. Throughout his career he loved to make enemies and dismantle them through the media, which was ever eager for another headline.
"Barry had to hate people to beat them," Parrish explains. "There weren't many people in the paddock he got on with; the only people were the ones slower than him. Anyone faster, he would do anything to screw them around, whether it was taking their parking place, their garage, whatever it took to annoy them. Barry was just obsessed with beating people from the start to the finish of his career."
A few months after his unforgettable ride at Silverstone, Sheene for once did fail to gather the best troops around him. He let his ego get the better of him during fraught contract negotiations with Suzuki and walked away without a Plan B. It was the biggest mistake of his career.
All he could get for 1980 were uncompetitive production Yamahas, and by the time he had factory bikes for 1981 it was Yamaha's turn to drift into the development doldrums. While Yamaha struggled with new machinery, Suzuki riders Franco Uncini and Lucchinelli carried off both the 1981 and 1982 titles aboard their well-sorted RG500s.
"If Barry had stayed with Suzuki I think he would have won another two championships," says Parrish. "He knew he had made a mistake by going to Yamaha — he was a better rider than Lucchinelli or Uncini."
In fact Sheene might have won the 1982 title with Yamaha if it hadn't been for the Silverstone crash. He had been given the factory's latest 0W61 V4 for the British GP and was running at lap-record pace when fate intervened.
Both Roberts and Parrish believe he had a chance of taking the title that year. "No question about it," says Parrish. "He was doing really well, gaining on the other guys. He was out testing the bike after he'd got some people to chop a lump out of the frame to change the geometry and he was lapping bloody fast. He was all set to go out and win the British GP.
"Chopping that frame about was a typical Barry thing — he said the changes had transformed the bike, though sadly we'll never know if they really did."
Concerned that his injuries had pushed him past his sell-by date, Yamaha let him go at the end of 1982, so he returned to Suzuki. By this time both Sheene and the RG were entering the twilight of their careers, though they could still light up the racetrack when conditions were right. He scored his final podium at Kyalami in 1984, coming from way behind to finish third in tricky damp conditions.
Remarkably, since his final Grand Prix win — in the 1981 Swedish GP at Anderstorp — no other British rider has climbed to the top step of a premier-class podium.
Sheene derived pleasure from that fact until the day he died, on March 10, 2003.