"It was like an aircraft had crashed." This is what Grand Prix motorcycle racing journalist Nick Harris thought upon arriving at the devastating scene of the accident that almost claimed the life of Barry Sheene at Silverstone in 1982.
It was the Wednesday before the British Grand Prix, and Sheene was a rider with a point to prove. The 1982 season had been going strongly for him up to that point, with four second-place finishes and two thirds putting him firmly in title contention alongside Yamaha stablemate Kenny Roberts and eventual champion Franco Uncini, who rode the works Suzuki.
Sheene started the season on the same YZR500 as Roberts, but only for the Argentine Grand Prix, with the American triple world champion switching to Yamaha's new OW-61 - the first 500cc grand prix bike in history to be powered by a V4 engine - for the second race onwards. Roberts complained constantly of poor handling with the new bike, and Sheene was convinced he could sort the problem if Yamaha gave him one.
Yamaha refused initially, and the Briton was none too pleased at Agostini Yamaha's Graeme Crosby receiving the new bike before him. But, after Crosby echoed Roberts' comments about its handling, Sheene finally took delivery of the OW-61 on the eve of his home event. Some changes were made to the front of the bike prior to the unofficial practice session, and after numerous laps of Silverstone on the new bike, Sheene was certain a first British Grand Prix victory would be his four days later.
Practice on the Wednesday was a barbaric affair. As it was unofficial, the 500cc machines shared the 2.9-mile Northamptonshire track with the 125cc, 250cc and Formula 1 750cc riders. The day had somehow passed without incident until the closing stages of the session.
Sheene was on his final flying effort, passing customer Suzuki rider Jack Middelburg early in the lap. Ahead of them, Frenchman Patrick Igoa crashed trying to pass 125cc rider Alfred Weibel around the outside of the fast Abbey corner. Both Igoa and his 250cc Yamaha lay stricken in the middle of the road. Behind, Sheene and Middelburg were flying towards the left-hander, a lack of marshals that day ensuring both knew nothing of the danger ahead.
Sheene struck Igoa's machine, while Middelburg crashed after collecting the debris around him. Sheene was thrown into the air, with both his and Igoa's Yamahas exploding in the impact, engulfing him in flames. As he hit the asphalt, he suffered broken knuckles, a broken left wrist, and smashed up both of his legs. But he survived and was taken to hospital in Northampton, where he underwent a seven-hour operation.
"I think about it as a total pain in the arse that it happened," he said upon his return to Silverstone one year later. "As it stood, last year, I reckon I stood a very good chance of winning the world championship."
A normal person would have been more thankful to have even been conducting an interview after such an accident. But not Sheene. Most riders' careers would have ended there and then - considerably smaller accidents and far less severe injuries over the years resulted in retirements - while others may not even have lived to tell the tale. But if there was anyone who could suffer such devastating injuries and still manage to return to racing, it was Sheene.
Indeed, during practice for the 1975 Daytona 200, the rear wheel of his Suzuki had seized at 175mph on the Floridian circuit's famous banking. Sheene was flung from his bike and suffered similarly horrible injuries to his arm and legs. Seven weeks later, he made his on-track return in a Superbike race at Cadwell Park.
Three months after the crash, he stood atop the 500cc podium for the very first time, after beating then-14-times world champion Giacomo Agostini in a thrilling race at Assen, in which both crossed the line in identical finishing times of 48m1s. The 500cc world championship followed for him in '76 and '77. Sheene, it seemed, was indestructible.
Sheene launched his RG500 up the inside of van Dulmen into Woodcote, the final corner - the mass British crowd roaring in delight
The Daytona smash and his recovery catapulted Sheene into the spotlight. After his Silverstone crash, and when it became apparent he could make a recovery, there was no doubting his trademark resilience would have him back on track soon.
Two months after his Silverstone accident, Sheene made his first public appearance at Donington Park. Then, on March 19 1983, he lined up on the grid for the opening round of the 500cc season in South Africa aboard a Suzuki - a deal he cleverly announced live on BBC television in the winter of '82. His last appearance on an RG500 ended in victory, in France in '79. But there would be no such repeat of past glories, his customer bike was well down on the competition.
Despite his machine's deficiencies, Sheene tallied up points finishes in the first three rounds of the new campaign, dragging his Suzuki to the top 10 in South Africa, France and the Nations Grand Prix at Monza. A tough run of two non-points finishes in Germany and Yugoslavia, and a brace of non-finishes in Germany and the Netherlands followed before he made his return to Silverstone. This was one year after the accident that almost killed him.
Reigning champion Uncini had been involved in a horrific incident at Assen two rounds prior, when he was struck on the head by debutant Wayne Gardner's Honda after crashing. With Uncini absent for the remainder of the 1983 campaign, Sheene hoped the works bike would find its way into his hands. Suzuki - scorned by the double world champion when he departed for Yamaha at the end of '79 - gave it to Boet van Dulmen instead, much to Sheene's dismay.
Sheene qualified down in 19th for his homecoming, and ran on the fringes of the top 10 for the opening six laps, while Randy Mamola - on the works Suzuki - Roberts and Freddy Spencer fought for the lead.
The race was stopped at the end of lap six following a crash involving Norman Brown and Peter Huber, with both dying in the accident. A delay in the red flag being shown meant the field initially continued to race past the crash site.
The race was restarted over 23 laps, with the opening five also taken into account for the final result. Sheene made a better start this time around, breaking away from the group fighting for the top 10 early-on. Once past 10th-placed Anton Mang [also riding a customer RG500], Sheene closed down van Dulmen.
Rapidly bearing down on the works RG500 he felt he should have been riding, the determined Sheene led the Dutchman across the line in eighth place to start the final tour. Van Dulmen managed to regain the place during the lap, but Sheene would make sure his point was proven.
Tucked into Van Dulmen's slipstream as he rounded Abbey and onto the Farm straight, the same section of track he had found a 250cc Yamaha lying in his way one year earlier, Sheene launched his RG500 up the inside of van Dulmen into Woodcote, the final corner - the mass British crowd roaring in delight as their hero beat the works rider on his customer machine.
But the combining of the two parts of the race meant Sheene's efforts for eighth were in vain, with van Dulmen awarded the position by just 0.010s by the timekeepers. This meant little to the crowd, who invaded the track on the warm-down lap to celebrate Sheene's performance.
When he was found lying in a mangled heap on the scorched earth on Farm straight back in 1982, many thought Sheene had been killed. Sheene himself thought he would lose one of his legs. It seemed almost inconceivable at that point that one year on he would be back at the same circuit, racing as hard as he ever had.
Sheene was no stranger to heroic returns. It seemed his rise to championship glory in the 500cc class was almost as a result of his massive Daytona crash in 1975, his determination to prove all who doubted he could ride again undoubtedly fuelling him. And while his '83 season was ultimately unspectacular as far as results were concerned, with 14th in the standings all he could muster, it was no less heroic.
Few remember those who finish ninth in a race, but his Silverstone return marked a truly special day in British sport and cemented the Sheene legacy forever.