Lowndes’ Bathurst McLaren MP4/23 Mercedes…

Posted: January 23, 2018 in F1, Obscurities, Touring Cars
Tags: , , , ,

(unattributed)

Craig Lowndes dropping into Mount Panorama’s Skyline/Esses, McLaren MP4/23 Mercedes V8, 22 March 2011…

Australian Formula Ford has been a factory for the creation of V8 Supercar Drivers for a couple of decades now. Every now and again one escapes to international racing success, Mark Webber, Will Power and Daniel Ricciardo spring to mind. I’ve not forgotten Larry Perkins I’m just referring to more recent times. But in the main V8 Supercars and to a lesser extent Porsche Cup racing has given local aces a place to ply their trade as well paid professionals.

The popularity and commercial success of Touring Car Racing in Australia relative to Single Seaters began circa 1960 and has continued unabated since. Even very popular single seater formulae such as the 2.5 Tasman and F5000 classes did not put a dent in the rise and rise of ‘Taxis’. Why? Its a topic for a whole series of articles but perhaps fundamentally the cars are easier for the average punter to understand and relate to, are spectacular to watch and have had a succession of ‘characters’ racing them. The absolute professionalism in the way V8 Supercars has been managed for so long now has widened the gulf further.

Lowndes, Van Dieman RF93 Formula Ford, Oran Park August 1993. Craig won 5 of the 8 ’93 rounds including OP (autopics)

Sponsors re-prioritised their spend over time away from the purer form of the sport to tourers. Drivers chase the dollars of course. So Taxis grew and grew. Its not that simple but its not much more complex either.

Back to the point of the article which is to discuss young talent and progression into the professional ranks.

It wasn’t always the case though, a career path into tourers. Often guys won the AFFC right into the nineties and none were picked up by professional touring car teams- the class was a bit of a closed shop with the young thrusters not especially welcome. Tomas Mezera is perhaps an exception but he ended up at HRT after he came back from his sojurn in Europe, so too did Russell Ingall make the transition after he returned from Europe.

Cameron McConville, the 1992 AFFC champ looked as though he may set a trend when Dick Johnson recruited him to race the second DJR machine at Bathurst in 1993 but then he boofed a fence and that was it for him, so it seemed. A 1996 win in the Australian GTP Championship in a Porsche 993 RS CS saw him brought back in from the cold- he beat Jim Richards in the Warwick Fabrics car that year, I remember being hugely impressed by his speed and professionalism.

None of yer poofhouse single seater stuff in here matey! Peter Brock was a great mentor to Lowndes early on , this shot of an HRT Commodore circa 1996. Brocky had an all too brief sojurn into ANF2 circa 1973 with a Birrana 272 Ford (unattributed)

Lowndes was the one who really paved the way for the guys who followed- most of the V8 Supercar champs have been Karting and Formula Ford graduates since Craig showed the way.

Out of Karts of course, initially he raced an old RF85 Van Diemen Formula Ford in 1991 and then won the AFFC title aboard an RF93 in 1993. Longtime openwheeler racer and enthusiast (and 1975 Bathurst 1000 winner with Peter Brock) Brian Sampson threw him a lifeline by giving him some drives in his Cheetah Mk9 Holden Formula Holden in 1994. It wasn’t the latest bit of kit by any stretch, in fact it was and IS the very first FH built. But Craig made the thing sing, I recall some very good drives in the car against Greg Murphy in a much more recent Reynard.

Lowndes, a motor mechanic by trade, didn’t have much money but he had ability, a likable and engaging personality and ability to communicate and some contacts via his Dad, Frank Lowndes who had been in and around motor racing forever as a car/engine builder and scrutineer.

Holden Racing Team tested him and he was immediately quick, consistent, and easy on the equipment getting a drive in the 1994 Sandown 500. Soon he was team-leader and won the V8 Supercar title in 1996. He hadn’t lost the fire in the belly for open-wheeler success, and even though he had the local scene at his feet he negotiated a year in the European F3000 Championship via Tom Walkinshaw who by then owned HRT.

Lowndes, Lola T96/50 Zytec Judd F3000, Silverstone 1997 (LAT)

Lowndes had a shocker of a year being comprehensively blown off by Juan Pablo Montoya, his teammate at RSM Marko aboard the mandated Lola T96/50 Zytec. To be fair, he was coming back into single-seaters after an absence of some years into a group of the best F1 aspirants in the world straight out of F3 or doing a second or third year in F3000. Lowndes did not get a fair crack of the whip in the team with minimal testing, Marko ran Lowndes to settle a debt owed to Walkinshaw- and focussed, not unnaturally on the fellow who was winning races- Montoya.

What Lowndes needed was another season, but back to V8 Supercars he came and a couple of other titles, six Bathurst 1000’s and all the rest. Of course he is still racing at the top level too. It would have been interesting to see how far he could have progressed with another season in Europe.

(B Moxon)

Jenson Button and Craig Lowndes, car a 2008 spec (champion that year in Lewis Hamilton’s hands) McLaren MP23/4 Mercedes 2.4 V8

Lowndes nipping a brake into Hell Corner (unattributed)

The opportunity to get to drive a contemporary F1 car was too good to be true and came about due to Vodaphones sponsorship of both McLaren and Triple Eight Racing who ran VE Holden Commodores that year. The day, just before the AGP at Albert Park involved closure of the Bathurst public roads- the circuit is just that, roads for most of the year with Lowndes and Jenson Button swapping seats between their respective F1 and V8 Supercar racers.

(unnatributed)

For misty eyed open-wheeler fans it was also an amazing ‘if only’, for Bathurst is indeed, in the words of Australian motor-racing historian John Medley ‘The Cradle of Australian Motor Racing’ and is where the Australian Grand Prix should be held. What a spectacle that would be! For that to occur the circuit would be destroyed to meet F1’s safety requirements, so of course it will never happen.

But for one day it was a reminder of what could be for enthusiasts and what might have been for Craig Lowndes had the racing cards been dealt or fallen a different way…

Comparo- F1 McLaren MP4/23 Mercedes Benz (2008) and V8 Supercar Holden ‘VE’ Commodore (2011)…

(Motor)

YouTube footage…

Credits…

Vue Images, LAT, Bruce Moxon, Motor

Tailpiece: Imagine 26 of them zipping past…

Finito…

 

Comments
  1. YrHmblHst says:

    It COULD be also that real cars are just plain more interesting. As stated, the average spectator can relate to the ‘taxis’ as you call them; open wheel cars only interest ‘purists’ , and not all of us at that. Sedans still have some ‘relevance’ – even tho they really dont any more – whilst open wheelers are just a vehicle for personality worship to most. F1 and Indycar have made good use of the personality cult; their races are just motorised high school football games. [assuming of course that you dont recognise them, for the most part, to be completely choreographed…]

    grat site tho btw. 🙂

    • markbisset says:

      Gedday Yor Humblest,
      Pleased to make your acquaintance.
      And you are right of course- the market has spoken and what the market wants should be provided, and is!
      But it still shits me!
      I’m happy being in a purist minority group.
      Funny thing is the Taxi articles I do are always popular which is of course telling me something!
      I just don’t wanna hear!
      Mark

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