The Interview: Lowndes on past, present and future

  • Virgin Australia Supercars Championship
  • |
  • 18/11/2018
  • By Stefan Bartholomaeus

The Coates Hire Newcastle 500 will mark the end of an era not only for Craig Lowndes, but for Supercars itself.

First shooting to stardom with the Holden Racing Team in the mid-1990s, Lowndes has gone on to be one of Australian motorsport's most successful and recognised figures.

His stats include three Supercars titles, seven Bathurst 1000 and five Sandown 500 wins and a total of 107 championship race victories, the second-highest of all-time.

But Lowndes’ career has been so much more than numbers, having effectively taken over the mantle from his mentor Peter Brock as the category's fan favourite.

Amid a fanbase traditionally divided on brand lines, Lowndes’ legend appears to have only grown from two crossings of the Holden-Ford divide.  

While hell be back for the enduros in 2019, next weekends Coates Hire Newcastle 500 will be Lowndes’ last as a full-time driver.

Currently fourth in the 2018 standings, there will be no long-awaited fourth title following a series of near-misses since joining Triple Eight in 2005.

In an extensive chat with Supercars.com’s Stefan Bartholomaeus, Lowndes talks Newcastle, 2019, fans, rivalries and why he has no regrets from his Supercars career.

Lowndes and Roland Dane celebrate 2018 PIRTEK Enduro Cup victory

Craig, we're only a week out from your last full-time drive. We’ve all been talking about it for a while, but does it feel real, that’s it’s this close now?

Not really. It’s actually been going really well since we made the announcement in Townsville.

It’ll be emotional more so when we get down there and are part of the weekend, but the focus will be on getting third in the championship.

There’s still a lot to play out, but it’s going to be emotional once we get to the startline, probably more on Sunday.

There’s already a lot of hype around it. Are you going to embrace it during the week, or is it something you don’t necessarily want?

I’ll embrace it. We’ve done it all the way along since Townsville, each event is my last one there, it’s been the same every time.

This one knowing it is the last will be different, but I’ll embrace it and take it all in as much as we can.

But as I said, we’re going to be focused on getting good results, helping Shane [van Gisbergen, title contending team-mate], but also trying to get that third.

It’ll be nice to finish my last full-time season either third or fourth. That’ll be really good.

Lowndes will be back to chase more Bathurst glory in 2019

Third would mean being ahead of Jamie [Whincup], which would give you the last laugh before stepping out….

After all these years! It’s more the fact, depending on what happens to Jamie, if they both qualify well, Shane and Jamie, then we know Jamie will have to yield a little bit.

It’s going to be interesting. We saw in New Zealand he had to double stack and ended up further back.

Anything can and will happen in Newcastle. We saw what happened last year, so we’ve just got to make sure that we’re not involved in that again.

But it’ll be nice to finish the year strongly.

Regardless of whether it’s third or fourth, it’s been a strong year. How satisfying is it to finish on a high? The previous two were clearly pretty difficult…

It is [satisfying]. The previous two were more up and down a little bit with the change of engineers and other things; Irish (race engineer John McGregor) getting his head around it.

This year we’ve really gelled well. I think it was really important that we bounced back, not only for the team and Irish, but for me as well.

It was nice to be able to come out in Tasmania and get a pole and a win for him, and the team, and then to go on to win Bathurst was really special.

I think he as an engineer has a lot more confidence within himself that he knows how to do the job, which is great, and it’s just a matter of him moving on to whatever he’s going to do.

I don’t know what that is, but for me it’s pretty satisfying to bounce back after the last couple of years.

People were yelling and screaming that I should have retired two years ago, but now they’re all saying ‘why are you retiring?’.

But it is what it is and I’m looking forward to the next challenge.

Lowndes and engineer McGregor at the start of 2017

Has there been any time since the announcement in July when you’ve thought ‘I can still win these races, why am I retiring?’.

I think I still have that feeling [that I can win], no doubt, I haven’t lost that, it’s just a matter of, while we’re still competitive, to have opportunities outside of Australia and Supercars.

We’ve done the merry-go-round 22 years now. I know we’ve been to some great events and great countries, but we’re still going back to a lot of the same tracks.

The thing for me is to really find a new challenge and see what we can do outside.

You’ll be back next year as a Supercars co-driver, as well as racing in the Bathurst 12 Hour. What else is on the menu for 2019?

My biggest focus is to do a Le Mans 24 Hour at some point. Next year would be fantastic, but if it doesn’t happen next year, then hopefully the year after.

That’s been on the bucket list since I first got involved [in Supercars full-time] in 1996 and just hasn’t unfortunately happened.

I know next year Darwin clashes with Le Mans, so if I was to do another year in Supercars then that stops me doing that again.

Now that we’ve made the announcement to retire we can start to open up other doors.

At the moment we haven’t got anything secured or firmed up, but that is the major one.

I still like other events, like the Spa 24 Hour, even Daytona [24 Hour], there’s other events out there that I’ve always admired and would love to do one day.

How much driving would you like to be doing? Do you want to actually get away from car racing a bit?

That’s going to be the challenging thing, but we’re still going to be quite busy next year with the [Supercars] broadcasting side of it, still at the race events.

That’s going to be the balancing act of how much racing we can fit in between.

I’d like to still drive as much as I can, but it’s really the balancing act of still driving something that keeps you sharp enough for the endurance part of the year.

It’s going to be very important to be ready for that and obviously, the co-driving sessions and testing, we’ll be doing that.

The overseas side, it’d be nice to do two to three races, but who knows?

Any interest in any single-driver Supercars wildcards? Could we see you race a Supercar outside of the enduros?

I don’t know. I’ve not spoken to Roland [Dane, Triple Eight owner] about that and I don’t know what his thoughts or plans are around it.

Obviously scaling back to two cars is the major focus for these guys and to restructure the team.

I know he wants to get involved with the Super2s a little bit more, so that might be a program where I fit into that, more so.

In a mentoring role?

Yeah, I think there’s a lot of interest in that side of it. There’s no doubt that if we can, it’d be great.

We’re contracted to Roland anyway as a co-driver and if he’s involved more in Super2 stuff we’ll see where we fit in with that side of it, but that’s definitely a possibility.

What’s attractive about TV and what sort of role do you expect to be playing in that next year?

That’s a good question, I don’t know what role I’m going to do at the moment.

But the thing that attracts me is still being involved in the sport, just not as a driver.

Still being involved in the whole thing, the technical side of it. I’m not going to be in the board room, but still involved in some way.

Having that interaction with the teams and the drivers and the sport, but just from a different angle.

When you look back at the body of work that’s been your full-time Supercars career, what are you going to be most proud of?

Probably the fact that we never gave up, always gave back to the fans and supporters, which we’ve always been very grateful for.

Just having fun, that’s been the biggest thing.

Even the last couple of years when we haven’t been performing too well, just enjoying the moments of what we are, where we go and what we do.

I’ve really enjoyed the fan interaction and hopefully they’ve been able to enjoy the journey as much as I have.

You’ve had so much success at Bathurst, despite having a 10-year gap between your first and second wins. Any regrets over the career decisions you made in that period?

No, no regrets, because I think we made the best decisions in terms of teams with the information we had at the time.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and looking back, you might have made different choices knowing what we now know.

But at the time we believed it was the right choice and I think any driver that you talk to would say you make the decision the best you can at the time.

I don’t regret it. It was character building, we learnt a lot over that time, those (first) four or five years we were with Ford.

We were in multiple teams and we weren’t really getting what we needed until we found Triple Eight.

There’s not many who have been able to carry the sort of fan support you have across both sides of the Holden/Ford divide…

At the time [while preparing to move to Ford in 2001] I remember sitting down with Peter and Bev Brock and I asked what it’s going to look like.

They said ‘you’re not going to lose anything, because you lose 50 percent of your Holden base that won’t like you because you’re leaving, but then 50 percent of the Ford base will like you because you’ve come across’.

So at the end of the day it works out and even today, it’s still like that.

We still have Ford fans sending me messages or come up and say ‘if it can’t be a Ford we hope it’s you’, and the same thing with Holden fans when I was at Ford.

I’ve been lucky enough to embrace both sides. At the end of the day I’m a racer, I love racing cars and I love cars in general.

I’ve still got my first road car, which is a Ford [Mk1 Cortina], so I still have a bit of both in the garage.

You got so close a few times, but never got the fourth title. Does it niggle at all that you never quite got there?

Oh, there’s been occasions [where I've been close]; 2006 with the incident at Phillip Island [with Rick Kelly], that was one that got away.

We went to Homebush a number of times trying to run Jamie down and unfortunately didn’t make it.

The year we had the tyre blowout in New Zealand chasing Frosty (Mark Winterbottom, 2015), we lost momentum with that.

But at the end of the day you’ve got to stand by the decisions you make at the time. We went to every race weekend and did our best and sometimes it’s not good enough.

I got told early in my career that there’s going to be people out there better and faster than you, you’ve just got to keep pushing and try your best.

I don’t regret not having a fourth championship.

I could look back on each individual one that we finished second and pick out reasons why we didn’t win, that if we could go back and change would make it a different scenario, but it is what it is.

You’ve always given a lot of time to the fans at the track, sometimes in contrast to a Mark Skaife or Whincup; both renowned for being very analytical and locking themselves in long engineering debriefs. Do you feel your approach has cost you any results?

No, I don’t think so. Everyone performs differently in different ways.

Skaife was very analytical, as you said, and did his own thing, looking at data until 10 o’clock at night, no different to Jamie.

I don’t do that because it doesn’t suit my way and the way I like to do things.

I’ve always gone out and seen the crowd, regardless of who my team-mates were. We all do our own thing in different ways and that’s what makes the sport so great.

I’m interested in seeing different athletes at the moment getting away from things to try and reinvigorate themselves, to find what makes them tick.

Most of the time it’s just doing the normal boring stuff that you do year in, year out that makes you work.

Who would you consider as being your greatest rival during your career?

The driver that probably got to me mentally out of anyone was Juan Pablo Montoya (1997 Formula 3000 team-mate).

He was just arrogant and tried to run me off the track multiple times in a race just so I wouldn’t beat him.

Skaife and Jamie; they’ve been the two strongest rivals here in Australia, just because of the way they conduct themselves and the success they’ve had.

Those two guys… I see a lot of Skaife in Jamie, the way Jamie operates.

It’s chalk and cheese from me, they’re very different to how I operate; I’m almost in the middle between Jamie and Shane.

But it’s a process he (Whincup) works at and gives him success, which is great, it works for him.

Is the dynamic you have with Jamie different to what you had with Mark? It was so ferocious with Mark, there was a wall up between the engineers at one point…

Yes, but the difference is now I’m at the other end of my career. Probably dealing with Jamie has been different to how I dealt with Skaife.

Back then you were still fighting for your position, even for the next year, so there was a lot of very strong competition with Skaife.

These days with Jamie, you can definitely enjoy the events, even if you’re not winning or you’re chasing him, you’re still enjoying it.

It’s been a different phase of my career and a different way of approaching it compared to what I did with Skaife.

Finally, Jeff Grech [former HRT manager] has told some great stories this week about your initial testing and debut. It’s so different for the rookies coming in now, isn’t it?

Yes. Jeff was a very big influence on and, basically the reason why, I was with the HRT at the time.

There’s no doubt all the testing we did back then helped me get ready for the start of 1996.

I remember doing a lot of testing with Brock at Eastern Creek, Oran Park, Calder, everywhere, just doing a whole heap of tyre testing.

People don’t understand the amount of testing we did do in the lead-up to 1996 to come out so well prepared.

It’s so different now, as you say. We’ve got Super2 and your testing is on race weekends in the public, not behind the scenes.

But Jeff was tremendous in getting me into the car.

I know at the time when they tried to do it [put me in the car], a lot of the sponsors and people involved in the team weren’t keen on me being in the car at all.

We had to prove that we had the speed and could do it. Jeff was very instrumental in that side and I’ll always be grateful for that.

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