Former MotoGP™ commentator Nick Harris remembers when the US superstar headed a change that moulded the future of the sport
The rumours had been rife, but it was 43 years ago to this very day in the Silverstone paddock the revolution became a reality. A revolution that never actually happened but whose very threat brought Grand Prix motorcycle racing out of the dark ages and moulded its very future. A revolution headed by a World Champion and national newspaper journalist that brought the riders just reward for their efforts and saved lives.
World 500cc Champion Kenny Roberts and his great friend journalist Barry Coleman wanted to wait another year before the announcement in the Silverstone paddock two days before the 1979 British Grand Prix. The riders were not prepared to wait and the plans to run a new World Series in direct competition to the Grand Prix World Championship were unveiled. It was an incredible concept to break away from the established World Championship that had been in existence since 1949. A brand-new separate Championship for just 250 and 500cc machines. With all the top riders including World Champions Barry Sheene, Kork Ballington and of course Roberts signed up and ready to go it was a significant threat to the very future of the existing World Championship.
Roberts arrived from America in 1978 to totally change Grand Prix racing as the Europeans knew it. His sliding style, homed on the mile long ovals back home, ripped the established 500cc stars apart on Grand Prix circuits throughout Europe but away from the track Kenny was appalled. Never someone scared to express his feelings he just could not believe how the riders were treated by organisers and promotors. Safety, prize money and simple respect just did not exist in Kenny’s eyes, and he was as determined as he was on the track to do something about it.
Who could blame the riders for being so impatient? They were fed up and totally disillusioned with banging their heads against a brick wall, or in most cases, Armco barriers, about safety, prize money and just respect from the Promoters and Organisers. With Roberts and Coleman at the head, all the top Grand Prix riders agreed to compete in a rival series.
The history books show the World Series never got off the ground but read between the lines to discover just what an enormous influence it had on the very future of the sport. The FIM’s reaction immediately condemned the new Championship either to run alongside the existing World Championship or as an alternative. Still, they realised the status quo had to change and quickly to save their World Championship. Immediately they increased the Grand Prix prize money by a staggering 500% and scrapped the controversial start money fiasco. Previously organisers would agree to a start money fee for the riders to compete and paid paltry prize money. At the end of a Grand Prix, there would be a queue of riders, including World Champions, outside the organisers’ office in the paddock waiting to be paid. Imagine such a scene in the Silverstone paddock this weekend.
In the end, the new World Series probably failed because of the lack of circuits that were brave enough to stage their events. The FIM made it very clear they would not issue permits for any of their races at circuits that hosted a World Series event. In the end, the riders returned to their familiar haunts in 1980 but attitudes to safety, respect and liveable prize money had changed for good. The revolution had begun thanks to Coleman and Roberts, but there was still a long way to go, especially on safety.
Riders leaving Silverstone on route to Austria should raise a glass of whatever they drink between Grands Prix to Roberts and Coleman. The pair of them were not prepared to stand and watch the riders being treated in such an appalling way. They started a revolution that riders today should never forget. Without them who knows what would have happened? So typically after the announcement, Kenny went on to win a classic 500cc race with Sheene. I bet the pair of them didn’t queue for their start money.