No other event this season has had so much buildup – the atmosphere coming into the 2013 Phillip Island 360 is so tense it makes Arnie’s best bicep flex look feeble.
The Island is renowned for some make and break championship moments, so join us over the next couple of weeks as we relive some of the Red Bull Racing Australia boys’ high and lows from years gone by at the stunning Victorian circuit.
The year is 2006 and Lowndsey is one of two cars in contention for the V8 Supercars championship. After a sensational Bathurst victory earlier in the season, Lowndes’ hopes of a fourth championship would come down to Phillip Island and a head-to-head battle with HSV Dealer Team driver Rick Kelly.
But it wasn’t a fair fight. It was Lowndes and his then Ford Triple Eight machine against at least three factory Holden cars, those not in contention for the championship doing their bit in assuring their Holden compatriot Kelly had every chance to usurp the championship in the first two of three races.
But after two races of block-tactics from the Lion’s camp, the pair came into the final race of 2006 dead on even in points (3,258 apiece if you were wondering). That’s when Kelly took the final swing himself, punting Lowndes into the dirt in the crucial championship decider.
Kelly received just a drive-through penalty and finished 18th after effectively rendering Lowndesy’s race over by inflicting serious damage to the Triple Eight car that required repair and resulted in a 29th-placed finish for Crackers.
Kelly was booed on the podium and Triple Eight lodged a protest, which was eventually ruled in Kelly’s favour.
But like the gentleman he is, Lowndes refused an appeal to the world motorsport governing body, the FIA and was declared “the moral champion”.
It remains one of the most bitter battles and memories in V8 Supercars history. Well, at least for Lowndes fans and the Triple Eight family.
Lowndesy himself, as you’d expect, is at peace with the controversy but hasn’t forgotten it.
“It was obviously a disappointing time for myself and for the team,” recalls Lowndes, in words much kinder than those used by many involved at the time.
“We had a perfect opportunity to win a championship, but with some of the dirty tactics that were going on it wasn’t to be. But it doesn’t play in mind. You move on.”
Move on we will. Fast forward seven years and Lowndesy again finds himself in serious title contention and with a narrow championship lead. Only this time it’s a four-way battle with his own team-mate and the two FPR cars of Mark Winterbottom and Will Davison.
The bad news is, a poor result at Phillip Island could all but cost any of the contenders their shot. The good news for Lowndes, the fact it’s every man for himself with no assistance from non-championship contenders. If anything, the likes of Tander and Reynolds will be doing their best to beat all four. While Lowndesy and J-Dub can’t afford to back off – every single point counts.
“I think that we need to be focused on race wins and podium finishes to have any chance of having a victory in the championship,” he continues.
“It is a great opportunity. For the first time in 14 years I’m now leading a championship at this particular point in the year with obviously two rounds, four races to go – it’s vitally important to maximise every point that we can achieve.
“I think that if you can have a very successful Phillip Island it puts more pressure back on others. But internally, if you have a poor Phillip Island it puts a bit of pressure back on us to perform at Homebush, which is a very difficult track to get right.”
As such, podium finishes are imperative. And luckily for Lowndesy, it’s a track that, barring 2006 and some big crashes in 1996 and 2002, has been relatively kind to him.
“Phillip Island is a great track that I thoroughly enjoy and I’m excited,” he continues.
“It’s been kind to me in the past. It’s a great driver’s track and I’m really looking forward to seeing what the weekend provides. This round is very important. It’s probably 80 per cent of what the championship will be. I can’t wait to get it started!”
Stay tuned for more from Lowndesy and J-Dub next week as we count down the days until one of the most definitive V8 Supercars races in recent years.