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Ride of his life: Shaw's lap with Lowndesy
Michael Shaw

He boldly went where no man from Conrod has ever been before - and loved every tenth of it. The intrepid Michael Shaw takes us on a hot lap or two of Oran Park Raceway, chauffeured by three-time champ Craig Lowndes.

Now I know I'm going to make a few people jealous once they finish reading this. And a few people will call me various names. But I am used to this, having received some messages on my phone in the few days leading up to the event I am about to recount, which probably shouldn't be repeated and definitely no names mentioned. Especially the name of one gentleman who hung up on me. It's all in the past now, though, and I'm sure I'll be forgiven... eventually.

Michael and Lowndesy...
Pic: Leanne Page
What could cause this furore? Well, when Conrod was started, I thought my first feature should be big. Something that had never been done before by either Conrod or the V8SP10 Project. So I set out on my quest to have a few laps as a passenger in a V8 Supercar.

On the Wednesday before the Oran Park meeting, I received the call: a seat was available and was I able to fill it. If someone can work out how I didn't yell out loud in joy, can they please let me know. In the meantime, it was difficult not to grin from ear to ear for the next three days.

Finally, the day arrived. Having been a little worried on the Friday due to a fair amount of rain in Sydney, it was good to wake to a merely cold and windy day on Saturday. I arrived bright and early Saturday morning ready for what awaited. The first V8 Supercar practice session began in earnest, only to be brought to a halt with a red flag. A stranded car at turn one was the catalyst - the 00 Falcon driven by Craig Lowndes. The car I was to ride in.

This was not a confidence builder. Was I worried? Of course not. I was going to ride with a three-time Australian Touring Car Champion and one of the best drivers in the field. The Falcon was extricated from the mud-trap (it had been rather wet in Sydney recently) and cruised back to the pits. Craig returned to the track before the end of the session, which showed there weren't any problems with the car.

As I wandered behind the pit garages before my arrival at Gibson Motorsport, I noticed a large crowd gathered behind the Dick Johnson garage. In the midst of the throng was one Craig Lowndes. It was interesting to note that it took a good 20-minutes to get Craig moved the half a dozen or so garages back to the Gibson pit.

Arriving at the Gibson pit, it was into the race suit, check the helmet for size, and into the garage to watch the second practice session. Another confidence boost as I step inside and see Craig's car being worked on with damage along the right side as he had scraped the wall coming out of the last corner. A normal occurrence at Oran Park, really. Rodney Forbes tried to get in on the act, too, and make his two passengers quake in their boots by having an off similar to Craig's, but he brought back all the mud.

Pic: Leanne Page
With the session finally over, my time had come. I was handed a pair of gloves, a few photos were taken, helmet on, and was then directed out onto the pit apron to get fitted into the seat. Typical for me, I sat on the belts. But thankfully, it fitted. I clambered out once more, as there were still a few minutes to go. What seemed like seconds later, I was back in the car and strapped in. Nice and tight. It was surprisingly easy to get into the car - one leg in, then everything else, followed by the other leg...and then getting the belts out from under me again.

Finally I had a chance to look at my surroundings. In front was the in-car camera, a tiny little thing really. The dash lay before me with a few stickers. On my left was the roll cage, a cross-brace next to my leg and a straight bar next to my head. At my right leg were the two levers for the roll bars and the gear lever, which looks a lot bigger on TV. Further right was the man himself. In front of Craig was the steering wheel and the electronic dash. It's a very strange sensation sitting in the car waiting for everything to get under way.

There is an odd feeling of space. Every on-board camera angle appears to show a lack of space and yet, because it is still a Ford Falcon, there is a vast amount of space within the cockpit.

"...As soon as Craig put his foot down... all my apprehensions and expectations flew out through the window"
I handed him a piece of blue paper, on which I had signed my life away. He started the car and we were on our way. 40 km/h is slow. We reached the end of the new pit lane, where Craig handed the paper to an official and idled on the spot. It was only a matter of seconds and yet I had enough time to build up my expectations. As soon as Craig put his foot down and my whole body was thrust into the seat, all my apprehensions and expectations flew out through the window netting and were left behind in pit lane.

As strange as it sounds, I wasn't expecting the car to move when it did. We had sat there for a few seconds, which was just long enough for me to relax. But away we went, up a gear and over the kerb at the exit to the pits. He accelerated up another gear or two and closed in on the first turn. Getting closer and closer and still accelerating. When it looked like we were almost on top of the corner, Craig braked heavily and turned in. Once more over the kerb with a light bounce, we accelerated away to head under the bridge.

Exiting pit lane - looking closely, you can see the expectataions flying out the window...
Pic: Leanne Page
For this corner the braking forces exceeded my expectations, as I leaned against the belts holding me in place. This time turning to the right, and I was reminded where the roll cage was as my head bumped against it. Brake again, through the big dip in the road and to the right as the bridge comes back into view, this time to drive over it.

I've never driven around the full Oran Park Grand Prix circuit, only the two short circuits. Which is why the next part of the journey surprised me.

We took the right-hand kink before the bridge and headed uphill, past the flag point, under the arch and the road disappeared. I expected this, but what I didn't expect was the way the road dropped away at the same time. It felt as though the car was going straight ahead. It went very light over the top and when it came down on the suspension again it was already turning. Distracted by this strange feeling, I forgot about the next corner and banged my head on the roll cage once more as we entered the esses. Over the kerbs once more on the left-hand section of the esses and the whole car shuddered over the 'steps' of the kerbing.

"Much to the disappointment of the small crowd that had gathered, I remained composed exiting the car."
Through the small dip, a left past where I used to do some flagging, and towards the infamous dogleg. For this first lap, there was a light dab of the brakes, through the quick right and then left - the road, once more, nowhere to be seen. Some grass got thrown up through the window into my face, but I hardly noticed as I was too busy looking at the dust on the track to soak up some oil all the way through the last corner. Nothing to worry about, of course, as we headed through the dip, up the other side, through the corner and out onto the long straight.

This was my chance to see how fast we were going, but unfortunately the dash didn't read any speed above 199km/h for this trip. It's a rather short straight at over 200km/h and before too long, Craig was heavily onto the brakes for the kink. The kink is a lot tighter than it looks on television and the braking was heavier than I expected.

This lap I was determined to watch Craig driving the car. It was a good idea, but it didn't last too long. For the short time I did watch he seemed very calm and cool, driving around like a Saturday afternoon cruise. Once more onto the bridge, and I had to see what it was like again. The car felt as though it was landing and already turned into the corner, once more.

The second trip over the dogleg was a little bit faster and even more disconcerting as you go over the top with no road and nothing to aim at other than a few trees. A little faster through the last corner and out near the wall on the exit, too. And another run down to the kink. This time though, when Craig turned in, it felt as though the car was sliding through the corner before braking heavily for the first turn one last time.

Double Oh My! The search now begins for somebody silly enough to let him drive...
Pic: Leanne Page
I think Craig was enjoying himself on this last lap, as the back end slid out a little coming onto the bridge and he kept the car moving around a little more than the previous two laps. And with a slight lift, we leapt over the dogleg and down the other side. Through the last corner, over to the wall and finally slowing to enter pit lane.

40km/h is slow. Very, very slow. Eventually, we came alongside the new pit building and into the Gibson Motorsport pit bay. Much to the disappointment of the small crowd that had gathered, I remained composed exiting the car. I only smiled - broadly.

It was all over too soon. Though in that small amount of time, I developed a new appreciation for what the drivers go through and even the heat that they have to endure. In the few minutes I had, the temperature inside the cabin was quite comfortable compared to the chill wind that blew outside. The sensation of speed wasn't as great as you would expect, but the braking made up for that.

Now to find someone silly enough to let me drive....

I would like to thank Craig Lowndes and the entire Gibson Motorsport crew for the ride of my life, and to Frances Hoy for organising it. And to Leanne Page - thanks for capturing the moment.