Hits and near-misses

From title shootouts to pitstop trauma, ex-arrows man David Lowe has seen it all. He spoke to Rob Widdows

David ‘Dorky’ Lowe lived in the paddocks and pitlanes for more than 20 years. Why ‘Dorky’? “I can’t possibly tell you that,” laughs David, “not for printing in Motor Sport anyway.”

Right, on with this month’s tale then. And we begin at Thruxton in Hampshire in October 1991. The British Formula 3 Championship was delicately poised between Rubens Barrichello for West Surrey Racing and David Coulthard for Paul Stewart Racing, both in the ubiquitous Ralt-Honda RT35. Going into this, the final round, both men could win the title but the advantage was with Rubens following an engine failure for David in the penultimate round at Silverstone.

“Yes, but we were in with a fighting chance,” Lowe recalls, “although the big problem was that Dick Bennetts of West Surrey always seemed to have a hand on everyone at Thruxton. Anyway, we qualified behind Rubens but that wasn’t such a big worry because DC always made blinding starts. So we were fairly confident.”

Thinking back to that F3 season, I remember that Coulthard explained his ability to get the blue and white Ralt-Honda away from the grid by saying it was all a matter of perfectly matching clutch and revs. Wrong. There was more to it than that.

“Yeah, there was such intense rivalry between us and Rubens, and we worked day and night to improve the car. Andy Miller, our chief engineer, had some bright ideas and we worked a lot on the gearbox. More importantly, we spent a lot of time and effort on the finger selector so that DC could change quicker through the old Mk5 ‘H’ pattern gearbox. We got the selector absolutely smooth, no burrs on it anywhere, so he could power-shift up through the gears from the grid without lifting the throttle. That was one of our secret weapons and it really helped him make those fantastic starts.”

But, on this occasion, when it mattered most, the Scot’s getaway from the line was to no avail. Approaching the chicane, flat out in top gear, Hideki Noda cut across in front of Coulthard and damaged the Ralt’s front wing in the process.

“That was it, really; you need the front wing at Thruxton and we had to bring him in,” says Lowe. “But DC had done a great job that year, always giving it 110 per cent and always chiselling away at everything on the car until he had it just right. His feedback was excellent, we worked well together, and it was obvious he was going places. Just a shame we lost the title by such a narrow margin.”

Not much frightens a racing mechanic. A tough bunch, they get their heads down and get on with the job of making cars go rapidly and reliably. But fire and being run over in the pitlane are their worst nightmares. David was run down in the pitlane at Imola in 1996.

“Not one of the highlights of my career,” he smiles. “It was a normal stop, I was re-fuelling the Arrows, it was all going according to plan, and then my world just went upside down. I was waiting for the low-pressure light to come on inside my helmet, to tell me all the fuel was in, and I could see from the carbon dust that the wheels were done, when suddenly everything was a big blur. They’d let the car go and I was dragged down underneath it and spat out the back. It was a big mess and I ended up on the ground outside the Ferrari garage. I was having difficulty breathing, with my left shoulder up under my helmet, but my mate Harry, a first aider, ran over and rescued me. The pain was excruciating. I had 17 torn ligaments and I was off work for two years.”

That’s the other side of being in the front line, the risks mechanics take in that cauldron of activity that is a modern Grand Prix pitstop. But they wouldn’t be anywhere else.

“Was I ready to quit? No, it went through my mind, but no. What else would I have done? It’s been my whole life. I love motor racing; it’s like a drug.” It’s what they all say.

David Lowe was a protégé of Jackie Stewart’s mechanic Roy Topp, before climbing through the ranks to join Arrows Grand Prix and later becoming team manager for Carlin Motorsport. He is still in the pitlane but he’s swapped his overalls for a blazer, joining the FIA at the beginning of this year.