Celebrating 40 years of the British MotoGP: 1981 to 1989

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 1981 to 1989…

 

Keith-Huewen-1981

 

Huewen's Runner-Up (1981)

He may be best known for his BT Sport commentary on MotoGP but Keith Huewen was no slouch as a racer, as he proved by taking a fine second place in the 350cc British GP in 1981. “I didn't know from my pit board but I was fairly sure that Anton Mang was in front of me because I'd seen him getting away from me earlier in the race – although, to be fair, he might have broken down or crashed out” Huewen explains. “I suppose that race is the one I'm most proud of – I mean, you can't get much better than finishing on the podium at your home Grand Prix. But I don't consider it my best race. Racing is all about results so I'd take more pride from winning a club race than I would for finishing second in a Grand Prix!”

Graeme-Crosby

 

Crosby Inflames the Crowd (1981)

There were high hopes that Barry Sheene could finally win the British Grand Prix aboard his Akai Yamaha in 1981 but he was taken out of the race by crashing Kiwi Graeme Crosby on lap four. “It started as a small incident but turned into a national issue as I was blamed for ending Barry’s chances of winning the world championship” Crosby said. “I was definitely branded the bad boy by the media.”

 

Sheene-crash-1982

 

Sheene's Biggest Crash (1982)

Barry Sheene had the worst crash of his career at the British GP at Silverstone in 1982, colliding with a fallen bike in practice at 160mph and completely shattering both knees. Keith Huewen was one of the first on the scene. “When I came through the smoke there was complete carnage with bodies and bits of shattered bikes lying around everywhere amongst all the flames and smoke” he says. “It looked like there had been a plane crash. I slowed down and noticed Barry lying there and his body was actually smoking. In my mind there was no question that Sheene was dead. I had seen hundreds of crashes but never anything as bad as that. I was actually shaking as I rode back to the pits.”

Sheene's surgeon, Nigel Cobb, said “The leg injuries were very severe, probably among the most serious fractures that one can have. It is almost as if the upper quarter of each tibia had simply exploded. When the leg was opened up, the muscles and bones just fell apart and we were left with this jigsaw puzzle to sort out.”

As usual, Sheene made light of it. “I did whack my lusting tackle on the tank extremely hard. That really hurt! I think a lot of the credit has to go to Nigel Cobb - without him I’d have been totally legless! I didn’t consider myself as brave. All I had to do was to get the legs mended as quickly as possible and get back on a bike. What’s brave about that?”

 

Sheene-1983

 

Sheene's Comeback (1983)

After suffering injuries at the 1982 British Grand Prix that would have ended most riders' careers, Barry Sheene reminded us all why we loved him so much by returning in 1983. He rode a privateer Suzuki RG500 to ninth place and brought the house down as he crossed the finish line and proved that Silverstone could not break him.

 

Ron-Haslam-1984

 

Haslam's Best British (1984)

A nine-time podium finisher in 500cc Grand Prix on vicious fire-breathing two-strokes, the British biking institution that is Ron Haslam sadly never quite managed to win a race. The closest he would come to a home win was third place in the 1984 GP at Silverstone on his factory Honda, behind winner Eddie Lawson and runner-up Randy Mamola. Barry Sheene came home in a fighting fifth place in what would prove to be his last British Grand Prix. He retired at the end of the 1984 season.

 

Andy-Watts-1984

 

Andy Watts' Brilliant Second (1984)

British privateer Andy Watts had the home crowd on its feet at Silverstone in 1985 when he took an unexpected second place in the hotly-contested 250cc class. Riding a Rotax-powered EMC machine, he thrilled the Silverstone crowd by leading into the first corner and continued in the leading group right through the race. Watts was lining up Christian Sarron for a pass into the final corner but the experienced Frenchman defensively used up every inch of the track and allowed no way through. A close second was still a remarkable achievement for a privateer.

 

Alan-Carter-1985

 

Carter Comes Close (1985)

Yorkshire wild child Alan Carter had become the youngest rider ever to win a Grand Prix when he took victory in the 250cc race in France in 1983, aged 18 years and 277 days. He looked like he was about to finally repeat the feat at a soaking wet British Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1985 when he led the race comfortably at half distance before crashing out. He remounted to finish seventh. He was lying second in 1986 before crashing out again, this time punching a marshal as he fought to get his bike back on track! He never won another GP.

 

Ian-McConnachie--Krauser

 

McConnachie is First British Winner (1986)

The honour of being the first British rider to win a British Grand Prix went to Ian McConnachie in 1986 when he won the now defunct 80cc class on his Krauser. It would prove to be the Derbyshire rider's only GP victory but he finished sixth in the world championship that year, one place ahead of the legendary Angel Nieto. The title was won by Jorge 'Aspar' Martinez. McConnacie rounded out his career back in the UK, racing 125cc, 250cc GP bikes and 400cc Superpsort bikes with some success.

 

Donington-1987

 

The Move to Donington (1987)

After ten years of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, it was all change in 1987 when the biggest motorcycle race in the UK moved to Donington Park in the Midlands. The move proved to be a big hit with fans as the circuit is more spectator-friendly with its grass bankings and undulating nature. The riders loved it too and soon voted it the best round of the season. The honour of winning the first British GP to be held at Donington went to Eddie Lawson on his Yamaha.

 

Mackenzie

 

Mackenzie Leads the World (1989)

Home-grown hero Niall Mackenzie set Donington on fire when he led the British GP in 1989, ahead of some all-time legends. “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,” he says. “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!”

 

For more great racing moments, click here.

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