Alex Lowes has had a very different path to the top tables in racing but the three-time Suzuka 8 Hours winner wouldn't change a thing
Muhammad Ali said "champions aren't born. They're made by a desire deep inside them that is greater than any skill." The desire to reach the top comes from the bottom of your soul. The trappings of success make it an appealing life, but it's a life of graft that finally takes you to the top.
Far from having his career mapped out for him Alex Lowes had to spend the majority of his formative years putting racing on the backburner. School and work came first, and until his British Superbike title-winning season in 2013, he was a part-time electrician with a few hair-raising stories.
From sparks to stars
"Ten years ago I was laying cables in a quarry with my dad," said a reflective Lowes. "To be racing in WorldSBK and to be at Suzuka with a factory team wasn't on my radar. I always think that working when I was younger was the best thing that ever happened to me. I can appreciate everything that I've got and the position that I'm in. Some riders don't have that appreciation of what they're doing, and of course I'd have liked to have been riding for a team full-time at 17 years of age, but it wasn't meant to be at that point in time.
"Now that I'm a bit older I definitely think that it's a good thing, because I missed races in the British championship because I had to go to school. It was tough at the time, but it was the right thing for my parents to do for me and Sam. Racing in the British championship against Sam was great. We spent all of our time together every day. We were like two mates trying to beat each other at everything. We weren't fortunate enough to be riding in an academy when we were 12, but I think my life is better for that.
"I remember one day when we were working I got a big shock. People used to come and steal 100m stretches of cable and our job was to go back in and replace it. Sam and me were down trying to figure out what was taken so dad could come in and replace it. Sometimes on smaller jobs, he'd think it was funny to let me think that everything was all switched off. I'd be down there thinking about what tools we'd need to bring and what needed to be replaced, but one rainy day it was live and got a shock that put me back on my arse in a trench!"
The right choice
Hitting the deck was a concern for Lowes' employers in his British championship winning season. His British title was a ticket to WorldSBK, but when initially approached by Honda, the deal was to race in Superstock before racing in Superbike. Instead, Lowes', not for the first time, banked on himself to make it work.
Having broken his BSB duck with a double victory at the penultimate round of the season at Silverstone in 2012, he felt ready to challenge for the title the following year with Honda. That success did prove a spring board to his 2013 title and subsequent move to WorldSBK, but it almost didn't happen.
"I never felt under pressure when I went to Honda in BSB. I was probably a bit arrogant back then, but I fully believed in my ability to win and to get to the world championship. I never dreamed of being a British champion, I feel lucky to have won it, but I always wanted to be in the world championship. When I signed for Honda they didn't think that I was ready for it. They wanted me to do a longer term deal with British Superstock and then Superbike, but Harvey [Honda BSB Team Manager Havier Beltran – ed.] was great. I learned so much from him in that year, both in racing and in life, and I can't thank him enough. He was great for me and we grew to respect each other a lot as the year went on. I had so much belief in myself, and they thought I'd crash too much, so I said that I'd pay for crash damage. I had one crash in a race that year and was on the podium in nearly every race."
At the time it was a shock to see a 22 year old challenging for the British title and winning races. Reeling off four wins in a row prior to the showdown made him a title favorite, but he still needed to overcome Shane Byrne. Shakey has long been the benchmark in BSB, and competing with the serial title winner certainly proved to Lowes he could stand on his own feet on the world stage, even if it meant turning down offers to stay in Britain.
"If my decisions were based on money I'd have stayed in BSB, but not even 1% of me wanted to stay. I wanted to race in WorldSBK and try to become a world champion. I was lucky in BSB because Shakey is a great rider. I learned a lot from him because he was a world championship rider racing in BSB, and in WorldSBK there's 12 riders at that level. When it's so competitive you need things to fall into place for you with the bike and the team. I didn't have that in the first few years I raced in WorldSBK, and I pushed too hard trying to make up for that.
"With hard work and being honest to yourself I think that you can turn things around, and we've had so many positives in the last few years with Yamaha. Coming to Suzuka and building those relationships has been great, and winning the 8 Hours has been special."
The speed from Britain was apparent from the start for Lowes, but injuries took their toll. The increased competition also took time to get used to.
Hard work down a hard road
The switch to Yamaha in 2016 seemed like a golden ticket for Lowes. Unfortunately, other than Suzuka, it's proven to be a winning lottery ticket that has taken time to cash. Injuries in 2016 left him battered, bruised, and struggling to race at his best. The winter was spent looking at his weaknesses, and one thing from his self analysis stood out to the Englishman: a need for greater consistency. For much of the last 12 months, the Pata Yamaha squad has become a front-running team in WorldSBK, and Lowes has been able to prove his credentials. Winning at the Czech round was just rewards for the hard work he's put into the program.
"This year has been good. I've been working with Andrew Pitt as my crew chief, and it was tough at the start to get used to working with someone else. The crew chief is now such an important job because they have so many different people to talk with - engine, chassis, electronics, suspension, tire - to make the bike better. There are more parts in the bike to change now, so he's got more work to do. The first few rounds weren't easy, but we got through it and are seeing that progress now. Andrew has been there and done it, so he can offer me a lot of help and advice too.
"Winning in Brno was a relief for us, but I want to win again. This year we've seen Pirelli bring a lot of new tires to races, so at the Portimao test in August, we'll focus on improving the bike to get it more like I want it to be. I couldn't be happier, though, and I've never enjoyed riding more than I do right now. I want to treat the last four rounds of 2018 like a mini championship and being a podium contender every week. You can't go into 2019 saying I want to be world champion if you're fifth the previous year. You need to have four good rounds now where I'm strong every round, and then hit the ground running the next year."
The one constant in recent years for Lowes has been at Suzuka. His debut at the 8 Hours saw him grab the hole shot on a Suzuki and lead the opening hour, before ultimately, the bike's weaknesses were exposed. Since joining Yamaha, however, his strength has been the biggest talking point of the 8 Hours. Teamed with Pol Espargaro in 2016, the Spaniard admitted his surprise at the speed shown by Lowes.
Adding victories in 2017 and this year, Lowes is on the way to becoming a Suzuka legend. After having the honor of finishing the race and taking the checkered flag, it was clear how much it meant to him.
"What can I say? Three in a row for me, and four in a row for Yamaha! It definitely wasn’t an easy race for me and Michael after Nakasuga-san picked up the injury. It was a tough race, but Michael did a great job and we managed the race really well and stuck to our plan. After the second half we had a bit of a gap, and managed to stay calm and bring the bike to the flag. It was a great day, and a fantastic feeling to win again.
"I've always loved the 8 Hours. It's such a big event, and back in Europe it's got a big fan base too. It's been a great honor for me to race for Yamaha and to win it. It's very different to a WorldSBK race, because you're working with your teammates and trying to make sure that every little detail is covered. It's hot, it's physical, and when you finish it's absolutely amazing."
Speed was his calling card when he first entered the world stage. It's taken time but he's added consistency to his arsenal now. Armed with a work ethic that's been ingrained in him since he was a boy his greatest strength may be that determination and one that comes into its own in the coming years.
Gathering the background information for detailed articles such as these is an expensive and time-consuming operation. If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting MotoMatters.com. You can help by either taking out a subscription, by making a donation, or by contributing via our GoFundMe page.