Q&A: Craig Lowndes talks tech

At the announcement of his association with Symantec as an Internet safety ambassador, we sat down with V8 Supercar driver Craig Lowndes to talk tech and cars and car tech.

Derek Fung
Derek loves nothing more than punching a remote location into a GPS, queuing up some music and heading out on a long drive, so it's a good thing he's in charge of CNET Australia's Car Tech channel.
Derek Fung
6 min read

At the announcement of his association with Symantec as an Internet safety ambassador, we sat down with V8 Supercar driver Craig Lowndes to talk tech and cars and car tech.

Three time V8 Supercar champion, Craig Lowndes

CNET.com.au: Thanks very much for taking the time to the speak to us today Craig. So, are you much of tech gadget person?

Craig Lowndes: Yeah but like I said [in my speech, my wife] Nat is the IT guru at home. Anything to do with computers, like Web sites, Internet banking and e-mails, Nat handles that side of things because I spend most of my time on the road. So gadgets for me are more like phones, remote control airplanes and toys.

CNET.com.au: Do you use GPS in your car at all?

CL: Not in the race car but we use GPS from town to town and from city to city because we have to travel a lot. With our team's association with Nokia, [I've got a] Nokia N95 and it's got the built-in mapping and GPS. When we come to a city like this, which is obviously very hectic and very hard to get around in, we obviously use GPS a lot. Plus no-one in our team comes from Sydney.

CNET.com.au: So what's your worst tech experience ever?

CL: Besides crashing my toy planes ... [pauses]

It wasn't a work experience but I think the funniest one -- if not the worst one -- was out near Oran Park [in Sydney]. We had to find a shopping centre but we ended up at a park because they both had the same name and were on the same street but were in different suburbs. It wasn't a disaster but it was just funny because it was an honest mistake.

CNET.com.au: Do you play many games, be they console games or computer games?

CL: Not online but I do play PlayStation 3 with [my son] Levi. I play a lot of games with him. He's got his own PC, that he uses for educational games. He's five years old and has just started school, so I'm always playing with him. Actually the only time I get [with him] is when I play with him.

CNET.com.au: Do you play any racing games?

CL: I do with him but I'm not allowed to by myself.

CNET.com.au: Oh really? Is that a rule from the boss?

CL: [laughs] Yeah, a rule from the boss. We play games like Lightning McQueen. Then there's Need for Speed and he likes the new Formula One Grand Prix game. He's got a PSP that he uses a lot. And we've got a drag racing game from the States that he loves using. He loves to do big burnouts and crash cars [pauses]. So, yeah, a lot of racing games.

CNET.com.au: I was actually going to ask you what your favourite racing game is, but if you can't play by yourself ...

CL: Need for Speed is something I really enjoy because the further that you get into the game, the more you get to modify your car.

[At 888 Racing] we use racing simulators quite a bit, mainly to learn new circuits. The Freemotion 301 simulator we have here today is actually one of the best ones I've been in and used -- mainly because of the hydraulics which gives it a more natural feel.

CNET.com.au: Why do you use simulators to learn tracks?

CL: We only get four days a year to test outside of race weeks. There's 15 weekends where we race, 14 of them are [V8 Supercar] championship races and the 15th one is the Melbourne Grand Prix, which is a demonstration race for us.

So we use simulators to learn circuits, for example the one in Bahrain. Simulators are good for understanding lefts and rights and straights, and get [some] familiarisation with the circuits themselves before we get there. But for me personally, you can't get the sensation for braking markers, turning points and everything that we need to do naturally when we drive around a circuit.

CNET.com.au: So you don't get the sensation of g-forces?

CL: Yeah and when you're driving a simulator you're normally driving a Formula One car, which has got more downforce and [that means] you can corner a lot quicker than you can with a V8 Supercar. It's a tool that we use as a starting point but you really need to drive the car on the circuit to get the full idea.

CNET.com.au: So what's your current drive right now? As a road car that is.

CL: I've got a Ford Territory Turbo.

CNET.com.au: Is this because of the family?

CL: Yeah, the family and I live on a farm. And living on a farm, having a sedan car would be great but the first time you drive it up the driveway you'd probably wipe off the front bumper. We've got cattle grids and it's a proper working farm, so we need a car that's got a bit of height to it. The Territory's perfect because it's all-wheel drive and it's got the performance of a turbo -- it's basically a Falcon XR6 Turbo -- but it's got enough space for a family. For me it's a great mix. Nat [my wife] drives a Ford F-250 truck.

CNET.com.au: What's your dream car and what would go in your dream garage?

CL: Funny, people ask me that. I've never driven a Ferrari, never driven a Porsche, never driven a Lamborghini. So any of those above. But I wouldn't able to store them at home, because they couldn't get up the driveway. [laughs]

CNET.com.au: You'd have to put it on a truck then.

CL: Yeah, yeah tow it up. I'm actually a big fan of Nissan Skylines; I like the Godzillas -- the R32, the R33 and even the R34 now. The new one that's out [the R35] is meant to be quite impressive.

CNET.com.au: That's interesting that you've never driven an exotic car.

CL: Well for me it's a catch-22. We want to have manufacturer involvement in whatever we do and we've got a personal contract with Ford. With that we're obviously restricted on what cars we can and cannot drive. So it's probably not a lack of opportunity.

CNET.com.au: So does that contract limit only what you can drive in Australia?

CL: No, it's more global than that. For example, I've been wanting to drive in the Le Mans 24 Hours race but it's [difficult] trying to find an opportunity which involves a Ford product or a Ford-engined car.

CNET.com.au: So how much has computing and technology changed racing?

CL: Well put it this way, I can't hide anything any more. Everything on the car is wired up and sent back to the pit in real time. Everything from how I drive, my gear changes, my over-revs, my flat spots, whether the engine is cooking or the gearbox temperature's skyrocketing. Everything.

I grew up in the junior ranks with analog gauges -- a tacho with a big round beam -- but now all that I've got on my dash in a V8 Supercar is this little square box, and it only has shift lights and nothing else.

The computer era has definitely become a major factor for us. Because we've got only four days a year to test, we rely on the [in-car] data very heavily. We extract it straight out of the car, analyse it and make changes to the car on the basis of what we find. They still rely somewhat on driver input but they cross-reference what we say in relation to what the data's telling them. If the data says one thing and we're saying another thing, they'll go with the data over driver feedback.

CNET.com.au: So what type of technology would you like to see in future racing cars and in future road cars?

CL: There's a lot of aids in road cars that we don't get in V8 Supercars. For example, ABS [anti-lock brakes], ESP [electronic stability control], TC [traction control] and tiptronic transmissions.

V8 Supercars is probably now one of the very few categories in the world that doesn't use ABS. Even our support categories run ABS.

CNET.com.au: Would you like to see them introduce these technologies or do you think that it would dilute the purity of the racing?

CL: I think it would take away some of the skill and effort but then you have look at the other side. If you take away some of the skill but make the racing more interesting, well, maybe [it's an option]. It's one of those hard things to judge.

CNET.com.au: Thanks very much for your time Craig.