Whatever happened to 'Captain' Mark Phillips?

Published: 04 April 2016

He wasn’t a royal but he was only man to win a TTF1 title on a two-stroke

Mark Phillips was one of Britain’s top racers of the late 1980s. He won the 1986 British TTF1 title on a bike powered by an RG500 street engine, which had been hugely breathed on by Padgett’s Motorcycles. Two years later that success got him a ride with the highly regarded Loctite Yamaha squad, but the dream nearly turned to tragedy when his brakes failed at Donington in September 1988. Phillips actually died by the side of the racetrack before medical intervention brought him back.

Phillips made a successful return the following year but lost his Loctite ride at the end of the season. He made a comeback in 1995 to win the Triumph Street Triple series, finally hanging up his racing leathers at the end of 1999.

How come Phillips won the 1986 British TT F1 on a Suzuki RG500? Wasn’t it a series for four-strokes?
Yes, the idea of TTF1 was to give four-strokes a chance outside GP racing, where two-strokes reigned supreme. The regulations allowed 750cc four-stroke street engines, but whoever wrote the rules also allowed 500 two-strokes, presuming that no-one would build a 500 two-stroke to challenge the 750s. When Suzuki launched its RG500 road bike in 1985 Padgett’s converted the road engine into a full GP-spec RG and Phillips thrashed the heavier four-strokes. “The bike handled so well and was so light,” says Phillips. “In fact the TTF1 RG was lighter than the GP bike, because the road engine was based on the smaller factory XR45 engine.”

Why did he give up on the strokers?
After he won the 1986 British TT F1 title he set his eyes on the F1 world championship, but the RG was no good for that series because it couldn’t do full race distance without a fuel stop. In 1988 he signed with Loctite Yamaha, which was running Bimota YB1s, powered by F750 engines. He says: “Virginio Ferrari had won the world F1 title in 1987, so we thought that was the way to go. But our engines were pretty much standard, so we didn’t have a chance against Honda’s RC30.”

Why did the Captain’s brakes fail at Donington Park?
“A mechanic left the brake pins out. I was going into Melbourne hairpin when the pads shot out. I just missed Ron Haslam on his RC30 and thought I’d bury my bike in the sand-trap but I should’ve jumped off. You don’t realise what speed you’re doing; it just flung me into the wall. I actually died at the scene. I was lucky that Lyn Jarrett, head of A&E at Nottingham University Hospital, was on duty that day. I owe my life to him. The crash happened in September and I was in hospital until February. In March I went testing with Loctite Yamaha, which went really well. I won the last two 1989 BSB races, but then lost my ride.”

And what did he do next?
He became a test rider for Triumph. “We did a lot of riding in Spain: me, Keith Huewen and [TT winner] Steve Tonkin. We started out with the Speed Triple and the Sprint, then I helped out with the start of their first 600, doing all the chassis stuff at the Pau circuit in France, using a Kawasaki 600 donor engine. I learned a lot because when you’re developing a road bike you’ve got to keep the price down. I’d tell them the Öhlins shock was better, but we’d have to make a cheaper one as close as possible to the Öhlins because it’s no good if the bike is too expensive.”

What’s he up to now?
In 1999 he bought a disused Little Chef on the A46 outside Lincoln and converted it into a motorcycle clothing shop, selling kit for road riders, road racers and motocross riders.

What's with the nickname?
People called him ‘Captain’, after his namesake Captain Mark Phillips, of Princess Anne’s first husband fame. Legend has it that Prince Charles’ nickname for his brother-in-law was ‘Foggy’. Nothing to do with King Carl; the Prince thought that Phillips was ‘thick and wet’.