For many years the island 130km west of Melbourne in Australia was know throughout the world as the home of the Penguin Parade.

The trip to Summerland beach on Phillip Island at sunset to see the tiny fairy penguins struggle out of the surf onto the beach was on the itinerary of every intrepid tourist, together with Sydney Harbour Bridge, Ayres Rock and the Great Barrier Reef.

Today it's still on that tourist itinerary. Since the opening of the Bridge that means that Phillip Island has not actually been a real Island since 1940, the tourists have flocked in their thousands but not just to see the penguins or enjoy the magnificent surf fringed beaches.

Situated half-way between Cape Woolamai and the Nobbies, near Pyramid Rock a new attraction has brought a new kind of tourist to Phillip Island and usually on two wheels. In 1989 the Phillip Island Grand Prix circuit was opened and the whole of Australia celebrated with their favourite son Wayne Gardner when he won the inaugural Australian Grand Prix for Honda.

What a debut for the brand new 4.45km grands prix circuit that this weekend celebrates a 50-year birthday since the first sod of soil was turned when building the first permanent race track on the Island. For over 70 years motor racing has been held at this Victorian outpost, beginning with car racing in 1928. The first Australian car grand prix was held there in 1928 around a dusty bumpy 10.4kms road track.

Motorcycles soon followed their four-wheeled counterparts and a new permanent race track was opened in 1956.

However, the circuit fell into disrepair until it was completely rebuilt in time for the 1989 Australian Grand Prix and the rest is history. So what makes Phillip Island such a special venue situated on the other side of the world for the majority of riders and teams? After all the weather in October is often cold, with the wind whipping up some fairly dramatic showers from the waters of the nearby Bass straight. While the Island is at bursting point during grand prix weekend and accommodation and eating is at a premium.

The answer is very simple. The Phillip Island track is quite simply the best motorcycle racing circuit in the world. In the modern world of chicanes and slow corners the 4.5km circuit is almost a throw-back to a bygone era. This is a track where riders have a chance to really test their pure riding ability to the absolute limit, which in turn produces some memorable races for the spectators.

Where do you start? Gardner's two wins in 1989 and 1990 that brought Australia to a halt. West Honda Pons star Loris Capirossi has some fabulous memories of the track. He clinched his first world 125cc title there in 1990 when his fellow Italians ganged up on the opposition to help the 16-year-old win the race and the championship. Who will forget the 250cc battle two years ago where Olivier Jacque pipped his team-mate Shinya Nakano in the very last metre not only to win the race but also the world title and then we come to 500cc race last year. For 27 incredible laps, ten riders fought an epic battle for the lead. When proceedings eventually ended Italian Valentino Rossi won the race and the world title but it was grand prix motorcycle racing and Phillip Island that were the real winners.

It's a unique race track in a unique location that conjures up memories of early trips to the TT races in the Isle of Man when the weather and where to pitch your tent, were pretty high up your priority list, behind beer drinking and having a good time with your friends.

The Island was discovered by George Bass, of Bass Straight fame in 1798 and was originally called Snapper Island, then Grand Island before being re-named Phillip Island after Captain Arthur Phillip, Australia's first colonial governor. It soon became a holiday venue with the villages and towns named after holiday resorts on the Isle of Wight in England. Cowes became the main town and when a jetty was built in 1870, a ferry service between there and Stony Point on the Mornington Peninsula was established and still runs today.

However, the Island really took off as a holiday resort in 1940 when a suspension bridge at San Remo was built to link the Island with the mainland and the tourists started to flood in.

They will be pouring over that suspension bridge to witness the four-strokes take on the Phillip Island circuit for the very first time this weekend. Also the coaches will be rumbling over the bridge all week, bringing tourists from all over the world to Summerland beach. The Penguin parade is now Australia's most popular wildlife attraction.

To those tourists going to watch the penguins and to the thousands of MotoGP fans making their annual pilgrimage to the Island, just one word of advice.

Wrap up warm because it can be both cold and wet at this time of the year at the home of two very diverse attractions - penguins and motorcycles.


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