Like the huge number of other British motorcycle grand prix fans (the term MotoGP had not been thought up back then) I arrived at Silverstone in 1978 optimistic that I would see a British rider take the honours in the 500cc race, then the premier-class of grand prix racing.
The first World Championship Grand Prix to be held on the British mainland was one year earlier at Silverstone. From 1949 to 1976 the famous Isle of Man TT races had counted towards the world championship classification and had been the British round of the series. That first year at Silverstone in 1977 I returned home disappointed after my racing hero of the time, Barry Sheene, who had dominated the world championship for two years, suffered a mechanical failure after starting from pole. The terrible day for the British riders was compounded when both Steve Parrish and John Williams crashed in the closing stages when leading the 500cc race in slippery conditions after a few spots of rain.
1978 of course saw the arrival of Kenny Roberts, and in his debut year competing in the world championship, he arrived at the penultimate race of the year with a slender three point advantage. If Sheene could win the race at Silverstone then at worst he would arrive at the final race of the year in Germany level on points (in those days it was 15 points for a win and 12 for second place).
The race started under a threatening sky and predictably the rain started to fall before mid-race distance. I don’t think it overstates matters to say this caused chaos! To give a bit of background, slick tyres had only appeared on the scene a few years prior to this race, together with wet weather and intermediate tyres. However, the rule makers had not caught up with these changes and no one knew what to do in this situation where the race started in dry conditions, then rain started to fall during the race.
After a few laps wobbling around in treacherous conditions on slick tyres the riders eventually streamed into pit lane. But one rule that did exist back then was that riders could not change bikes during the course of the race, so the only alternative was to change wheels and tyres. This is where the pit crew of Kenny Roberts, headed by 1969 250cc world champion Kel Carruthers, won the race. During the early parts of the season Roberts had been supplied with only one bike from Yamaha, which meant that in order to test tyres during practice the crew has become skilled in quickly changing the wheels. So at Silverstone they had the rider out on the track again with full rain tyres in less than 3 minutes. However, the Sheene pit crew took more than 7 minutes to get the wheels changed.
Once back on track Barry Sheene demonstrated his mastery of the wet conditions, lapping much faster than any of his rivals. But it was in vain and he could not make up the advantage gained by Roberts in the pit stop.
While all this was going on, one of the British “wild-card” riders Steve Manship had “thrown the dice” and started on intermediate tyres. He took the lead of the race when everyone pitted, and came close to taking the win, but was passed by Roberts on the final lap. Sheene came home third, after his heroic efforts took him to just over a minute behind Roberts.
So that is why I say this race was the first flag-to-flag, before the term was even invented! In fact, it was a real flag-to-flag because the riders finished on the same bikes they started the race.
So for the second year the Silverstone crowd had been denied a British winner. It will not be a surprise if there is inclement weather this year at Silverstone, but let’s hope that it does not stop a British rider winning the MotoGP race and sending the fans home happy.