If Holden Racing Team owner Tom Walkinshaw had his way, Craig Lowndes’ stunning debut with the squad in 1994 would never have happened, says former manager Jeff Grech.
Speaking ahead of Lowndes’ final full-time Supercars start, Grech has revealed Walkinshaw wanted German Armin Hahne as a last-minute substitute for the 1994 enduros.
The story of how a seat opened in the team’s line-up for the Sandown 500 is well known; Walkinshaw’s British Touring Car Championship ace Rickard Rydell a late withdrawal.
With his wife heavily pregnant, Swede Rydell opted not to head to Sandown, leaving the drive alongside Brad Jones in HRT’s #015 entry open.
Having already tested Lowndes multiple times during the year, initially in secret, Grech was set on the 24-year-old, but had to fight hard for the young star’s first opportunity.
Lowndes at Bathurst in 1994
“At the last minute before Sandown, Rickard said he didn’t want to come in case his wife gave birth,” Grech recalled to Supercars.com.
“I saw the opening and said to John Crennan (then HRT and HSV managing director) ‘young Craig’s ready to go’ and he said ‘OK’ and then rang Tom, and that wasn’t a good time.
“Tom hit the roof, because he didn’t know that we’d done the testing, and the worst part was Brad was really pissed off.
“[Lowndes] was only just out of Formula Ford, so Brad thought it would harm his chances and I said to Brad, 'we’ve tested him, he’s good as gold'.
“It got pretty heated because he rang Tom that night and Tom rang me at home at some ungodly hour, 2 o’clock in the morning, and ripped me a new one.”
According to Grech, Walkinshaw was adamant another loyal TWR lieutenant, Hahne, should be dispatched to Australia to fill the void left by Rydell.
Hahne shared the 1985 win with John Goss
Hahne, then 38, already had four Bathurst 1000 starts to his name.
He took out the Group A class with TWR’s Rover Vitesse program in 1984, before returning a year later to win the Great Race outright as part of TWR’s Jaguar XJS assault.
“He wanted Armin, he was going to rush out Armin Hahne, and I fought back,” said Grech.
“I respected Tom as a team owner, but it got pretty heated, and as a team we were very lucky with John.
“It was going to be the end of me, but I went and saw John and he backed me. He said ‘if it goes pear-shared I can’t save you, but let’s do Sandown’.
“He probably got a black mark against his name for giving me the leeway, but he stood behind us as a team on many occasions and was probably the hero of the whole story.
“He allowed it to happen and supported it and I’ll never forget it. I’ll always appreciate it.”
Lowndes at Sandown, 1994
An overnight sensation
Lowndes did his talking on the track at Sandown.
The #015 car went nearly two laps down due to a first-lap tangle for Jones that required a new front spoiler.
From there, Lowndes and Jones recovered strongly to finish ahead of team-mates Peter Brock/Tomas Mezera in fifth; the rookie setting the fastest lap of any of the HRT drivers.
“We went to Sandown and he did the job perfectly,” Grech said of Lowndes.
“Then the birth happened and Rickard didn’t want to come out for Bathurst.
“Reluctantly, again there was a bit of blueing, a bit more skin came off my buttocks, but we got him to Bathurst and that obviously cemented the whole thing.”
After initially struggling at Bathurst, including a crash in the warm-up, Lowndes famously mustered extensive advice from Brock and starred in the closing stages of the race.
Lowndes overcame early struggles at Bathurst
He audaciously took the lead from John Bowe in the final stint, before eventually finishing second, shooting to national attention.
The deal done with Lowndes pre-Sandown in 1994 included a testing and media training contract for ’95, when he was joined by another young gun, Greg Murphy, in the enduro line-up.
Lowndes again showed his speed in a difficult 1995 enduro campaign; taking pole for both races, but spinning out early at Sandown and succumbing to engine dramas at Bathurst.
HRT’s double Bathurst failure marked the team’s darkest hour, with Holden subsequently threatening to terminate its backing of the team.
While Crennan rescued that deal – effectively getting a one-year reprieve to turn it around – Grech was hell-bent on bringing Lowndes in full-time to replace Mezera for 1996.
Again, there were internal barriers to Lowndes’ promotion, with concerns that, in an era of stars in their 30s and 40s, Lowndes was too young for the job.
What followed was the start of a golden period for the team; Lowndes sweeping the championship, Sandown and Bathurst in his first full-time year.
Lowndes won on his championship debut in 1996
“A lot of people do say that [HRT] made Craig Lowndes but I can tell you that Craig Lowndes made us,” Grech concludes.
“The timing was just perfect for the team, for him, it worked like a staged performance, it was really good, it was a great time for everyone in the team.
“He changed the whole game. Even from the start, he was such a well-rounded, loveable bloke, with our fan base, it just turned the race weekends on their head.
“You had the older guys there, no disrespect to Dick [Johnson] and all that, and there was a lot of pressure.
“He used to get a hammering in the press and sometimes racing, some moves were a little bit questionable and we got into a little bit of trouble with it as a team.
“But at the end of the day, for a guy that age, I don’t think there’s ever been someone come into the game and do what he did.”