It seems faintly absurd that someone nicknamed ‘The Kid’ is retiring from his sport but this weekend in Newcastle, Craig Lowndes is doing just that.
On Sunday afternoon someone will drag the Supercars legend away from signing autographs for his legion of fans, and he will pull on his helmet one last time to drive his Holden Commodore in his final race.
In 2019 he will compete in Supercars’ three endurance events, but as someone else’s co-driver. There will be some starts in GT races – maybe even at Le Mans – and also Supercars TV commitments. But after more than two decades at or near the top of Australian motor racing, he is about to close the door on being a full-time driver.
“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,” Lowndes said in the build-up to the weekend.
— Nine News Melbourne (@9NewsMelb) October 7, 2018
“It will be emotional. I’m sure that, no doubt, come Sunday, it will really hit home that that will be the last time I will be in a Supercar.”
At 44, an age at which drivers commonly have lost that last 10th of a second it takes to win, Lowndes has not. So when, in July, he announced he was stepping down at the end of the season, the news came as a shock. He was under contract to drive for the Triple Eight team in 2019, a fact of which he reminded the media at Symmons Plains in Tasmania only three months before.
Oddly, had Lowndes announced his decision a year ago it would have been less of a surprise. By his standards, 2017 had been a tough season. Finishing 10th out of 26 drivers was actually slightly flattering; there were times he struggled to qualify in the front half of the field.
But it was that weekend in Tasmania that he found a car set-up that allowed him to demonstrate the fire still raged behind the smile. In two races, he took a second place with a win, after qualifying pole position for the first time in three years.
Craig’s hot laps
Since he stepped into the spotlight a generation ago Lowndes has been the sport’s most popular driver. After a dazzling vignette at Bathurst in 1994, taking the lead late in the race and finishing second, he hit in the 1996 Australian Touring Car Championship like a cyclone.
At Eastern Creek he swept past, and aside, some of the sport’s former champions to take his first win. The eyes of some of Touring Car racing’s biggest names, 15 or even 20 years his senior, showed what they were thinking; “Oh no, the jig is up”.
That year he won his first championship, backed up with the Sandown-Bathurst endurance double, the sport’s ‘triple crown’.
The world beckoned, and a year in European Formula 3000 in 1997 showed Lowndes had potential. A second season may have set him on the path to a Formula 1 career but no such opportunity came, so he returned home to put the locals to the sword, taking two more championships in two years.
Since then, his legend has revolved around Bathurst. That maiden 1000 win in 1996 has been followed by six more – and tellingly, another seven top-three finishes. As well, he has won the Bathurst 12 Hour, for GT cars, three times. Like his mentor Peter Brock, who won there nine times, Lowndes has been at his very best at the toughest track in the country.
He showed that again last month, taking win number seven as other, younger drivers wilted around him. While some of his former rivals raced a season too long – possibly two – no one is suggesting that about Lowndes.
Along the way, he has made it look simple. Like Brock, his talent is natural and apparently effortless; in an era in which computers and data ruled other drivers’ performances, Lowndes has made driving a 650-horsepower, 300km/h racer look as easy as breathing.
A fan favourite
While he may have been worn down by the commitments that go with being a racing driver, he has never tired of meeting people. Some drivers look like they would rather go to the dentist than attend another autograph session, but Lowndes has always thrived on the fans’ enthusiasm.
Even when he has crossed Supercars’ Holden-Ford divide and back again, his followers stayed with him, just as they did long ago with Brock.
Triple Eight’s remaining drivers Jamie Whincup and Shane van Gisbergen will stage a UFC-standard battle to have Lowndes as their co-driver for the 2019 Supercars endurance races. Whichever one gets him will, in all likelihood, be favourite to win at Bathurst next October.
In the meantime all three of them will team up for February’s 12 Hour, in a Mercedes-Benz. They will be hard to beat.
And Lowndes has two more races in Newcastle before he signs off. He already has 107 Supercars wins – and you can be certain he’d like more.