Last chance saloon
— Insight —
Sheene tested a fair few racing cars, F1 chassis among them, but his career on four wheels proved both fleeting and patchy
By Richard Heseltine
Viewed through the cold gaze of the sceptic, you could argue that Barry Sheene never made a successful transition to racing on four wheels. Except somehow you doubt his heart was ever really in it and it isn’t as though opportunities didn’t present themselves. Indeed, he tested for Surtees at Brands Hatch in August 1977. According to Barry Sheene 1950-2003: the Biography, he completed 70 tours of the Indy circuit and came within 2.9 seconds of the lap record.
The great man himself said: It was no major problem to achieve that fast time, and the experience, although enjoyable and requiring immense concentration, did not stimulate me to the point where I felt I just had to switch to four wheels.”
And stimulation was conspicuously absent when he drove a works Arrows Al at Donington Park in September ’78. According to Motoring News, he managed only two laps before an off and the departure of a wheel ended play. Two months later, he tested for the same team at Le CasteIlet where his lap times were reportedly on the slow side. Nonetheless, it was reported that he was considering ‘doing an Agostini’ and competing in the Aurora AFX Fl series when dates didn’t conflict with his day job.
It never happened, although as late as 1985, Sheene was still sufficiently intrigued to at least test a Formula 1 car. In November of that year, he joined fellow motorcyclists Franco Uncini and Marco Luchinelli for a run at Paul Ricard in a Brabham-BMW BT54.Sheene had his excuses at the ready, relating to Autosport “well, I couldn’t fit in the car. I couldn’t be there for a proper fitting and the car was set up for Uncini and Luchinelli. We took the seat out, but it was still not big enough, so in the end I only did seven laps, steering with my knees and unable to change down gears as my elbows wouldn’t fit in the cockpit…”
When he did finally make the leap to a sustained four-wheel programme, it was in an unlikely arena of motor sport. Truck racing exploded onto British circuits in 1984, and one of the earliest exponents was Sheene, who had hitherto been sponsored by DAF. And it was aboard an 11.6-litre Sherwood DAF FT3300 that he made such an impact, both literally and figuratively. While outright wins proved hard to come by, he was unquestionably the fledgling movement’s biggest draw, with fourth place in the ’86 Multipart Truck Grand Prix support race at Silverstone being perhaps his grittiest showing.
However, midway through 1987 he chopped in the big rigs as by now he had discovered saloon car racing. Intermittent outings in the BTCC aboard assorted Japanese tin-tops showed he had pace. He even stepped up to the European series, participating in the September 1986 Tourist Trophy race at Silverstone alongside Dave Brodie in a 2-litre Colt Starion. The Brode’ had qualified on pole for the same race a year earlier, but this time around their bid began to unravel during qualifying after the car’s engine went pop. A replacement was installed but this too developed problems, so Sheene had little time to attune himself to the car. And while Jeff Allam and Denis HuIme would emerge victorious come race day, the embattled Starion duo finished 36 laps down after the Colt went lame with a constant misfire among other maladies.
Nonetheless, Sheene surfaced for round nine of the RAC British Saloon Car Championship at Silverstone, but this time he was equipped with a Team Toyota/Duckhams Toyota Corolla. Having been unable to make it for the Saturday practice, he managed just three laps on Sunday morning and was obliged to start at the back of the grid with a lOsec penalty. He would come home 11th from 13 finishers.
There would be further tests and at least one barrel roll, but the four-wheel career was effectively over once Sheene moved to Australia later that decade. The question isn’t so much why Sheene didn’t sparkle on four wheels, more why he ever bothered at all.