Phillip Island’s popular Historics meeting is a relaxed precursor to the Australian GP, albeit with some serious celebrating included this year
By Simon Taylor
The Phillip Island Historics meeting, run each March a week before the Melbourne Formula 1 opener, has been called Australia’s Goodwood. That’s an inadequate, and misleading, description: instead of the tightly-staged glamour of the Revival there’s friendly Aussie informality and can-do good humour, and nobody would dream of wearing period gear, still less a tie. But the circuit is beautifully scenic and the weather usually glorious, and this is the largest old-car race meeting in the Southern Hemisphere, with almost 500 entries this year.
Phillip Island, 12 miles long and six miles wide, is situated about 60 miles to the south of Melbourne and is connected to the Victoria mainland by a bridge. It’s long been a quiet resort favoured by holidaymakers for its small beaches, cuddly koalas and its miniature penguins. But in the late 1920s it attracted a new, noisier crowd when the first Australian Grand Prix was run on a rectangle of rough public roads, and it stayed there until the end of the 1930s (see feature in February 2008 issue of Motor Sport).
Nowadays the racing takes place on the purpose-built circuit on the south of the island, a sweeping, undulating 2.7-mile layout along the shore, with the Tasman Sea a shimmering deep blue backdrop. The long downhill main straight, where the Formula 5000s were nudging 200mph this year, leads into the daunting, nearly flat, top-gear sweep that is Turn One. You feel if you understeer off here you’ll end up in Tasmania. Although there are two hairpins, most of the corners are quick, and the lack of chicanes and the abrupt artificial corners that F1 has wished on so many great European tracks means that this flowing, demanding track is ideal for historic racing.
The organising club, the Victorian Historic Racing Register, runs through the meeting at a relentless rate, driven by the huge enthusiasm of event director Ian Tate and the stern discipline of clerk of the course Michael Holloway, who in his other life is a senior Melbourne policeman. Over the three-day weekend every runner gets two practice sessions and four short, sharp races.
The Australians are proud of their history. On the Saturday, to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the first Phillip Island race, an 80-car cavalcade of pre-war racers and sports cars did a couple of laps of the old road circuit, led by an Austin Seven that contains at least some parts of Arthur Waite’s 1928 winner. The Bugatti that won the 1929 race, the first to be called the Australian GP, was there too. Guests at the Saturday evening dinner in the restaurant above the pits included great Australian racing names like Bob Jane, Norm Beechey, John Bowe, Kevin Bartlett, Vern Schuppan, Warwick Brown and many more. There were Australian cars, too: on display in the paddock were home-grown machines like the gorgeous Lou Molina-built Monza Holden, two examples of the cute Goggomobil-based Buckle sports car, and a brace of Bolwells. On the track were grand old Aussie racers like the Kleinig Hudson, the original Maybach Mk 1 and a flawless reconstruction of the Maybach Mk 2, destroyed in Stan Jones’ huge 1954 accident at Southport and now painstakingly recreated over eight years by John Sheppard. Home wins were scored by Nick McDonald’s 1956 2.6-litre Ausca, John Briggs’ thunderous 5.8-litre Vescanda and Laurie Bennett’s neat Elfin 600B.
Stars of the show were the Formula 5000s with a thunderous 30-car grid, more than half of them from New Zealand. Kiwi Chris Hyde (McRae GM1) dominated all his races, with Graham McRae there to cheer him on, and also vanquished the Formula 1 cars that ran with them, including an ex-Michele Alboreto Ferrari from the turbo era, an ex-Alan Jones Beatrice, an ex-Gerhard Berger Benetton and a superb ex-Denny Hulme McLaren M23. A multi-national Formula Junior contingent wound up their four-meeting Tasman Series with Peter Strauss unbeatable in his Brabham BT6, although Ned Spieker (Brabham) and Jonathan Williamson (Lotus 22) got very close to him, but Pom Clive Wilson took the Tasman title with a string of class wins in his front-engined Lola.