From the Isle of Man to Silverstone via Donington Park, the story and the thrilling races that make up the history of the British Grand Prix
The British Motorcycle Grand Prix has a past more chequered than the flag traditionally waved at the end of the race.
From 1949 through to 1976 the ‘Tourist Trophy’ was effectively the British Motorcycle Grand Prix. Held on the 37.73 mile Mountain course at the Isle of Man, it was a cornerstone of the calendar. By the 1970s, the event became an anachronism. It was out of touch with the times and more and more racers decided not to go there, citing safety as the main reason.
In 1971 Barry Sheene famously told anyone who would listen that he would never ride at the TT again after his 125cc crash. It wasn’t the track itself people disliked – and Barry never wanted the event itself banned – but the fact that you had to compete on it to get World Championship points. This point was made tragically on a foggy morning in June 1972 when Italian Gilberto Parlotti lost his life in the 125cc race. He was making his debut that year as he and his Morbidelli team were leading the Championship going into the British event. Gilberto was leading the race in rainy conditions before he crashed fatally on the Mountain. The TT struggled on as a championship event until 1976, but by then the podium on the Island was filled with circuit specialists rather than GP regulars.
Silverstone in Northamptonshire was the venue for the race for the decade between 1977 and 1987 and it proved to be an exciting backdrop to a number of classic races. At the first race in 1977, Steve Parrish led the race after mate and pole-man Sheene had DNF’d. The crafty Sheene hung out a pit-board saying ‘GAS IT WANKER’ only for Parrish to fall off a few corners later, probably through laughter.
A year later controversy reigned when in dry then torrential conditions three riders – Sheene, Kenny Roberts and privateer Steve Manship – all thought they had won the race! Even officials had no clue… Roberts eventually got the nod, from Manship and Sheene. The most celebrated British GP, if not the most exciting GP ever, was the 1979 race. It was duked out famously between Sheene and Roberts and (after backmarker George ‘Carl’s dad’ Fogarty got in the way) Sheene was beaten by just three-hundredths of a second. At Silverstone in 1984, Rocket Ron Haslam stood on the podium in third place behind Randy Mamola and Eddie Lawson in one of the highlights of the side-burned one’s career.
Donington Park became home of the British Motorcycle Grand Prix from 1987 to the 2009. Back in the mid-1980s the facilities at Donington were among the best in the country and after a concerted effort owner Tom Wheatcroft managed to secure the rights to the race.
Popularity of the GP dipped in the 1990s. Britain needed a champ, and it had one – but in World Superbikes. Sadly, as gate figures topped 120,000 for Brands Hatch WSB, Donington was struggling to get 30,000. Since then the Rossi factor and the arrival of the four-stroke MotoGP monsters has seen GPs pick up in popularity once more.
From 2010 onwards the British GP will return to Silverstone after the debacle that lost Donington Park the rights to run the event. Taking over the MotoGP round Silverstone has gone through some modifications to make the circuit more bike friendly, with claims that the circuit will have one of the fastest outright laps on the calendar.
Move on to the next page to read about the top five British GP battles
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