Barry Sheene: Not best but best-liked

 

Barry Sheene, who has died of cancer aged 52, was not his generation's most successful motorcycle racer in term of statisics - but he was its most famous by a huge margin. His popularity transcended a sport whose mainstream media coverage in the 1970s was, at best, sporadic and shallow.

Proud of his "Jack the Lad" image, he became a true household name - and face. There was Sheene smoking through a hole drilled in the front of his helmet; Sheene grinning widely as a leggy model caressed his long hair; Sheene promoting Brut aftershave on television; and Sheene the chat-show host. Compared with the rest of the bike or car racing world, "Bazza" was, in mass media terms, solid gold.

He was articulate, witty and confident, and made the maximum use of his cockney accent and working-class origins.

Away from the track, television was his natural environment, and it was a TV documentary that gave him worldwide celebrity status. A film crew was following his preparation for the 1975 world championship and, as a precursor to the grand prix season, he had been contracted to ride a 750cc TR750 Suzuki at Daytona, in the US. These powerful, three-cylinder bikes achieved speeds in excess of 175 mph at the Daytona Speed Bowl, which put tremendous loadings on the tyres. Technically, they were operating in unknown territory, and they demanded courage and faith on the part of their riders.

On a qualifying lap, Sheene's rear tyre exploded, and the camera tracked the sickening crash that followed.

The accident looked certain to be fatal, and the pictures went worldwide. But two days later, there was Sheene again, this time joking with fellow racer Gene Romero at his bedside, admiring the x-rays of the pin that kept his thigh together. Six weeks on, he was racing and winning again.

Although born into a London motorcycle racing family, Sheene's success did not come easily. He left school at 15, having not excelled academically. In his own words, "The only subject I was top in was absenteeism." But he was obsessed with racing, and would do anything to fund his ambitions. Among many other things, he was a van driver - with a reputation for spectacularly fast deliveries - a car park attendant and a labourer, often simultaneously.

His breakthrough came in 1970, when, backed by his father Frank, he bought a three-year-old, 125cc ex-works Suzuki. Success brought his name to the attention of Suzuki GB, who had become, de facto, the factory Suzuki team, and, in 1972, he raced their fragile but fast, air-cooled TR500.

It didn't handle, so Sheene re-housed the roadster-derived engine in a British-built Seely chassis, and his committed style, and flamboyant paddock presence, started to bring him to the notice of the general media. In 1973, he was offered a three-cylinder TR750 Suzuki - another difficult bike to master.

Sheene repaid Suzuki's faith by winning the 1973 formula 750 world championship, but the 750s were only a distraction from his real aim of winning the 500cc world championship, the pinnacle of motorcycle sport. What he needed was a competitive bike, and it was to arrive in the form of the legendary, four-cylinder Suzuki RG500.

He won only two 500cc world championships but, for the rest of the decade, the sports pages were dominated by his picture; he was, quite simply, glamour on or off two wheels.

At the end of the 1979 season, Sheene left Suzuki. At first, he rode privately owned Yamahas, but was soon being given works bikes.

Then, at the 1982 British Grand Prix, he came upon an existing accident at 160 mph, without, he claimed, adequate warning flags being shown. He crashed, and again suffered massive injuries. This time, he successfully sued the race organisers but, although he raced again, he was unable to regain his old form.

He retired in 1984, and, to ease the pain of the arthritis caused by his many injuries, emigrated to Australia, built houses for himself and his father, and became a TV pundit and successful property developer.

In 2000, he rode a classic Manx Norton in prestige races all over the world, winning with the same cheeky grin that had melted the hearts of teenage girls 30 years before. He was made an MBE in 1978, and is survived by his wife Stephanie, and their son and daughter.

Barry Sheene, motorcycle racer, born July 12 1950; died March 10 2003