Flashback: When McConville replaced Lowndes

  • 01/04/2018
  • By Mitchell Adam, Pics: AN1 Media
  • Virgin Australia Supercars Championship

For most Supercars drivers, the championship’s return to Symmons Plains in 2004 ended a run of four years without racing at the Tasmanian circuit.

Craig Lowndes, though, had an extra year on his absence, having missed the 1999 race, the last before it fell off the calendar.

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In his memorable rollover at Calder Park, Lowndes damaged ligaments in his left knee, which required surgery and jeopardised the Holden Racing Team driver’s title hopes.

Despite initial fears he would miss multiple events, Lowndes was back in action within a month, but he did have to sit out Round 9 of the 1999 Shell Australian Touring Car Championship at Symmons Plains.

Conveniently, HRT had a ready-made replacement in the wings, Lowndes’ enduro partner Cameron McConville.

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Having just completed a three-round program in a John Faulkner Racing-run Commodore, above at Calder, McConville got the call to replace Lowndes in Tasmania.

It was, though, in an older-model VS, with Lowndes’ VT written off in the accident.

“It was a nasty crash,” McConville recalled to Supercars.com, ahead of next weekend’s Symmons Plains event.

“In fact I saw it, because I was in the race at the time.

“I was doing three rounds in a John Faulkner VS before the enduros, but I was never going to do the Tassie round.

“It was a bit like the guys do now, in Super2, and there wasn’t that option, so I leased a car, got a sponsor group together, and I remember John’s VS was pretty quick.

“I think it was called ‘Bess’, it was an ex-HRT car and then when I got the call-up, I jumped in Lowndsey’s thing in first practice down there and I could not believe the level.

“It felt like it was another level above John’s, which was a good car, it was obviously a lot newer.

“I certainly noticed going into the factory car that it felt like the chassis was tighter, the gearbox felt a bit nicer.

“It was nice to be a fully-fledged factory driver for that weekend.”

In the first full Supercars season with the VT Commodore, the majority of the frontrunners had made the switch to the newer Holden.

HRT reverting to its spare put McConville in what he calls “a bit of a battle of the VSs” with Garth Tander in his Garry Rogers Motorsport entry.

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McConville put his to good effect to be second fastest in practice, and then qualified eighth, between the older models of Cameron McLean (the privateer in a Greenfield Mowers EL Falcon) and Tander.

Sunday’s racing was done in torrentially-wet conditions, with McConville finishing sixth and seventh in the first two sprints.

“I went out in practice and I was second-fastest, I got a bit ahead of myself and thought ‘we’re on, we can get a trophy here this weekend’, the car was that good,” he said.

“The VT was a bit wide, so the VS was a bit slippery through the air, if there was ever a track to go back a model, that was the circuit.

“The car was just really tight, the balance, the power-down was sensational out of that hairpin.

“I still distinctly remember my first lap in that car, going down to the hairpin, putting my foot down and the thing was up on the back wheels, I couldn’t believe the power-down.

“It was a fun weekend, and it was a really good car to drive.”

The second of the three races, though, marked the end of McConville’s weekend, after the Commodore’s radiator got blocked, and subsequently overheated the engine.

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It meant McConville’s only participation in the finale was a guest stint in the Channel 10 commentary box.

“It absolutely hosed down, good old Tassie style,” he said. “It was diabolical, sideways rain.

“I’d say it was similar conditions to that treacherous accident last year.

“It was weird with the engine, the grit and debris off the road and the wind just cemented the whole front of the radiator.

“I was radioing through the water temp every few laps; there was only about five laps to go when it got to about 125 degrees and they said to keep going and then it got to about 145 on the last lap and it unfortunately cooked itself so we parked it.

“Clearly I was a ring-in for the weekend, I think they just decided that with the tight turnaround to not worry about the last one.”

Greg Murphy won the opening race, before McConville’s HRT team-mate Mark Skaife took out Races 2 and 3 and the round.

The weekend was McConville’s first run with the factory squad, coming before any testing to prepare for the Queensland 500 and Bathurst 1000.

Lowndes returned to action for the following event at Winton and with McConville took third and second in the enduros to seal his third title in as many attempts.

It remains the Autobarn Lowndes Racing drive’s most-recent championship win.

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McConville, meanwhile, made his full-time debut with Rod Nash Racing the following season in a Holden.

He had stints with the Lansvale Racing Team, Garry Rogers Motorsport (winning at Winton in 2004), Paul Weel Racing and Brad Jones Racing through to 2009.

His step back from full-time driving came with a return to HRT, spending three seasons as a co-driver to Tander and James Courtney between 2010 and ’12.

“I hadn’t really jumped in an HRT before that weekend, I did a little bit of testing later in the year,” McConville said of 1999.

“Co-drivers didn’t have co-driver sessions like they do now. We might’ve got one day at Winton prior to the first enduro, if you were lucky.

“You generally did all of your miles on the race weekend, which was hard, because that year I was trying to win the championship with Craig.

“That was the last year he won the title. Certainly getting that extra race at Tassie was valuable.

“It was a memorable year for me. I got in full-time the year after with Rod Nash, so it was a fun year.

“I’ve still got my racesuit, but maybe I shouldn’t be saying that, they might want it back!”

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