In 1984 two-time GP World Champ Barry Sheene was 33, back when being in your 30s meant you were long in the tooth as a motorcycle racer, and on top of that, his body had taken a major beating in his 17 years of racing motorcycles. But in March of 1984 at the Grand Prix season opener, Sheene, riding a previous year’s model Suzuki RG500 GP bike, called on all his years of experience and shocked most of the racing world when he took a podium finish in the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami. No one knew it at the time, but it would mark the last time the legendary Brit would stand on the rostrum, in ultimately what would become his final season of racing.
Barry Sheene is generally regarded by most racing experts as the rider who helped elevate the popularity of Grand Prix motorcycle racing more than any other rider. Sheene was more than simply a well-known racer, the two-time World Champion became a celebrity that the British press covered on and off the track. He hobnobbed with George Harrison and Ringo Starr and then dated and later married and Penthouse Pet of the Month. He unashamedly smoked, drank, drove a Rolls-Royce and was a big part of the happening London club scene. In 1977 he moved to a 700-year-old manor house in Surrey once owned by the actress Gladys Cooper and was selected by Faberge to promote Brut aftershave.
Sheene rose quickly from the British club ranks in the late 1960s to become British 125cc road racing champion in 1970. That same year he won his first Grand Prix, the 50cc class at Brno. From there it was a steady rise to the top of the motorcycle-racing world. By 1977 Sheene was the dominant racer in GP’s premier class, with two consecutive world championships. In ’77 he won over half the races, scoring victory in six of the 11 500cc Grand Prix rounds.
Americans began to love Sheene after watching how he dealt with the horrific top-speed crash at Daytona in 1975. His humorous defiance in the face of questions of retirement brought head-shaking smiles to motorcycle-racing enthusiasts.
Suddenly, with the popularity of Sheene, the series became a part of marketing plans for large corporations, even those outside the motorsports industry. Before Sheene you might see the logo of an oil, gas or helmet company on the side of a GP bike, after Sheene you could see the logos of consumer electronics companies like Akai, Pioneer, Canon and others.
Kenny Roberts arrived in 1978 and the two had an epic battle for the championship with the rookie American taking the title. And it continued. Sheene’s battle with Roberts at the 1979 British Grand Prix at Silverstone has been cited as one of the greatest Motorcycle Grand Prix races of the 1970s.
GP racing was no longer just a sport for Europeans, but had truly become international. Sheene, followed by Roberts, were the primary reasons for that.
At the end of 1979, the long association between Sheene and Suzuki came to a close. It was reported that Sheene felt Heron Suzuki wasn’t providing him the kind of equipment he needed to contend for the world championship. It proved to be an ill-fated decision. After being either a world champion or serious contender for a half-dozen seasons, Sheene found himself on the grid aboard a well-funded, but privateer Yamaha. The results couldn’t have been starker. He went from third in the series in 1979 to 15th in 1980.
But then a bounce back in 1981, when Sheene rode his Yamaha to three podiums, including a victory -his last – in the final round of the year in Anderstorp, Sweden.
Then it got even better early in 1982. Sheene was on the podium at all but a single race throughout the first half of the season. He was once again in the thick of the championship chase. Then came the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. In an open practice session on Wednesday before the GP, Sheene came over the rise Abbey Curve at an estimated 160 mph only to suddenly see a crashed bike lying on the track directly in his path. With no time to react, Sheene hit the machine at full song. Sheene was lucky to escape the crash with his life, but his massive injuries, which included two broken tibias, seemed destined to retire him. The orthopedic surgeon who operated on Sheene said it was the most complicated procedure he had ever performed.
By then Sheene was almost 32 and could have easily been excused if he chose to walk away from the sport. But Sheene once again defied the odds and came back to racing in 1983. While it was an amazing that he even made it back to racing, the old speed Sheene displayed for most of his career was missing. In ’83 he struggled to finish inside the top 10. It was tough for his legion of fans to watch.
When Sheene announced he’d race again in 1984, there was not much excitement. It seemed the GP world had moved on to a newer generation of riders like Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson and a promising young Brit named Ron Haslam.
The opening round of the 1984 was at South Africa’s Kyalami circuit. Defending world champ Spencer was the overwhelming favorite to defend his title in ’84, but in practice a rear wheel on his factory Honda collapsed and Spencer was out with torn ligaments. Sheene was back home with Suzuki.
But then on race day the skies opened up and the riders faced racing in heavy rain. Sheene was in his element and worked his way up to third by the end of the race behind winner Eddie Lawson and runner up Raymond Roche. Sheene claimed he should have finished second, saying he thought Roche was a lap down.
“I could have made up the gap. I thought Roche was a backmarker. He was going so slow on the last lap. I think I could have passed him.” Sheene said after finishing just 3-10ths of a second behind Roche.
Respected motorcycle journalist Alan Cathcart clearly recalls Sheene’s South African performance.
“Barry’s Kyalami rostrum finish in the first round of what would prove to be his final 500GP season was a hopeful sign of things to come for those of us who’d marveled at his grit and courage to come back from the second of his two potentially career-ending crashes,” Cathcart said. “He’d qualified seventh on what was a horsepower track riding what was a slower semi-works machine, before the wet race conditions equalized everything out. It was as much as anything simply a question of relief mixed with awe for the millions of Sheene fans that in spite of all those broken bones, he still had what it took to run up front. Bazza was back where he belonged!
“Barry’s solitary Heron Suzuki used a Harris frame wrapped round year-old Suzuki works motors – though this did at least allow him to have a chassis that steered and handled exactly as he wanted, rather than have to put up with factory frames designed and developed by someone else.
“But ultimately Kyalami 1984 was Barry’s last rostrum visit, and his sixth-place finish in the final points table was an honorable way to bow out of racing modern motorbikes. A future career as the undisputed ace of Historic racing worldwide on a Manx Norton awaited him!”
While his last year in GP racing didn’t necessarily provide a storybook ending, for one rainy weekend in South Africa, the veteran Sheene proved that, given the right moment, he still had the speed of the best in the business.