Troy Bayliss will start his 10th attempt at winning a motorcycle grand prix 50 years to the day since Ken Kavanagh became the first Australian to win a GP in the premier class of two-wheel racing.
Kavanagh beat British legend Geoff Duke in a rain-lashed Ulster 500cc GP at the Dundrod circuit in Ireland on August 15, 1953.
Tomorrow Bayliss will mount his Ducati to take on Valentino Rossi and co. at Brno in the Czech Republic in the 10th round of the world championship for the awesome four-stroke MotoGP bikes which have superseded the 500s in the past two years.
Former superbike world champion Bayliss has had two podiums since switching to MotoGP this year – the first in South Africa early in the season and the second at the most recent race in Germany.
He is aiming to be the next Australian GP winner by the time of, and indeed perhaps at, the SKYY VODKA Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix at Victoria’s Phillip Island circuit on October 17-19.
Fifteen Australians have already won 125 motorcycle GPs. Mick Doohan accounted for more than a third of those victories – 54 in the 500cc class on his way to five world titles. Wayne Gardner won another 18, also in 500cc, and a world title in 1987, while the late Gregg Hansford also tallied double figures – with 10 wins in the late 1970s, six of them on 350cc bikes and four on 250cc machines.
Kavanagh, from Melbourne, is the elder statesman of Australia’s GP winners. Now almost 80, he has lived in Italy since soon after that famous victory at Dundrod.
The 1953 race was an epic 2½-hour, 386km battle between Kavanagh, on a works Norton, and Duke, on the dominant Gilera. While Duke held the early lead, Kavanagh hit the front soon after a mid-race refuelling stop and pulled away as heavy rain began to fall.
“I did everything I knew,” Kavanagh recounted in the book Australian Motorcycle Heroes, by Don Cox and Will Hagon. “I two-wheel slid the Norton through third and top-gear bends, I scratched it out of gutters and bounced it off walls. For three laps I could see Duke coming into the hairpin and I began to wonder, ‘Who will fall off first – him or me?’
“Then down came the rain and I was never so happy. The rain was in my goggles, in my boots, down my neck, it hurt my face; but I pressed on all the harder. The poor old Norton slithered all over the place but it did the trick. The gap opened up – eight seconds a lap for two laps (of the 12km circuit). ‘The Duke’ gave it away. The rain stopped and the roads started to dry and even though I slowed down a bit I still gained around three seconds a lap until the finish.”
Kavanagh spent three years racing a Norton and later raced for Moto Guzzi, MV Agusta and Ducati. He returned to Australia in the summer of 1959-60 and became the first rider to win on a Ducati in Australia.
Apart from his 500cc success, Kavanagh had already been the first Australian to win a world championship GP – the 350cc Ulster race at the 25km Clady circuit – and won three other 350cc GPs, including the first victory by an Australian at the notorious Isle of Man in 1956.
The 500cc win was the first GP triumph by a rider from outside Europe and marked the first time Duke had been beaten on European soil. Other greats Kavanagh raced against included Mike Hailwood and John Surtees.
Kavanagh also dabbled in Formula One in the late ’50s, driving Maserati 250Fs – one of which was previously raced by Juan Manuel Fangio. Kavanagh did not race in an F1 grand prix, but drove in several non-championship races.
While Australia’s latest premier two-wheel class star Bayliss is aiming for his first MotoGP win this weekend, the pressure is on Honda superstar Rossi to maintain his advantage after four races without a victory – the Italian’s longest winless period in almost three years.
Spaniard Sete Gibernau, on another factory Honda, is just 29 points behind Rossi after his stunning last-corner win at the German GP and is shaping as a title contender.
Italian Max Biaggi, on the Pramac privateer Honda, needs to add to his seven previous victories at Brno – which include premier class wins in 1998, 2000 and 2002 – to stay within striking distance of the championship leaders.
Bayliss and his Italian teammate Loris Capirossi are fifth and fourth in the championship, and should benefit from Ducati’s first test at the Czech circuit last month.
The German GP three weeks ago was the first at which Bayliss had finished in front of Capirossi at a race in which both completed the distance.
“I think it’s possible to get a few more podiums this season – and I expect a couple of wins,” Bayliss said. “I expected to be winning by now, so I’m a bit disappointed that I haven’t. Hopefully the wins are going to come quite soon. I’d love to win one or two, and by the time I get to Phillip Island the bike should be working quite fine and maybe I can pull one off there. In the home country would be great.”
Australia’s other MotoGP riders, Kawasaki teammates Garry McCoy and Andrew Pitt, also tested at Brno recently and continue to work with the team’s technicians to improve the competitiveness of the Ninja bikes for the rest of the season.
“It’s been tougher than I expected,” McCoy, a three-time 500cc winner aboard Yamahas, said this week. “The bike’s performance is pretty disappointing. We need some big improvements.”
The last Australian to win a premier class race at Brno was Mick Doohan in 1997, while McCoy was on the podium in 2000 at the 5.4km circuit in the town which gave its name to the Bren gun in World War Two.
In the 250cc class, Australian Anthony West is aiming for his fourth podium in five races and to lessen the 25-point gap to championship leader Manuel Poggiali, from San Marino.
Riding an Aprilia for Italian privateer outfit Zoppini Abruzzo, West scored his first GP victory at Assen, Holland, in June, and has twice been second – at Barcelona in Spain and Donington in Britain.
The 250cc class has seen six winners from the nine races this season, and only 25 points separate the top six riders.
Spaniard Fonsi Nieto is the strongest challenger to Poggiali, just three points behind after scoring four podiums from the past five races.
Kel Carruthers was the last Australian to win on a 250 at Brno, while Gregg Hansford was the last Aussie on the 250 podium there in 1978.
The 125cc class has had five winners this season, but 16 races now have passed without a back-to-back victor.
Australian Casey Stoner fell one short of adding his name to the winners’ list at the German GP, finishing second – and only 0.212 seconds – behind Italian Stefano Perugini, but the 17-year-old Stoner is confident a victory is just around the corner.
“Last year the Czech Republic was my best result (fifth place in 250cc GP), so I’m hoping for my best result this year, which can only go one better at the moment,” Stoner said.
“I’ll be putting in everything. I’d like to get on the podium again, but I think it will be a very hard race at this track – it always is. (No Australian has been on the 125cc podium at Brno)
“It’s a fast track with a lot of slipstreaming, so I think there will be quite a big front group.”
Stoner spent the sweltering three-week northern summer break holidaying by a lake in the Czech Republic but has worked hard on his fitness, which he hopes will give him an advantage this weekend as the temperatures are expected to stay high.
Spanish teenager Daniel Pedrosa leads Perugini and Stoner’s team boss, Italian Lucio Cecchinello, in the championship, with the Italians each aiming for their third win of the season.
Cecchinello has finished in the top five at Brno for the past six years, including three podiums apart from his victory last year.
The reigning 125cc world champion, Frenchman Arnaud Vincent, is unlikely to be at this round after parting with Austrian manufacturer KTM’s team recently.
Australian GP riders and their victories
Michael Doohan 54 (54 x 500) 1990-98
Wayne Gardner 18 (18 x 500) 1986-92
Gregg Hansford 10 (4 x 250, 6 x 350) 1978-79
Kel Carruthers 7 (7 x 250) 1969-70
Tom Phillis 6 (4 x 125, 2 x 250) 1961
Garry McCoy 5 (2 x 125, 3 x 500) 1995-
Ken Kavanagh 5 (4 x 350, 1 x 500) 1952-56
Barry Smith 4 (3 x 50, 1 x 125) 1968-79
John Dodds 4 (1 x 125, 2 x 250, 1 x 350) 1970-74
Daryl Beattie 3 (3 x 500) 1993-95
Jack Findlay 3 (3 x 500) 1971-77
Keith Campbell 3 (3 x 350) 1957
Jack Ahearn 1 (1 x 500) 1964
Kevin Magee 1 (1 x 500) 1988-91
Anthony West 1 (1 x 250) 2003-