The closest we came

Wil Hartog,  Barry Sheene and Kenny Roberts - Silverstone 1979

When Cal Crutchlow won the Czech Grand Prix just over a week ago, he ended 35 years of British hurt in the premier Grand Prix class. But despite a number of top riders coming close, no British rider has won the ultimate race on their home soil. So, as the championship heads to Silverstone for the 40th running of the British Grand Prix, we take a look at some of the nearest misses from our home heroes.

Steve Parrish

Stavros chucks it away

1977 British Grand Prix, Silverstone, August 14

Barry Sheene had already wrapped up his second consecutive 500cc world championship title by the time the British Grand Prix came around in 1977 and he was odds-on favourite to win the race in front of 60,000 home fans. But after he retired with a broken head gasket midway through, it fell to his Texaco Heron Suzuki team-mate, and best mate, Steve Parrish, to go for glory. Parrish takes up the story:

"It was handy when Sheene went out of the race at about half distance. I was actually in front of him at the time but he probably would have passed me anyway. So I was having a great race battling it out with Wil Hartog, Pat Hennen, and John Williams. We were all dicking around and tripping over each other but then I made a bit of a break and got away and was just counting the laps down to the finish, supremely confident that the win was mine.

"When I came across the line to start the last lap, there was Mr Sheene with his leathers tied around his waist and with his Gary Nixon T-shirt on holding my pit board out. He had chalked 'Gas it w*nker!' on it. I found out later that I had a lead of about 2.8 seconds - the race was a done deal - but I gassed it thinking someone was catching me and I promptly fell off at the very next corner.

"In my defence, it had actually starting raining slightly. Just a slight drizzle but I think it was enough to make me crash. John Williams inherited the lead after I crashed and he in turn had a two second lead over Pat Hennen but John crashed out at the next corner after me so I think there was definitely a bit of rain about. To Barry, hanging out that pit board was just a bit of fun. He thought 'Christ, Stavros can't lose this now. He could push the thing round now and still win' but I wasn't laughing as I was lying on my arse. I thought 'What have I done?' and was hoping I'd wake up any minute and find it was all just a bad dream.

"Barry was really pissed off because Hennen won the race and he didn't like him. Suzuki was pissed off too because I had thrown away a certain win so they sacked me and kept Pat in the team which didn't please Barry either. It also cost me third place in the world championship so it was a bad day all round. But I didn't blame Barry for making me crash, it was my own fault."

What happened next? Parrish switched to racing trucks in the 1980s, becoming a multiple British and European champion. He also managed Yamaha’s British Superbike team before becoming better known as a TV commentator and one of the country’s most entertaining after dinner speakers and hosts.

Sheene vs Roberts

1979 British Grand Prix, Silverstone, August 12

Kenny Roberts had already taken the 500cc world title away from his arch rival Barry Sheene in 1978 and Sheene was desperate for revenge – and equally desperate to finally win his home GP. The pair were so evenly matched at Silverstone that their duel became one of the all-time GP classics and is still considered to be the best British bike GP of all time. Sheene never did win his home race but, as he himself said after his epic duel with Roberts, 'It couldn't have come much closer I suppose.'

Speaking in 2002, Kenny Roberts said that "Sheene and me were the two fastest guys on the racetrack. 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 and I’d never seen anyone else do it at that time. And if I could do it one time I would get ten bike lengths on anyone I was racing. That was the only sort of plan I had."

Sheene had his own plan, of sorts, as he also recalled in a 2002 interview. "It was always going to be a last lap job. My plan was always to get him into Woodcote on the last lap. I was going to pass him on the brakes and I knew I was quicker going around Woodcote."

Dutch rider Wil Hartog had been the early race leader, with Sheene and Roberts in close attendance (top picture), but dropped off after a few laps. As Sheene and Roberts passed and re-passed the other without actually breaking away, it became a high speed game of cat and mouse with the only visible advantage being the superior speed of Roberts’ Yamaha down the super-fast Hangar straight. At one point, as Sheene passed Roberts, he stuck two fingers up at him behind his back, famously inciting commentator Murray Walker to shout ‘Sheene’s waving at Kenny Roberts.’

It wasn’t exactly waving but the gesture did show the friendly rivalry between the two supposedly sworn enemies and it was a real indication of how much the pair were enjoying the race.

By the start of the last lap, Sheene appeared to have lost any hope of an elusive home win thanks to backmarker George Fogarty (father of Carl). Fogarty unwittingly got in the way of Sheene and a 10-yard deficit suddenly became a 200-yard disadvantage. It looked like the race was over. But showing an uncanny speed and determination, Sheene made up all but 0.03 seconds of the time he’d lost on Roberts and so very nearly slipped past him on the line, as he’d planned all along. Had the finish line been a few yards farther along the track, it could have been a victory for Sheene but as it was no-one felt cheated. They had witnessed one of the greatest races ever and surely Sheene’s finest, even though he didn’t win. 

Both riders were visibly jubilant as they took their helmets off, with Sheene declaring on the podium that ‘It’s good to race with Kenny. He always gives me lots of room and I always give him lots of room. That’s the way to race.’

What happened next? Sheene’s career went on the decline after the 1979 season, due to a combination of horrific injuries and substandard machinery. After a brief foray into car racing and a stint as a primetime TV host on ITV’s Just Amazing! he emigrated to Australia and built up a successful career as a property developer and a no-nonsense commentator for Australian TV. Sadly died of cancer, aged 52, in 2003.

Niall Mackenzie

Mackenzie leads the world

1989 British Grand Prix, Donington Park, August 6

By then in it's third year at Donington Park, the British Grand Prix grid was a hotbed of extreme talent in 1989 with all-time greats like Kevin Schwantz, Wayne Rainey, Wayne Gardner and Eddie Lawson  all lined up on some of the fiercest 500s ever built. Starting from the second row of the grid was a quiet Scotsman by the name of Niall Mackenzie. He was well-armed with a factory Marlboro Yamaha YZR500 but had never won a Grand Prix and few expected him to open his account on this day against the all-conquering Americans and Australians. This is his take on how things went:

"I got away in sixth place and lost some time trying to get past Wayne Gardner, which meant the leaders were well ahead of me. But I kept my head down and on lap five I overtook Christian Sarron at the end of the main straight. At the start of lap six I passed Eddie Lawson at Redgate Corner and then got past Wayne Rainey as well. Things were looking good.

"Then I dived inside Schwantz at Redgate and there I was - leading my home Grand Prix! The bike was working well and I didn’t feel I had to try too hard to get past everyone so there seemed no reason why I couldn’t clear off and win it. But there was a reason - my front tyre went off. It was working brilliantly early on but started to slide once I was in the lead and I just couldn’t flick the bike around like before. Schwantz came back past me, as did Lawson and Rainey, and in the end I finished fourth. It was still a good result at home but a podium would have been nice and a win even better!

"Watching that race on TV now I can see the crowd was going mental but I wasn’t really aware of that at the time because I was concentrating so much. It was a great weekend all the same and I was dragged up onto the winner’s rostrum to celebrate with Rainey, Lawson and Schwantz anyway. Even now I get people coming up to me saying they’re still hoarse from cheering me on that day!'

What happened next? Niall took his final GP podium at the 1993 British Grand Prix, riding the privately entered Valvoline ROC Yamaha. Moving to British Superbikes in 1996, he won three back-to-back titles before retiring at the end of the 2000 season. He remains a popular figure in the British motorcycling scene, as a trackway instructor, brand ambassador and TV commentator. His sons Tarran and Taylor are also carving out successful racing careers and are both in contention to win British championships this year.

McWilliams leads Rossi

McWilliams’ miracle

2000 British Grand Prix, Donington Park, July 9

To find the last time a home rider stood on a premier class podium at the British Grand Prix, you’ll need to go back 16 years and the turn of the millenium, when Jeremy McWilliams came within a second of winning at a wet Donington Park.

In the same week that the legendary Joey Dunlop was killed in a race in Estonia, fellow Ulsterman Jeremy McWilliams performed miracles on his Aprilia to take third place behind Valentino Rossi (who was taking his first ever win in the premier class) and eventual champion Kenny Roberts Junior. Riding the nimble but underpowered V-twin against the mighty factory V4s, McWilliams had been leading with just a handful of laps to go, however as the track dried out, the extra power of the V4s began to tell. Jezza still crossed the line an impressive and emotional third place, dedicating his result to Dunlop and receiving his trophy from none other than Sheene.

You can see the race on MotoGP's excellent YouTube channel, below.

What happened next? McWilliams was already a veteran at the age of 36 when he took his podium but, even so, he continues to race today. In 2001 he went on to win the Dutch 250cc Grand Prix and took pole position at the 2002 MotoGP race at Phillip Island, the last ever pole position for a 500cc two-stroke. He finished as a full-time MotoGP rider at the end of the 2005 season but continued to make sporadic appearances as a substitute rider. In 2014, at the age of 50, he wild carded the novel monocoque design Bennetts Brough Superior at the British GP, and today he is much in demand as a development rider for KTM’s road bikes, a film stunt rider and riding coach. He also continues to find time to compete, participating in the National Superstock 1000 championship.

Scott Redding

Hey, at least we've won other classes!

Despite the lack of success for British riders in the premier class, Britain has enjoyed success in the support classes in recent years thanks to the brilliant efforts of Scott Redding and Danny Kent.

A baby-faced Redding became the youngest ever rider to win a GP when he stormed the 125cc race at Donington in 2008 (right). He was just 15 years and 170 days old. Redding went on to win the Moto2 race at Silverstone in 2013 and if conditions are in his favour, there's every chance the Gloucestershire rider could make it a hat-trick by winning the MotoGP race.

Last year also saw Kent win the Moto 3 race, en route to becoming Britain’s first Grand Prix world champion since Sheene in 1977. This year he's racing in the Moto 2 class.


Words: Stuart Barker
Pictures: Gold and Goose