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Great British GP Disasters

Published: 24 September 2015

Sad but true: British failures at the British GP must surely equal half a century of English football horrors. The last Brit to win the big race on home tarmac was the late, great Tom Herron, who won the 1976 Senior TT on the Isle of Man aboard an £1800 Yamaha TZ350.

Even Barry Sheene at the height of his powers couldn’t make it happen at Silverstone, although in 1979 he famously came within three hundredths of a second of beating his nemesis King Kenny Roberts.

That’s still as close as any Brit has been to winning the big one, although Sheene’s best-mate Steve Parrish and former Suzuki team-mate John Williams came pretty close in 1977 when British hopes burgeoned like a barrage balloon, only to be pricked not once, not twice, but thrice.

Reigning world champ Sheene wanted nothing more than to win the first British GP not staged on the Isle of Man, but his hopes went up in smoke, or steam to be more precise, when his factory Suzuki blew a head gasket. Sheene promptly blew his own head gasket, returning to pit lane so angry that he rode into the back wall of the Suzuki pit and bent his RG500’s forks.

The crowd - fully in the grip of Sheene mania and mostly wearing flares - wailed its disappointment. But wait, all was not lost. Sheene was out, but Britain was still on course for a heroic one-two: Parrish leading Williams as the race entered its final lap.

The crowd lit up again. Then Parrish went flying into the catch fencing at Copse, followed by Williams at the very next corner. Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Since then there have been some golden moments of hope, all of them cruelly shattered by one disaster or another. In 1982 Sheene got Yamaha’s latest 500 V4 just in time for
Silverstone. He was on lap-record pace in pre-race testing when he hit a crashed bike at 150mph, shattering both legs and a wrist.

For the rest of the 1980s and into the 1990s the 500 superheroes ruled - Kevin Schwantz, Freddie Spencer, Wayne Rainey, Eddie Lawson, Mick Doohan and Wayne Gardner - so no hope in hell of any Brit beating that lot.

And yet at Donington Park in 1989 the impossible did nearly happen. This time the British GP crowd shouted itself hoarse as Niall Mackenzie showed the Yanks and the Aussies how it’s done. And the former labourer did it the hard way, fighting past Lawson, Rainey and Schwantz to take the lead. The crowd went nuts, but not for long. Mackenzie needed lots of front grip to go fast, so when his front tyre was past its best he slipped back to fourth.

Four years later it was young World Superbike hopeful Carl Fogarty who was cocksure he had the measure of Schwantz and the rest. And Foggy had the bike for the job - a full-factory Cagiva C593.

In the race Foggy gave the doubters a huge up-yours. After a couple of laps he was second and chasing Rainey! The crowd went wild again, but any British GP fan not born within the previous five minutes knew that something must surely go wrong.

And of course it did. Foggy ran short of fuel within sight of the chequered flag, allowing Mackenzie to snatch third place from the spluttering
Cagiva, which gave the Scot some compensation for his 1989 disappointment.

In 2000 it was the turn of Jeremy McWilliams to be so near and yet so far. Unfazed by a treacherous damp track, the rock-hard Ulsterman hurled his Aprilia 500 twin into battle with champ-to-be Kenny Roberts Junior and some Italian youngster showing promise in his rookie 500 season. McWill always liked living dangerously and he flirted with disaster as he rode a narrow drying line to take the lead. At two-thirds distance he was over a second ahead. Could he do it? No he couldn’t. In the final laps he had neither the horsepower nor the tyres to withstand the factory V4s of Roberts and Valentino Rossi, who took his first 500 win.

The last Brit to suffer the British GP curse was of course Cal Crutchlow. In 2013 he chased Marc Marquez so hard at the German GP that a home win seemed entirely within the realms of possibility. At least until he crashed at 182mph on Saturday morning and then twice more. Battered and bloodied he limped home a brave seventh.


Don’t forget Carter

In this catalogue of Albion misery we should not forget that soaking day at Silverstone in  1986 when Alan Carter chased 250GP victory. The tough, crash-happy youngster was up to second by the last lap, though more than a second behind Dominique Sarron. At this point most riders would’ve reminded themselves that discretion is the better part of valour. But not Carter. He continued, head down, full gas, towards his inevitable demise. With three corners to go he chucked his Kobas Rotax into the straw bales. He was so annoyed with himself he got up and punched a marshal. You’ve got to love a battling Brit...