Celebrating 40 years of the British MotoGP: 1977 to 1979

Stuart Barker
By Stuart Barker
Editor of the official TT programme and Classic TT programme and author of 'TT Century: 100 Years of the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy.' He has also written biographies of Barry Sheene, Steve Hislop, Niall Mackenzie, David Jefferies and Evel Knievel.

 

The British Grand Prix celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, so we've chosen 40 unforgettable moments and events from the last four decades of Britain's biggest motorcycle race. Sadly, no British rider has ever won the premier class at the British Grand Prix but several have come agonisingly close. And Brit riders have won the other classes so there's plenty to celebrate.

Here are the top ten moments from 1977 to 1979…

 

First-British-Grand-Prix-Programme

 

The First British Grand Prix (1977)

Since the inaugural Grand Prix world championships were staged in 1949, the Senior TT had counted as the British round of the championship so there was no 'British Grand Prix' as such. Following boycotts of the TT by top riders including Giacomo Agostini, Phil Read and Barry Sheene on safety grounds, the event was eventually stripped of its world championship status in 1977, and the British round was moved to the former airfield circuit of Silverstone in Northamptonshire. The British Grand Prix was born and it was first held on August 14, 1977. John Williams was the only Brit to take a podium that day, after securing a fine third place in the 350cc race.

 

Steve-Parrish

 

Parrish Throws it Away (1977)

Steve Parrish was leading the very first British Grand Prix coming into the last lap, until his mate Barry Sheene - who had retired from the race - held out a joke pit board. “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” Parrish says. “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! 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 Pat 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.”

 

Sheene-1977

 

First Blood to Sheene (1977)

The first ever pole position at the first ever British Grand Prix was taken by a Brit. The great Barry Sheene had already wrapped up his second consecutive world title but badly wanted to win the inaugural British GP and started the race from pole. It wasn't to be though - his Suzuki RG500 broke down and ended his chances,

 

Tom-Herron

 

Herron Takes Two (1978)

Irish star Tom Herron is still the only home-grown rider to take two podiums in the same day at the British Grand Prix. He was second in both the 250cc and 350cc races in 1978 - enough to convince Texaco Heron Suzuki to sign him up as Barry Sheene's team-mate in the 500cc class for 1979. Sadly, he was killed at the North West 200 that year so we never got to see the full potential of one of Ireland's greatest ever racers.

 

Steve-Manship

 

Manship Splits Sheene and Roberts (1978)

No-one actually knows for sure who won the 1978 British Grand Prix. Heavy rain caused such confusion with tyre changes that the organisers completely lost track of who was where in the race! After much arguing and debate, Kenny Roberts was eventually declared the winner with Barry Sheene third (both had come into the pits to change to wet tyres). Meanwhile British privateer Steve Manship stayed out on the same tyres and was credited with a brilliant second place, between two all-time legends.

 

Mick-Grant

 

Grant Bags a Third (1978)

Although he did win a British round of the world championship when he took victory in the 500cc class in 1975, it was at the Isle of Man TT and not the British Grand Prix. The TT counted as the British round of the world championships until 1977 but most of the top GP riders had already boycotted the event by the early Seventies. Grant's best result at British Grand Prix was therefore his third place in the 1978 350cc race at Silverstone, riding a Kawasaki.

 

Clive-Horton

 

Horton's Home Run (1978)

British privateer Clive Horton scored his one and only Grand Prix podium at the British round at Silverstone in 1978. He took a superb second place on his Morbidelli in the 125cc race behind the legendary Angel Nieto, who sadly lost his life in a road traffic accident in Ibiza on August 3.

 

Honda-NR500

 

Honda NR500 Debut (1979)

At a time when 500cc Grand Prix was dominated by two-strokes, Honda bucked the trend with its revolutionary new four-stroke dubbed the NR500. Because most of his road bikes used four-stroke engines, Soichiro Honda believed his company should be racing them too, but the NR500 was nothing short of a disaster. It featured oval cylinders with 32 valves and eight spark plugs, a monocoque body to reduce weight, and 16-inch rather than 18-inch wheels to lower the centre of gravity, but it was all in vain. The NR500 made its debut at the British Grand Prix in the hands of Mick Grant and Takazumi Katayama but Grant got no further than the first corner before crashing out due to an oil leak and Katayama retired on lap seven with ignition problems while in second-last place.

 

Silver_Dream_Racer_FilmPoster

 

Silver Dream Racer (1979)

In order to get authentic footage for the David Essex movie, Silver Dream Racer, the producers actually entered their movie bike in the British Grand Prix! The bike was a 500cc British-built Barton Phoenix and it was ridden by multiple British champion Roger Marshal, who did most of the riding for Essex in the film. “The producer – who lived in a bit of a film dream world – thought I could actually beat Barry Sheene and Kenny Roberts on it!” Marshal laughs. “He was distraught when I told him I'd be lucky to even qualify. In the end we slipped a 750cc engine into the bike, which helped me qualify about 16th. I was in the points in the race until the bike developed a fuel leak so I pulled over and explained to the marshals that we really needed to get a shot of me crossing the finish line pretending I'd won the race. They waited for the last lap then flagged me out on track in between groups of riders and we got the shot we needed. You certainly couldn't do that now!'

 

Sheene-vs-Roberts-1979

 

Sheene vs Roberts (1979)

The 1979 battle between Barry Sheene and Kenny Roberts at the British GP is still talked about as one of the greatest races ever seen – and the one in which Sheene famously gave Roberts the fingers after passing him! Roberts had already taken the 500cc world title away from 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 and me were the two fastest guys on the racetrack” Roberts said in 2002. “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.”

By the start of the last lap, Sheene appeared to have lost any hope of a home win thanks to back-marker George Fogarty (father of Carl), who unwittingly got in the way of Sheene, and a 10-yard deficit to Roberts 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 further 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.’

 

For more great racing moments, click here

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