2015 Phillip Island Classic
Twenty-two years after the first modestly attended Phillip Island Classic, this year saw more than 500 racing bikes turning up to contest 56 races in 22 categories. Phillip Island, located around 120km from Melbourne, Australia, turned on excellent weather for the three-day event held between January 23 and 25.
An arctic breeze on the Sunday made things slightly difficult for both riders and spectators but the rain held off and the ambitious program was completed more or less on time.
This is not to say the track stayed dry, however. Bikes with engineering dating back 100 years being flogged without mercy created a substantial amount of oil which resulted in a number of crashes and the eventual red-flagging of one of the International Challenge races.
The carnage started during practice on Friday with both MT’s Cameron Donald and rising Australian star Ged Metcher crashing due to oil on turn one, the fastest turn on the circuit. Cam says it’s the highest-speed crash he’s had in his entire racing career but he was fortunately uninjured. The bike was a mess and had to be substantially rebuilt on the Friday night.
Race three of the four-race challenge was stopped when the completely out-of-luck Steve Martin had a crankshaft seal on his Katana blow, covering the entry to the tricky turn 10 with fresh, hot oil. Three riders immediately behind him, including Jeremy McWilliams, slid off the track and the race had to be restarted once the mess had been cleaned up.
PARADE OF CHAMPIONS
The most hotly contested of the races over the Australia Day long weekend are the four Tahbilk International Challenge events. The challenge is contested by teams of 10 riders from New Zealand, Australia, the UK and the US. Since its inception in 2005, Australia has won it with its combination of red-hot bikes and riders but a change in the scoring system for 2015 gave international teams a much better chance of getting near the pointy end.
This year, points were accrued based on the finishing position of the top five riders from each nation. This system was introduced to partly negate the Australian team’s home-ground advantage and depth of talent. While NZ came in last of the four nations, the gap between the winners and the rest was much closer than it’s been in the past.
In fact, consistency enabled NZ team’s Damien Kavney to pick up fourth spot in the individual results behind legends like Ryan Farquhar, Connor Cummins and Jeremy McWilliams and ahead of more legends including Shawn Giles, Jed Metcher, Paul Young, MT’s Cam Donald and Australian hot-shot Brendan Roberts. Kavney’s haul of results from the four races on his Suzuki XR69 was 10, 10, 10 and 12.
While it went down to the wire, the International Challenge was won for the first time by the UK. Led by Northern Ireland’s IoM champion, Ryan Farquhar, the UK pipped the Aussies by 42 points.
Despite Aussie riders winning three of the four races, consistency was the thing that got UK over the line. Farquhar also picked up the Ken Wootton Perpetual Trophy which is awarded to the highest individual pointscorer from the four races and this was achieved without Farquhar actually winning any of the races. Again, consistency was the key.
Anyone who confuses classic racing with ‘demonstration laps’ absolutely has to visit the Island Classic. Thirty year-old bikes are ridden in a manner beyond the imagination of the original designers and the risks of damage to highly valuable engines and bodywork is high.
NZ’s Grant Dalton’s Suzuki XR69 would have won the award for best presented bike if such an award existed, and it highlights the emotional and physical cost of take-no-prisoners classic racing. Cam Donald’s XR69 was similarly well presented before the Turn One crash and you’ll see some of the results of that on these pages.
Among early, costly failures was a blown engine in IoM champ John McGuinness’ Honda Harris F1. Technical boss of the UK team Roger Winfield estimates the cost of an engine like that at around $35,000. Australian stalwart and regular visitor to Kiwi Robbie Phillis was also sidelined by a cracked piston on his XR69.
ALSO ON THE PROGRAM
While attention was focussed on the International Challenge, another 52 races took place ranging from pre-war classes up to new-era Period 6. Within the Period groupings are many category classes including 125cc (ultralightweight), 250cc (lightweight), 350cc (Junior), 500cc (senior) up to an upper limit of 1300cc (unlimited) for Periods 1 to 5 and 1000cc for the newly introduced Period 6.
Classic racing allows a vast array of riders to engage in racing which can be cheap but which is always entertaining.
Exhibit one on the weekend was Ray Birchall, who brought his 1981 Yamaha RD350LC down from his home town, Wagga Wagga in rural NSW, to race in the four, four lap events in the 350 Forgotten Era class. He was on a hiding to nothing as Yamaha TZ350s race in this class as well and his mount is a humble $2000 road bike. Regardless, he managed 17th position in race three and was circulating in 2.05.7 seconds which was around 15 seconds off the leaders but still a thrill. Over the weekend he was able to take around three seconds off his best time, which is a victory in itself.
Hidden among the program were some great names from the past including ex-Honda factory rider Malcolm Campbell who quietly won the New Era formula 750cc class.
Along with his serious duties, MT’s Cam Donald also raced a 1959 Harley-Davidson in the Unlimited Classic and the combination of mind-boggling engineering and his talent allowed him to win with daylight a distant second.
Among the sought-after trophies awarded is the Phil Irving trophy for the rider who accrues the most points (excluding the International Challenge) throughout the weekend. There were joint winners this year: Levy Day won it for the third time in five years and he shared it with Michael Dibb. Day won the 350cc and 500cc classic bike classes and Dibb picked up the Unlimited Forgotten Era and New Era Formula 1300cc events.
THERE’S ALWAYS NEXT YEAR
All the teams will be back again next year with NZ particularly benefiting from Graeme Crosby’s insights and advice. Hopefully, the professionalism of the top teams won’t damage the brand, discouraging participation by rendering all others uncompetitive or insufficiently financed to engage. Among the experienced, the Phillip Island Classic is regarded as Australia’s best race meeting and that includes MotoGP and the FIM Superbike championship. What are you doing in late January next year?
Tahbilk International Challenge
1 United Kingdom (617)
2 Australia (575)
3 America (445)
4 New Zealand (341)
Tahbilk International Challenge Individual Results
1 Ryan Farquhar UK, 141
2 Conor Cummins UK, 139
3 Jeremy McWilliams UK, 138
4 Damien Kavney NZ, 122