135.067mph: the fastest GP of all time

Motorcycles

Mat Oxley pays tribute to Barry Sheene by recalling one of his greatest triumphs: his record-breaking victory in the 1977 Belgian Grand Prix, the fastest GP in history

Barry Sheene

Sheene during the 1977 season

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Spa-Francorchamps: the fastest grand prix track of them all, a white-knuckle rollercoaster ride through Belgium’s brooding Ardennes forest. Most of the road circuit’s 8.8 miles were fifth or sixth gear, head squeezed under the bubble, threading the eye of the needle between Armco barriers battered and buckled from too many high-speed accidents.

After the Isle of Man TT, Spa was the most dangerous circuit on the grand prix calendar. The first death in world championship racing was Ben Drinkwater at the 1949 TT, the second was Edoard Bruylant, a month later at Spa. Over the next three decades the circuit claimed so many lives that the survivors joked that there were enough memorials around the circuit to make a fence.

Barry Sheene’s race and lap records at the 1977 Spa GP – the last-but-one race before the road course was replaced by a shorter, safer track – were 135.067mph [217.369kph] and 137.149mph [220.721kph]. That’s an astonishing pace aboard a two-stroke that made barely 120 horsepower and was liable to seize its engine at any moment.

Racing a motorcycle at Spa required pinpoint accuracy and huge amounts of courage, which is why Sheene always excelled there. Even though he always hated the Isle of Man TT, Sheene enjoyed the challenge of the Belgian roads. He wasn’t scared.

“Barry liked the place because he knew he had a mental advantage there,” says Suzuki technician Martyn Ogborne who worked with Sheene for many years. “He knew that you might only get away once with a high-speed get-off at Spa, so he always had a margin of error, though you wouldn’t have known it. He rode the track at 99 per cent, but his 99 per cent was better than anyone else’s.”

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Sheene scored his first GP win in the 125 class at Spa in 1971 and he would’ve won the 1976 Belgian GP on his way to his first world title if his RG hadn’t gone sick. When he returned in July 1977 he was once again leading the world championship, fending off Steve Baker’s factory Yamaha. Victory at Spa would very nearly put the title out of Baker’s reach.

One of Sheene’s two new team-mates in 1977 was best mate Steve Parrish, who had never raced on a street circuit. Sheene showed the youngster what he was in for by taking him for a few high-speed reconnaissance laps in his Rolls-Royce, but nothing could prepare Parrish for the reality.

“I remember it vividly – the main thing was the daunting speed of the place,” says Parrish, who was riding a year-old ex-Sheene factory RG500. “I remember riding through that long right-hander through the village of Burneville, thinking, ‘Fuck me, if it goes wrong here… this is just lunacy’. That corner was like an enormous Gerrards [at Mallory] – well over 100mph [160kph], but with no run-off whatsoever. Then there was that nasty fourth-gear kink on the Masta straight. That was one of those hold-your-frigging-breath-and-get-through-it corners. I suppose the good thing was there wasn’t a lot of corners to remember because most of the lap was just pinned.”

“He asked us if we’d fixed the problem and we said ‘yeah’, so he said, ‘okay, let’s do it’, We had to know that if we lied to him we could kill him, simple as that.”

Baker, another street circuit virgin, also made his Spa debut that July. “I went around in my car before practice,” says the American. “My first thought was, ‘Oh God, what have I got myself into here?’. It was pretty scary. The thing was that however dangerous it was, you had to keep your corner speed up because with the 500 engine’s power characteristics that made a huge difference in lap time.”

Spa had only one slow corner – the final La Source hairpin, taken at 20mph [30kph]. Parrish remembers being so ‘speed drunk’ that it was very tricky to judge his speed into the corner. “Then you’d have an awful lot of clutch slipping out of there because of the ridiculously high gearing you were using.”

Sheene didn’t start the 1977 Spa GP from pole. He got stung by a hornet during qualifying and ended up second behind Suzuki privateer Philippe Coulon. In fact the hornet was the least of his problems.

These were days of spiralling two-stroke engine performance, which had the tyre companies and chassis makers struggling to keep up. Only two years earlier Sheene had come close to death at Daytona when he was flung down the road at 170mph [275kph] after his rear tyre popped.

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At the end of Spa practice Sheene’s mechanics were shocked when they noticed a groove down the centre of his rear slick and a small pile of rubber debris stuck to the swingarm. The sustained high speeds – his RG was geared for almost 190mph [305kph] – had grown the tyre until it chafed against the swingarm, threatening to rip the tyre apart.

“Barry wasn’t impressed when he saw that – it was a shock because it was, ‘here we go again’,” recalls Ogborne who believes Sheene’s Daytona crash was caused by the same phenomenon. “The problem with the old cross-plies was that they had so much rubber on them that the tyres would grow far too much. So it was, oh shit, get all the swingarms out, get the grinders out and grind the chain adjustment slots so we could pull the wheels right back.”

While the mechanics worked on that bodge, Sheene had a brainwave that he hoped might solve another chassis nightmare. Through Spa’s high-speed direction changes he had noticed that when he yanked the handlebars the front wheel didn’t respond accordingly. He realised that most of his input was being soaked up by fork twist.

“It was Saturday evening and Barry disappeared for several hours,” recalls Brookman, who was looking after Parrish’s bikes at the time. “He came back with a piece of quarter-inch aluminium plate that had been heated and bent to loop round the forks.”

Sheene77

Sheene shown here in the late 1970s

Sheene had invented the fork brace. “That was the thing with Barry – he was always looking to have something that no one else had,” adds Brookman. “He would always find someone somewhere and do something a bit different to everyone else. He did the same with Kenny [Roberts] when they were both at Yamaha. That was just Barry.”

Sheene didn’t let the tyre worries put him off in the race. “He asked us if we’d fixed the problem and we said ‘yeah’, so he said, ‘okay, let’s do it’,” adds Ogborne. “It was done on trust – his mind had to be completely free. We had to know that if we lied to him we could kill him, simple as that.”

The race was no pushover. Another RG500 privateer Michel Rougerie led Sheene most of the way, while Baker fought back from a sluggish getaway, his  piston-ported OW35 always a lazier starter than the rotary-valve RG.

“This myth about his mechanical ability, I don’t know how much of that stood up, but he was a brave little bastard and he just wanted to win.”

Meanwhile Parrish found himself embroiled in an epic battle for third with former champion Giacomo Agostini, third factory Suzuki rider Pat Hennen and Finnish privateer Tepi Lansivouri.

“It still stands out in my mind because I’d never slipstreamed so closely in my life. You were inches from the other guys, staring at their exhaust pipes. We were doing these ridiculous leapfrogging manoeuvres – you’d slipstream past someone, then he’d come back past you, then you’d go past him again. And you were doing this with your finger on the clutch in case your engine seized, while looking at the other guys’ tail pipes, watching for the tell-tale puff of blue smoke that told you their engine was seizing.”

Slipstreaming was such a big deal at Spa that clever mechanics prepared for it. Over-gearing could help a rider take advantage of a tow, while extra fuel was vital in case the rider spent too much time giving rivals a tow. At Spa, Sheene’s RG used an eight-litre auxiliary tank in the seat hump, in addition to the usual 32-litre fuel tank, very nearly twice the fuel load of today’s MotoGP bikes.

“When you got a tow it was a big advantage because not only does it push you forward it pulls the other guy back,” says Ogborne. “But we also dreaded the slipstream because, fuck me, did the bikes drink fuel when they got slipstreamed!”

On the penultimate lap Rougerie was still ahead. “Michel was giving Barry a real run for his money,” says Brookman. “Then Rougerie’s bike broke, maybe because he’d been towing Barry along, which would’ve made his engine work harder.”

Even with Rougerie out, Sheene’s problems weren’t over. His bike developed a chronic misfire on the last lap – probably due to overheating fuel – and he limped over the line 11.3 seconds ahead of Baker.

“I was pretty happy with second,” says Baker. “And I always remember it because when I stopped at the end of pit lane someone had an ice-cold beer for me and that was really good.” Pro-racers rehydrated differently in those days!

Parrish, who ended up a close fifth behind Hennen and Lansivouri, doesn’t recall any hullabaloo about Sheene’s astonishing race speed, “because everyone thought we’d go back next year and go even faster”.

Despite the awesome speeds, Spa wasn’t particularly hard on machines. “Daytona and the Isle of Man were much worse,” Ogborne recalls. “The TT takes your chassis to the cleaners, everything breaks. Daytona would destroy crankcases because the g-forces on the banking would try to push the crankshaft through the bottom of the engine.”

Sheene’s Spa victory was the fifth of six wins during 1977, the most successful season of his career.

“Barry was at the height of his powers in ’77 – he could do no wrong,” says Brookman. “He was still up there in ’78, but the bike wasn’t so good. Suzuki went backwards with the stepped-cylinder RG motor and short frame – he would’ve been better off with a production bike.

“The big thing about Barry was that he was always ballsy. I always thought his bravery was probably more than his ability. This myth about his mechanical ability, I don’t know how much of that stood up, but he was a brave little bastard and he just wanted to win.”

Brookman had a vivid demonstration of Sheene’s willingness to walk the line in 1980, when he rode production Yamahas.

“Barry had got all sorts of trouble, so we went testing at Hockenheim. The short circuit was being used for truck practice, so we got to use the back chicane on the long circuit. Barry had got chattering problems, so he said to me, ‘Martin will you lie on the ground and watch me coming through the chicane and see what starts chattering first?’. He was coming through there that quick – fuck, it scared me! There was no one there, no ambulance, nothing, and Barry was on full noise, right on the limit, and I was lying right where it might be dangerous. I thought, bloody hell, this could end in tears.”

Before the days of data-logging it wasn’t only the racers who needed to be brave.

Towards a slower, safer future

The 1977 Spa Grand Prix was the penultimate GP on the original roads circuit, before the shorter current layout was constructed for the 1969 season. The growing death toll at the Belgian venue and other GP tracks was about to transform motorsport, leaving behind ultra-quick road circuits and moving to a new generation of tighter, slower circuits designed to improve safety.

The Isle of Man TT had been stripped of world championship status following the 1976 event and riders were pushing hard for improvements at other venues. Barry Sheene was a leading light in the campaign, having turned his back on the Isle of Man long before the FIM did.

The crusade was galvanised by the 1977 Austrian GP at the Salzburgring, two months before Spa. Riders nicknamed the Salzburgring ‘tin-can alley’, because much of the circuit was bordered by Armco, so fallen bikes and riders bounced back onto the track.

That’s exactly what happened in the 350 race, when a huge pile-up killed Swiss privateer Hans Stadelmann and left Johnny Cecotto, Dieter Braun and Patrick Fernandez seriously injured. The tragedy was magnified by callous organisers and woeful medical facilities.

“When the accident happened it was like a bomb going off,” recalls Martin Brookman. “We could hear the bikes rattling down the Armco and then an almighty bang. What happened after was criminal – the organisers didn’t stop the race for ages and it must’ve taken them an hour to get Stadelmann to hospital because there was a traffic jam outside the circuit, so they couldn’t get ambulances in and out.”

Sheene and most other 500 riders refused to race, despite the organisers hurrying around the paddock, offering riders double the usual start money. Remarkably, the FIM jury then issued official warnings to Sheene and other ringleaders.

Steve Baker, riding his first season in Europe could sense that change was in the air. “I could see that safety was becoming more of an issue,” he says.

It wasn’t just safety that needed improving. “The discontent was also about the fact that we got paid nothing to ride in GPs,” says Steve Parrish. “When Stadelmann got killed that kicked things off – it was a combination of death and no money. If there’d been more money, death wouldn’t have been so bad.”

Paddocks conditions were also a problem. “The toilets at Spa were absolutely disgusting,” adds Parrish. “Just before the 500 race in ’77, Philippe Coulon went for a piss, but there was always a woman sat outside the toilet and she wouldn’t let you in unless you paid her. So Coulon stood there in his leathers and pissed in her bucket. That was the way we felt.”

Eventually the new, shorter 4.3 mile Spa was also deemed too dangerous for GP racing. The track hosted its last bike GP in 1990; although there are plans afoot to improve safety and bring MotoGP back to Belgium in the coming years.


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