Barry Sheene's penultimate race

Photographer Don Morley shot motorcycles for over 50 years. Every month, we dip into Don’s archive as he talks in his own words about the pictures that made history

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By Don Morley on Sat, 28 Feb 2009 - 04:02

Where: Italian GP, Imola

When: 1983

I was walking through the paddock at Imola and saw Barry Sheene sat on a packing crate. He looked utterly dejected, so I took the shot. Everybody knew his bubble was bursting and we all knew he was finished then. It was very sad to see him like that. But the saddest thing was that much of it was of his own making.

Sheene had a crash at Silverstone in 1982 that would have killed most people. He was riding for Yamaha then, andwas absolutely flying – if he hadn’t had that accident he may have won the Championship. But after that season he had to eat humble pie and go back to Suzuki in ‘83, who he’d sworn never to ride for again. You see Barry had always been the number one rider for Suzuki and he’d always screwed his team-mates. In the early days he would literally sell the works kit from their bikes. I remember Tom Herron finding out he didn’t have any wheels or suspension units at the Spanish GP because Barry had sold them, and a Japanese technician walking down the grid spotting pieces of works equipment on privateer bikes that Barry had flogged!

In 1978, Barry had walked into Suzuki and asked for a staggering amount of money for the next year, which they agreed to pay. But they had to kill of their entire motocross team, the trials team, everything else was cancelled just to pay Barry. His ego was getting completely out of control. So the following year, Sheene asked for a separate team operating out of his home otherwise he was going to Yamaha. And Suzuki called his bluff. “Off you go, then,” they said. Sheene had no offer from Yamaha at the time, and had to settle for the production bike they gave him.

So he has the big crash, Yamaha don’t want to know at the end of ‘82, and for 1983 he has to go back cap in hand to Suzuki. But by then the RG500 was undeveloped, Suzuki were winding down their Grand Prix effort, and now they weren’t paying him much money. If at all. Barry was back at Suzuki on a no-hoper bike, in pain every day, and he hated his situation. He’d become a liability by this stage because of shooting his mouth off. Then in the first European GP in decent weather on a fast circuit, he just gets blown off by the Americans.

He was nowhere, all of a sudden he’s out of it. This picture was taken straight after final practice. He announced his retirement the next race.

The truth is Barry and myself didn’t get on well. It all stemmed from a story I did in 1977 in Motorcycle Racer called ‘The Yanks are Coming.’ The talent in America at that time was incredible, and the story was sub-headed ‘Barry Sheene better watch out’. Barry took huge exception to this and we were at war from then onwards. He tried to get me fired from MCN, told them that if they used any of my shots he wouldn’t give them any interviews. He tried very hard to get me fired from Motocourse and bloody nearly succeeded, too. It culminated in an advertising shoot for Texaco that cost thousands of pounds to produce, and Barry didn’t even turn up. I had to shoot it with a mechanic in his helmet and leathers in the end.

I was right, though. Kenny Roberts won the 500 Championship in 1978 at his first time of trying on circuits he’d never even seen before. Sheene never really recovered from the shock of that, but at least he and I eventually buried the hatchet after he retired.

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