IT’S STILL INCEDIBLE when you recall the effect Barry Sheene had on motorcycling in the 1970s and ’80s. His charismatic personality and his undoubted talent on a bike created so much public interest in motorcycling at the time. But you all know that.
Interesting, then, to read Mat’s piece on his early years in this issue. I wasn’t really aware of Sheene’s really early days in the GP pitlane before he was known as a racer (see page 34). What’s weird for me is that, although I saw him racing that ex-works Suzuki 125 at British nationals, and his name ultimately became synonymous with the Suzuki brand, one era that really stands out for me was probably one of his least successful years. It was the 1972 season, when he signed with Yamaha to race a water-cooled 250 with French, Sonauto branding at GPs and had a brace of 250, 350 and 354 twins in British races. Remember his stand-out white leathers with the American Motorcycle Weekly emblem on the shoulders and that personalised Bell helmet?
I guess that memory was poignant because my mates and I were now all on bikes, getting to more places, seeing more races at that time – and Sheene’s flamboyant character, beyond any results, stood out above all others. Although a collarbone injury meant he didn’t have the greatest of seasons, he still won races in England – and the potential was clearly there. As Yamahas were dominating the classes at the time and had a new 500 in the pipeline, he seemed on the verge of greatness.
But then everything changed. He quit Yamaha. I remember one desperate night in the pub when, after we had all read that Barry had signed for Suzuki, our mate Bev was crying into his beer, mourning Barry’s supposed demise after leaving Yamaha. We all tried to persuade him that everything would be OK with Sheene on 500 and 750 Suzukis, but he was having none of it.
Of course, we all now know that the switch to Suzuki would set him on the path to a Formula 750 title and two 500cc world titles, not to mention public adoration worldwide. As you can imagine, Sheene’s exploits continued to fuel many beer-soaked pub nights over the years – not just for our little gang, but for motorcycle enthusiasts the world over.