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1989 Aussie bike GP remembered

Submitted by on December 2, 2009

It is hard to believe that it is 20 years since the very first FIM-sanctioned Australian Grand Prix captured the imagination of the Aussie public and the admiration of the entire GP paddock. When I first visited Phillip Island in January 1987, plans were already afoot to stage Australia’s first FIM GP at the once fabled track. When I peered through the fence, I was confronted by a very dilapidated track (well what was left of the track) and dozens of sheep munching on grass that had overgrown the pot-holed bitumen. A derelict race control tower was the only hint that this was once a motor racing circuit. By late 1988, the track had been resurfaced and slightly shortened, and played host to the very last Swann Insurance Series round starring a 23-year-old Mick Doohan in his final domestic ride before making his GP debut at Suzuka prior to the ’89 AGP.

When I arrived at the 1989 Swan Australian Grand Prix on April 7, I was greeted by a magnificent venue, fantastic infrastructure and huge crowds brimming with unbridled anticipation, generating the wonderful atmosphere of one of the bigger European grands prix. GP racing had truly arrived Down Under.

We all know who won, who starred, and who was there. What are they doing now?

Wayne Gardner 1st – When I was standing below the podium after a very tired Gardner had sprayed the Moet, a bunch of likely lads were standing beside me, yelling and pointing to the man of the moment, “Legend!!, legend!!!’. How right they were. Aside from running Wayne Gardner Enterprises and managing his real estate portfolio, Wayne is a passionate advocate of junior dirt-track racing now that his sons Remy and Luca have taken up the sport.

Wayne Rainey 2nd – Rainey made his Aussie race debut in the most dramatic circumstances, and forever earned the respect of local race fans after pushing Gardner to perhaps his most memorable victory. The triple world 500cc champion remains one of the greatest riders of all time, and one of the most popular GP stars to ever hit Australian shores. I was standing between turns 11 and 12 during final qualifying when Rainey and Schwantz were sparring spectacularly. At one point, Wayne laid a huge blackie at over 180kmh before buttoning off for turn 12 with Schwantz in tow. Unforgettable. His career came to an end at Misano in 1993, and he went on to own Rainey Racing and later became involved with kart racing.

Christian Sarron 3rd – The likeable Frenchman actually led the race at various stages, his sweeping lines finding favour with the fast and flowing Phillip Island layout. Sarron signed off from GP racing at the 1990 AGP, and entered into team management with Yamaha Motor France, a job he “absolute hated” according to mate Barry Sheene. He later managed the Yamaha France WEC team that at one point hired Aussie Mark Willis. A big Corey Hart fan, Christian memorably made Mark and other endurance team riders wear sunglasses at night before heading out for their midnight stints in order to get used to the dark conditions away from the pits.

Kevin Magee 4th – Watching how sharp he looked during Sunday warm-up whilst I was standing at the fence at Southern Loop, I speculated that Magoo would be up there with the lead group, and if the cards fell his way, he could well challenge for a podium position. For once I was right, as Kevin mixed it with the top three for pretty much the entire race. Magee recorded the fastest trap speed of the event with 299kmh, and was looking good for 1989, but it came to a near tragic end a week later when Bubba Shobert collided with the Aussie in a blameless slow-down lap incident at Laguna Seca. Shobert never raced again and Kevin suffered a badly broken leg. Kev’s mug has been seen on Fox Sports for well over a decade.

Kevin Schwantz DNF – Claiming pole with a sizzling 1m34.99, the tall Texan was the man to beat but highsided out of MG on lap one, his glove flying into the air. Kevin oft tells the story of getting a ride back to the medical centre in a car nursing an injured wrist, and a total stranger beside him giving him sage advice. “This guy was telling me, ‘you’ll come back from this, you just have to be a bit more patient’, and ‘I’ve been there before and I know how it feels’,” said Schwantz. “I was thinking, ‘who the hell is this guy?’ It was Gregg Hansford.” Schwantz now runs a race school and was manager of the 2008 Red Bull Rookies series in America.

Freddie Spencer DNF – After ‘officially’ retiring in early 1988 following a series of mysterious absences, Freddie was signed by the Marlboro Yamaha team in its last guise under Giacomo Agostini’s management. As the front four scooted away in the early laps, Spencer clawed back “an enormous amount of ground” as Sheene called it, and was only a few laps from hunting them down when he ran off at Siberia, and was so angry that the very Christian Spencer swore as marshals helped him away. How fast was Freddie? Standing at Lukey Heights during one session, I looked across to see who was fastest onto the straight. Out of Schwantz, Rainey, Gardner, Sarron, Lawson etc, the Fred was visibly faster getting onto the front chute, lap after lap. Spencer’s long-time race school sadly went broke last year.

Frankie Chili DNF – The fastest lap of the race went to surprise packet Franke Chili on his V-four HB Honda NSR500. My grandstand seat was right on the speed trap at the end of the straight, and Frankie was simply electrifying entering turn one throughout practice and qualifying. His fastest lap time of 1m35.28 set on Pirelli tyres was so surprise to me, but his race didn’t last long when he lost the front-end at the Hayshed after setting his sizzling lap. After retiring from WSBK several years ago, Frankie took up TV commentating in Italy and now manages the Guandalini Ducati WSBK team.

There are a number of people and events that should also be noted on this anniversary. Promoter Bob Barnard for his vision and determination, the Nine Network’s brilliant TV coverage headed by Barry Sheene, Darrell Eastlake and Ken Sutcliffe, German privateer Michael Rudroff who scuttled Gardner off in warm-up, Randy Mamola’s speccy get-off when the throttle on his Cagiva got stuck entering Siberia, Kel Carruthers’ 250kmh plus test runs of Niall Mackenzie’s YZR500 during Saturday lunch wearing his team overalls, Robbie Phillis’s spill during the Aussie Superbike support race at turn 12 and Aaron Slight’s subsequent 200kmh slide on the grass.

Here’s to the next 20 years!

Darryl Flack

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