We repeated it ad nauseam: that of Joan Mir, last Sunday in Valencia, was the seventh world title that Suzuki won with six different drivers: Barry Sheene, Marco Lucchinelli, Franco Uncini, Kevin Schwantz, Kenny Roberts Jr. and now the young Mallorcan.
Barry raced with us Suzuki GB, Marco and Franco with the Gallina team, Kevin Schwantz and Kenny Roberts with the Works team which, in the case of Junior, had the support of some of Roberts Senior’s technicians, such as Warren Willing.
Let’s say that right away we’re talking about very different bikes: if you actually drove the RGs in different configurations in the late 1970s,quadratic four ‘rotary valve-induced, the bicycles preferred by private drivers at the time, Kevin and Kenny Jr. already had V-engines, albeit two-stroke engines.
But today we don’t want to talk about technology, we want to talk about men with some short portraits of the five predecessors of Joan Mir.
Sheene: sociable, personable and cunning, he was the Agostini of the late 1970s
Barry succeeded in ‘Mino’, who had won the world championship with Yamaha last year, ahead of Phil Read’s MV Agusta. While Giacomo was the first modern rider of his era – he came to the races in a carriage, not a mobile home, he took part in films and photo novels, he was a figurehead for advertising on television and always surrounded by beautiful women – Sheene was his perfect successor: with relative character differences. Ago didn’t flaunt it, Barry, the child of the era, lived an apparently more exaggerated life. And while in Piccadilly Circus was his advertisement with Brut by Fabergé Parfum, He loved to be photographed with his Rolls Royce with the 4 BSR license plate, on which a disrespectful sticker “Helicopter pilots climb faster” was emblazoned in memory of his great passion. And it wasn’t uncommon to find him surrounded by great friends while racing. James Hunt and George Harrison.
With his inseparable number 7 (the first driver to choose a number) and Donald Duck on his helmet Sheene won his first title 1976 with 5 wins and a runner-up in a 10-race championship; the second in the following year with 6 wins out of 11 grands prix.
Then, from 1978 to 1980 he met Kenny Roberts and his Yamaha, four cylinder and Power Valve technology and had to be content with second place in front of drivers of the caliber Johnny Cecotto, Wil Hartog, Takazumi Katayama, Hennen, Baker, Lansivuori. Those were still the years of Continental circus where, depending on the result, maybe some “official” cylinders or some good tires can be obtained.
Lucchinelli: Roberto Gallina, the “lucky star” of the daredevil from Ceparana
At the end of King Kenny’s triple success, Roberto Gallina won the trust of Suzuki, after making it to second place in the world championship Virginio Ferrari, after his serious accident at Le Mans.
Even then, his team had an extraordinary organization, complete with hospitality: a touring coach from a shipyard has been turned into a motorhome, with a beautiful interior and an outer tent that served as a restaurant run by Gabriella, Roby’s wife.
Marco, not surprisingly a good friend of Barry, shared his lifestyle in a much more exaggerated way when possible. And while Sheene Gauloises smoked, rigorously demolished the filter and had his last move on the grid, Lucchinelli was no different. Needed to be held in check by his fiancée’s holy wife, Paola, who tolerated his exuberance because she knew that was the only way to keep him close.
It was a nice bunch with Marco Lucchinelli: Barry, Angel Nieto, Gianni Rolando. Lovers of life, beautiful women and bicycles, but not necessarily in that order.
Happy, that was the nickname he gave himself, sang “Stella Fortuna” at the San Remo Festival – his hit record, but also – “I wanted my real wife black, completely transparent, hot and exciting” – the theme song for Sport in Concerto. He played as a rock star and enjoyed breaking every rule in this book.
In the world championship Marco had already won a Grand Prix on the old Nürburgring as a private driver, the 22.8 km long ‘Green Hell’, 1989. In the year of the title, he won 5 races out of 11 GPs and was relegated Randy Mamola to Second place on the same bike but managed by the UK importers, with Roberts third ahead of Sheene, who had also moved to Yamaha.
Kenny Roberts, who was not exactly a boy scout himself, was a little hillbilly compared to Marco and often shook his head good-naturedly, laughed at his excesses, but as a racing driver he respected him.
Uncini: From the devil to holy water
Lucchinelli’s decision to switch to Honda, which had offered him its new three-cylinder, allowed Franco Uncini, already the best private driver in 500cc, to accept Gallina’s offer. Franco came to the races with his father, Ennio, his brother Henry, a motorist and family friend and personal sponsor Livio Stefanacci. We forgot: there was obviously his personal mechanic, Mario Ciamberlini, a mechanical wizard. With this Clan Franco, who had taken their first steps in competitive motorcycling, initially with one Laverda SFC and then with a Ducati 750 SS in Bruno Spaggiari ‘s team that won everything there was to be won before switching to 250 and 350 took the title with them 5 wins and 2 third places in 12 races.
We can say that Outwardly, Uncini was the exact opposite of Lucchinelli. But we’re still in the early 80s and even Franco could hide in the closets. There weren’t any quiet types back then. The poetry school ‘Recanati’ has us Graeme Crosby, Freddie Spencer, Kenny Roberts, Sheene, Mamola and Katayama. At that time there were no second judges.
Schwantz: the all-or-nothing cowboy
Ten or rather eleven years later it was Suzuki’s turn to a Texan with inexhaustible talent: Kevin Schwantz, whose # 34 is just as famous as Sheene’s # 7.
Kevin entered the world championship in 1986. He was introduced to us in Assen by the then team manager of Suzuki Britain, Garry Taylor.
He was a slender and lanky boy in a tattered light blue overalls that revealed his exhausting driving style. In this race, he crashed several times between practice and the race. The enemy (agonistically speaking) of Wayne Rainey in the States, he replicated their legendary rivalry in the World Cup.
He won the title in that fateful 1993 season, the year of Wayne’s Misano disaster, with 4 wins, 3 seconds and 4 thirds up Rainey, Darryl Beattie, Mick Doohan and Luca Cadalora.
At the races Kevin was always accompanied by his father Jim and his mother, constant but discreet presence, in the paddock and after training or the race, as in the case of Barry Sheene, it was not uncommon to be invited for a cup of tea.
Of all the Suzuki champions, Kevin Schwantz was hands down the most iconic along with Barry Sheene, in particular for his “do or die” driving style which led to as many falls and breaks as his 25 Grand Prix victories. Everything on Suzuki.
Roberts Jr .: the heir of the “King”
While King Kenny had dominated his day, Junior – who was born into the profession and was a bike in the paddock during his father’s glory years – paid his contribution to from 250 (three seasons, from ’93 to ’95), before joining the premier class at Yamaha, then for two years with Kenny Seniors Modenas three-cylinder engine before joining Suzuki in 1999.
Junior, on the other hand, showed character and driving skills in contrast to Kenny Senior, who was rather … grumpy on his European debut. He was a Roberts sure, but he was definitely made of sweeter fabrics. No wonder, since he had spent practically all of his childhood and youth in the paddock.
King Kenny was never over the top with him, but he helped Suzuki by providing him with men of great experience and genius like Willing. And underneath, well hidden under his rough skin, he was very proud of his son, who also wore the American Eagle on his helmet.
After the title in 2000 with four wins and four second places in an incredibly rainy year of 16 races – his favorite terrain – KR Jr. raced until 2007, the last two years with the KR211V, a prototype with a five-cylinder Honda engine. Then he retired, sabbatical on the streets of America and traveled with his family in his RV.