During my time working in the MotoGP and F1 paddocks I’ve been lucky enough to meet some great people. But one man I really wish I could've met was was the late, great, Barry Sheene. As we commemorate his passing 17 years ago, I spoke to some of the people who knew him well to get a sense of who he really was. A lovable rogue, a fantastic World Champion, a perfectionist…a man gone too soon.
“Barry Sheene was a superhero,” that’s how F1 World Champion Damon Hill describes him to The Sportsman. “An adventure action hero”. Damon was an absolute motorcycle nut and used to have pictures of Barry Sheene and Giacomo Agostini on his walls as an 11-year-old.
After Hill’s father Graham passed away, a family friend (Peter Gethin) took him to his first Motorcycle meeting at Silverstone – the Transatlantic Race and it was there that Hill met Sheene for the first time. “It was unbelievable and so different to car racing. You could stand next to them while they were on their bikes. For a young guy like me it was the thrill of a lifetime. I said hello to Barry and he said, ‘alright mate’.
“Barry was very gregarious, he had a genius for giving people what they wanted. He enjoyed his life and he showed it. Everyone wanted to be part of his party.”
One man who partied hard with Barry was Suzuki teammate, Steve Parrish.
“I first met Barry in 1973 – he was at a club amateur race meeting and he judged me as the ‘Star of Tomorrow’ but I think he wanted to meet my girlfriend really,” Steve tells The Sportsman. “He was a superstar and I was just an amateur rider starting out. We got on really well from there on in.
“That was what was unique about Barry, he could talk to royalty and dustman alike. He made you feel special. He brought motorcycling to the front pages as well as the back pages.
“We had a similar sense of humour. I used to make him laugh and he liked having me around for the giggles and the fun. He achieved his success by getting on with people. He spoke fluent French so he spoke to the Michelin guys and got the best tyres and he spoke Japanese reasonably well and got on with the Japanese mechanics and got the best bikes all the time. He was the guy, when Suzuki fired me at the end of 1977, who got George Harrison to sponsor me – he got George to pay for my 1978 season.
“The world seemed a bit smaller – famous people could get out and about and do things they can’t now. I remember being in the back of Barry Sheene’s Rolls Royce, ‘The Eagles’ on the radio in the south of France. It didn’t get much better than that.
“We were soul mates…like my brother and my father wrapped up. He was so good at teaching me things. He was Mr Fix It – whatever you needed, you just phoned up Barry – Charwood 852623 was his phone number back then, and it got sorted.”
Steve goes on to remember one incredible day at Mallory Park: “Barry’s knee locked up and he had to be rushed off to find someone that could fix his leg, so I dressed up as him, jumped on his number 7 bike and did 3 or 4 laps – came in and rushed into the back of the garage to change and then did my own laps. I managed to qualify him faster than me. We would have got busted big time if anyone had found out.”
He had a habit for getting people into trouble as Damon Hill remembers: “He worked in TV and when I had my clash with Schumacher he was with me in a flash in the garage and told me not to say anything to anyone and it was the best piece of advice I’ve ever had and that was because he really cared – he wasn’t just a flaky person he genuinely cared about people and he was a very special man.
“He got me into awful trouble though. He got me wound up about how much I was paid by Williams and I got off the plane and blurted out what I’d been told by Barry – I blame him for that.”
Barry was a man of the people. At Goodwood, all the other drivers would hang out in the hospitality area explains Damon: “He would just hang around his bike with the people. He loved people, people loved him – he gave them time and he was generous and that’s what made him special.”
When it comes to Barry Sheene, half the stories have been toned down, not embellished. Talking about the infamous smoking hole he had drilled into his race helmet Damon explains: “It was true – he had a guy who had a cigarette ready and lit when he came back from a race. He would pull his helmet off his head and before it had even come off the cigarette had already gone in.”
He goes on to remember the time he went to Australia for his first F1 Grand Prix: “Barry arranged to pick me up from Brisbane in his helicopter. He said ‘no, no don’t get a car, I’ll fly you down to my house.’ So, there we are whizzing along the coast and Surfers Paradise and we landed in his back garden and then he got me on this machine he had – a proper jet ski made by Suzuki – it was like a terrifying beast.
"He’d go and show that off for a bit and then be like – you have a go. And he’d get me doing all this crazy stuff in his back garden where he had a river. He claimed he broke his wrist trying to avoid me but when he turned up later that night he didn’t have a plaster on it. I have a strong suspicion there was a nurse involved but he claimed his wrist fixed better without a cast on.”
Fiona Miller worked for Linda Patterson at CSS Promotions agency who represented Barry: “He was a bit of a scamp – a rascal – but so many people from that era were," she told The Sportsman. "Things you got away with then, you wouldn’t have got away with now. He just had a totally disarming cheeky grin – you just thought how can I be cross about that. I never got upset about any of it.
“He had a fantastic house near Gatwick and before he got married to Steph (former model and mother of his two children) he had a steady trail of British Caledonian stewardesses passing through the doors. He was a rascal, he really was but like a lot of those guys in that kind of ilk he got away with it. It was a different era and there were far fewer concerns – it was just a completely different time. They worked hard but they played hard – until he settled down it was like ‘why not’…”
But the good times didn’t last. In July 2002 Steve Parrish took a call from Barry to say he’d just been diagnosed with cancer. “He was already sorted and was off to Mexico to see a guy – he had it under control and I had no reason to think he didn’t. He always had everything under control. Cancer of the oesophagus – he was such a health freak. He took the right tablets – he was as fit as a fiddle. Haring around a race track and risking his life and then something as normal as cancer was going to get him.”
Just one year later, Barry died on March 10th 2003 surrounded by his family.
“He nearly killed himself three times, smashed himself up at Daytona and then again. It seemed wrong. It didn’t seem possible that the indestructible Barry Sheene was destructed by something so very, very normal.”
He lived a life outside the normal. A life of greatness. Barry Sheene - the man, the myth, the motorcyclist...