Flashback Friday: Kenny Roberts Wins The 1978 500cc World Championship

Cycle News Staff | November 8, 2013
The Kings first crown - the final Grand Prix at the Nurburgring in 1978.

In anticipation of what’s being dubbed “The Showdown” – the MotoGP World Championship decider on Sunday at Valencia between Marc Marquez and Jorge Lorenzo – we take a Friday Flashback look back at several other epic showdowns.

There’s plenty of them. Fifteen to be exact, but the one that stands out not only for Americans but for the significance of the last time a rookie won the championship, look no farther than Kenny Roberts at the Nurburgring in 1978.

Roberts not only achieved the feat as a rookie, but he was also the first American to win the premier-class World Championship.

Marc Marquez has been smashing records all season, breaking Freddie Spencer’s record of the youngest to win a premier Grand Prix with his win in Austin in April. And with a 13-point lead over his rival Jorge Lorenzo, he’s in the driver’s seat to break another record and fall in line after the King himself – becoming the second rookie to win the championship. Can Marquez pull it off and link his name to the King himself?

We have to wait for Sunday to find out. In the meantime, here’s a look back at the final round at the Nurburgring in 1978 when Roberts went there with an eight-point lead over the defending World Champion Barry Sheene and was able to clinch the title.

By Chris Carter

NURBURGRING, WEST GERMANY, AUG. 20 – Kenny Roberts has put an end to the reign of Barry Sheene as 500cc World Champion. Roberts, via a third place finish on his Good­year/Lectron sponsored Yamaha, grabbed the title from Suzuki mounted Sheene in the final round of the series at West Germany’s Nurburgring.

Roberts had only one anxious moment in the six-lap race. It came at the start of the second lap, when Kenny gazed too hard and too long at a second pit sign, at the back of the pits. He missed his braking point and nearly overshot the corner, but that was his only worrying moment.

Sheene’s plan was to aim for third spot, and hope that Roberts broke down. But though Barry battled hard to overtake Takazumi Katayama after the Japanese Yamaha rider had ousted him from fourth place, Kenny’s motor never missed a beat, and he coasted home at a canter.

“I rode like an old lady on that last lap,” Kenny said after the race, but he crossed the line looking over his shoulder to see where Sheene and Katayama were in his wake.

The man who won the race was Italian Virginia Ferrari, who said “Thank you” for his first works Suzuki outing by beating Johnny Cecotto (Yamaha) home, and setting a new absolute lap record in the process.

But despite the fine dice between Ferrari and Cecotto out front and Sheene’s battle with Katayama for fourth place, the race was an anti-climax. Few people in the 100,000 strong crowd round the 13.5 mile woodland circuit could have gone home happy. But for the rival Suzuki and Yamaha camps it was a nerve wracking business. Pat Roberts, Kenny’s wife, who is pregnant, could not bear to watch. She sat in the toilet of their motorhome, whilst spectators on the roof shouted down information.

Wil Hartog’s hopes of adding to his season’s tally came unstuck on the first lap. He crashed halfway round and though he escaped the high speed fall unhurt, the works Suzuki was burnt out.

With Ferrari in the line-up, there were no fewer than five factory Suzukis on the grid but most of their riders ended the race worn out from battling with machines that were not handling too well. Michel Rougerie was sixth over the line, with Steve Baker seventh, having managed to beat off a strong challenge from Dutchman Boet van Dulmen, who was followed home by Teuvo Lansivuori. Italian Marco Lucchinelli, at one stage fifth on the Cagiva Suzuki, dropped back as the motor went off, and a lap from the end he pulled out with crankshaft trouble.

Britain’s second best man in this 500cc race was Steve Parrish, who was not alone in finding the Nurburgring track difficult to learn. He improved on his mediocre practice laps to finish13th after Jack Middleburg and Franco Bonera passed him in the closing stages.

Other world titles are still in the balance, though, and none more finely poised than the sidecar. Rolf Biland could have wrapped the job up, but he broke down during the five­lap event, when lying second and motoring round very steadily in the Beo-Yamaha.

The problem, Rolf thought, was a broken crankshaft, but whatever it was it put everything to play for at the Czech Grand Prix at Brno on Sunday.

While Biland passenger Kenny Williams turned to spectating, West German Werner Schwarzel and Andreas Huber romped home on the Helmut Fath Aro to an impressive victory.  But there were shocks in store before the flag.

Second place runner Rolf Steinhausen, who had only just squeezed into the race with a  last minute reprieve, like Britain’s George O’Dell, broke down on the last lap.

But with an incredible display of driving, Frenchman Alain Michel overcame a lengthy pit stop for adjustments to snatch second spot from under the nose of Dick Greasley, with Gordon Russell, on the Busch Yamaha and Swis Bruno Holzer/Charly Meierhans on the LCR Yamaha, who had been dicing throughout.

Michel now trails Biland by just six points, and his ride was enough to give him the right to be Rolfs big threat. Alain destroyed the old record, and lapped in 9m 6.8 seconds – over 50 seconds better than Schwarzel’s lap record.

But Scotsmen Jock Taylor and passenger James Neil on the Fowler­Yamaha had the longest faces in the paddock on Sunday evening. They had been fourth fastest in practice, and looked set for runner-up spot. Then an exhaust pipe fell off, and the pit stop dropped them to 20th in the final results.

O’Dell and Cliff Holland were moving swiftly through the field, until the Yamaha went bang for the fourth time during the weekend. Bill Hodgkins and John Parkins were short of steam, but they kept going for eighth spot.

The 500cc race was run at 12:30 pm and perhaps if it had been at the more conventional spot at the end of the program Kork Ballington might have won the 350cc race.

But Takazumi Katayama was furious because his 500 Yamaha was short of about 500 rpm. That made his battle with Sheene a tough one. On top of that, the zooming Taxi was not exactly over the moon about the bikes of Cecotto and Roberts disappearing into the distance.

So when the 350cc race started, Takazumi still hadn’t come down out of orbit, and in that frame of mind there was really going to be only one man as winner. Ballington pressured him hard, but at the flag Katayama had a narrow lead. Kork’s teammate Greg Hansford had another disappointing time. The throttles on his Kawasaki began to stick open and he pulled out.

Christian Sarron, the French youngster who had been third fastest in practice, saw his chance of points go west when he took a tumble, leaving Michael Rougerie, John Ekerold and Tom Herron to scrap for third, fourth and fifth places. They lost Anton Mang at the last comer when he slid off, but the dice had pulled him far enough clear of the pack for him to remount and take sixth spot for Olivier Chevallier and Franco Bonera.

Herron (Yamaha) was even better in the 250cc race which opened the day’s program. He played a superb waiting game on the last lap, to slipstream the Kawasakis of Frenchman Jean­Francais Balde and Anton Mang to take third place by a narrow margin.

Out front, Kork Ballington rode another superb race to stretch his lead in the 250cc class to eight points. His rival and Kawasaki teammate, Greg Hansford saw his chance disappear when the Green Meanie refused to chime in properly at the start, and though he pulled swiftly through to second spot the engine was still not working well, and he lost ground to Kork throughout.

Italian Paolo Pileri was looking set for a top six place till the rear sprocket on the works Morbidelli broke up, and his teammate Mario Lega had a diabolical start that robbed him of all chance of points.

Jon Ekerold, having turned down more rides on the works Morbidellis for the time being, grabbed sixth spot on his own Yamaha, with Chas Mortimer seventh, and French up-and­ coming star Raymond Roche eighth.

Angel Nieto, freed from team orders now that his teammate Pierpaolo Bianchi is out of the running with a badly broken leg, made a mockery of his second place in the practice times, with a start to finish win in the 125cc race on the works Minarelli .

He was chased home by Frenchman Thierry Espie on the factory Motobecane. Espie,     quickest in training, could not hold Nieto. But he rode a careful race, avoiding a crash, to finish second, his best-ever GP ride. Those points lift him into fourth place in the championship battle with one round to go.

Third home was little Swiss rider Hans Muller on the privately-owned Morbidelli, but he  was close on a minute down on Espie. Italian Maurizio Massimiani (Morbidelli) was down in eighth place at the end of the first lap, but he charged through the field to snatch fourth spot from under the nose of Austrian Harald Bartol (Morbidelli) at the checkered flag.

Sixth place went to West German Gert Bender, having only his fourth race of the year, and his first GP outing on the homemade Bender Special.

Spaniard Ricardo Tormo won the 50cc race, with his teammate Angel Nieto following him home, and challenger Eugenio Lazzarini never looking like catching them. But the title chase has to go to the final round in Yugoslavia, if it is run, to be decided.                 

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