CRAIG Lowndes was bubbling after scoring a class podium at this weekend’s eventful Spa 24-hour race in Europe, the V8 Supercar star’s first 24-hour endurance event.
Driving a Ferrari 458 fielded by AF Corse, Lowndes and team-mates Steve Wyatt, Michele Rugolo and Andrea Piccini took third in the Pro-Am class, and an impressive eighth overall.
“It’s amazing; Spa has always been one of my top three or four tracks,” Lowndes told Wheels after finishing the action-packed endure.
“To go up Eau Rouge and get that right is just an incredible feeling. It’s like Bathurst on steroids.”
The Aussie ace was surprised by some of the driving, particularly in the early stages, when a number of heavy crashes brought on safety car periods.
“It’s more aggressive than I’m used to racing in Australia. I couldn’t believe how desperate people were at such an early stage in a 24-hour race.
“The team had a strategy worked out, but all the safety cars just threw that out of the window. I didn’t know when I could sleep, and I ended up first driving much later than I thought, from 11pm to 1am, and only got three hours sleep after that.
“At a 12-hour race like Bathurst, you’re switched on all day, but you can sustain it. That’s not possible for 24 hours; you’ve got to get some sleep.”
Lowndes last raced at Spa during the 1997 European Formula 3000 season, and had previously driven the number 52 Ferrari with fellow Australian and gentleman racer Steve Wyatt at the Bathurst 12 Hour earlier this year. But it was teammate Michele Rugolo who undertook qualifying duties, putting the 458 sixth in class and 16th overall.
During the race, Lowndes’ fastest lap was 2m23.7s, just over a second adrift of his experienced Italian teammates around the 7km Belgian circuit.
Lowndes said the Ferrari is easier to drive than a V8 Supercar, but he nonetheless had some difficulty adapting after only a handful of laps before the race.
“I’m ramping the braking up like in the V8s, because I’m not used to having ABS,” he explained early in the race, “but the others are just stamping on the pedal. I’m at the same brake pressure, but I need to hit the pedal harder and faster.
“And we deliberately didn’t have too much traction (control) on the car at Bathurst, because I find relying on my instincts is better, but round here I’m not comfortable enough to be able to turn it off, either, so I do rely on it a little. I had a spin in the warm-up, on the slowest corner of the track!”
After his night stints, Lowndes was more comfortable, but not entirely happy with the car’s balance, complaining of understeer, especially as dew coated the circuit during an early morning stint. But by the time he got back behind the wheel with a couple of hours to run, the 458 was settled in a solid eighth position, which Lowndes maintained with an error-free double stint to the chequered flag.
Lowndes has his eye on further European endurance races, while maintaining his commitment to V8 Supercars.
“What I’ve done in Australia doesn’t mean a lot over here,” he said. “You need to come over and be part of this; it was no different when I came here in ’97. We won a touring car championship (in Australia) in 1996, but unfortunately didn’t have the performance we needed to stay in F3000 the following year.”
For now, Lowndes is happy to keep a relatively low profile while he builds experience in 24-hour events, but he’s ultimately targeting a prototype LMP drive at Le Mans.
“I always like to reduce the elements of your unknowns. My dad was a big advocate of it, and I’m the same. For me to go to Le Mans next year with an unknown car and an unknown circuit would be a huge learning curve. But to go there with AF Corse and a Ferrari GT3 or GT2, you’ve got 90 percent understanding of the car, so all you’re doing is focusing on the track. Then hopefully by year two or three you’re looking in the prototype area, because you know the track, you just need to learn the car.”
Overall victory went to the pole-winning #1 Audi R8 LMS. Read our full Spa 24 Hour report here.