Barry Sheene was not academic, and left school at the age of fifteen without any qualifications. He was steeped in the culture of motorcycle racing from an early age. At the Royal College of Surgeons his father, a former motorcycle racer himself, had the use of a workshop, in which he exercised his considerable skills as a motorcycle tuner. Through his father Sheene became accustomed to the racing life while still a young teenager. At the age of seventeen he test rode his father’s machines. His natural talent for high speed riding was immediately obvious, and racing became inevitable. He was soon winning races.
In 1970 Sheene bought at great expense an ex-works Suzuki 125 machine on which, as a private entrant racing against works teams, he came a close second in the 1971 125 cc world championship. In motorcycle racing ‘works’ or ‘factory’ bikes are owned, run, and continuously developed by their manufacturers, usually large corporations. Works bikes tend to be very much better than privately entered bikes, and generally the most talented riders are employed to ride them. The difference between works bikes and privateer bikes was significant to Sheene’s career. In 1972 he became a works rider for Yamaha in the 250 cc and 350 cc classes. It was a disappointing year. In 1973 he became a works rider for Suzuki. That year he won the world F750 championship.
Sheene made himself famous far beyond the confines of motorcycle racing. He was before his time in seeing and taking the benefits of celebrity. A spectacular accident in 1975 at the Daytona Speedway in Florida played a significant part in his fame. He suffered serious injuries in the accident, in which he was flung from his machine at about 180 m.p.h. Film of the accident was broadcast around the world. It appeared impossible that he could have survived. But six weeks after the accident Sheene returned to racing, still injured. By the end of 1977 he was twice—in consecutive years—world champion in the blue riband 500 cc class of motorcycle road racing. The accident at Daytona, and Sheene’s extraordinary will to race again, caught the public imagination. By 1977 he was internationally famous, and hugely popular. He emphasized his working-class origins and spoke with a cockney accent. He became a media personality, featuring in advertisements and making frequent television appearances.
Sheene was a serious challenger for the 500 cc world championship for several years after 1977, but he did not win it again. Opinion differed on the reasons for this. His performance in 1978 was inconsistent, which he put down to a viral illness he had contracted. By the late 1970s a wave of talented American riders had come to the 500 cc world championship. They brought new techniques to road racing derived from American dirt track racing. Some claimed that this gave them an advantage over Sheene. In 1979 Sheene’s relations with Suzuki became strained, and he rode a Yamaha for the next three seasons. The Japanese factory was slow to let him have works bikes, and when he did get them they were always a step behind the works Yamahas ridden by his great rival, the American Kenny Roberts.
In 1982 Sheene’s Yamahas were good enough to make the world championship a real possibility. But in July of that year he had another horrifying accident, at the Silverstone circuit. He rode at about 165 m.p.h. straight into a fallen machine, of which he had no warning. He nearly died. Among many other injuries, his legs were virtually severed from his body. His legs were rebuilt using metal buttresses, plates, and screws. Soon after the accident he announced that he would race again. He made a determined recovery; by November 1982 he was walking unaided. Nevertheless he never got works bikes again. The factories were sceptical that he could overcome his injuries; they underestimated him. He had some spectacular rides in 1983 and 1984 on privateer Suzukis. In 1984, on a very underpowered machine, and having lost time at the start through mechanical problems, he took a brilliant third place in the South African grand prix. It may have been his best ever ride. He struggled on through 1984, but with only ever more outdated privateer bikes available for 1985, he retired at the end of the season. By then he had become a multiple British champion. He was appointed MBE in 1978.[caption id="attachment_32" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Barry Sheene - Doing What He Did Best"][/caption]
The search for speed from bikes such as Sheene raced made their power delivery abrupt, and the bikes themselves very difficult to ride. The bikes were also prone to seizing, their engines failing and locking up, often causing the rider to crash. There was a knife edge between riding the bikes fast enough to be competitive, and riding them too fast and crashing—usually at speed. Sheene rode on the edge for years. His invariably competitive performances throughout his career put him among the greatest ever motorcycle road racers. After almost thirty years his fastest grand prix lap—in the 1977 Belgian race, at an average speed of 135 m.p.h.—had not been bettered; motorcycle circuits became slower (and safer) in the years after that.
Falling from a motorcycle at high speed is always dangerous, but during Sheene’s career many of the circuits on which he raced still lacked basic safety precautions. Riders died unnecessarily; too many others were seriously injured. Sheene was influential in improving riders’ safety. He pressed for safer circuits and for improvements to existing circuits. The Imatra circuit in Finland, based substantially on public roads, involved riders traversing a railway crossing at high speed. Sheene was vocal in his criticism of such circuits. He was concerned to improve riders’ personal protection, devising an early form of the body armour that later saved many riders from serious injury. His interest in improving conditions for riders went so far as destroying the unsanitary toilet block at the 1977 Finnish grand prix. The organizers had refused to build new ones. Sheene and others, presumably out of exuberance, poured high octane fuel into the toilets. Only Sheene had the nerve to ignite it. He expected a fire but was unprepared for the explosion which ripped the building apart. Fortunately no one was injured; improved facilities were quickly constructed.
Sheene faced real danger with cheerful optimism. That shone out particularly in a television film by the documentary film-maker Frank Cvitanovich, made at the time of the Daytona crash. In the film Sheene appeared almost to believe himself immortal, and destined for glory. His youthful self-belief was very appealing. He cultivated a playboy image for himself, which in the 1970s made him glamorous. But in reality he had his feet firmly on the ground. While he enjoyed his wealth, owning large homes, a series of expensive cars, and light aircraft, he always had a stable home life. He kept very close to his parents, and quite early in his career he formed a long-term relationship with the glamorous model Stephanie McLean, whom he married on 16 February 1984. She was the daughter of Frederick Harrison, transport manager. There were two children of the marriage.
In the late 1980s Sheene emigrated with his family to Queensland, Australia, where he was a successful television commentator and property developer. He had declared that he would not return to racing, and for many years he held to that. But in 1998 he began participating in races for classic bikes. Although the bikes were based on old designs, the racing was fast and serious. Sheene was still highly competitive, beating talented younger riders on many occasions. In 2002 he was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus and upper stomach. He refused chemotherapy or invasive surgery, instead trying a number of alternative therapies. In media interviews he made light of his illness. In September 2002, while suffering from cancer, he won the last race he rode. Among others he defeated Wayne Gardner, the 500 cc world champion in 1987. Sheene remained a brave and passionate racer to the end. He died from his illness at his home in Carrara, on the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia, on 10 March 2003. He was survived by his wife, Stephanie, and their two children.