An all-time classic: Sheene vs Roberts 40 years on

In 1979 Silverstone hosted a breathtaking battle between two 500cc greats - Barry Sheene and Kenny Roberts

The 2019 GoPro British Grand Prix begins this weekend as the paddock, fans and riders gear up for hopefully a classic race on Sunday – just like we witnessed 40 years ago in 1979 at the fearsome Silverstone circuit.

Home hero Barry Sheene vs ‘King’ Kenny Robers. UK vs USA, two-time 500cc World Champion vs the reigning World Champion – who was about to add another to his name. Silverstone, just like it remains today, was a frighteningly fast race track. Millions of British television viewers, thanks to the BBC showing the race live that day, had tuned into watch a motorcycle Grand Prix that will never be forgotten. Two premier class greats ripping around the famous Woodcote right-hander at 200km/h onto the start-finish straight was enough to leave TV onlookers, the packed grandstands and just about everyone who watched that day spellbound.

For 27 laps, Sheene and Roberts were relentless. The Briton didn’t really have a chance of claiming the title that year, so beating Roberts in front of his home crowd was his only motive. Heading onto the final lap though, the pair encountered back-markers. Roberts rounded them with relative ease, but Sheene couldn’t follow suit and was held up as he attempted to take the outside route. However, the double Champion would go onto produce one of the laps of his life to reel in his nemesis and as they came into Woodcote, mere metres separated Sheene from Roberts. The number 7 Suzuki had the momentum but with Roberts placing his Yamaha towards the outside of the circuit, there was nowhere for Sheene to go. Lucky to avoid the grass, Sheene lost his home Grand Prix by a slender 0.030 of a second.

“Well, I remember doing a wheelie down the front straight of the warmup lap and the wheelie was too long and it blocked the oil pressure, and it popped the oil seal out,” says Roberts, remembering the events of Sunday, August 12th, 1979. “So oil was all over my bike, and I went into the right-hander and almost fell down and went, “Wow, something’s wrong,” and I saw it and I raced back to the start line.

“And I remember even Giacomo Agostini had a rag and was wiping oil off me and off the bike. Kel Caruthers had a screwdriver and he was putting the seal back in. He said, “I don’t know if it’s going to stay in or not so you’ve got to be careful.” How are you going to be careful? I can’t see the oil, so just be careful, how am I going to be careful? So I ended up being careful, and then working my way up, passing everybody, there’s Sheene. And Wil Hartog was in there and a French guy, I forget who it was. We’re all just racing around, all of a sudden it’s me and Sheene.

“Well I’m not going to let him beat me. Certainly in Britain, he doesn’t want to lose in Britain. And we raced and it got to the point where I knew that I couldn’t beat him outright. I tried to get away, no way. And he knew the same thing. But when he would lead, he would slow down a little bit, and then the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, would catch up. So I was going, “Get going! What are you doing?” So then he would go by and that’s when he started doing the V sign. And I was doing this (a certain hand gesture).

“And of course camerawork in that day wasn’t as good as it is now but they did get him doing the V in the back. And I shot underneath him and passed him going into turn one. And we just knew it was going to come down to the last lap, last corner, and it did. Luckily, I thought I had an advantage the corner before the last corner and I was able to put a couple of bike lengths ahead of him. I knew he was going to come but I knew he wasn’t going to get me on the inside.

“Barry was a very safe guy. He didn’t do any dirty tricks. If he was going to go around me, he’s got to go around me, the outside. And I covered the inside, shot the mid-corner and I could see the curb and that’s where I aimed the motorcycle and gassed it. And I know he was aiming for that curb too and that’s where we met, right at that curb and he shot off into the grass and I won the race. It could have gone either way. It would have been great for him, had he won it, but that would have been a real difficult job, to beat me to the start/finish line.”

Two MotoGP™ Legends treated us to an all-time classic. 40 years on, can a newly-surfaced Silverstone deliver again?

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