There is something special about Australian sportsmen and women. Perhaps performing so far from home makes them just that more determined to win and prepared to push to the limit and beyond. Grand Prix motorcycle racing is a prime example of the hardships they have overcome to win World Championships and Grands Prix for their country. It is also probably a reason they celebrate success a fair bit harder than most other nationalities. From that first Australian Grand Prix winner Ken Kavanagh in 1952 to Jack Miller’s win at Jerez last weekend you realise just what it means not only to the rider but the whole country.
Australian riders have always been prepared to follow their dreams and travel across the globe to race against the best in the world. They were not content to just read about or watch at the cinema Grand Prix racing in Europe. Instead, they made enormous sacrifices and, in some cases, the ultimate sacrifice, to find out for themselves just what it was all about.
Imagine making that 22,000km six-week sea journey from Australia to Europe to compete in the very first World Championship event at the 1949 TT races in the Isle of Man. That four-hour crossing from Liverpool to the Isle of Man across the bumpy Irish Sea must have seemed like a doddle for the three Australian riders, Eric McPherson, Harry Hinton and George Morrison, who flew the Australian flag 73 years ago not only at the TT but in that historic first season. Growing up I always thought how romantic it sounded. Far from home, travelling around Europe in a van to race motorcycle at legendary venues but it was a hand to mouth existence, especially for the non-European riders, but they continued to arrive.
Hinton’s third place in the 1950 Dutch TT riding the Norton was their first podium finish. Two years later Ken Kavanagh became the first Australian winner with victory in the 350cc race at the Ulster Grand Prix. It took another four years for the first world title with Keith Campbell crowned the 1957 350cc World Champion riding the Italian Moto Guzzi machine. Tom Phillis made history four years later bringing Honda their first Grand Prix win in the 1961 125cc Spanish Grand Prix. He went on to bring Honda their first world title the same year but tragically lost his life at the 1962 TT races.
I remember watching Barry Smith winning the 1968 50cc TT race and a year later sitting spellbound witnessing Kel Carruthers jump the legendary Ballaugh Bridge on the mountain circuit riding the gloriously sounding four cylinder Benelli. Carruthers, who later became the mentor for the likes of Kenny Roberts to dominate European racing, went on to win the 250cc TT and the world title.
Twenty years later I was in the thick of the action when two Australian riders arrived to dominate the 500cc World Championships and change the whole direction of the sport back home. Wayne Gardner lived on fish and chips and slept in the back of his Austin 1800 car when he arrived in England in 1982. Five years later he became the first Australian 500cc World Champion, and the country went completely crazy. He was voted Australian Sportsman of the Year ahead of Wimbledon tennis champion Pat Cash. National television started to broadcast the races live and the magnificent Phillip Island circuit staged the first Australian Grand Prix.
Mick Doohan took over the handlebars in the nineties. I will never forget the Queenslander’s fight back after almost having his leg amputated following his Dutch TT crash in 1992. He returned to somehow compete in the final two Grands Prix of the year but could not prevent Wayne Rainey retaining his title by just four points. A fit Mick and Honda proved an unbeatable combination winning five consecutive 500cc titles between 1994 and 1999 before injury forced one of the sport’s true greats to retire.
When I returned full time to the MotoGP™ paddock 21 years ago, I received so much help and encouragement from the aimable Jack Findlay, who was working for IRTA. In 1971, Jack became the first rider to win a 500cc Grand Prix on a two-stroke machine when he won the Ulster Grand Prix for Suzuki.
Garry McCoy and Chris Vermeulen certainly had contrasting styles but continued Australian MotoGP™ success until a young but so very fast Casey Stoner arrived in Europe. His parents sold up everything to bring their talented son to take on the world. They lived in a caravan in the cold, wet and windy north of England but their sacrifices were rewarded. Casey was something special. He brought Ducati their first premier class world title in 2007 and four years later regained the Championship on the factory Honda before retiring with his family to his farm back home.
Jack Miller’s Jerez victory was the 182nd time an Australian rider has stood on the top step of a Grand Prix podium. Three Australian legends have gone on to win the ultimate premier class prize, the 500cc or MotoGP™ World Championship. Jack’s Ducati win at Jerez has set him up to follow in their footsteps and, even more important, honour those pioneers who never made the long journey home.