Craig Lowndes: The Prime of His life
So far 2016 has been a big year for Craig Lowndes. Newly married, at 42 he remains as competitive as he has ever been. Two decades after setting Australian Touring Car racing alight he is still at the sharp end of the sport and, he told PHIL BRANAGAN, he intends to stay there
AA: Big news in your life Craig, I hear you’ve bought a go kart.
CL: Yeah, we’ve bought a go kart.
It’s probably a bit of full circle but to be honest, it’s [wife] Lara’s go kart so we have a bit of fun. I’m still able to get in it and have a bit of fun and I think at the moment I think there’s a few people up in Queensland, a few [Supercar] drivers that are getting back into the go kart world. Some of them have got the shifter karts, ours is probably the more traditional go kart. It’s a bit of fun to get back into it and sort of remember what it was all about.
AA: That leads me to ask you about being 42 and being able to maintain your driving at a very high standard for a long period of time. How have you been able to do that?
CL: I think it’s just been a healthy balance between racing and getting away from it.
For me it’s all about that side of it. We realised in the early days that motor racing is quite intense when you go to race weekends, and to have that balance away from it is really important, to recharge the batteries and then hit the ground running when you’re back at the next event. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been involved in great teams and the enthusiasm or the excitement of getting back in a racecar has always been there.
I’ve always said two things keep you going; the enjoyment of being inside a racecar at race weekends, which are pretty complex – more so these days than what it was when I first started; and the results – being able to have results that are good enough for teams and sponsors to keep us in the sport.
AA: If I look at racing drivers’ careers – and I’ve been looking at yours for 25 years now – a few things happen as they get older. They lose their edge in speed; that hasn’t happened to you. They lose their edge in fitness; I haven’t seen any evidence of that. Sometimes they don’t qualify as well; you’re qualifying as well, possibly better, than ever, and you still make great starts in races and you still go for gaps. Has it been a conscious effort to stay on top of all those things or is just part of the natural evolution of it?
CL: I think that you try and find better ways to keep all those elements sharp and I think there’s no doubt as you get older, your experience comes into it more than just raw speed.
I’ve also been lucky to have a teammate for the last 10 years, Jamie [Whincup], who’s pushing extremely hard in all elements. Above that it keeps you very sharp and mindful about looking for different ways of doing it, the fitness side of it. I’ve always been quite an active person so it’s not hard for me to get up and do something on that side.
Testing days have become quite limited over the years but in saying that, there are other ways of doing it. For me, I enjoy riding dirt bikes and other things to keep my mind sharp, I think that’s definitely helped me a lot. Then it’s just a matter of keeping on it and fine tuning everything.
AA: Do you do any specialist training, like in simulators, or do you do ‘beep’ [reflex] tests? You’ve kart now so you might be out in that, or do you make any conscious efforts to sharpen up out of the car apart from riding bikes?
CL: You definitely do because there are limited days of testing. The perfect way to keep fit and your mind sharp would be inside a racecar, which these days, it’s harder to do.
I haven’t really used simulators a lot. I really try to focus on what gets me excited. I’ve always grown up with two wheels and I love dirt bikes, and road bikes for that matter. Anything that keeps active and your mind sharp, I’m definitely all for it.
One thing I try to do quite regularly is swap my training regime so the body doesn’t get used to it and you don’t get bored with it, whether it be part of cross fitness, or gym work, or swimming, or going for runs.
Mountain biking is a sport I have probably gotten into the last four or five years, it’s almost like a ‘new fad’ but it’s something I can do with the team, and having that activity is a team bonding exercise as well.
AA: Your career, especially in touring cars, has roughly paralleled Valentino Rossi’s on two wheels. He’s recently taken on a coach [Ed: former GP winner Luca Cadalora]. Is that something you think might happening more and more as racing drivers continue their careers? Would you consider something like that?
CL: To be honest, for me, I’m always open for any sort of advice or any sort of, what’s the word… advantage.
I think that we have a lot of people around us who are very good at analysing bad days [and] good days. If I’m struggling with something, we’ve got some good people around us – whether it’s physically, mentally or just on race weekends – to be able to bounce ideas off. In some regards, maybe we have that sort of structure already there.
But, as a single person, in the sense of a driver’s coach? No.
I think, in having the new race team this year with Team Vortex, Ludo [Lacroix] is really focused on extracting the best out of me. In a sense, he is, maybe, the driver coach. He definitely is a bit of a hard taskmaster at making sure that I’m braking at the limit every lap and not just random laps, maximising the speed out we get of the car. Ludo is probably has been a good thing for me in the sense of keeping me sharp as well.
AA: Let’s talk about Ludo. You and [former race engineer] Jeromy Moore had, if I can refer to it, a ‘marriage’, because often that’s that kind of relationship between a driver and an engineer. Now in a sense, you’ve got this new French girlfriend on the other end of the phone. How have you developed that relationship? From the outside it looks like that’s working well.
CL: To be honest at the start of this year, at first it was a little bit of a rocky road.
I think that although Ludo and I have known each other and worked with each other at Triple 8 for the last… I don’t know, probably the last 10 years that I’ve been with Triple 8 – [though] not as a direct driver/engineer [relationship] in the sense. [At] Clipsal [Adelaide 500] at the start of the season, there were some processes that were foreign for both Ludo and for me, and that’s something that we have had to work [on] very hard, at making sure that he understands what I want out the radio comms and other things.
If he does something I don’t agree with, I let him know, so he can help that process as well as myself. I need to know what he wants out of me, the way I read the car.
It has been a bit of a rocky road to begin with but I have to say the last couple of meetings it’s gone extremely well. As I said Ludo is different to ‘JJ’ [Moore] and also very different to ‘Shippy’ [Grant McPherson, Lowndes’s 2015 engineer] so I’ve been lucky enough to take the best elements out of the three engineers and utilise that side of it for their knowledge.
The other part of it is, Ludo is very knowledgeable on the aerodynamics and is obviously maximising the car. I have to say, while we’ve not had the car speed to begin with, that we don’t sort of basically jump all around the place to try and fix it. We just do the normal things; then we have a good debrief, think about it.
At the same time we’ve got little ‘Irish’, John McGregor, he’s been involved in the team now I think for probably five or six years, he’s sort of being groomed as an engineer, and it’s great developing with him as well.
AA: And if anybody on the outside had any doubts about the relationship between you and Ludo, they were pretty much swept away at Perth, weren’t they?
CL: Well yes!
Perth race was, for me, an amazing race because I had no idea what Ludo was actually doing at the time. We went into the race with ‘Plan A’ and we actually used ‘Plan B’, and I didn’t know we had a ‘Plan B’ so…
CL: Yep! We really didn’t discuss or talk about having a two-stop strategy. It was more about, essentially, doing the one-stop strategy, like everyone [else] did. He was thinking, he’s very smart on his feet…
He has some good people around him. ‘Irish’ does a lot of the fuel calculations and everything else. The garage did an amazing job that day but for me, I had no idea what he’d done, in the sense of being so completely different to everyone else at the time. But it worked for us and we were lucky enough to have great car speed, and we were lucky through the traffic that we didn’t have any altercations or problems as well.
AA: When something like that happens, is there still a little bit of, ‘hang on a minute…’ in your mind, or you just obey?
CL: I always obey. I think you know there’s no doubt about the fact that, they’ve got more eyes on the ground than I have, I can only see what’s in front of me. When they did make that decision to make the second stop, I remember that basically Ludo had told me that, I think from memory, I had an 18-second lead. I was calculating in my brain… how does he calculate that?
He was probably of the belief that, maybe other teams or other drivers would have done exactly what we did. But when that wasn’t going to happen, and we went from being not conservative, but looking after the tyres and driving the car very straight, and then Ludo got on the radio and said, “you might push now’!
We were lucky enough, and the car was good enough, and we drove it straight and we had no altercations coming back through the field. To be able to win the race… you look back now and people say it was a masterstroke. Ludo called the shots at the time it was, it was a masterstroke.
AA: And one lap stuck behind a car in traffic and you would’ve looked like a bunch of mugs.
CL: If it didn’t pay off, you know people would have said, ‘what a bit of… not moron but what a bit of a dud call to make’. I think that you know it could have gone either way but thankfully, it went the right way.
Ludo thinks outside the square. I think the beauty about it is the three engineers that I’ve worked with are all very different. JJ was very traditional, Shippy was pushing boundaries in certain areas and now Ludo’s doing the same. Ludo is very open to suggestions but also very fixed in his ways, in terms of what he likes. For me that’s working extremely well.
AA: Hey, you mentioned Jamie before and having him as a teammate for a long time. But technically you don’t any more. How has that been, adjusting to the new team formation at Triple 8?
CL: It has been different.
We’re obviously not in their garage, now Jamie shares the garage with Shane. I just work now basically on my own. We do share a garage with Will Davison so for me, in a sense, I have a new ‘teammate’.
We [Ed: Lowndes, Whincup and van Gisbergen] all debrief together in the Red Bull trailer so that process hasn’t changed for me. It’s just a matter of now, we’ve got Shane’s input, which is great to know. But when we’re on track, or when we go back to our garage, we really just focus on ourselves. It has changed a little bit but the dynamic between the three cars, we all compete against each other. We’ve had some great battles between Shane and Jamie this year and no doubt, that will continue.
AA: Jamie said recently that he felt more comfortable after there had been some set-up changes in his car after a recent test, and Gizzy has also said he’s starting to feel comfortable in driving, I think he referred to it as a ‘real Triple 8 car’, or words to that effect. Where are you set-up wise these days? Are you evolving or are you sticking to the things that have proven to work in the past?
CL: I think a bit of a mix of A and B. We go to tracks with a set-up that we believe and know has worked in the past.
But by the same token, we are also looking for new ways of doing things and again, that’s where Ludo is very open-minded about evolving the set-up and the way we operate. There’s no doubt that from time to time we have been different to Red Bull cars. Sometimes it’s paid off, sometimes it hasn’t and I think that all three cars, at any certain time during a weekend, could be completely different to each other.
Again, the beauty is, we debrief altogether and work out the pros and cons and, hopefully, come together at the end to have three fast cars. So we are utilising the information much better – and you’ve got to, otherwise it could get lost in the system.
Working with Ludo and a different mindset has been great for me, and keeps me excited about what the rest of the year looks like. We were very happy with the test day that we had recently, and I think Jamie said the same, and so was Shane. All three of us have got a slightly different view on what we like out of the car and through that test day we managed to extract that from the car.
AA: In some ways Jamie and Shane are opposites. Jamie has always focused very clearly on being a V8 Supercar driver; Shane will drive anything with wheels, up to and probably including an Uber. You’re kind of an in the middle aren’t you? You’re talking about doing some GT racing again.
CL: There is no doubt I’d do some other racing. As I said, it’s probably the best form of keeping sharp and fit, but time just doesn’t go my way at times. We know the Le Mans 24 Hour clashed this year. That is one the races I would love to do.
So is the 24 Hours of Spa. I know Shane’s looking forward to it. We looked into that but honestly, we’re time-poor this year with the structure of Supercars so I decided to focus on the Supercar side and later in the year, especially when everyone knows what the calendar looks like for next year, I will start looking into doing more racing.
There’s no doubt Shane has had the opportunity this year to be able to do what he’s been able to do and it’s great to see, not only that he’s doing it but that he’s been successful.
AA: Where will you look? Obviously people will assume you’ll look at GT3s. Overseas, you’ve already done the Spa 24 Hour a couple of years ago and races here of course with winning the 12 Hour. Do you look solely there or consider something else?
CL: I would love to do the 12 Hour of Bathurst again. To race at a track like that, we all know how special it is, it would be nice to do that.
I’d like to go back to the Nurburgring. Warren Luff and I went over there to do a VLN race and unfortunately, we didn’t get to the race itself. But the circuit was quite amazing, so to have opportunities to drive on tracks that you normally don’t get a chance to is something I’d like to look into.
The one race that I have always wanted to do was Le Mans and unfortunately, either we haven’t had the opportunity because it’s clashed with [V8 Supercar] dates or we haven’t had the opportunity to find a team and a car to fit in. I’d love to do it next year for sure but again once we know the calendars and the landscape of Supercars look like we can start focusing on what we can do.
AA: Anywhere else? Maybe a NASCAR road race?
CL: That would be fun.
AA: It would be, and it would be fun to watch.
CL: To drive a NASCAR would be quite entertaining. I think James Courtney did [drive one] when we went to Texas and they commented how different they are to drive. I talked to Marcus Ambrose since he’s been back and those sorts of things would be a great opportunity to be part of if the opportunity came up.
AA: Do people ever make offers?
CL: No, although Darrell Waltrip sent out, I think, tweet out that it would be good to see us out in a NASCAR. If there was an opportunity… though to be honest, we haven’t pursued it or spent much time looking into that side of the world. If there was an opportunity there I would love to go and do it.
AA: If you took out the championship this year Craig, 20 years after you won it in 1996, what would that mean in terms of achievements you have logged in the sport?
CL: I think it would be a huge highlight. To do it 20 years on would be quite incredible.
We’ve worked pretty hard to make that reality. It’s been a great year and I’m really looking forward to continuing on the performance. When we get to the endurance side of it, pairing up with Richo again and hopefully having the same result.
AA: We’ve seen elsewhere in the sport over the last little while sometimes teammates trip over each other when they’re both in championship contention. We’re at the midpoint of the season and all three Triple 8 drivers are in championship contention. At what stage does that have to become ‘managed’?
CL: I think there’s no doubt Roland [Dane] has said we can always race to the chequered flag but you know if one of us is, a clear favourite, I think there will be a point where Roland may step in. But at the moment it’s way too early in the championship to consider that or think about that side of it. At the moment it’s all about all three of us maximising results and points. It’s great to see three cars at the pointy end of the championship. The first thing and to try and maintain it.
AA: Age before beauty?
CL: I would like to think that Roland might see it that way, but I doubt it!
I think that, regardless, it’s always been the same way, so regardless of who wins the championship in a Triple 8 car, Roland’s happy. If we have a one two three Roland would be ecstatic.
AA: And the Caltex situation, branching off, if like, into your own ‘satellite’ team, does that give you motivation to stay at the highest level for a few more years yet, before you decide you might do something else?
CL: Look, no doubt, I think a change is as good as a holiday, as they say. For me it’s great to have you know Triple 8 backing and the engineering side of it still there, to have Caltex step up and to be more involved in the team and create a team, it’s been exciting. I think there is definitely some loyalty there that I would like to give back and I think the best way we can repay sponsors like Caltex is to win races. There’s no doubt we are doing our best to do that and it has definitely helped me keep challenging myself to be better at what we’re doing even after 20 years.
AA: I had a similar chat with you about 12 years ago and you said you didn’t think you’d be racing when you were 40.
AA: … and you’ve obviously changed your mind. The level of enthusiasm, I can hear it in your voice now, you’re still as passionate about as when you were 16 when you were racing Formula Fords.
CL: There is no doubt about it.
The way the category is changing, with events and venues, is keeping the excitement up there as well. I think they’re looking for great events. Townsville has been a great inclusion into the category, we were supposed to go to KL but unfortunately not this year. Having the opportunity to go to new tracks and have new experiences has also allowed drivers to be more excited and keep being excited about the future of Supercars. If there is anything keeping me involved as a main driver it’s that enthusiasm, and being competitive against the competition that we’ve got.
Back then I probably didn’t know how long I was going to be involved in the sport and now, if I could hang on for another four or five years it would be great.
AA: So two years down the track… Lara’s won the Queensland Clubman Light title, she’s swept all before her in her first season of Formula 4 and she wants to move up to Supercars. Are you going to step aside?
CL: If that’s the point, I probably would!
She’s not a bad driver so who knows? I know the category at the moment is mindful of trying to find a female driver who knows in a couple of years.
AA: Marriage, a championship contention, Bathurst coming up, maybe a title… this could be a big year for you, CL?
CL: Could be a massive year, could be a trifecta!
Look it’s great that Lara’s got the background she’s in, she understands the sport we’re in and we do travel a lot. But it’s also very, very helpful when it gets to race weekends and she keeps me on track, which is great.
Date posted: January 11, 2017