This month I have been talking to Andrew Lowis, who at 30 years of age is entering his third year in the Midget Challenge Series and is quietly making his mark in this venerable Championship. Noted by others for his smooth, rapid driving style, this most likeable young man is building a reputation for his highly professional approach. Hugely enthusiastic about both his racing and work, we meet up for a spot of lunch and discuss motor racing past and present, how and why he got into the sport and his future aspirations.
Always interested in cars due to his father’s enthusiasm, and a desire to know how things worked, Andrew grew up keen to pursue mechanical devices and motor cars in particular. "It all stems from when I was about ten and my Dad, prompted by me I suspect, decided to do something about the old Austin Healey Sprite which had been decaying in a corner of the garage. It was intended to be his regular car, but when my sister and I came along, fell unused." This was at the family home in Epworth, Lincolnshire, where young Andrew helped his father in as many ways as he could re-building the neglected Mk III 1965 Sprite. "It kept us out of Mum’s way at weekends, which she appreciated, and allowed Dad and I to enjoy doing something together. None of my mates at school were interested in cars or mechanical things, being more keen on football and other sports, and so it was something that just Dad and I could share."
For some years prior to this the family had enjoyed days out at Cadwell Park, "our local circuit", so motor sport had already been introduced to the mix, and then one day with his Dad and a few friends he visited Donington Park to witness a round of the European Touring Car Championship. "This was a real adventure and I was so excited that I never noticed the torrential rain which poured all day." It was there also, on that wet soggy day, that the motor racing bug truly bit. "From then on I was always reading about racing, getting involved with cars when I could, and messing about in the garage with anything mechanical, especially that Sprite. It would have been far cheaper to have got involved with something else I suppose but," he adds with a grin, "nothing like as much fun".
Did he therefore think that it would always be cars and engineering from that point, I ask? "Well not necessarily, because for about three or four years, owing to the fact that I enjoyed writing so much, I thought I might like to go into journalism. But when I did my 'A' levels I realised I didn't like English quite so much and therefore at sixteen had a complete change of mind, deciding, rightly or wrongly, as it isn't considered to be a very fashionable career choice, that mechanical engineering was for me. Plus I figured that as both my father and my grandfather had been engineers it seemed right – runs in the family so to speak."
Following those 'A' levels it was university at Warwick, where a degree in mechanical engineering was achieved and then onto Jaguar. "Jaguar was the company I really wanted to work for and I consider myself extremely lucky to have had the chance to work there. I've been with the company now for nine years and have never regretted working for a company with such history and potential. I started as a foundation brake engineer developing callipers and disks etcetera, then I was invited to join the stability control department, which proves ABS braking systems, traction control, and anti skid systems. This involved much test driving and it was then that I decided the time was right to take up driving competitively. Driving up in the frozen wastes of Scandinavia and pounding round and round the Nurburgring was really interesting, pushing both the cars and myself to the limit of our collective abilities. Then, two years ago, I had the chance to move across to the power train division to become an attribute leader for 'Performance, Economy and Driveability'. Now this is quite a grand title but in fact means I'm responsible for target setting and validation for some of the future Jaguar models. It’s quite a broad role and means a fair amount of involvement in optimizing the engine and transmission calibration to give the appropriate ‘driving feel’ for the product whilst making sure that the performance and economy are at least as good as the competition. It’s also a very unusual position in as much as I don't actually have anyone working directly for me rather, I have to encourage others to meet the targets I set, which becomes quite interesting in areas of conflict like performance and economy, when I have to decide where the balance lies. The thing is Jaguar has historically always made fast cars and we know our customers don't mind paying a bit extra in terms of the fuel bills to enjoy that performance, but now we have to make engines that are still as powerful but can also achieve outstanding economy. So blending all that is the current challenge, it’s a very exciting time for Jaguar."
Clearly a great advocate for the Coventry concern, once working there and with a little spare money, he started to think of something to do in his free time and, remembering how much fun he'd had helping Dad re-build the 1965 Sprite, purchased his own Sprite to re-build, this being a 1971 model which came with a new shell. Once completed his desire to go racing could no longer be kept on hold. "It was Mark Turner, last year’s class B Midget Champion, who also worked for Jaguar, (amazing just how many Jaguar employees own Sprites and Midgets), and lives just around the corner who suggested racing a Midget. This was an obvious choice and perfect timing as I knew the cars and what to expect from them, and I was involved at the time test driving for Jaguar, so getting plenty of practice which I was eager to put to good use. I'd already been looking at a couple of other racing series, in particular the Caterhams, but was put off by both the costs, they are quite expensive cars in which to compete, and also by the aggressive mentality fostered in that series. Whereas MG Midgets are relatively inexpensive to buy and build, are simple, well made little cars and I know them, so the hunt was on for the right machine. Initially I looked at building my own car but dismissed this on the grounds of costs, although it would be nice to do at some time. Anyway, I saw an advert for a car that Kim Dear was selling and, knowing him from buying bits for the previous project car, thought I'd take a look. It was a class C machine, which seemed appropriate since I'd never raced before and, as Kim prepares pretty nice cars, I knew it would be well built and tidy, so a deal was struck. This was in September 2005 giving me the winter to prepare it for the following season."
The MG Midget had previously been campaigned in the Owners’ Club series which differs from the Challenge, however, Andrew knew this would be easy to rectify and so preparations began in earnest. "The Owners’ Club racing series is, of course, for road legal cars and as it was both taxed and MOT'd I drove it a few times on the road to see what it was like, and realised immediately that it was much too heavy. So, over the winter I set about shedding quite a bit of weight from the car, this to my mind being the cheapest way of going faster. I also re-built the engine and did a few other jobs I felt necessary before finding myself sitting on the grid at Donington in May 2006 wondering what the hell I was doing!
"Getting started had in fact been relatively straightforward, it was a big help knowing Mark of course who could advise on what to do, as did the other drivers, and the web-site was extremely useful too. At that first race one of the hardest things was attending scrutineering and the drivers briefing actually on time, plus the many stupid questions that as a novice you need answers to, but everyone else has 'been there' and understands. However, being organised on the day was really key, it’s easy to forget to do certain things when the adrenaline of the first race is taking over, it was a bit of a reality shock. I was sitting in the holding area when it dawned on me what I'd actually done and I thought ‘well that's it then, you'd better get on and drive this thing!’ What made it worse of course was there in the pits were my Mum and Dad, girlfriend, sister, a couple of friends, the whole entourage, so the last thing I wanted to do was to drop it in the gravel trap on the first corner, on the first lap." That didn't happen. In the tricky wet conditions Andrew's debut saw him finish forth in class well up the field. "Yeah – I would have been third," he adds, "but I spun once and dropped to forth, very annoying! The most amazing thing, however, was how all my experience of driving much faster, heavier cars pretty quickly hadn't prepared me in any way for racing thirty odd other guys all wanting to go flat out and all determined to beat me to that particular piece of tarmac. But it was great fun, I'd learnt the lines around Donington, had a far better feel for the car, and couldn't wait for the next race."
And this set the pattern for his first season, learning the circuits, keeping out of the faster drivers’ ways, gaining experience by finishing all the races entered, and developing the car. "I knew early on the spec of the engine I had built was not exactly right for a class C car and that it was down on power, but I received a lot of advice from Dominic Mooney and Mark about engines, and over the following winter built an engine more suited to the class. I wasn't chasing every last brake horse power, keeping in mind the importance of reliability. I also took a lot more weight out of the car so that now it’s down to something like the minimum set in the rules. I didn't fiddle with too much else as I reasoned it didn't need it, the handling is good, the car being easy to drive quickly with no vices. I considered it to be just about right, and although I was only able to get out three times last year, I was always closer to the front rather than the back of the class – so I'd made some progress."
Happy with his achievements so far, and with a quick, competitive car Andrew now has his sights set on a more serious season this year. "Not sure I agree on ‘achievements’, but I'm definitely getting closer to the front! Of course it’s not that easy being new to this business as you have limited time in the car, the races are quite short – about fifteen minutes with the same time allowed for qualifying – and if you've never been to a particular track before it takes the first three or four laps learning the course, building up your speed, learning the braking points and generally gaining confidence, whilst trying not to hinder the progress of the faster A and B drivers. I'm relatively lucky in that I can learn circuits quite quickly and push on from there, but trying to go ‘banzai’ straight out of the box does not work for me and would probably be a recipe for disaster! This year will hopefully be better as I've now been to most of the circuits the series visits, so have a good idea in which direction they go. There is a lot to concentrate on when everything is new in terms of the car, observing the flags and not getting in the way of the quicker cars. Having said that, I think I'm over the steepest part of the learning curve now, so it starts to become easier. Unfortunately I haven't been on any test days due to costs, as I'd far sooner spend money on a race entry than on a test day, however, a day at Mallory Park, for example, learning every ripple, would be great". This moves us neatly into the area of motor sport costs and I ask, given that motor sport has never been exactly cheap, is it affordable at this level, mindful that there are a number of younger MG Car Club members who I'm sure would like to take part but are reluctant to do so due to the perceived costs?
"I think you are right," Andrew responds, "motor sport has never been an inexpensive hobby, but I think that if you look around at circuit racing in general there are few categories that offer better value than racing these little MGs. In terms of pure racing they are incomparable, whilst remaining relatively inexpensive to buy and prepare due to their straightforward engineering. I have a set budget for the car, but not for the season, which means I go racing when I can afford to with a capable car. I've no intention of bankrupting myself! I'm learning all the time at the moment, and each year I'll go at things a bit more seriously, but for now I'm making it fit my means. I could so easily have spent double what I have done on the car, and have been perhaps half a second a lap quicker, however, I know there is more than half a second to come out of me yet, so the money stays in the bank." Wise young man. "It’s a competitive class in a competitive series and I want to do well, so I'm going to work away at it and make it happen, but a massive budget currently is unlikely to get me any further towards the front." Another way of keeping cost in check is of course to do your own preparation and this again is something that Andrew advocates. "Providing you have somewhere to keep and work on your car you can do an incredible amount yourself, they are simple to work on with parts for C cars being relatively inexpensive compared with other types of race car and, at the same time, you enjoy a real sense of achievement when lining up on the grid knowing it’s mostly your own effort. The fact that we are doing more double headers also makes it more cost effective this year, reducing travelling expenses significantly."
Clearly content with things currently, I ask will he consider moving onto any other category in the future? "Too soon to say, and in many ways why would I want to? Midget racing is really competitive, no one lets you through believe me, but with a strong camaraderie. I knew the Championship had a reputation for being friendly but I had little idea just how true it was. In fact it’s hard to imagine a friendlier group, mates both on and off the track, but fiercely competitive with huge respect between each other, they are all great guys who will help you out in any way they can, even though they are your sternest rivals. It’s not uncommon, for example, to see engines or gearboxes being 'loaned' to another competitor, if he or she has a problem, often throwing in the tools and labour too, if need be. I don't think that level of good will exists in any other Championship. Of course, the more cars there are the better it is; fuller grids help promote the Championship and so we all benefit, but I think too it’s one of the reasons why so often the Midget race is voted the most popular race of the day, it’s the high standard of pure motor racing. There is a good blend of youth and experience also with most of us having a drink together in the bar after the races; it all helps to build the camaraderie. So I'm very happy where I am at the moment. I think I might like to move up to class B at some point because they are quicker and proper little racing cars being fully adjustable." And it’s that adjustability in terms of suspension set ups that he finds particularly attractive, as it would allow the opportunity to explore all those theories learned at university and Jaguar.
Like all enthusiasts we eventually start comparing racing from the past and present when it becomes immediately obvious that Andrew has a passion for endurance racing, particularly from the past. "I think that when sports racing cars were based on their road going counterparts in which you could drive down to the shops (try doing that in last year’s Le Mans winning Audi), the sport was at its zenith, both visually and competitively. Of course it was far more dangerous then, I suppose you could say glamorous, but then international world class motor racing was a proper sport unlike today, simply a financial enterprise, when drivers wanted to win for the honour of winning and not simply for the money. Life was simpler and I love the period, cars from the mid-fifties, the D type period, through to the late sixties and the GT40s cannot help but capture the imagination. Although built to a formula, each car builder had their own interpretation and the diversity was astonishing. It was a showcase for British engineering when we took on the world’s best, and beat them all. I would love to drive something from this era one day. In fact, had the costs not escalated so much I had considered building an FIA MGB. I like MGBs because my Dad owned a couple, and the FIA cars because it would have given me the opportunity to do a bit of endurance racing myself, allowing me more time in the car learning the lines and settling in and so on. Whereas in the Midgets, of course, we push as hard we can for ten laps and then it’s all over and time for a cup of tea." And pushing hard is just what you'll see Andrew doing for the rest of the year, the black and blue Midget moving ever closer towards the front.
As lunch finishes, Andrew adds one last thing on the topic as we walk towards our cars, summing up club motor sport in a nutshell. "You know," he says thoughtfully, "you only get one crack at life and there can surely be nothing worse than reaching the age of eighty and thinking, ‘wish I'd done that’. I know I'm never going to be a Formula One World Champion, but that's good for I simply enjoy my racing for the fun it brings, and the many good friends I've made." Just how it should be.