Clipsal: Craig Lowndes returns

The kid is back. The youngest champion in the history of the V8 Supercar Championship Series and arguably the most talented driver in pit lane is primed for another title. Craig Lowndes is a new man. He has undergone a startling ...

The kid is back. The youngest champion in the history of the V8 Supercar Championship Series and arguably the most talented driver in pit lane is primed for another title.

Craig Lowndes is a new man. He has undergone a startling off-season transformation in readiness for season 2005.

It was obvious at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne two weeks ago - a chirpy, chirpier than normal anyway, and upbeat Craig Lowndes. He was also the standout driver on track at the Grand Prix. Now, one of the most recognised faces in Australian sport series is raring to go.

"It's just a slightly older version these days," Lowndes said of the driver who has already conquered many mountains in the world's toughest touring car category.

"I love this sport so much I could easily go for another 10 years. I'm just so passionate about the sport, my job, the fans, the V8 Supercar Championship Series and just everything about it."

Lowndes was 21 when he won the 1996 championship. In a brilliant debut season he also became only the second driver to win Sandown and Bathurst in the same year, after the legendary Peter Brock.

Following a brief overseas stint Lowndes returned to the series, winning the Championship again in 1998 and backing up the win with another series victory in 1999. At the time it made him the first driver to win two successive Championships since Mark Skaife in 1991-1992.

The switch from Ford Performance Racing to Team Betta Electrical this year and a base closer to his country Queensland home has brought the revitalisation. He has a new baby on the way in May, his second and younger brother to two-year-old Levi, and is a much more settled person.

"It's a combination of all those things," Lowndes said.

"This has been the best off season I have had in a long, long time - if not ever. I am supremely confident that this will be a great year and I've got to say my car is the best Falcon I've ever driven since I've been in Ford land."

When Lowndes switched to Ford in 2001 it was amongst the biggest stories in Australian sport. With the Holden-Ford tribalism a driving force of the sport in those days it was akin to Shane Warne announcing he was to play cricket for England.

Lowndes is again in line for some history at the Clipsal 500 this weekend. Should he win he will be the first driver to win the event for both Holden and Ford. He first won the event in 1999.

But what's more important to Lowndes getting off to a good start in the first event of the year.

"History shows that anyone who does well in Adelaide generally has a good year," Lowndes said. "The top three guys from Adelaide are always in the mix at the end of the year."

One of those three guys last year was current champion Marcos Ambrose who set up his year with his victory at the Clipsal 500. He is America-bound in 2006 in an attempt to break into the lucrative Nascar series and hell bent on winning three in a row before he goes.

"This place has a huge atmosphere, but the race itself is bloody tough, especially when it is hot. It is one of the best street tracks to drive on," Ambrose said.

Ambrose comes to Adelaide looking to get a flying start in his quest to win his third straight Championship, which will mean he would join Ian Geoghegan and Mark Skaife as the only drivers with a hat trick of titles.

His team-mate Russell Ingall may well assume the lead role in 2006 and knows the value of a good result in Adelaide and the fact it could also set up an earlier championship buffer.

"This is my old home town," Ingall said.

"I have not won in Adelaide yet, but I have been on the podium a few times. This race always wins the best event of the year and after you have been there you can tell why.

"It is an outstanding event with a great crowd. It is one of the best technical circuits you can drive on. It all adds up to a pretty awesome weekend."

Kiwi ace Greg Murphy starts his 2005 V8 Supercar Championship assault and the four-time Bathurst winner is as fired up as ever in the pursuit of the series crown that has eluded him.

The move in the off-season to Super Cheap Auto Racing has refreshed Murphy but he believes the massive changes of drivers and teams during the off-season could see a few surprises towards the front of the field.

"It's hard to say who will pop up there," Murphy said.

"There will definitely be the 'regulars' in Ambrose, Skaife and the like, but there's been so many changes in the off-season that there might be the odd curve ball. The Grand Prix was a little that way where there were some others who showed good form that surprised a few people."

This will be the seventh time the V8 Supercar Championship Series has visited the Adelaide street circuit since the first Adelaide 500 back in 1999.

In that time the track has proved itself to be where Holden and the Holden Racing Team in particular, feel most at home. In the six rounds Holden drivers have won five times, taking out eight of the 12 races.

"It's a tough race to win, certainly one of the toughest we race," said Skaife.

"Many teams have made significant changes to their cars, driver line-up and to key personnel over the past few months. It's going to be an intriguing weekend in a lot of ways."

The weekend should be special for Betta Electrical's Steven Ellery. It will be his 100th Championship start. Ellery will be the 16th driver to make the 100 mark.

2005 CLIPSAL 500 SCHEDULE

Friday, March 18, 2005
9.45am-10.20am -- Practice 1
12.15pm-12.50pm -- Practice 2
2.20pm-2.40pm -- Qualifying (Lower 50%)
2.45pm-3.05pm -- Qualifying (Upper 50%)
4pm-4.30pm -- Shootout

Saturday, March 19, 2005
2pm -- Race 1 (78 Laps)

Sunday, March 20, 2005
11.40am-12.15pm -- Drivers Parade
2pm -- Race 2 (78 Laps)

TELEVISION SCHEDULE

Saturday, March 19, 2005
Network Ten -- 1pm-5pm (EDST)

Sunday, March 20, 2005
Network Ten -- 1pm-5pm (EDST)
*Check your local guides

-avesco-

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About this article
Series Supercars
Drivers Marcos Ambrose , Steven Ellery , Greg Murphy , Russell Ingall , Mark Skaife , Craig Lowndes , Peter Brock
Teams Holden Racing Team