It’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of Craig Lowndes at the best of times, he is after all one of Australia’s best racing drivers, and would easily be classed right up there with his hero Peter Brock.
So, today, having witnessed him fulfill a lifetime dream to drive a Formula One car, and for that to take place at the most sacred of motor racing sites – Mt Panorama Bathurst it is surely just speculation to assume it was a breathtaking day for this young Aussie.
He was joined at our great Mountain by 2009 Formula 1 World Champion Jenson Button, but not just to chat, to meet and to say hi, this was a chance for them to swap cars, and get the feel for something ver new. In Craig’s terms, it was the awesome precision power and handling of the McLaren formula one racer. For Jenson it was a chance to experience something Craig perhaps takes for granted, that is the challenges of the 6.213km Mt Panorama circuit.These are equally immense challenges, possibly bigger for Jenson than for Craig some would argue.
Vodafone made it all happen, bringing the teams and cars together and getting the event cleared through Council – Craig Lowndes made a point of thanking Vodafone for the opportunity – and I have to do the same, sure I didn’t drive an F1 car around Bathurst, but I was fortunate on the day to have the opportunity to treat not only myself, but also my 4 year old son Jackson to a fantastic Day on the mountain.
Let me start by saying this was a privileged experience for my son and I – one I don’t take for granted. Here’s little Jackson meeting Jenson’s Dad, getting a photo next to a McLaren F1 car, then meeting Jenson and Craig in person – these two men, superstars in their own right took the time to bend down, shake hands with the little man, chat to him and generally that is impressive to me by any measure.
Moving onto the track action, the real reason for the day, this was something serious – but it had a few little tricks up it’s sleeve. This was a 2009 McLaren – obvious just by the size of the front and rear wings – but that’s nothing to be concerned about – it had the power and force any F1 car of the era packs. The team of mechanics started the day with the car up on the blocks. Within a short time they’d readied the car for a hot lap, wheels and tyres on, preparation complete.
Lowndes’ V8 Supercar was already sitting in Pit Lane by this time, so when the McLaren joined it side by side it was a sight to behold.
Seven’s Mark Baretta did a great job across the day but his duties started with some introductory interviews of both Craig and Jenson.
Once complete, Jenson got into the McLaren and fired things up! It was a sighting lap – the team needed to know what the car could do on the track. He returned directly to the pits as planned and the team made some important additional ride height changes (adding another 4mm) on Jenson’s advice. Moments later, he took to the track again. This time for a couple of flying laps.
There was to be no official timing on the day (so for that reason, you’ll NOT see this listed as a new ‘lap record’) however everyone who was anyone had a stopwatch out on these laps. My reading of lap one was a 1.54 – that’s 12 seconds or so below the fastest time recorded previously (By Craig Lowndes last year in his V8).
Another time round and Jenson had cracked it down to 1.48 – a Stunning time.
That was it for Jenson in the F1 car – now it was Craig’s turn to warm up his V8 – The track wasn’t in use for days so it wasn’t at its premium – so once he got the car in trim, he handed over to Jenson, who put it around the mountain in 2.17.
That may seem slow – and it is, but some perspective – he’s used to a precision driving machine – the V8 Supercar is a handful, and the top of the mountain is a place learned over many attempts not just one. All Credit to Jenson for his 2.17, he was – understandably disappointed by that when informed by Mark Baretta.
Finally, it was the moment Craig Lowndes had waited his entire life for – to drive an F1 car. He did it with gusto, and ease.
According to Craig the car is not difficult to drive in general terms, when it gets difficult is when you push those boundaries and put the car on edge, something he was not able to do today – I mean, imagine bringing it home with three wheels.
Craig set three laps – the final two were both 1.49’s – just 1 second off Jenson’s time – just fantastic for Craig.
This is very clearly a PR exercise for the teams, and most importantly for their main sponsor Vodafone – and having glanced at some of the news coverage tonight – it’s paid for itself – many times over.
But for the town of Bathurst, it’s like the 1987 Great Race – with World Touring Cars – putting the event and location on the global stage. But this time round it was all positive.
The main thing I took out of the event was that Jenson Button and his father love Bathurst. John Button told me on the bus to the Airport that he would certainly be coming back to see the Great Race.
Jenson was even more gushing. He heaped praise on the V8 Drivers and more than once stated his desire to ‘do it for real’ – indicating a desire to race the Bathurst 1000. For clarity, he was very clear that wouldn’t be possible during his F1 career.
But, the thought of Jenson partnering with Lowndes or Whincup in the 1000 is one that will keep me interested for many years to come.
I won’t forget that sound of a McLaren Mercedes in Pit lane for some time.