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Barry Sheene, subject of an authoritative and emotionally piercing new BT Sport documentary, was a brilliant and transcendent motorcycle rider 50 years ahead of his time.
In an age of rolling digital content and the proliferation of all-access, behind-the-scenes docuseries, sports fans are wise to rarely seen off-field moments more than ever before.
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Reflecting on Sheene, a masterful portrait of the legendary rider who became the face of British motorcycling in the austere 1970s, the feeling that his unbridled charisma and commercial nous would have had fly-on-the-wall documentary-makers queuing up to chart his story is inescapable.
Fortunately for us, the latest offering from BT Sport Films puts us right there in the moment. From school dropout to double world champion with two extraordinary scrapes with death in between, the stylish documentary blends archive footage with an evocative score and vivid accounts from those closest to motorcycle racing’s first superstar.
The story of Sheene is positioned within a wider cultural context. Britain was facing its gravest financial crisis since the Second World War in the 1970s and was perilously close to social collapse.
Over 10 million working days were lost through industrial action in 1970 and the nation was plunged into darkness when miners voted to strike in 1972. IRA bombings were going off every three days in London following the Bloody Sunday killings in Northern Ireland.
The reverberations from shadow defence secretary Enoch Powell’s inflammatory Rivers of Blood speech in 1968 which moved race relations and integration to the forefront of the national debate were also still being felt.
Out of the greyness and strife arrived Sheene. The charming cockney, born into a London motorcycle racing family in 1950, had an irrepressible lust for life and racing. He rode his first competitive race aged 17 and soon became motorsport’s brightest star.
Between 1975 and 1982 he won more international 500cc and 750cc titles than any other rider, but it was his sheer force of personality, playboy lifestyle and dramatic crashes that made him a household name.
He was an unstoppable force, credited for reclaiming racing from the pernicious grip of the Mods and Rockers, the prevailing youth subcultures of the day, and bringing more eyeballs to a sport that lacked mainstream attention.
Sheene serves as a fitting eulogy to one of sport’s first truly global superstars
- Sally Brown, BT Sport
Brand Barry Sheene was quickly established. Commercial endorsements, most famously Brut aftershave, led to money and acclaim but he never lost sight of his influence and he was renowned for championing the cause of his fellow riders and railing against bureaucracy.
The inimitable Sheene, who smoked on the grid through a drilled hole in his helmet became a globally adored superstar when a film crew following his preparation for the 1975 world championship documented a sickening 175mph crash in Daytona when his rear tyre shockingly exploded.
He broke his leg, six ribs, his back, a wrist and his collarbone in the horrific incident that went around the world. “I hope I don’t have to crash again to stay in the news,” he said while puffing a cigarette in the hospital bed. His celebrity status was secured.
Narrated by Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes actor Philip Glenister, this powerful film documents the startling rise and rise of a rider who should be held in lofty esteem alongside the greatest ever athletes from these shores.
He had broken through the narrow confines of his sport by the time he won his first world title in 1976. His triumph came as Britain grappled with the hottest summer on record and persistent social unrest. More than 100 police officers had to be taken to hospital after clashes at the Notting Hill Carnival in the latest expression of civil disorder.
Sheene retained his crown a year later but was dethroned by American rising star Kenny Roberts in 1978. The racing titans are forever inextricably linked after a breathtaking battle at Silverstone in 1979, won by Roberts on the last lap by 0.030 of a second after an extraordinary tussle.
Now back with Yamaha, Sheene was in the twilight of his career as the Winter of Discontent erupted across Britain in response to the Labour government’s attempt to curtail wage rises.
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His win at the 1981 Swedish Grand Prix would be the last for a British rider in the top category until Cal Crutchlow in Czech Republic in 2016, but a near-fatal crash during practice at Silverstone in 1982 effectively ended his hopes of ever returning to title contention.
He was never the same force again and relocated to Australia to recover. One of the most daring and charismatic sportsmen, famous for so much more than racing, died aged 52 after a year-long cancer battle. This compelling documentary, which picks apart themes of the sanctity of life and overcoming adversity pays tribute to his life and career 20 years on.
Grand Prix motorcycling racing has changed immeasurably since the days of the two-stroke 500cc bikes in the 1970s, but the modern era of MotoGP unquestionably begins with the unmistakable Barry Sheene.
Sally Brown, Executive Producer of BT Sport Films, said: “Sheene’s name resonates beyond motorcycle racing. His ability on the circuit was matched only by his charisma off it. Sheene serves as a fitting eulogy to one of sport’s first truly global superstars.”
Watch Sheene on BT Sport 2 at 10pm on Sunday 26 March or catch up on btsport.com or the BT Sport app.