The arrival of Kenny Roberts on the Grand Prix scene

Posted: 01 Jan 2014

Barry Sheene was the sporting hero.  The sponsors dream, he could do nothing wrong and heading into the 1978 500cc Grand Prix action the whole of the country was expecting this ever smiling, cigarette smoking, playboy extra-ordinaire to complete a hat-trick of world crowns at the elite level.

But for Suzuki’s hot-shot there was to be a new challenge – well, new in terms of the World Championship, although Sheene had crossed swords with Kenny Roberts in Trans-Atlantic Challenge action in earlier years with the Californian showing there the speed and style, learned in part on the dirt-tracks, that made him an AMA champion back home.

Roberts arrived in Europe for a full time tilt at the crown.   Sheene dismissed his challenge, but was later to regret his flippant comment as he came under fire on the track.  Roberts had Yamaha behind him, had Goodyear tyre company backing and Kel Carruthers as his team boss and mentor. It was to prove a formidable package.

Sheene was keen to strike an early psychological blow and he did just that in Venezuela, winning the opening round of the campaign while Roberts, the winner earlier in the day of the 250cc Grand Prix, was sidelined by a machine problem.  Sheene’s joy was tempered somewhat by a nasty virus picked up on that South American jaunt.

The reigning champion was on the back-foot as the action switched to Spain where at Jarama Roberts struck early and fast taking his first pole start though in the race he was out-run by fellow American Pat Hennen while Sheene was back in fifth place.  On to Salzburgring in Austria and Roberts topped the results sheet as he did again in the next two races at Nogaro in France and the Nations race at Mugello.

Roberts was taking charge, with Sheene battling for points with two thirds and a fifth in those three races and he was keen to take the fight to his American rival with hard riding performances at Assen and then Spa-Francorchamps but each time Roberts had the edge, running second just ahead of him.

But for Roberts there was pain at Karlskoga as he crashed in qualifying for the 250cc race, suffering concussion and a thumb injury.  He battled against that but could only manage seventh place as Sheene won.  The tables were turning?  But, neither finished the Finnish round at Imatra to set up a fascinating confrontation at Silverstone in the British Grand Prix.

Typically, the rain lashed down. Riders pitted to change tyres, confusion reigned.  Local rider Steve Manship splashed on regardless, not stopping, and as the flag came out many believed that he had won. But the race officials controversially awarded the race to Roberts ahead of Manship with Sheene in third place.

The decisive action was over the long 14.189miles Nurburgring with Roberts taking third, a couple of seconds ahead of fourth placed Sheene.  Roberts took the crown 110-100 over Sheene to become the first American rider to win the World 500cc Championship, and that in a campaign in which he had also finished fourth overall in the 250cc Championship.

Roberts had arrived as a force to be reckoned with as he showed in subsequent seasons, completing a hat-trick of 500cc title in 1979 and 1980.

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