Bracksy reviews the 2017 QBE International Festival of Speed
By Mark Bracks – Images by Colin Rosewarne, Kris Hodgson
The 2017 International Festival of Speed may have had a new name, but it didn’t detract from the vast array of exotica that was ridden and displayed at Sydney Motorsport Park over the weekend of 23-26 March.
Each year has a different flavour to the event and this year it was all to do with Italy. During the weekend over 22,000 enthusiasts were on hand to admire the most impressive turn out of riders and machinery in the event’s history.
Promoted by the Post Classic Racing Association, the meeting is growing in stature every year. This was reflected months before the event when the PCRA changed the name of the event from its original “Barry Sheene Festival of Speed.”
The event was originally named in memory of the two-time world champion who used to compete at the PCRA event that was held around Easter each year, before his untimely death in 2003.
As the main organiser of the event, Peter McMillan, from the PCRA explained the situation.
“The name change had nothing to do with the family. The demands were made by the agent that looks after the Sheene family estate. There were demands to control the running of the event as well as asking for a substantial sum of money to use the great man’s name. We could not justify the expense and demands, so changed the name, I feel that the name now has a better ring to it and it is much better for seeking sponsorships.”
Whatever the name, the event has developed into one of the premier events of the Australian road racing calendar.
Among a multitude of highlights, the very centre of attention was the first appearance of 15-times World Champion Giacomo Agostini and his compatriot, Pierfrancesco Chili. Both competed in the GP Legends Demonstration Races albeit with different levels of enthusiasm.
What an amazing pair of individuals they are. Agostini never seemed fazed, and Chili always was and always will be, a pure gentleman, both of them never hesitating for a chat and a photograph with the fans.
Others that took part in the GP Legends were Steve Parrish and Jeremy McWilliams who returned for a second time, along with Graeme Crosby making another appearance.
Others that took part were GP winner Kevin Magee; IOMTT winner Cameron Donald riding an immaculate Barry Sheene replica RGV, owned by enthusiast, Paul Edwards, renowned bike journalist, Alan Cathcart; local publisher, writer and journalist, Jim Scaysbrook; while Maria Costello made her fourth visit to the event.
Of course it wouldn’t be an Italian motorcycle festival without Troy Bayliss in attendance, and he was in fine form on his Desmo Sport Ducati Panigale, the same bike he uses for pillion rides in the ASBK championship.
Another who drew plenty of attention, although not riding, was Jeremy Burgess, who picked up the tools for the first time in a few years.
Initially, Burgess was to attend as a guest but he was drafted into the Stu Avant/Tom Darmody team to assist with a couple of Tom and Stu’s bikes: a Suzuki RGB 500 ridden by Steve Parish; the Yamaha YZR500 ridden by Magee in the All Japan Championships; as well as Steve Trinder’s TZ500 ridden by Scaysbrook.
“JB” was invited into the team after esteemed GP engineer, Mike Sinclair, was forced to withdraw after undergoing heart surgery the week before the event. Not a bad replacement to call on at the last minute, but JB was very happy with the invite.
“It was thoroughly enjoyable to get back on the tools. It made the weekend all the more special and was a lot better than just standing around looking at everyone else get into it. We never stopped laughing the entire weekend. It was a magnificent experience.”
It wasn’t just GP royalty as a vast and astonishing array of motorcycling history was brought over for the festival, with the legendary marque of Laverda leading the way. Their first motorcycle was produced in 1948 by Francesco Laverda, the son of founder Pietro who started the company in 1873 producing farm machinery.
The historic family connection was at Eastern Creek, as son of Francesco, Piero Laverda, and grandson Giovanni, were overseeing the bikes and the riders of the visiting contingent.
It was a very special occasion to be in the midst of so many rare race bikes, with the the pride of the fleet, the extremely rare Laverda V6 1000cc endurance racer, and another eight of the orange missiles brought out from Italy.
Australian Redax Racing also had another six Laverdas representing, that were raced over the event.
There was also a fleet of drool enducing machines from the private collection of Romano Columbo who resides 25 kilometres from Milan. He owns a collection of 40 bikes of rare vintage, including 25 race bikes, eight of which were brought to the IFoS.
These included two Cagiva 500cc GP machines; the 1991 Eddie Lawson machine, and the 1994 bike of John Kocinski that is claimed to be the machine victorious in the Australian and US Grand Prix of that same year.
Other bikes that he brought to Australia were three MV Agusta 500cc machines; a 500 four-cylinder from 1956 and two three-cylinder machines from 1968 and 1970, as well as a 1954 Gilera 500cc four-cylinder, ridden by Geoff Duke, and a 1973 Paton 500.
Giving an Australian flavour to the weekend of motorcycling history was the Drysdale V8 ridden by its creator Ian Drysdale.
The bikes listed above took part in their own “Italian Legends” parades during the lunch break over the three days with “Ago” getting out on his MV during the three sessions, as well as a MV Agusta 750 supplied by local Julian Maclean.
The four GP Legends Demonstration Races were a graphic example that you can take the man away from the racetrack but not the racetrack away from the man. While they might not be breaking lap records, there was still a very competitive nature present, with the main protagonists McWilliams, Magee and Chili. With Bayliss having a crack as well, although he may have had the wheelie control reversed as the bike was on the back wheel for a considerable amount of time!
As was the case with the inaugural legends contests last year, from the first race it was clear that while they might be having fun, a few were going to go at it.
In all races “Ago” didn’t wait around for the lights to go off, he just took off and let the others have fun off the line. That they did, as they baited each other into having a bit of a go all around the circuit with them then having a drag to the line to declare a “winner.”
Taking nothing away from the other trio of races, the third race of the weekend was the most intense as the quartet hammered it out, summed up by Franki at the end of the five laps saying through laughter, “I need a change on underwear. I nearly high-side three times, playing around with him,” pointing to an equally happy and sweaty McWilliams.
For the last heat, Bayliss put the pillion handlebars on the Panigale with Maria Costello taking up the offer to be “dinked” around the 4.5 km track. His “rivals” were incredulous at his antics as he didn’t hold back, dicing with them to give Maria the ride of her life.
McWilliams later saying, “I couldn’t believe the lean angles and the corner speed he managed with Maria on the back. He came past me a couple of times and I thought, ‘There is no way he will make it,’ but he did!”
There was a lot more banter than battles over the course of the races and in the pits the good natured “piss-taking” between the legends didn’t stop. It actually continued well into the nights as there were a few functions over the four days.
After practice on the Thursday there was a gala event at the Marconi Club, a few kilometres from the track, where the Italian Club put on a special night, with Alan Cathcart interviewing all the leading players.
Obviously Agostini was top billing, with Graeme Crosby called up on stage to be interviewed at the same time. With their history, Croz looked a bit of out place and nervous at a couple of questions. Franki Chili and Troy Bayliss were others that graced the stage, with Parrish giving an updated version of his highly entertaining show.
On the Friday night, Laverda had a diner at the hotel where the new Laverda SFC-4 668cc machine was unveiled, it would be ridden during the following days lunch break. On the same evening, back at the track, there was a “Meet and Greet” for fans at the ARDC Cafe on top of the pit garages with a few of the special guests continuing the frivolity.
Finally, on the Saturday night at the hotel across from the track it was a dinner with the title, “A Night With Ago.” As the name suggests it was all about the 15-time World Champion as he related parts of his career and thoughts on racing to the enthralled guests.
2017 International Festival of Speed – Supports
There was more to the weekend than just the legends with 50 other races run, including three legs of the QBE Top 50, made up of the fastest 25 P5 and P6 riders across all classes.
Not to mention the Ken Lucas Senior Challenge, the requirement to compete being that the rider and bike must have a combined age of 100+. Plus there was a race for the Barry Sheene P3 500cc Award, the Ken Wootton P5 & 6 Challenge and the Paul Dodds P4 750cc Challenge.
The fields in most classes were massive with some grids filled to the track maximum. There were not too many processional races but with the fields as large as they were, there was some excellent racing throughout the ranks and over a dozen new lap records set during the weekend.
It is encouraging to see the growing list of young riders that are taking part in classic racing. Guys like Cam Donald and Beau Beaton may be young but they have been in the categories for a while, and they both competed on the Irving Vincent over the weekend.
But there were others like young gun riders, Aaron Morris, Michael Blair and Aaiden Coote in the big bore classes, as well as the likes of Lachlan and Mitch Kavney in the 125cc classes.
Morris rode a Yamaha FZR and OW01 in different classes and set lap records along the way. Blair was on a Yamaha TZ750 – signed by American legend Steve Baker – for the first time, and also riding a TZ350. Coote continued his association with the rapid Rob North Trident 750.
In the QBE Top 50 and other Period 5 & 6 classes, Morris, Blair and John Allen – also on a TZ750 – had some sensational duels.
Over the years, Allen has ridden literally everything with a wealth of knowledge and experience, and while he was out to win, he also passed on many tips to Blair, as he became accustomed to the big bore two-stroke beast.
Paul Grant Mitchell took a clean sweep in the Pre-Modern F1 and F2 (including P5 & 6 Consolation) races, his biggest winning margin of the five races just 0.8 sec!
The Irving Vincent sidecar team of Barry Horner and Chris Dinuzzo had a setback early in the weekend with an incident at Turn Five, with Chris suffering leg and shoulders injuries that forced his withdrawal from the meeting.
With Chris out of the running, who better to step into the breech of the swinger’s platform than regular hard charger of the Irving Vincent solo machine, Beau Beaton! He did one race as a passenger then for the remaining races as the man in charge.
Cameron Donald was named as the replacement passenger, but due to the lack of time in swapping from the Egli-Vincent in the race immediately before, Matt McKinnon who has swung in the outfits for years – particularly with legend Doug Chivas – stepped in.
“I felt like it was trying to pull my arms out. That is the hardest I have ever had to try to hang on. I had feet and arms more planted than ever. That thing is a beast and I love it. Such were Beau’s lap times he might become a more regular sidecar pilot.”
While there was plenty of exciting on track activities, it was balanced with a couple of serious crashes when the weekend didn’t get off to the best starts. Three helicopters were called to the track for medical emergencies, although only two transported riders to hospital.
An accident during the third race of the weekend was one of those horrific incidents that happens occasionally, just after the start. It occurred during the opening leg of the Period 4 1300cc/Period 5 & 6 750cc race on Friday.
Wayne Forest on his P6 GSXR750, 17th on the grid, took off but after clicking second gear the engine died and he started to slow, and raised his left arm in warning to those behind. Unfortunately Brian Ireland who started 44th on the grid didn’t see him as he accelerated on his Yamaha TZ750 and slammed into the rear of Forrest’s bike, throwing them both on the deck.
On impact with the tarmac the fuel tank of the TZ split and the contents exploded in flames, the bike a fireball as it slid into the pit wall, a trail of flame burning on the bitumen.
Later in the afternoon in the first leg of the P4 500cc / P5 350cc / P6 250 Prod, veteran campaigner Glenn Hindle was the most serious after he crashed entering Turn Two while leading the opening 250cc race.
He was high sided from his bike and hit the ground extremely hard, suffering a fractured skull in the incident. Thankfully, by the close of play on Sunday afternoon Glenn was well on the mend and was expected to be moved to a general ward early in the week.
To put this in perspective, over the course of the four days of the event, including free practice day on Thursday, and practice, qualifying and one round of races on Friday affected by rain and thunderstorms, there were 96 events on track including the public parade lap at lunchtime on Sunday. There were 79 individual mechanical incidents on track, 31 crashes and 16 red flags with only the final two events cancelled due to time constraints.
With over 400 entries and considering the way the machines are ridden, all-in-all, the meeting ran pretty smoothly, even accounting for the delays.
To be fair, to lose only two races right at the end was not the perfect end to the weekend, but still represented a great effort by all the officials and marshals to almost complete the program, considering the challenges they faced over the four days
Classic motorcycle events are growing in popularity and stature as folks from all ages come to look and learn about the past. Being able to get up close to the pure two-stroke Grand Prix bikes of the 20th century is something special.
There is nothing like the sight, sound and smell of a two-stroke machine, of any capacity, as it is warmed up and then sent out on track to rev like it was designed to.
That the list of retired riders that come to the event to ride machines that were often part of their racing life is also not lost on organisers and attendees. The applause for the access and time they give to fans to have a chat, sign a poster or pose for a photograph, should be as deafening as the sound of an MV Agusta being warmed up.
But for all the joy and excitement of a classic meeting, bear in mind that these bikes and riders will become more rare in the ensuing years, as time marches on. The bikes of the Grand Prix eras will only become harder to find, to replace the ageing examples that fill the garages and paddocks of tracks around the world.
Why? Because since the return of four-strokes to the premier category of Grand Prix racing none have made it into the hands of a benefactor like Steve Wheatman, Romano Columbo, or Tom Darmody. Or a man like Piero Laverda who is part of a motorcycling dynasty, where these bikes are part of his family.
In the modern age, not many Grand Prix bikes are bought outright by collectors because they are not available for purchase. Satellite teams lease the bikes and they are returned at season’s end.
In this day and age, many of the bikes of the Japanese manufacturers are sacrilegiously crushed when their use by date is reached at the end of a season.
There is not much nostalgia to see those big bore 990cc, 800cc and now 1000cc bikes being passed down through future generations, as is the case with the previous eras today.
The best hope for some is that they will end up in a museum like the Honda facility at the Motegi circuit, but to see them being ridden rapidly around a Phillip Island or an Eastern Creek may very well be a pipe dream.
What will become of classic racing in 10 or 20 years time if that happens? Looking at old Superbikes just isn’t the same as looking at, and hearing, a purpose built Grand Prix bike on full noise…