Silverstone comes around once again and this is the 43rd successive year that I have attended the British Grand Prix – every year since it replaced the Isle of Man TT races as the British round of the world championship in 1977. Perhaps the most memorable of those 42 previous years was exactly 40 years ago and the great battle between Barry Sheene and Kenny Roberts n 1979. Before giving my memories of the race, just a few words about Barry Sheene to set the scene.
My first race meeting at Oulton Park at Easter of 1972 when I saw this young guy with flowing hair and white leathers trounce everyone in the 250cc and 500cc race on his Yamahas. At the time it was the performance of Cal Rayborn and Ray Pickrell that everyone was raving about, but for a young lad of 16 it was the style and riding of Barry Sheene that caught the eye.
So you could say that he became my racing “hero” a few years before becoming a household name after his Daytona crash in 1975. In fact the crash certainly increased his standing in my view as it illustrated that here was a guy worth the hero status – as not only was he a fantastic rider but also incredibly tough and determined. Of course over the next few years he went on to win his world titles and this was a great time to follow racing as Barry Sheene appeared at many British meetings as well as the Grand Prix, where there would be 40,000 or more spectators turn up to watch. I can recall one International meeting at Mallory where there was Barry Sheene racing against Giacomo Agostini, Phil Read and Kenny Roberts!! Can you imagine that now? I think the only way to compare the effect Sheene had on racing and the way he brought it to the notice of the ordinary guy in the street was, just imagine if Valentino Rossi was English…..someone who is not only the best rider in the world but also has style and charisma.
Now to the race in question. To be honest when the Grand Prix series arrived at Silverstone in 1979 Barry Sheene was not having a great season and was being well beaten in the Championship by his great rival Kenny Roberts. Of course for me, as a Sheene fan, Roberts was the arch-enemy. Even though Sheene had qualified fifth, more than 1.7 seconds down on Roberts, there was always belief that he could come good in the race. Of course at the start of the race everyone’s attention was diverted by the embarrassing crash by Mick Grant on the NR500 at the first corner on his team-mate’s oil!! Early in the race Wil Hartog was up front. This was my first experience of the fanatical Dutch supporters, as I was in the Woodcote stands and there was about 50 of them in a group just behind us that went mad every time Hartog came around. But once Sheene and Roberts got to the front it was just a great race and also great atmosphere there in the Woodcote stand. I am sure both riders thought they had the other covered……but then it happened, right in front of where I was sitting, when a back-marker got in the way of Sheene going onto the last lap……and we though then that the race was run. But Sheene broken the lap record on the last lap (amazingly more than one and half seconds faster than his qualifying time) to challenge Roberts right in front again of where I was sitting. What a great finish to a fantastic race…..but of course a great disappointment to the home crowd. I don’t think I have been more excited by a race since…..or more disappointed at the result.
Many years later I was fortunate enough to be producing the official MotoGP statistics and now know that the record books show this as the fifth closest race finish of all time in 500cc class – but as always the record books do not give the full story. Lets hope we are in for another thriller on the 40th anniversary of that race, but this time with a British rider winning by a whisker to give the home crowd something to remember in 2059!