Barry Sheene: Cockney Rebel

Motorcycle News

There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the village of Charlwood. Its most noticeable feature is its location, just beyond the end of Gatwick’s runway. But if I ever pass through the place, or see it on a road sign, strong images always spring to mind: of a red, yellow and black Suzuki RG500 canted over through a corner, of a cartoon duck on a black crash helmet, of lucky number seven… and if my imagination is really running riot, I can almost sniff the unmistakable whiff of Brut aftershave.

We used to drive through Charlwood every now and then, on family afternoons out when I was a kid. At the corner of a junction just beyond the village there were large gates that led to country house hidden from view by thick bushes and trees. “That’s where Barry Sheene lives,” Dad would always say. And every time my little sister would pipe up: “Can we pop in for a cup of tea?”

Sheene used to fly his helicopter out of Gatwick, where Dad worked for more than 40 years. He’d often see the double World Champion as he passed through, and invariably there’d be a bit of banter. On one occasion, Dad told Barry that his daughter wanted to pop over to his house for a cup of tea.

“How old is she?” said Sheene, with the inevitable twinkle in his eye. She was only four or five at the time. “Tell ’er she can come round when she’s 16!”

Today, some will frown at a quip that might be considered a little too close to the mark. But when Dad told us at the time, we just thought it was funny. Knowing what I do of Sheene now, for me it sums him up.

He was a man of his time, the archetype of what a biker racing ace should be. Where James Hunt had the plumy public school accent, Sheene was the salt-of-the-earth Londoner, a larger-than-life working class hero. But in many ways Hunt and Sheene were one and the same: hedonists, living life on the edge – and simply having a ball along the way.

The vices weren’t always funny or charming, and from what I’ve read and heard from those who knew them, both could be downright rude and unpleasant. But in the 1970s no one expected such men to be angels – and the fact they could be devils is why we loved them.

Sheene wasn’t the greatest motorcycle racer of all time, and he wasn’t even the best of his era – ‘King’ Kenny Roberts raised the bar as soon as he hit the Grand Prix trail. But our ‘Cockney Rebel’ had character, genuine charisma, and he was super-brave, too.

With all this in mind, we didn’t think twice about sticking him on the cover of the April issue, after Mat Oxley pointed out it was 10 years since Sheene left the building, a victim of cancer at the age of just 52.

We don’t often give ’bike stars the cover – in fact, I can’t remember the last time Motor Sport has ever done it. But Sheene was a racer who transcended his sport. Even now, all these years later, he’s a much-loved – and much-missed – British icon. And sadly we’re still waiting for someone to follow in Sheene’s wheel-tracks at the pinnacle of Grand Prix motorcycle racing.

Mat’s ‘warts ’n all’ portrait of the man gave me the shivers when I first read it. As with Hunt, we’re all the poorer today for Bazza’s absence.

Elsewhere in the April issue, Nigel Roebuck looks ahead to the Formula 1 season as we count down the days to Melbourne. He’s joined by Anthony Davidson, a man who’s becoming one of the sport’s best analysts in his role at Sky F1. They met up at the Daytona 24 Hours, where Anthony was making his racing return following his spine-jarring Le Mans accident last June.

Simon Taylor takes Jaguar test pilot veteran Norman Dewis for lunch, keeping us gripped with a string of hair-raising tales straight from the frontline of performance development as it used to be, 50 and 60 years ago.

Another highlight is Ed Foster’s account of British American Racing’s relatively unheralded attack on Bonneville speed records, just over half a decade ago. As you can read, team members struggled to buy a new pair of socks in the bleak wilderness of Utah, but somehow driver Alan van der Merwe did return with a new girlfriend… The story highlights just how surprisingly hard it can sometimes be to go fast in a straight line.

I write this in the aftermath of our fourth annual Hall of Fame evening, where Colin Chapman, Tom Kristensen, Graham Hill, Damon Hill and Niki Lauda were added to our roll call of motor racing greats. To mark the occasion, we’ve produced a special supplement that is bagged with the April issue for UK readers. This 68-page magazine offers pen portraits of our 25 Hall of Fame members, by some of the men who knew them best: Sir Stirling Moss by Tony Brooks, Jacky Ickx by Derek Bell, Ayrton Senna by Rubens Barrichello and so on.

Inside the main issue, don’t miss the chance to enter our great Le Mans 24 Hours competition, run in partnership with our friends at Speed Chills. You’ll also notice we’ve launched a new car insurance service, catering for every type of motor from classics to moderns. And as ever, there’s loads more online this month, with new columns on the horizon from Mark Blundell and the BBC’s Lee McKenzie, and acres of content on Chapman, Kristensen et al in our Hall of Fame section.

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