It’s taken 11 long years, but this weekend the premier two-wheel category of motorsport in Australia will join the nation’s premier four-wheel category to provide V8 Supercar fans with a bird’s eye view of 300km/h Superbike action in the 2010 Viking Group Australian Superbike Championship.
Known commonly by the ‘2-plus-4′ catch phrase, motorcycles racing at car events is nothing new. In fact at last year’s Phillip Island L&H 500 the Superbikes ran as a support class, albeit in a non-championship format. So successful was the concept that the bikes are back again in 2011 – this time with the Supersport 600 class as well.
But ‘2-plus-4′ racing at Phillip Island can trace its roots back much further than the modern era of Superbike racing. The picturesque circuit conducted mixed car and bike meetings in the years before its refurbishment (1988), one of the last combined events being held in the mid-70s.
But ‘2-plus-4′ events go back much further than that. Tasmania’s 7km Longford street circuit, 23 kilometres south-west of Launceston, hosted its first race in 1953 – a ‘2-plus-4′ event. It went on to host the Australian Grand Prix (for cars) in 1959 and 1965, the 1964-1969 Tasman Series, the Australian Sports Car Championship, and helped establish the Australian Touring Car Championship.
Longford’s first race meeting was held on Labor Day weekend in 1953, with Maurice Quincey taking the motorcycle honours and lapping at an average speed of 140km/h. The fastest car was the Allard J2 of Tom Hawkes, which was some 14km/h slower.
With such a rich history of ‘2-plus-4′ racing, it seemed only a matter of time before Australia’s two premier motorsport categories for two and four wheels would join forces.
It was 1999 when the Australian Superbike Championship last ran alongside the V8 Supercars. Back then both series were sponsored by Shell, making for a horsepower marriage that made commercial sense as well as providing spectator appeal.
That year’s Superbike crown went to Ducati Dealer Team rider Steve Martin, the same Steve Martin who went on to race successfully in the Superbike World Championship and who last year won the World Endurance Championship. It was also the last year that Ducati contested the Australian Superbike Championship with a factory-supported team, so it’s somehow fitting that not only is ‘2-plus-4′ back in 2010 as a part of the Australian Superbike Championship, but so too is Ducati with an official team.
The ‘2-plus-4′ format was first introduced to the Australian Superbike Championship back in 1992, when round one of the 1992 series was held at Melbourne’s Sandown International Raceway on March 6-8.
Scott Doohan, older brother of five-time world 500GP champion Mick, put his Peter Jackson Yamaha OW01 on pole, just 0.04sec ahead of a young brash kid on a Kawasaki ZXR750R. That kid, Mat Mladin, would go on to win seven AMA Superbike Championships and in the process become one of Australia’s highest earners in motorsport – be it two or four wheels.
Two-time Australian Superbike Champion Malcolm Campbell (Winfield Honda RC30) took victory in Sandown’s opening race by 0.61 sec over Doohan, with Doohan’s Peter Jackson Yamaha teammate Troy Corser third. Corser would go on to win two Superbike World Championships, adding further credibility to a domestic series rated as one of the toughest in the world – and a renowned breeding ground of young talent.
Victory in race two at that inaugural Sandown ‘2-plus-4′ meeting went to Mladin, who had DNF’d race one when his Kawasaki expired. Doohan was second and James Knight (Team Kawasaki ZXR750R) third, putting Doohan at the head of the points table with 34pts to Campbell’s 31.
Mladin claimed fastest lap in both races and a new lap record for the Sandown circuit – removing the name of none other than Mick Doohan from the Sandown record book in the process.
Mladin would go on to win that year’s Australian Superbike Championship, chalking up an unbroken sequence of 13 consecutive race wins along the way before Troy Corser spoiled the sequence with a race victory at Perth’s Wanneroo circuit.
The large Sandown crowd loved the Superbikes, and the class was a perfect complement to the Australian Touring Car Championship – as it was known back then. Not only was the series sponsor (Shell) common to both categories, but there were common team sponsors across the classes – Peter Jackson and Winfield to name two of the high-profile ones.
The ‘2-plus-4′ concept would continue for another eight years – until 1999 – when the withdrawal of some of the major distributor-backed teams saw the Superbikes disappointingly part company with the V8 Supercars.
That final ‘2-plus-4′ year of 1999 saw some familiar names in the Superbike class. As well as eventual champ Martin, other identities that season included Andrew Pitt (Team Kawasaki Australia ZX-7RR), Kevin Curtain (Radar’s Yamaha YZF-R1), Team Ansett Air Freight Suzuki teammates Shawn Giles and Paul Free, and a 16-year-old kid on a privateer Dyno Developments Yamaha YZF-R1 Production Superbike named Chris Vermeulen.
Pitt would go on to win two Supersport World Championships, Curtain would win multiple Australian championships and finish runner-up in the Supersport World Championship, Giles would win the next three ASBK titles in succession, Free is now the owner of Team Motologic Ducati and Vermeulen would go on to win a Supersport World Championship and win races in World Superbike and MotoGP. Australian Motorcycle News referred to him at the time as “the amazing Vermeulen”.
This weekend the Superbikes are back with a points-scoring round at a V8 Supercar Championship event. It’s been a long time coming, but they say the best things are worth waiting for.