On this day: When Lowndes defected to Ford

04 Jan 2021
Return to January 4, 2001, when Ford got its man
6 mins by James Pavey

Two decades have passed, yet few driver moves have shaken Supercars circles to their core quite like what unfolded on January 4, 2001, when Craig Lowndes defected to Ford.

Lowndes, who won titles for the Holden Racing Team in 1996, 1998 and 1999, jumped to the blue side of the fence ahead of the 2001 season.

Amid tensions towards the end of his HRT days, some observers had tipped Lowndes would switch allegiances to Ford.

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In 1998, Lowndes reunited with HRT following a disappointing 1997 chasing his Formula 1 dream. When he returned, Mark Skaife had arrived to fill the shoes of the retired Brock.

HRT recruit Skaife, who had won the 1992 and 1994 titles with Fred Gibson's team, was eyeing success of his own following two lean years in 1996 and 1997.

The seeds of Lowndes' defection were sewn in three tense, competitive seasons, Lowndes winning in 1998 and 1999 before Skaife turned the tables in 2000.

The on-track battles between the two drivers were fierce, with then team manager Jeff Grech revealing to Supercars.com upon Lowndes’ full-time retirement in 2018 that it sometimes escalated too far.

"The rivalry was great, but I tell you, that’s why I’ve got no hair and it turned grey before I lost it all,” Grech said.

"They just lifted each other. It was insanely competitive. To be honest with you, they both had fun at the expense of my sanity.

"After the race you pull them aside and Skaife would have his arms crossed and point and say ‘it’s not my fault’ and Craig would do the ‘what’s wrong Jeff?’

"You just threw your hands up in disgust and just went 'another day with Craig and Mark’.”

The two were contrasting characters - Skaife a sharp professional with an eye for set-up, Lowndes a flamboyant ace committed to his natural talent.

After Lowndes won in 1998, Skaife had the measure of the two in 1999 yet missed out despite winning 12 races. Lowndes even missed a round through injury and still claimed his third title.

When engineer Rob Starr shifted from Lowndes' side of the garage to Skaife’s in 2000, the tides turned, and tension built further. Off track, there was plenty going on, with suggestions swirling that Lowndes could move on.

Still, an unthinkable switch to Ford seemed like a move from Carlton to Collingwood, or South Sydney Rabbitohs to Sydney Roosters.

If Lowndes' move to Ford happened, it would sting the red brigade.

In early January 2001, the sting was felt once it was confirmed Lowndes had left HRT for a big-money switch to Ford, despite previously signing a 10-year management deal with Tom Walkinshaw in 1996.

Ford Australia was delighted, with president Geoff Polites claiming the Lowndes-Gibson partnership "should be a dynamic combination" in the brand’s "increased commitment" to the category.

Holden fans were up in arms, Ford fans rejoiced, and relations at HRT were shattered, with Grech admitting the move took its toll on his relationship with Lowndes.

"When Craig went to Ford, that was a big moment for me and look, I don’t think I handled myself well at all,” Grech recently told the Rusty’s Garage podcast.


"It got messy obviously with contracts and stuff like that but I took the side of the team and I probably didn’t handle it anywhere near as well as [I should have].

"As a matter of fact, for a lot of years I didn’t have contact with Craig, not because I didn’t want to, but we sort of departed and we never really had a one-on-one with each other over a beer.

"I know he did it for good reasons, there’s no two ways about it, Ford wanted him and Ford got him and that’s how sporting entities happen. People come along and a team snavels that guy.”

A key coincidence was that Lowndes had linked up with Skaife’s former team owner Gibson.

Gibson's most recent success came with the Greg Murphy/Steven Richards Bathurst win in 1999, before he subsequently sold the two-car outfit to Garry Dumbrell.

However, ahead of 2001, Gibson bought back the team and acquired a Stone Brothers Racing Falcon.

The 2001 season began with Skaife winning the opener at Phillip Island, before Lowndes won on Saturday in Adelaide. On the Sunday, the rivalry reared again as the pair clashed, Lowndes climbing over Skaife’s car and facing the wrong way.

By year’s end, Holden fans held the upper hand when Lowndes finished the year in 11th, with Skaife and HRT cruising to championship and Bathurst wins.

It later emerged that Bob Forbes, not Gibson, had bought out Dumbrell at the end of 2000, and Gibson departed after a single season amid disagreements with Forbes.

The team was rebranded as 00 Motorsport, but it didn't help Lowndes, who later sealed a move to Ford Performance Racing following a winless campaign.

Lowndes’ two seasons with FPR produced consecutive Bathurst podiums, but not much else. A move to Triple Eight was sealed for 2005, where Lowndes remains to this day as a co-driver.

Triple Eight’s own defection from Ford to Holden from 2010 marked a full circle of sorts for Lowndes, who provided one of Ford’s most revered days in 2006 when he won his second Bathurst 1000 in the wake of Brock’s death.

Lowndes and Skaife also reunited to win the Great Race for the team in 2010, before sharing the commentary booth from 2019.

Having achieved so much for both brands - despite missing out on a title in his Ford years - Lowndes remains one of the few who have been able to carry fan support from both sides of the fence, 20 years on from the seismic events of January 4, 2001.

"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,” Lowndes told Supercars.com upon his full-time retirement.

"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."

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