Patriot Games - The British Grand Prix

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 History

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.

The Races

The top five GP battles that defined the history of the British GP at Donington Park. If you can’t remember them get on the Internet and buy the DVDs, they’re worth every penny!

August 6th 1989 Niall Mackenzie leads the British GP and finishes fourth. under-achieving again, eh Niall?

Niall Mackenzie: “Without doubt one of the highlights of my career. I was sixth on the first lap and held back a little by Wayne Gardner, meaning the leaders were well ahead of me. Then I picked off Christian Sarron, Eddie Lawson and Wayne Rainey. I could see Schwantz up ahead and I was thinking: ‘Here I come Kevin! I’m catching you!’ Later Kevin told me he knew it was me as the crowd were going mental – I didn’t notice! I took Schwantz at Redgate and there I was leading the British GP! Sadly I couldn’t clear off and win as the front tyre went off and I was caught and passed and eventually finished fourth. Thanks to my efforts I was allowed onto the podium with Kevin, Wayne and Eddie but a real rostrum would have been sweeter…”

August 2nd 1992 the year that Foggy, Mackenzie, Whitham and Rymer proved that we could run up the front in 500s, with Foggy running as high as fifth before ‘the incident’ and Rymer scoring a superb (and often un-sung) sixth. Whit and Niall were DNFs.

Kevin Schwantz: “I always did well at Donington but in ’92 I crashed at Redgate while catching the leader Wayne Gardner. So I walk up to the fence and there’s my team-mate Doug Chandler. He says: ‘What’s happened to you? Did you crash on the oil as well?’ I looked around and there’s no oil flags out, but John Kocinski’s Yamaha was parked up on the left side of the track with the gearbox blown completely out of his motorcycle. Then Carl Fogarty slid in beside us and that was it. I said to Doug: ‘I’ve had enough of this.’ I had to let the guys on track know why we were laying in the gravel. So I grabbed the flag from the marshal and started to wave it. I was frustrated and later the authorities wanted me to apologise to the corner workers for making them look stupid. I mean, who looks sillier? Them or me sliding up the road on my butt? Wayne won the race and thanked me on the podium for waving that flag.”

August 1st 1993 mayhem on lap one when Doohan takes out Schwantz and Alex Barros, but in the meantime there’s a British battle for the last podium place. Our man Mackenzie was involved again…

Niall Mackenzie: “I was going for top six at Donington on my privateer YZR500. Top six was what we were gunning for as my tyres were going off after 14 or so laps, when a guy from Öhlins gave me a new shock, claiming that my tyres would last longer with it. It worked like a dream, almost doubling the endurance of the tyres. By the time I’d worked my way up to fourth, only Carl Fogarty was ahead of me on his wild-card Cagiva. I didn’t care who it was: I was faster than him at that stage of the race and passed him. He barged me wide at one point – fair play, he was trying just as hard as I was! Carl was leading on the last lap but I could see he was agitated and animated on the bike. Going into Goddard’s – the final corner – it was my last chance to take him and to this day I think he just panicked and maybe got the wrong gear as I out-dragged him to the line. The team said that he’d run out of fuel, but after the race Giacomo Agostini questioned that as Carl had managed to do the slow-down lap. To be up on the podium ‘proper’ this time was mega.”

July 24th 1994 battered and bruised Schwantz takes his final win of his career in his final race in front of his ‘home’ fans…

Kevin Schwantz: “I think with the obvious exception of ‘92/93 I felt at home at Donington and it was a second chance at a ‘home’ GP. Laguna Seca never treated me well or I didn’t get to grips with it, but as the whole Suzuki team were pretty much all based in UK, their family and friends were watching so it’s nice for them to win. On the Saturday I’d had a huge crash coming out of the Old Hairpin. It was a massive highside and I landed hard on my right shoulder. I limped to the side of the track feeling pretty beat up, but nothing was broken.

I knew we had a good set-up for the race and I did a 1m 33.811 to qualify second behind Mick. In the race I was third into the first corner then I got bumped back to seventh with Doohan leading. I got into my rhythm and made some passes into the Melbourne hairpin and eventually overtook Mick going around the OUTSIDE at the Loop. To do that and beat Mick in his dominant year was something special – especially after the Saturday crash. It was the ride of my life and my last win. I loved Donington and was honoured to be a favourite of the British fans, but it wasn’t always that way. In 1988 I took out Brit hero Ron Haslam. I felt like an idiot. I got in too deep on the brakes and Ron was in front of me and I had to go somewhere. It was a shitty choice! Good thing is Ron got back on and rode a great race. I ended up with stitches in my knee and it was a while before I could look him in the eye.”

July 9th 2000 Warhorse McWilliams becomes the last Brit to stand on a premier class podium alongside champs of the future, Kenny Roberts Jnr and Valentino Rossi.

Jeremy McWilliams: “I think I led the race for something like 12 or 13 laps in the damp. Then Rossi came through on me, followed by Roberts. I do remember the crowd being so up for it and it was a magical day – although looking back I was a little disappointed to finish third, second would have been nicer! A podium was a good consolation, but I led the race and truly believed I could win it. The home crowd advantage helps you, but you don’t want to disappoint the fans, so you’re prepared to risk it a bit more. Strangely, Donington was one of the worst tracks in my GP career, I never rated it as one of my favourites although certain aspects are brilliant: there’s nowhere else in the world like Craner and Schwantz Curve. Watching that GP again now, that’s where I was good – down Craner to the Old Hairpin.”