Barry Sheene in action with the Suzuki RGA500

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sheene

BIRTH OF A LEGEND

For many Grand Prix fans, especially in Britain, the 1970s were a golden age. They were for Suzuki, too, and for the same reason: a prodigiously talented rider named Barry Sheene, who was now at the peak of his powers.

In the early 70s, Suzuki remained focused on the 125cc World Championship, where it had enjoyed such success in the previous decade. But in 1974, it restarted its 500cc programme, looking to young British rider Barry Sheene to deliver its first Grand Prix win.

Sheene, who'd won the British 125cc title in 1970 aged just 20, had already claimed the Formula 750 title for Suzuki in 1973. He threw down a marker to his rivals with second place in the opening round at the French Grand Prix, but it was in 1975 that things really started coming together. Sheene won his first Grand Prix in the best possible style, leading from pole to the flag and setting the fastest lap in the Dutch TT at Assen. A second victory, at the Swedish Grand Prix (which he would eventually win three times) gave Sheene sixth overall in the Rider standings and Suzuki third place in the Manufacturer's classification.

Then came 1976. Sheene won the opening three rounds on his way to a total of five wins and his first 500cc World title. Suzuki claimed the Manufacturer's crown for the first time, with Suzuki riders taking nine of the top 10 places overall. It was a glorious season, and British fans were ecstatic.

Incredibly, they had even more to cheer about in 1977. Sheene took the opening Venezuelan Grand Prix and never looked back, winning a further five rounds to retain his World title by a huge margin: Suzuki riders won nine of the 11 rounds, giving the team its second consecutive Manufacturer's Championship.

Suzuki entered the 1978 season with a new bike, the RGA. For the third year running, Sheene won the opening round, but illness, and the emergence of American star Kenny Roberts, combined to deny him a third World Championship. Suzuki, however, won six of the 11 rounds to earn its third Manufacturer's title.

The final season of the decade produced one of the greatest battles of the modern era. Chasing a second World title, Roberts arrived at Silverstone for the 1979 British Grand Prix having won four rounds: Sheene, looking for his third Championship, had won twice, including taking the season opener for the fourth time. While Roberts' Yamaha was faster on the straights, the Suzuki RGB's superior handling and Sheene's extraordinary skill allowed the British rider to make up time in the corners. After a titanic struggle, Roberts crossed the line first - by just three-hundredths of a second. Those who saw it never forgot it.

Sheene spent the remainder of his career riding for other teams. But for his legions of fans, he'll always be associated with Suzuki. And in 50 years of racing, that's still one of our proudest achievements.