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Heswall’s king of speed

A Heswall resident, John Williams was a Grand Prix motorcycle road racer who was born on May 27 1946. His motor racing career began in 1968 and lasted 10 years before his untimely death on 12th August at the 1978 Ulster Grand Prix in Northern Ireland at the age of 32.

John Williams is fondly remember by many Heswall residents. He could often be seen tinkering with his bikes in his garage on Whitfield Lane.

His best season on a World level was in 1975 when he finished in fifth place in the 500cc world championship on a Yamaha. He reached a podium finish eight times during his career, winning his only world championship race at the 1976 Belgian Grand Prix beating champion-elect Barry Sheene by 7.4 seconds. He was a five-time winner of the North West

200 race in Northern Ireland, a motorcycle race meeting held each May in Northern Ireland. The course, made up of public roads running between the towns of Portstewart, Coleraine and Portrush (the Triangle) is one of the fastest in the world, with speeds in excess of 200mph. It is the largest annual sporting event in Ireland, with the race weekend attracting over 150,000 visitors from all over the world. 1974 was his most successful year at the event with victory in the 350cc, 500cc and 750cc categories.

Isle of Man TT career

John Williams’ TT career spanned eleven years between 1968 and 1978. In that time he won a total of four races, the first in 1971 and the last in 1976. His debut ride in the Senior of 1968 on a Matchless Metisse provided him with his first silver replica for 11th position. From then on his TT career progressed with the usual ups and downs that become part of a road racer’s lifestyle. 1971 was to see John’s initial victory, riding a 500 Honda in the Production race, which he led from start to finish. John was to repeat his Production win in 1972, this time in the 250cc class still Honda mounted. The remainder of that year saw him retire in the Junior, come home seventh in the F750 and the 250 Lightweight saw him in third place. However, the Senior was to prove the metal of the man, riding a G50 Matchless he was up against the might of the MV Team of Giacomo Agostini and Alberto Pagani, managing to split the pair for most of the race, only to be reported as ‘touring’ at the Bungalow on his final circuit. Many a rider would have stopped, but not John: he rode down the Mountain and pushed in from Governor’s to take 28th place out of 36 finishers.

1973 recorded a brace of retirements, a third and two runner positions, whilst his 1974 effort saw him consistently on the leaderboard during practice, only to crash during the last session on the Friday evening, sidelining for race week. Fully fit for the 1975 TT he was third in the 250, second in the Senior and took his first big TT win taking the flag in the Classic 1000cc Race. With full factory backing from Suzuki in 1976, his confidence was high with a 500 for the Senior and a 750 for the Classic. From a standing start in the Senior he broke the lap record and upped it on his second circuit and continued to lead for the remaining four laps. However, just as he was in sight of the chequered flag the 500 Suzuki went dead – out of petrol. Determined to finish he pushed the big machine over the line for seventh place, collapsing with exhaustion. Making up for his disappointment he won the Classic TT with the added satisfaction of setting new class and lap records of 108.18 mph and 110.21 mph. Although back as a ‘privateer’ in 1977, his TT expectations were

high, but it was not to be – in both races, the Classic and the Senior he retired with engine problems. 1978 was to be John’s final TT – though no one knew that at the time. In the Formula One race he was aboard a ‘works’ Honda, which he brought home in second place behind the legendary Mike Hailwood. In the Senior, this time on a Suzuki, he was holding second place for four of the six laps behind Tom Herron, when he was forced to retire on the 5th lap with a split water hose whilst going down the Cronk-y-Voddy straight. For the Classic 1000cc race, John chose the ‘smaller’ 500cc Suzuki. Mick Grant won on his 750 Kawasaki with John having to settle for second in front of the other 750s.

Untimely death

John’s untimely death came during the 1978 Ulster Grand Prix, held at Dundrod on 12 August 1978. The event was marred by two fatal accidents. On Thursday’s practice session, rider Jeremy Montgomery Swann suffered a fall on the approach to Budore. John Williams and Tom Herron, both close friends, stopped to help Swann, but he was already dead. Further sorrow was added during the 750 cm3 race two days later, when Williams himself had a grave accident on his Suzuki during the fifth lap of that event. He would die later in a hospital at the age of 32.


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