Phillip Island MkII
Last issue we outlined the history of the original, 4.82km incarnation of the seaside Phillip Island circuit that operated between 1956 and 1978. This issue we tell the story of how the facility was reincarnated as the slightly shorter, 4.45km Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit in time to host the 1989 Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix.
Fans of four-wheeled motorsport can thank the ‘blokes on spokes’ for the miracle that occurred in the late 1980s, as without the quest for an Australian round of the world championship the track’s revival simply would not have taken place.
In fact, if we take a step back, a bloke from Wollongong deserves a slap on the back for rising to the top of world motorcycling and capturing the sporting public’s imagination. As Jim Scaysbrook, editor of AMC’s sister publication Old Bike wrote, in his book Along for the Ride, “When Wayne Gardner won the World 500cc Championship in 1987, it seemed like the entire Australian population discovered motorcycle racing simultaneously.”
This explosion in popularity meant the economics of completely overhauling the Victorian circuit began to add up – on paper at least. Of course, it wasn’t as easy as all that, but the resurrection was completed.
The reworked circuit differed from the original version in three key ways. Firstly, the run into (and out of) the hairpin now known as Honda Corner was shortened by some 150 metres, MG Corner was opened-up and raised and the circuit received the high-quality hot-mix surface it had long deserved. The tweaks simply preserved the classic track’s character and mystique.
highlighted in AMC #88, by the mid-1970s the 4.82km Phillip Island layout’s surface had become a patchwork not be-fitting a proper race track. It was reported that the bridge between San Remo (on mainland Victoria) and the island could not fit the heavy plant equipment to do a proper hot-mix surfacing. The less durable cold mix track decayed markedly.
Big-time racing on the original layout ended in ’77 and by the early 1980s all racing was discontinued and the owners started farming the land. That appeared to be the end of the line for the once great circuit.
Local businessman Fergus Cameron bought the facility from the Lukey family in 1984 for $800,000. That move would soon change everything.
The same year saw the emergence of the Wayne Gardner as a force in world motorcycle racing’s premier division. And when the ‘Wollongong Whiz’ won three races in 1986, his success piqued the interest of all Australian sporting fans.
A year later Gardner was World Champion. By this stage, local enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and pollies had already sniffed an opportunity.
When journalists visited Phillip Island in January 1987, plans to stage Australia’s first world championship 500cc GP in 1989 were already in the works. When they peered through the fence, they were confronted by a dilapidated track and dozens of sheep munching on grass that had overgrown the pot-holed bitumen. The derelict race control tower was the only real hint that this was once a motor racing circuit. The journalists speculated whether the facility would ever be ready.
The re-birth of Phillip Island in the late 1980s wouldn’t have been possible without the vision and determination of English-born Bob Barnard. Barnard came to the attention of the motor
racing fraternity as the designer and creator of the magnificent Adelaide Parklands circuit that hosted Australia’s first World Championship Formula 1 round in 1985.
A meeting between Bob Barnard, Fergus Cameron and Wes Brown in 1987 resulted in the formation a company called Barfield to oversee the re-building of the Phillip Island track/infrastructure, and the promotion of the 1989 Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix Grand Prix. Barnard had 50 percent shareholding in Barfield and Cameron was another substantial shareholder. Barnard had successfully won the provisional rights to the bike grand prix, subject to the circuit being successfully homologated.
By late 1988, the 375-metre shorter new track had been resurfaced and was ready for racing.
The 4.45km layout would become a favourite among drivers across all classes.
Phillip Island came of age both internationally and locally at the 1989 Australian 500 Grand Prix, attracting a global TV audience of 300 million viewers and 90,000 fans.
“The inaugural World Championship Grand Prix at Phillip Island was always going to be a success,” wrote Jim Scaysbrook in Along for the Ride, “but even the most wildly optimistic could not have predicted the triumph it turned out to be – by any measure the greatest day’s motorcycle sport in the country’s history. With around 100,000 spectators basking in the sunshine around the circuit the atmosphere was positively electric by the time the 500cc GP got under way, and when Wayne Gardner rode a sensational race to the victory the place positively exploded.”
The event promised a taste of what motorsport fans could look forward to for decades to come. But for Barnard, his part in the Phillip Island sagas ended after the 1990 bike grand prix, also won by Gardner. In 1991 Barfield was declared insolvent and the lease reverted back to the original owners. The lease was soon transferred to the circuit’s present manager, Phillip Island Motor
Johnson and Bowe were so pleased when Phillip Island returned to the ATCC they raised their arms in celebration! The circuit has claimed some cars in the intervening years, though.