Craig Lowndes Q&A
AMC: Craig, we have great recollections of your 1996 Bathurst-winning car, but the lead-up to its debut earlier in the year surely must have made you feel you were part of the secret service the way some of those developments in that car were kept from your rivals! Craig Lowndes: The debut was at Calder Park and I remember the stories were going around about our ‘secret weapon’ and that we’d found basically a chassis that was going to deliver. It had all this hype about it and that also then followed up with a lot of interest when it debuted. I remember sitting on the dummy grid for first practice at Calder in the car. They’d covered it over with a car cover. I was sitting in it with the cover on, ready to go out and literally as the first car was leaving the dummy grid they uncovered the car and I drove off before anyone could get any proper photos of the car. The car felt good in testing. At that stage I was of the same belief as everyone else that the diagonal bar gave it basically a superior handling advantage and away we went. The bar was the main focus but the car had a unique footwell and we tried some different start procedures with it that worked for me. But the mechanism we had in the car was outlawed. The footwell remained but the mechanism didn’t. We modified the footwell and came up with a better system anyway!
AMC: This car came at a time where the team was under massive pressure. The disaster of Bathurst 1995 was lingering and the knives were out from both within and outside the team – do you remember it feeling that way?
CL: For the team, that particular car couldn’t have come along at a better time. For me it was the perfect time.
There was a lot of pressure on the team to perform, although it wasn’t relayed to me at the time. Jeff Grech did a great job shielding me from that side of it.
At the time I believed the way the car was presented and delivered to me was that it was superior. [Race shell construction specialist] Dencar had done a lot of research and work on strengthening the chassis and improved its rigidity and it was going to be far better than any other car out there.
I was led to believe I was sitting in a car far superior to anything else but now, as history will show, the bar didn’t make a damn difference!
AMC: While many remember you and Greg Murphy winning the Sandown/Bathurst double in that car, it also helped you become the champion in odd circumstances too at Mallala when it got creased!
CL: I backed into John Bowe, who was the main title threat!
If you look at any circuit that Bridgestone struggled on back then, it was Mallala. That was predominantly a Dunlop track. There was a couple of circuits through the year where Dunlop had the upper hand but 75 to 80 per cent of the tracks we went to the Bridgestones were superior.
From memory it was a damp start and we knew we were going to struggle but we had a healthy lead in the points and just needed to finish and go to Oran Park, knowing that it was a much better track for us as a Bridgestone runner.
We had a great battle with AJ (Alan Jones); running down the back straight into the hairpin
there was contact. I got turned around, went backwards into the hairpin which guided me into the front right of John Bowe’s car and literally took us both out and because of the points situation it guaranteed me the championship.
My reverse steering accuracy is not that great so I can’t put it down to me deliberately steering into him!
AMC: History shows you and HRT 033 won Bathurst in 1996. But there was a real possibility you could have missed the race due to an accident in the weeks beforehand. What happened?
CL: I was at a friend’s garage working on my four-wheel drive and they’d bought a dirt bike. My upbringing and background was riding bikes and I jumped on it and went too fast. It was out on the street in an industrial area fairly late at night with no one around.
Basically I couldn’t stop for the corner so I decided go off up into the car park. I got the front wheel over the gutter but the rear wheel hit and catapulted me over the handlebars and I landed on my head and split it open. And this was all two weeks before Bathurst.
Jeff Grech (HRT team manager) was the first phone call to make. It didn’t go down too well. They took me to the hospital and I got eight stitches, but what actually happened was that I’d Top right: Team manager Jeff Grech (and Rory) oversaw a slick operation. Right: Truth be known, AMC’s editor, then working for the event’s publicists, organised the ‘funny hat’ PR stunt involving Lowndes, Tommy Kendall and John Cleland. Uncle Sam must have had a smaller head than Kendall! pinched a nerve in my neck when I landed and my left arm was paralysed. Not many people know that part of the story.
The concussion was one thing. I could drive an automatic road car but not a manual. I had to literally lift my left hand onto the steering wheel or the centre console. I couldn’t physically move it. I went through rehab to release the nerve issue, which we did and then the main thing was recovering from being knocked out.
I still remember doing the memory test in Melbourne literally about three days after the stitches and I went back a week and a half later and re-sat the test, the day before I was supposed to leave for Bathurst. That was for me to prove to CAMS that I was back to normal.
I still remember seeing both tests and looking at the first test I couldn’t believe how much I had missed and got incorrect! But I passed the second one and off I went to Bathurst.
The story the team went with was that I was sick. All my media commitments were canned and the PR department was working overtime.
The only proviso for me at Bathurst for the week was to wear a hat to cover the stitches and bandages. I had to be very careful putting my helmet on to cover it all up. During race week people were asking questions but it wasn’t until post-race that people realised just what had happened.
1996 Calder Park debut