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MCN Plus - The Greatest British GP Ever

Published: 21 September 2015

Updated: 09 September 2015

British 500cc GP, Silverstone, August 12, 1979

Sheene was the British superstar; Roberts his American nemesis. But while the latter seemed indomitable, Sheene had fallen out with Suzuki and was trailing in the championship he’d last won two years before. Silverstone would be Bazza’s best chance yet of revenge. The race was one of the closest in GP history, a 28-lap duel between two demi-gods. At the end, just 3/100ths of a second separated them. 

Barry Sheene “I was pissed off with Suzuki because in 1978 the bike was all wrong, and in 1979 it wasn’t much better. So by Silverstone I’d had a gutful. I already had a deal to race Yamahas in 1980 so it was just a matter of getting the Suzuki sorted out as well as possible. But I felt good and on the day of the race the bike felt alright.”

Bob Berry “You used to get about 60,000 there. We even did that ‘Pillion in a Million’ when Barry and all the lads took the readers around.”

Kenny Roberts “On the warm-up I was doing a wheelie and was so confident I did a long one. Problem was the oil ran back, shut the breather off and blew out the clutch seal. I went into Woodcote (the ultra-fast final corner) and thought ‘Damn, that’s slippery!’ On the start line Kel (Carruthers, Roberts’ crew chief – Ed) saw oil all over the bike. Luckily he knew exactly what to do, but I got oil all over my gloves.”

Sheene “The whole point was that Virginio Ferrari (Roberts’ closest title rival) was there, Wil Hartog (the Dutch rider and fast starter) was there, but Roberts wasn’t worried about either of them and nor was I because, at the end of the day, I knew Roberts was quicker and he knew I was quicker.”

Roberts “Me and Sheene were the two fastest guys on the track. I couldn’t pull away from him and he couldn’t pull away from me. I had advantages in faster corners – I could get through Abbey flat in fourth which nobody else could – and if I could do it I would get 10 bike lengths. That was the only plan I had: to be leading through that corner to give me the 10 bike lengths I needed to get into Woodcote without someone coming up the inside.”

Sheene “The Yamaha was quicker down the back straight and the bikes were handling more or less the same so it was going to be a last lap job. My plan was always to get him into Woodcote and pass him on the brakes.”

Roberts “The thing I was worried about was the oil on my gloves. I kept wiping my hands off and the hand signals started because of that.”

Sheene “I passed him and gave him the V-sign for a laugh. There was nothing malicious. I knew the cameras were there and thought it’d be good fun.”

Roberts “I laughed. I knew as well as he did he wasn’t going to get away and I wasn’t going to get away from him. But when he was leading our lap times would come down and Hartog would catch up. So when I went by I went ‘Come on!’ and made some motions and he’d do the same thing.”

Berry “Murray Walker said on the BBC commentary ‘And Barry is waving at Kenny!’ when actually he was doing a w***ing motion behind his back...”

Roberts “I knew he had a chance on the last lap, but I felt I had the speed to win and when I saw the backmarkers that made me feel better.”

Sheene “The problem was at the end of the penultimate lap. We came up on some backmarkers. Kenny got through and I drifted out, and what was a 10-yard deficit became 200.”

Roberts “Sheene wanted to go inside but because I did he couldn’t. I did everything right, Sheene did everything right… except there was a backmarker.”

Sheene “Going into Woodcote I was probably 100 yards behind and I lost the race by two feet. It was a bummer. I was thinking ‘F**king backmarkers!’”

Roberts “It certainly was special. Afterwards a taxi took me to the airport and the driver, who didn’t know me, said: ‘Did you see that motorcycle race on TV today? Wow!’ They said it was the most-watched sports programme in Britain that year. I actually felt a little jealous of the whole thing because in America they didn’t give a shit. But that all made it a little bit more enjoyable beating Sheene.”

Sheene “To this day I get in a cab and the driver will say: ‘Oh I remember that race when you gave the V-sign to that Kenny Rogers.’ It was a race that captured people’s imagination. And it’s always cab drivers. And they always call him Kenny Rogers!”



Phil West spoke to the protagonists in 2002, shortly before Sheene’s death from cancer

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