Barry Sheene: A Long Way To The Top

From our 2016 archive

Jan and Hetty Burgers lived the gypsy life, travelling with the Continental Circus during the 1970s and recording some great images of just what it was like to live that exciting lifestyle. In the first in a regular series they remember how hard it was for a young Barry Sheene to make his mark on the world championship.

Start of the 1972 King of Brands 500cc qualifying race. 21 Pat Mahoney, 354 Yamsel, 27 Dave Croxford, 498 Kawasaki, and 23 Barry Sheene, 354 Yamaha.

At the end of the 1971 season it might have looked easy for Barry Sheene to become a world champion in motorcycle racing. That year he scored the most points in the 125cc class, on his fast ex-works Suzuki. However, due to a rather strange point scoring system, the best six of 11 races counted, and it was his rival Angel Nieto who grabbed the title.

Yamaha had spotted the talented rider and offered Barry a contract for the 1972 season. What the world didn’t know was the fact that in Japan the engineers were developing a four cylinder 500cc bike.


The 1972 Yamaha team consisted of five riders, and three of them had their own mechanics. These combinations were Rodney Gould-Vince French, Barry Sheene-Nobby Clark and Chas Mortimer-Ferry Brouwer. Jarno Saarinen and Kent Andersson preferred to do the bike work themselves as they were skilled mechanics too.

The machines were entered for the races by several Yamaha importers from all over Europe such as Danfay Ireland, Arwidson Finland and Hostettler Switzerland.

Barry Sheene was racing the water-cooled 250 YZ635 and the air-cooled 350 TR3 in the Grands Prix. During the national events he raced air-cooled 250 and a 354 Yamahas. During the early races of the season in Britain Barry scored some remarkable results.


The first official outing and win on the 250 was over Easter at Mallory Park. He crashed the 354 Yamaha when he touched Barry Randle approaching the hairpin. That same weekend Barry became King of Brands by winning the 250 and the 500cc races. Barry Sheene was ready for the GPs. However, during track testing the GP bikes at Le Mans, in France, the 250 machine brought its rider crashing to earth when it seized. That was the beginning of a very disappointing Grand Prix season.

During the first round at the Nürburgring, in Germany, the 250 seized again during the fourth lap and the 350 bike’s ignition broke on the fourth lap of that race also. That day Japanese Hideo Kanaya won the 250 Grand Prix on an air-cooled TD3 and Jarno Saarinen beat Giacomo Agostini on the mighty MV in the 350 class on water-cooled YZ634.

Barry Sheene suffered from dizziness all weekend at the French round and did only a few laps as he felt too sick to race. At the third round at Salzburg in Austria he scored his first points finishing fourth on the 250 behind Börje Jansson on a Derbi and Jarno Saarinen and John Dodds both on Yamahas. At the time Saarinen and Dodds were still racing air-cooled machines.


The fourth round at Imola Italy was a disaster for Barry. He crashed when the engine seized in practice on the 250, breaking his left collar bone. It took a long time before the badly broken bone allowed Barry to try to race again. Meanwhile his special water-cooled YZ635 was given to Jarno Saarinen who won four GPs on that bike and became the 1972 world champion.

The GP in Anderstorp was too early for Sheene to make a comeback. He retired in both races due to heavy pain in his shoulder. A week later at the Finnish round in Imatra the rear brake lever of the 250 broke during the third lap and he retired in the 350 with gearbox trouble.

Almost two months later, during the Spanish round at Montjuic in Barcelona, he scored a third place behind Renzo Pasolini on the Aermacchi and the Finn Teuvo Länsivuori on a Yamaha. In the 350 he retired due to a broken top hose union.


Two results and only 18 points from the season. Still a long way to go to the top…


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