20 years ago, Jeremy McWilliams called Britain Superbike Island – and he was not far wrong. The sparsely populated spectator bank overlooking Craner Curves and Old Hairpin corners at Donington Park said it all. Two decades before Coronavirus arrived this was not a case of social distancing, but more there was just not many people – 18,500 to be precise – interested in watching the British Grand Prix.
The Barry Sheene type adulation from the seventies had long transferred to a certain Carl Fogarty in the World Superbike Championship. Sell-out crowds packed Brands Hatch to support their hero on route to four World titles while MotoGP™ struggled to attract a crowd a quarter of the size to Donington, but that 2000 Cinzano British Grand Prix was the turning point
Twenty years ago, on Thursday this week a knight in shining armour rode to the rescue at Donington and we have never looked back. Dressed in yellow and white leathers, sporting an ear ring, wearing a flamboyant helmet and riding number 46, a four-cylinder 500cc two-stroke steed – a 21-year-old Italian sponsored by a brewing giant turned the sport on its head with his very first victory in the premier class.
88 premier class wins, four more at Donington and seven World titles followed, and Valentino Rossi was the new hero for British fans. Ironically, his father Graziano was a great friend of Barry Sheene and it was his son that took over Sheene’s iconic status.
On a typically damp British summer afternoon Rossi, riding the NSR Honda, fought off the considerable challenge of World Champion elect Kenny Roberts and McWilliams in the 30-lap race. He celebrated in style on the podium although British fans had already had a taste of his antics. Three years earlier he dressed up as the infamous local outlaw Robin Hood, hat and all after winning the 125cc race on route to the World title. Rossi won one more Grand Prix in 2000 at Rio. Then the floodgates opened wide in 2001.
The fans in Britain typified the change as Rossi rampaged across the globe on and off the track. On the track he won five successive premier class titles, mastering the switch to four-strokes and bringing Yamaha their first premier class title for 12 years. Off the track he put the sport where it had never been before. Social media just could not get enough, his face was on both front and back pages of newspapers throughout the world and the young Italian was soon a sporting icon.
Rossi may have been the new hero, but Jeremy McWilliams also played his part including the Superbike Island remark. He finished third in that 2000 British Grand Prix riding the Aprilia twin less than a second behind Rossi. A year later he won the 250cc race in Assen to become the first British solo class winner for 15 years. Typically, both Rossi and McWilliams are still racing today.
There may not have been so many people at Donington 20 years ago, but those loyal fans who made the effort were rewarded by witnessing history in the making. They are still telling their children and grandchildren they were there.