PHILIP ISLAND, 26 FEBRUARY 2005

RACING DOWN UNDER – PENGUINS AND GLITTERA

Some weeks after the two cars (Elva and Surtees) left the UK on a slow boat to Australia the intrepid team departed in the middle of a blizzard. Team “mechanic” Bob Birrell almost missed the flight because of snow blocked roads in Fridaythorpe and yours truly had a last minute visa hitch to spice things up but eventually we were off on this new adventure.

After the start at Dawn on Wednesday it was midnight on Thursday when we eventually drove into our motel on Phillip Island. Bright and early the next day we set off to the circuit which was only two or three miles away on deserted roads through this wonderful nature reserve most famous for its penguins. What greeted us was the sight of a fast looking circuit bathed in seaside sunshine and covered in historic racers of all types.

The entry list had been closed at 450 cars making this the largest historic motor racing event ever staged in the Southern Hemisphere. The Victorian Historic Racing Register manage this event with a purely volunteer staff led by the wonderful Ian Tate and meeting Secretaries John and Sandra Caffin. The organisation was slick, timed to perfection and uniquely Australian – full of good humour mixed with clear and blunt instructions about driving standards. This last point is perhaps something that UK organisers might well consider – the Australians actually do something about bad driving rather than just talk about the problem.

The entry included a remarkable range of machinery ranging from the home grown saloon racers from the ‘60’s, through the many Australian versions of sports racers such as Lotus 23B’s and a full array of the usual exotica. From the US came the Dean Butler equipe with the 1948 Lago Talbot, Allard JR Le Mans, Indianapolis Robbins Special and ERA R1A which sat alongside the ex-Witney Sraight/Prince Bira Maserati 8CM of the absolutely charming Peter Giddings. The Butler cars were to be driven with great verve by Martin Walford and James Diffey. The UK was further represented by David Ham’s Lister Jaguar and a pair of F5000 cars for Frank and Judy Lyons. John Bladon contributed his McLaren M1A and Surtees F1 car ably assisted by the stalwart Terry Van der Zee.

The Phillip Island circuit is best known as the home of world championship motor cycle racing but it makes a world class car track also. Fast and swooping, with high speed corners and dramatic elevation changes, it is a real challenge where local knowledge makes a big difference. Bob Birrell described it as “Cadwell Park on steroids”. The races themselves saw huge grids mixing sports cars and single seaters, sometimes with large speed differentials – something the regular Australian racers have been used to for years. There are good reasons for this arrangement which we would usually consider a recipe for disaster in the UK. The Australians have a limited pool of cars in each category and alongside the huge distances facing the racers themselves it means that organisers usually don’t have large enough grids of single types – therefore they just mix them up and have big grids of all comers (not quite).

What about the racing? Well, first out was the Elva which was good for circuit learning. The circuit is truly wonderful and VERY fast starting with a daunting downhill right hand sweeper after the long start/finish straight. Several double apex corners make the choice of lines tricky and corners overlooking the ocean are certainly unusual. Next up was the Surtees TS8 and my first time driving this car in anger having only a few laps of Donington at the end of 2004. After only two laps I thought the cars was understeering terribly – much more than I remembered – when the front nearside tyre suddenly came off the rim!! At this point we had an unexpected problem because the wheels are original Surtees items and have to be dismantled to change the rubber. The only solution was to take the wet tyres off the spare set and replace them with two new slicks leaving us to hope that the rain predicted never came.

After two practice and qualifying sessions the Saturday and Sunday gave us three races for each car. The first was a hair raising handicap for the Elva with massive speed differentials all round. Being passed by a pair of fast starting GT40’s followed immediately by a F2 Brabham BT30 was certainly interesting. After that it was a series of more conventional races – each with multiple classes. The Elva won its class comfortably each time and never missed a beat – it really is a wonderful car for the amateur racer.

But what about the Surtees? Well I think it exceeded my most optimistic expectations by a large margin. First, it is a riot to drive – oodles of power and grip make it wonderfully exhilarating to drive and it is a real racer. I soon found that my closest competitor was Frank Lyons in his ex-Tony Trimmer Lola 332. This is a much later car both in years and technology and it also driven most expertly and with great spirit by the experienced Irish driver. However we were able to hang on to his tail, actually getting past during one race, and post a fastest lap time almost half a second faster than the Lola – an average speed of over 105mph. The end result – three races and three more class wins. All in all the event was a wonderful experience and we would certainly go again if the chance arose.

The Monday after it was back to the circuit to load up the cars for their journey to Albert Park and the Australian Grand Prix where we were due to take part in a daily “spirited demonstration”. Exactly what this meant was not clear before we started but Ian Tate arranged for the cars to go out onto the track in speed groups – faster ones together etc etc. The star turn of the demonstration was naturally Sir Stirling Moss driving a Masterati 250F like the one he used to win the Australian GP in 1956. However. Stirling is a true racer and joined in the fun properly – moving along with considerable speed himself he waved the F5000 cars through to have their fun.

Driving at about eight tenths we soon discovered that the Grand Prix circuit is quite challenging. Run through a public park, the track consists of a series of short fast stretches linked by slower chicanes that at first exposure all look the same. However, after a few laps it all becomes clearer particularly when the advertising banners are used as locating signs. If Phillip Island was Cadwell on steroids the Albert Park is a muscle bound Monaco. Like Monte Carlo, there are barriers everywhere and not much run off but it is much faster and quite a bit wider. Each day we did out bit for the crowds and it did provide quite a spectacle.

And so to the Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park? Well of course the precious F1 circus was roped off from us lowly types but I did manage to spend some time inside the inner sanctum thanks to a couple of well connected friends who bent the rules. You know who you are so many thanks for the gesture. The race was of course greatly influenced by the weather but overall a great success for Melbourne. Incidentally, Silverstone could certainly learn a thing or two from the Australians about running a GP – multiple support events being great value for the public.

Finally I have to pay thanks to the wonderful Phil Segat – “Big Phil”. The Phillip Island organisers allocated Phil to look after Bob and I during out stay. Phil soon recognised that he was dealing with a pair of mechanical incompetents and we adopted him as our mechanic. For all of Phillip Island and the Albert Park experience Phil spannered the cars expertly and kept us on the straight and narrow. A Stirling Moss signed photo of the Elva was insufficient thanks for his efforts.

What was the highlight of the trip? Well not the penguins, certainly not the F1 “hangers on” who are quite extraordinary and not the GP even though modern F1 cars continue to amaze with their speed. No, for me it had to be the F5000 experience and my first 100+mph laps – I hope she comes home soon!!

 

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