My tip is a comeback won’t be too far down the track…
On July 6 this year, in the lead-up to the Townsville race, Australia’s most popular motor sport identity, Craig Lowndes, shocked the industry and fans by announcing he would retire from full-time racing at the end of this season and, from next year, only participate as an enduro driver.
The reactions were many and varied given Craig took everyone by surprise. Some, like Mark Skaife, applauded the move to finish while on top, given the demands of his racing – in particular when you are the main celebrity in the sport and everyone wants a piece of you. There was also disappointment, as many fans had planned to get many more seasons of enjoyment from their favourite fan-friendly trackside personality.
To some there were also suggestions he had been pushed aside by his management to make way for a drive for Simone di Silvestro. David Reynolds, fellow-driver and championship contender at that time, spoke publicly, saying “when you watch the press conference it’s so clear he is being half pushed out or pushed out entirely”.
Whilst these comments were not appreciated by Craig, he should not have got too concerned as Reynolds is renowned for his unpredictable and childish media attention-grabbing antics.
Whilst all sorts of theories abound as to why Craig would wish to retire when car-for-car he would still beat 75% of the field and currently looks like finishing an outstanding 4th in this year’s championship, I have my own ‘wag’ (wild-ass guess) on how his retirement may have come out of the blue and how, maybe, it could be short-lived.
My theory starts with a basic assumption that Craig would undoubtedly have mega sport star fatigue after 24 years of racing, travel, sponsors, media and the politics of sport. Burnout with top sport stars is best treated with a well-thought-out long break when your performances are still very competitive, as Craig’s are. When the body and brain are in burnout mode it’s only natural to think retirement is the best option.
Craig’s boss, Roland Dane, is not in this game just to win races but also make a profit, and with the success rate of that team he deservedly should be capable of making a significant profit. My scenario is his two main game ‘RBHRT’ cars would represent a very profitable business model, given strong funding from Holden and Red Bull naming rights – but maybe not so with Craig’s car, where pit lane talk suggests it is underfunded. Maybe it’s a case of ‘why achieve strong $ returns from your two main cars only to see it eroded with your third car on the grid’.
Therefore my ‘wag’ is that, at the start of this season, Dane had a carefully planned four-step strategy for his third car to be put into play for the 2019 season:
- Approach all the existing sponsors to stump up with more funding for Craig’s car #888
- If 1 fails, seek to attract other sponsors who would pay the money required for Craig’s car
- If 2 fails, seek a driver with major sponsor backing who would pay the money required (e.g. Harvey Norman/Di Silvestro)
- If all three of these plans fail then hand back the franchise for the third car.
Dane would have taken Craig into his confidence on all four scenarios, and if options 1 and 2 failed, Craig would agree to the retirement option, take a lucrative fee and a highly competitive seat for the Pirtek Enduro 3 races in September and October, and have the other 10 months of the season smelling the roses.
Any good manager representing Craig in these discussions would, however, keep his options open for 2020 for a full-time drive elsewhere once Craig takes his well-earned refresher break in 2019 –or even the return of a third T8 car if new strong funding was mined.
My money is on Craig returning to a full-time Supercar seat in either 2020 or 2021 for these reasons: a) I don’t see Craig suited to a top media role, or a team management or ownership position; b) the Sean Seamers of Supercars know Craig puts volume bums on seats and turns on television sets, and a comeback would reignite massive interest for the sport; c) about this time next year Craig will start getting itchy feet for full-time racing and be missing all the trappings deserving of a superstar in the sport.
We will see!
So let’s trace where Craig’s phenomenal 24 years at the top end of Australian motor sport all started. In my Team Principal role at HRT I had a good helicopter view as to how this superstar in v8 touring cars/supercars got going.
In 1994 Craig drove for us at Sandown, Bathurst and Adelaide GP then, in ’95, did Sandown and Bathurst, then a full season in ’96 and, in ’97, under our management, a full season in the European F3000 series.
On his return from overseas he then competed in full seasons at HRT for 1998, 1999 and 2000, for a total of 158 race starts for HRT.
Jeff Grech, as Team Manager of HRT in August 1994, wanted to put this promising 19-year-old Formula Ford driver in one of our factory cars for the Sandown race, as TWR UK driver Rickard Rydell pulled out very late in the piece. We backed Jeff’s idea of Craig being a last-minute replacement, as Jeff a few months earlier had given Craig some private testing and his times and raw talent were, to say the least, very impressive.
My job was to handle the team marketing, brand development and driver negotiations on fees and contracts, so after some meetings we sent our driver’s contract off to Craig on 25 August 1994, and a few days later we both signed.
It involved: a) a sign-on fee of $2,500 plus a Sandown drive fee of $2,500, plus podium bonus monies; b) an HRT test program for full year 1995 for a $10,000 fee plus 20 promotional appearances. Should the team decide to select Craig as an enduro driver for Sandown and Bathurst in 1995 a further driver fee of $10,000; c) in October 1995 we would make a decision on Craig for the 1996 season; d) the Team to provide a personal development and training program, a public speaking and presentation course on media handling.
After Craig’s prodigious Sandown performance as No.2 driver and his dominance over the much more experienced lead driver Brad Jones, Jeff Grech and I wasted no time signing Craig for the upcoming Bathurst. He and Brad Jones then finished on the second step of the podium at Bathurst. After this it was clear to all good judges we had something special with this extremely likeable, fresh-faced young rookie driver.
To have acted so quickly in signing Craig up in August 1994 to the end of 1996, and locking him in exclusively, was certainly one of our team’s better moves.
Immediately following Craig’s inspiring first Bathurst performance, Jeff Grech and I wasted no time arranging another meeting with Craig and his father, Frank, on 7 October at the Excelsior Hotel in Thomastown, close by Craig’s family home.
Our 25 August driver contract with Craig was for Australia only, with Craig and his father exploring a test in Europe with a UK outfit lead by ex-pat Australian, Alan Docking. Jeff Grech and I worked hard at trying to have TWR UK arrange his European aspirations and keep Craig globally part our Group.
We gave him a firm proposal at that 7 October meeting, considerably modifying the original contract done only six weeks earlier prior to his brilliant debut Sandown and Bathurst performances, and this included a wild card to race in the next month’s Grand Prix race in Adelaide.
And so began the career of Craig Lowndes in the elite division of Australian motor sport, where his association with our HRT team would span from September 1994 to December 2000 – a period of more than six years, during which Craig bought great credit to himself, his father who had nurtured his racing from nine years of age, Holden, and our HRT brand. Craig was the catalyst that allowed Jeff Grech to comprehensively reinvigorate and transform the DNA of HRT from a struggling also-ran team to the dominant force in the sport from 1996 until February 2003.
In 2003, completely out of my and Jeff’s control, we saw our dreams of many more championships evaporate in an instant, when our extremely profitable HRT business got caught up in the collapse and receivership of Tom Walkinshaw’s UK racing and business empire.
On 17 November 1995, HRT issued a press release advising that Craig, at 21 years old, would become a full-time driver for season 1996 and would team up with 51yo Peter Brock. This agreement, through to end of 1999, represented the biggest backing any 21-year-old driver had received in Australian motor sport.
How fortuitous it was for us to convince Holden in November ’95 to reverse their post-Bathurst decision to sack us as their factory team, as in the first race of ’96, with Craig at the wheel, the value of HRT to Holden changed dramatically overnight. Again, this was thanks to the fantastic new energy Jeff Grech introduced into the team with his new rookie driver. Craig literally wiped the floor with his competitors, most of whom were twice his age.
With all the hysteria surrounding Craig’s 1996 success, attention soon turned to his Formula One aspirations. Our colleagues in TWR UK arranged for Craig to drive in a very competitive F1 stepping-stone series with Austrian-based Dr Helmet Marko’s team in the Formula 3000 series. I convinced Tom Walkinshaw that HSV should underwrite these costs, which were close to A$1 million for the 1997 season, and in return we would enter into a 10-year contract to manage all Craig’s racing activities. In Europe, his team-mate would be Juan Pablo Montoya, who was the same age as Craig.
Neither Craig nor HRT achieved the dream of launching Craig into F1 ranks, and his season in Europe, where he came 17th in the Championship, had failed. My formal review with team owner Dr Marko, by phone on 2 September, was very blunt about Craig’s performances in the F3000 season. During that call Dr Marko stated Craig was not at Montoya’s calibre and expressed concerns about Craig’s lack of single-minded focus. He felt Craig was too happy-go-lucky and easy-going to make it in F1, particularly compared to the intensity of Montoya. Marko said that after practice sessions Montoya would get out of the car and spend hours on end with his engineer, going over all data, while Craig would jump out of the car and disappear down pit lane happily hand-in-hand with his girlfriend, Natalie.
Back in Australia we did not get too hung up with Craig’s F3000 report card, as we knew he was basically a homebody, and had no hesitation with getting him back at HRT. With Craig’s learnings from his Euro experience and our recruitment of Mark Skaife and his intense competitiveness, we went into 1998 with a lot of confidence of taking the team to another level, and that’s what happened.
This combination was the HRT dream team, as in ’98 Craig was 1st in the championship, and Mark 3rd; in ’99 same again and, in 2000, Mark was 1st in the championship and Craig 3rd. Mark backed up his 2000 championship with further titles in 2001 and 2002.
From the disaster of Bathurst ’95, HRT took out championship titles in ’96, ’98, ’99, ’00, ’01 and ’02, as well as three Bathurst victories. It was a reasonable turnaround for the team that Holden sacked after Bathurst ’95 and justified our push to reverse that decision just six weeks later.
Craig’s last year at HRT in 2000 was difficult for everyone. Once Ford got into his ear about a move to the blue side for the following season the dynamics changed considerably. Whilst Craig’s driver contract allowed him free agency in 2001, the complications associated with our 10-year management agreement of Craig’s motor sport career and our desire to recover monies invested in the ‘97 European campaign caused a lot of tension and an awkward environment.
Fortunately it was resolved without the involvement of the courts and during all this Craig and I never had a cross word. The same could not be said between his advisors and myself; however, the last paragraph of this article is the recall of Craig and HRT that matters most.
Craig’s performance stats in his first four full race seasons, plus eight drives in ’94, ’95 and ’97 at HRT, stand high above everything else in his ensuing 18 seasons after he decided to leave our team and was employed by three other teams. Craig had 24 per cent of his 665 career race starts for HRT, and the impact on the team and on Craig’s career was as astonishing as it was compelling.
Elite sporting superstars peak midway through their careers; however, Craig was different, as his best was virtually from day one at HRT where, in his four seasons, he recorded by far his most concentrated success rate. It took Craig 18 seasons with three other teams to achieve the win and podium success rate he recorded in just his four full seasons at HRT.
The one person who should be taking the biggest bow, after Craig at Newcastle on November 25, is Jeff Grech and his HRT support team for the period of Craig’s time at HRT. Craig was only at HRT for 158 of his 665 starts and for four full seasons of his 24-year career, but he achieved 51 per cent of his career race wins (54 of 107) while at HRT, as well as 56 per cent of his 166 podiums; 100 per cent of his three championship wins; 15 per cent of his seven Bathurst wins and 35 per cent of his pole positions.
Whilst Jeff and his technical support team did a fantastic job in allowing Craig to sweep to victory so many times in great cars and with great race strategy, the other side of the equation was the blossoming of Craig’s personality and his ultimate popularity rating of a rock star. Again this commenced while at HRT. Craig started at HRT as a shy and reserved 19-year-old; however, the influence of HRT’s management group in shaping the off-track part of his career was as carefully planned as it was methodical. Add to that the turbo-charged Peter Brock mentoring and influence. They were very close team-mates in the enduros of ’94, ’95, ’97 and full season ’96. Peter’s grooming of Craig with media handling, sponsor relationships, fan engagement and autograph sessions, appeal, and public event speaking was something money could not buy.
At the end of 1996, with Peter Brock finishing at HRT, I felt Craig could well become the next Brock/Peter Perfect of our sport, not just with results but also in terms of unconditional fan appeal, demand for apparel and merchandise, and as role model for young motor sport fans and potential HSV buyers and aspirers.
In 1999 I prepared a comprehensive marketing paper for Craig to consider, outlining a strategy to ensure that within three to five years he could take over the Peter Brock mantle in this sport. Today I make the same prediction that Scott McLaughlin will in every sense be the Craig Lowndes of the next 5-10 years if he stays in supercars.
Regardless of my prediction about this not being Craig’s last full season in supercars, he deserves every accolade coming his way pre and post the last race at Newcastle on 25 November.
The electronic scoreboard would not be big enough to cover it all. Champion of the track, Champion of modesty, Champion of diplomacy, Champion of even temperament, Champion of decency, Champion of positive communications, Champion of the constant smile, Champion role model.