A Racing Uncertainty

Click to view in E-Magazine | Click to view Brochure

-By John Boley

This year marks the 60th birthday of an icon of Victoria and almost certainly of the whole country. For sure, any of the millions who follow motorcycle racing and/or the brutally impressive V8 Supercars series will regard Phillip Island as a landmark. But so will many more: tourists, holidaymakers, corporate eventers, even couples who got married there. In every sense, Phillip Island is a ‘venue’, not least for the thousands who come to watch the celebrated Penguin Parade experience – as the sun sets, the little penguins waddle up the beach to the safety of their homes in the sand dunes, seemingly a million miles away from the petrolheads.

In its original incarnation, the race track was possibly more brutal than even a V8 Supercar. The official track history describes it thus: “10.6 kilometres of rough and dusty public roads formed a narrow high crowned racing circuit. On paper it looked like a featureless rectangle with four incidental right hand corners. From behind the wheel it was a hard, brutal treadmill of a place. Drivers boasted they steered by following the treetops through the billowing dust and flying stones. Despite these claims lack of visibility often resulted in cars colliding during overtaking manoeuvres. This circuit still operates today as public roads.”

But in 1952 construction began on a more refined circuit, with an intention to “build Australia’s first international grand prix circuit,” as the club formed to do so put it. Almost from the starting flag, however, financial problems prevented the club and the track from fully achieving its lofty aims. By the late 1970s, much of the facility was derelict, with local people using parts of it for farming.

Its consequent resurrection has been remarkable, a transformation wrought by a team that, amazingly, had little or no interest in motor racing. Fergus Cameron, Managing Director of the circuit, takes up the story.

“The history of the first 40 years was one of boom and bust, and basically it suffered from a lack of capital in terms of being able to maintain and develop a circuit the size of Phillip Island. I was part of an organisation that bought the circuit in 1984, and when we bought the circuit, it hadn’t been raced on for eight or nine years. It was in a severe state of disrepair.”

The consortium was taking a bow at a venture. “None of us had a background in motor sport, and none of us were enthusiasts. What we did recognise was that it was a magnificent property with a coastal frontage and we thought that in many forms it might have had potential going forward. We really weren’t focused on the motor racing side of things.” In fact discussions with the sport’s administrators in Australia were rather discouraging. “They didn’t give us any encouragement at all that the circuit had a position in the national motor sport calendar. We went into this not sure what we were going to do, but we did know what a nice piece of real estate it was. Once we bought the property and began to understand that there potentially was a future for the circuit we explored all sorts of different ways to get it going.

“We had the circuit for nearly five years before we really unlocked the mechanism for it to become a re-established venue.” That was through winning a round of the FIM’s world motorcycle championship, the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix, which was held at Phillip Island in 1989. This landmark event was prefaced by “an enormous amount of capital works that went into the property to get it to an international standard. In 1989 it instantly went from being a well known and fondly remembered national venue to an international venue. It was a breathtaking leap forward.”

One of the driving forces in the circuit being awarded the motorcycle Grand Prix was a partnership with Bob Barnard, who had also been a key figure in the arrival of the four-wheel Formula 1 Grand Prix in Adelaide. “He was instrumental in terms of redevelopment of the circuit for the event,” Fergus told us.

Fergus said the subsequent interest from and eventual takeover by trucking identity Lindsay Fox’s Linfox Corporation was neither an indulgence nor a sentimental move. “No, it’s very much a money-making venture. It’s worth dwelling on Linfox’s arrival in 2004, 20 years after we had bought the circuit. The important thing they brought to the table was the capital behind them to take the circuit to the next level. The previous ownership had struggled in terms of being able to improve facilities but Linfox were able to inject a level of capital that really took it to the next stage. But it’s very much a business for the Linfox organisation.”

Much of the growth since 2004 has involved permanent capital improvements that have replaced temporary infrastructure put up for major events that include the Moto GP, Superbike World Championship rounds and V8 Supercars. “That infrastructure now is available all 365 days of the year for all circuit users,” said Fergus.

365? Surely not? He laughed and conceded: “Ok, we do get some, ah, ‘very ordinary’ weather! Phillip Island is known for the fact that you can have four seasons in one day and to a degree that’s part of the attraction of the place. I mean lots of people – race officials or competitors, or spectators – have got wonderful stories to tell about Phillip Island, about how they ‘survived’ a particular event in blistering or bleak, horrible conditions.”

In reality, the track’s various facilities can be used for about 280 days of the year. That is a “very healthy calendar of business which includes two world championship events, international motorcycle testing and a round of every national championship in Australia.” It’s a high-end venue, too, for vehicle launches for (in particular, at the moment, with the strength of the dollar) the European manufacturers. “We have ride days and drive days and there’s an enormous level of activity that goes on here the whole time.”

In terms of maintaining the position which Phillip Island has (at last, one might say) attained, Fergus and his team must not stand still. “We’ve just had FIM and FIA (the four-wheel equivalent) track inspections and in both instances the reports were very favourable in terms of the way the whole property looked.” But given the circuit’s long term agreements for both Moto GP and World Superbikes, “in December, we will do a total resurface of the track. It’s not in bad shape, but it needs to be borne in mind that it is the fastest Moto GP circuit in the world and therefore it’s very, very important that we keep it as smooth as possible. That’s the big-ticket item on the agenda in terms of safety. We’re also looking at including some asphalt run off areas and we have a longer term plan of a gradual changeover from earth backed tyre barriers in several locations to change them over to guardrail or concrete barriers where appropriate.”

For those that don’t regularly watch these modern-day gladiators, just bear in mind that Australia’s own Casey Stoner averaged 171.4 km/h for 42 minutes to win the 2011 event on his Repsol Team Honda. The fastest recorded speed at the circuit was in 2005, when Spain’s Carlos Checa pelted through the radar trap at 333.436 km/h (at which velocity ‘smooth’ becomes distinctly relative).

In front of around 100,000 spectators, to put the event back in its commercial setting. Because Phillip Island is not just about racing. “We do have a lot of unrelated activities here; the venue is suited to a number of different things,” Fergus explained. There is a music festival on New Year’s Eve that attracts a crowd of 15-16,000 people for three days. “It’s been held here for the last six years and it’s going very strongly. Also, we won a round of a marathon series that’s held in the US, called Tough Mudder and we’re holding the first round here in Australia – in fact it’s the first round that’s been ever held outside the US – in March.”

Phillip Island has corporate hospitality facilities that cater for up to 1,000 people. There is a 740m go-kart track. There is a ‘hot lap’ programme, a historic racing car display, guided circuit tours. “There are many ‘break-out’ things that people can do when they’re here for conferences, so it is very popular from that point of view.”

Some 140,000 people use the Visitor Centre every year, “and they’re general tourists rather than people who are heavily into motor sport. They don’t necessarily have to be right into motor sport, they can just have a general interest and they’ve heard about Phillip Island circuit and they just want to say they’ve been here, seen it and done those things. That’s on top of about half a million people who come here for events and other activities on the circuit. So we have an overall visitation of about 640,000 people a year, and the local regional authority, the Bass Coast Shire, recently assessed that we contribute 107 million dollars annually to the local region.”

In the opening, we suggested Fergus was not a motor sport enthusiast. But, he says, “I’m an enthusiast at making sure that whatever motor sport activity we’re doing here is done well. I get pleasure out of them being excellent events or activities. I get pleasure in getting feedback from people to say they had a fantastic time. If you ask me whether I’m a fanatic about motor sport, I don’t think I am. But I’m an enthusiast in terms of being successful.”

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 16, 2018, 6:42 AM AEDT