LIKE a distant call from the wild, each year we are drawn to a unique southern location, a place where the weather is never the same as the minute before, where whispers of legends and heroes echo through the paddocks, and where machines of different breeds are free to roam in the outer pastures.
The journey there for some has been exhausting, but the twists and turns upon the black tar beneath or the serenity of the open landscape has made their travels worthwhile. Our minds tweak with excitement as the memories from previous years come flooding back, the camaraderie of annual friends are once again ignited as a new chapter starts to unfold.
The allure is like a disease that has no cure, except to return back each year to the place of its origin, to be intrenched once again in an environment we can’t seem to let go.
What is it that keeps us loyal to this pilgrimage; the speed, the landscape, the people, the atmosphere?
Every year Phillip Island (PI) hosts the World Superbike (WSBK) and World Supersport (WSS) championships and those who have experienced the event speak enthusiastically of the atmosphere of this racing weekend. I know that I personally have enjoyed many years of the ‘Supers’ at the Island, where I have seen championships won and lost, wildcard victories, low flying seagulls, red hair and striptease on the podium, career ending crashes and watched a flooded circuit from the back of a van.
I have been fortunate to be entertained by the talents of Fogarty, Edwards, Haga, Slight, Chilli and Aussies Bayliss, Corser, Gobert, Goddard, Vermeulen, Pitt, Muggeridge and Parkes, just to name a few of the past riders who have provided some of the closest and most breathtaking racing I have ever seen.
So what makes the Supers at the Island so special?
I ask the spectators, the media, the riders, the organisers and try to gain an insight into this unique motorcycle event and it’s location.
THE TRACK – The Need for Speed
The Phillip Island circuit is renowned as a fast flowing circuit, a favourite track to many of the worlds top riders. It is unique in its design and awe inspiring in its ocean backdrop. The track is very technical and riders comment on the consistency needed to string together a fast lap. “It is such a fast flowing circuit, it gives you all of the curves that make a really good circuit. Whenever you have a race meeting here it always brings out the best in the riders.” (Shawn Giles-ASBK Legend)
“One of the few natural terrain tracks left in the world….it is so fast and open….it is a challenge because you need balls to go fast and to do it consistently” (Mark Bracks-Commentator).
The great thing about the WSBK at PI is the freedom to ride your bike around the outside of the circuit perimeter. This gives spectators the freedom of different vantage points to the circuit and with such iconic corners and sections like Southern Loop, Siberia, Lukey Heights, turns 10, 11 and 12, over the three days you could spend some quality time at them all.
The campground – Cowes in the pastures
Early Friday morning with the sizzle of bacon and eggs in the background, I interrupt my first bleary eyed group of campers who call themselves “The Convicts”. I ask for their thoughts on the WSBK at the Island, and from the comfort of his reclining camp chair it was Karl who first chirps, “Resort style, more bang for your buck” then from the BBQ Dave says, “Yeah you get four races instead of three (GP) with two WSBK and two WSS races”.
Then Alan from a nearby tent yells, “There is only one WSS race you dickhead!”
With this, Dave admits his mistake and suggests it may be a good time for a wake up cuppa…and reminds everyone that he is cooking their breakfast. Interview number one and it is already confusing!
These guys have always eaten well says Dave, “Pot roasts, baked dinners, lamb on a spit, bush damper for breaky…usually the week before I’ll have a big shop at the the markets.”
“Yeah with assistance from the wife…..of course,” adds Karl. “If you engage the wife in the preparation, you then have the ability to come down here every year.” I have witnessed and enjoyed these culinary delights and on Sunday evening they usually throw all the leftovers into a pot for their infamous ‘P/Island stew’ which is also happily shared with passers by.
The boys talk about how they have become PI friends and only see each other once or twice a year (GP sometimes), and all enjoy the chilled atmosphere of the Supers. Alan says, “The common thread that seems to bond the campground is primarily the love of bikes, but with this said everyone is approachable and enjoy spinning a few tales”
“Our regular weekend routine is, Friday hang at camp and catch up with everyone, Saturday we walk around the track, Sunday we head for Siberia…everyone has their favourite place, the good thing about PI is you get to see a large amount of the track from many places and the big screens help as well,” says Phil.
One Saturday night I remember being up in the campground entertainment area, the band was on a break and a few guys on modern sportsbikes were trying to get the crowd going with their burnout attempts in the nearby burnout pit. Karl, with arms folded wearing his traditional ‘dry as a bone’ gives his mates a bemused look and chuffed, “I’ve had enough, this is lame…” and wandered off back to the campground. A short time later the crowd parted way for his return, here was Karl on his mighty DT 125cc 2-Stroker, left arm pumping in the air, right hand flicking the throttle, the crowd responded with every zing…zing…It was like Karl was some prized boxer arriving for his title fight, the build up was electric.
After some crowd teasing, Karl finally ventured into the burnout pit for a perfectly executed burnout, the crowd went wild as this 125cc revved its little heart out. The deed was done, a quick absorption of some well deserved applause and Karl disappeared into the darkness, a script that could not have been written.
The bikes and the riders
After winning the 2012 ASBK Supersport Title, Mitchell Carr and the Australian AARK Racing team have decided to expand their aspirations and enter the WSS championship full time.
“AARK Racing has the same Australian team and engine builder, Andy Offer the team owner bit the bullet as it is something he has wanted to do for a long time, and we are jumping in the deep end. The team dynamics don’t change as we know how we all work, and we know what we have as a package and we have to just make it work,” Mitchell says and then adds, “With the Triumph 675 the chassis is pretty much the same so we just had to adapt to the tyres. The tyres are a big thing, they react very different. The Dunlop’s characteristics are a hard tyre wall and the Pirellis are a soft tyre wall, so there was a little bit of set up change to deal with that. Another big thing is the electronics. We are running a full Motec ignition and traction control and that is a very difficult thing to set up. We only had limited testing for this round, we have it at a good base level and now fine tuning it, we are chipping away at it and this is probably one of the most difficult things.”
Stepping up to the world stage must change family routines and must come with some major sacrifices, but Mitchell happily replies, “I am very lucky to have some very loyal sponsors that are helping me along the way. Myself and fiancé Jess will be living out of a motorhome and the oldies will come over for one or two rounds and make a bit of a holiday out of it, but they will be just as busy here with my brother Brayden who rides in the local ASBK series.”
With Phillip Island being Josh Hook’s favourite circuit, Team Honda Racing threw their support behind him and supplied him with an up-spec CBR600 for the WSS round. The transition with the same team was almost seamless, but noted a few differences with the WSS Bike.
“The differences between the bikes is not a great deal, but there is a lot more top end on the WSS bike. I have not ridden on the Pirrelli tyres before, they certainly have a lot more grip, especially around here, the track seems a little bit abrasive at the moment (Saturday) and PI is probably the worst circuit in the world for tyre wear, we are just chipping away.”
“I have done a few wildcards with GP here as well, the atmosphere is a lot better at a world champ meet, there’s a lot more people here, and it’s a chance to ride with those riders out there that are fast. They’re the best in the world, so its good to be out there comparing myself to them. Its unbelievable, I am having fun and it’s a good way to ride a motorbike, that’s for sure.”
Although most of the working mechanics of the media seem to work quietly in the background, in order to share this wonderful WSBK event with the rest of the world, the media coverage and promotions must start way before race day.
The media covers the teams pre season testing, press conferences and specially organised rider events. This year’s press conference schedule was organised for the Thursday before the races and gave the media an opportunity to photograph/record riders during press conference interviews and a bicycle parade around the circuit.
The bicycle parade was quite entertaining with WSBK and WSS riders showing their bicycle wheelie skills over Lukey Heights etc. This included International riders, Sykes, Sofogulo, Rea, Laverty, Camier and Aussies Allerton, Stauffer, Hook, Carr and Davies.
I spoke to Ingrid Roepers who manages the Media Centre and is National Press Officer for the WSBK, and asked her about the media and promotion logistics of such an event.
“We probably start from a media centre point of view from about last November, we have to set up the facilities, we have a media centre here that caters for 140 journalists and photographers and it is also a resource for all the teams PR people because they file a lot of the copy on their websites and send it all over the world. Of those probably 70 are Australian and 70 Internationals.”
I then went on to ask Ingrid about what the world thinks of our humble little Island event and she proudly adds, “The track is so unique, there is no other track like this in the world, everybody seems to agree, nowhere else has this type of track, the incredible speed and the turns, and such iconic turns like Sibera and Lukey heights. Also what you have here is this majestic seaside location, and when the weather is good it is a magical spot.”
“We are very lucky here also because we are the first event of the season and a lot of the teams come here to test, some of the teams are here for 10 days before, so when you ask when does it start? We have been here since Wednesday a week ago.”
Once race day arrives the media centre is a hive of activity and comes alive with every journalist/photographer having their own agenda and specific deadline, as the news breaks it is transported all over the world in almost real time.
SUPER or Not? That is the question…
The overall opinion seems to be that yes there is something unique and special about the WSBK at Phillip Island, this view seems to ring consistently from the spectators through to the riders and event organizers.
We have been lucky to have had plenty of Australian riders to cheer for in both the WSBK and WSS (and support classes) over the years, with a truckload of wins, podiums and world titles, and I am sure with the amount of fast young riders here and overseas this will continue well into the future.
I guess time will tell what changes Dorna will bring to both championships and we can only hope they don’t mess to much with what seems to be a pretty successful formula. So if you haven’t been to the WSBK yet, next year get your mates together, grab a tent, some bush tucker, a comfy chair and maybe even plan your itinerary to include some nice twisty roads.
Well I’m certainly hooked and looking forward to next year already. Oh, did I tell you about Corser winning on three different bikes, the win by Mr Squiggle, or the big crash on Lukey?
Well, maybe another time.