Thursday, August 19, 2010

Wrong Time, Wrong Place

As a child, growing up in England in the mid 1980s and already well and truly bitten by the motorsports bug, one thing I was sure of was that I was not a fan of Nigel Mansell. Yes, he might have been pretty damned spectacular at the wheel when the mood took him, but out of the cockpit, even at the age of 9 or 10, I was put off by his sheer ordinariness and by his amateur theatrics, his willingness to fulfill the old Aussie stereotype of the whinging pom.

I was much more a fan of the enigmatic, foreign Ayrton Senna. I was intrigued by the cool calculating professeur Alain Prost, and the care-free go-ahead aggression of Gerhard Berger in his Benetton and Ferrari years. If pressed to name a favourite British driver, though, I would have gone for then Arrows driver Derek Warwick. A straightforward honest fighter who was worthy of a better drive than he ever got. The Hampshireman was back in the press recently as the ex-F1 driver steward at the Hungarian Grand Prix who wanted Michael Schumacher black-flagged forthwith for his ridiculous move on Rubens Barrichello in the closing laps of the race, but it strikes me that his career in motorsport is worth telling, because it goes to show just how important luck and timing can be in this business.

Derek Warwick, like his near-contemporary Martin Brundle, began his racing career in the rough and tumble world of stock car racing, and it's tempting to assign some of his straight-ahead no-nonsense approach to racing to those early years in this discipline (and for any US readers out there, British stock car racing is an altogether rather different and more down at heel world from your NASCAR. Imagine what NASCAR might be like if the fans were running the show) In his mid 20s, he came into enough money to put together a season of F3, and though it was done on a shoe-string (at least in comparison with his major rival Nelson Piquet) he won one of the two British titles in 1978.

It would be another three years before he appeared in Formula 1, in 1981, as the lead driver for flamboyant entrepreneur Ted Toleman's fledgling Formula 1 team. Using an early incarnation of engine tuner Brian Hart's 1.5 litre turbo engine, the car, as ugly as any ever to grace the F1 grid, was both woefully unreliable and hopelessly slow. At his first race, he was some 8.6s away from pole position, and Toleman's debut season rather puts the performance this year of HRT, Virgin and Lotus into perspective. He would spend the entire summer failing to qualify the ungainly device, and would take his first race start only right at the end of the year, at the season-closing race at the ridiculous little street circuit at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. On a circuit where the driver could just perhaps make up for the deficiencies of his equipment, he scraped onto the grid in 22nd position, and ran to around mid distance only for the gearbox to break.

In many ways, that race was the curtain raiser for his second year in the sport, when the improved pace of the Toleman meant he spent most of the year failing to finish, rather than failing to start, Grands Prix. A third year at the team in 1983 was more successful. The car was still fragile but by now rather more competitive, as the Hart turbo unit was conier more powerful than the normally aspirated Cosworth V8s still being run by many teams. The season ended with a run of four points finishes (and back then of course, points were only awarded for the top 6 finishers) in the last four races of the year. More importantly, the young British star, now being touted as the country's next world champion, had attracted the attentions of La Regie. Renault had just narrowly missed out on the world championship with Alain Prost and after a spectacular falling out between team manager Gerard Larrousse and his lead driver, Warwick was signed up to partner Patrick Tambay for 1984.

It looked like he was in the pound seats, and he began by disappearing off into the lead at the opening race at Jacerapagua in Brazil, only to retire when his suspension collapsed. A first podium followed at the next race in South Africa, and he went one better next time out at Zolder, appearing at this point in the season to be a genuine title contender. Unfortunately, that is about as good as it got for the Briton. Another couple of podium finishes followed later in the year, including a second place at his home race at Brands Hatch, but these were interspersed with a string of retirements. While the Renault was considerably more reliable than the Toleman he had driven the year before, it was, relatively speaking, nowhere near as competitive as the car Prost had driven the year before.

At the end of the year, Warwick was approached by one Frank Williams, offering him a drive for 1985. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems obvious that Warwick should have taken up Frank's offer, but at the time, it was a much more difficult choice. Yes, Keke Rosberg had won for the team in Dallas in '84, but the team were newly into a relationship with engine supplier Honda, whose early V6 turbos had horrendous throttle lag, which was reputed to make the car all but undriveable. And Renault? Well we now know that they were on a downward slide, that the 1985 RE60 would prove hopelessly uncompetitive, and that they would leave the sport with their tail between their legs at the end of the year, but at the time, it was easy enough to think that 1984 was just a bad year, that the factory team would bounce back in 1985 and enable Warwick to win races, perhaps even the title.

And so Warwick elected to stay with Renault, and Frank Williams was forced instead to offer his second seat to another, less fancied Briton who had never won a race in five years in the sport, and who had just left Lotus under a cloud. A man called Nigel Mansell. The rest, as the cliche runs, is history. Warwick endured a torrid time with Renault in 1985, with only a couple of fifth place finishes to show for his troubles. Mansell won his first Grand Prix towards the end of the year as Honda's engine came good, and he went on to become one of the sport's major stars and a regular race winner as the decade wore on.

Warwick, on the other hand, found himself out of work when Renault withdrew from the sport at the end of the season. An offer from Lotus, then still a force to be reckoned with, if not quite the team they had once been, was withdrawn when it was vetoed by team leader Ayrton Senna, who feared Warwick's presence in the team might dilute their focus on himself. And the team knew Senna was enough of an asset to them that they were well advised to do whatever he asked.

Derek Warwick found himself out of F1 for 1986, and teamed up with fellow F1 refugee Eddie Cheever to drive for Tom Walkinshaw's Jaguar sportscar team. Together, they came within an ace of snatching the teams title from the established front-runners, Rothmans Porsche, which might have helped to make up for the awful time Warwick would have in F1 when he got back on the grid, driving the lowline Brabham BT55 after Elio De Angelis died in a testing accident at Circuit Paul Ricard.

There would follow three seasons at Jackie Oliver's Arrows team, partnering his sportscar team mate, Eddie Cheever. He would generally have the upper hand over the American and there were flashes of real inspiration. The 1988 car was good enough for regular point finishes, but nothing more. The normally aspirated 1989 machine lacked power, thanks to its Cosworth DFR, but was perhaps the best chassis Warwick would ever get his hands on. While Cheever's career fizzled out, Warwick twice came close to breaking the Arrows team's duck. He finished 5th, 17s down on winner Nigel Mansell at the opening race at Brazil, which might seem unremarkable, but for the fact he had lost 20 seconds in a bungled pit stop. Later, he would retire from the lead at a wet Canadian Grand Prix, and terrify Gerhard Berger with his sheer commitment in qualifying at Monaco. But now well into his mid-30s, it was clear that the momentum had gone out of his F1 career.

In 1990, he finally got the Lotus seat he'd been denied 4 years earlier, but the team was now a pale shadow of what it had once been, and occasional points finishes were the best that Warwick could manage with the overweight Lamborghini powered 102T. For 1991, he once again found himself unable to secure an F1 ride and went back to Tom Walkinshaw's TWR Jaguar sportscar team where, at the wheel of the all-conquering XJR-14, he proved a regular race winner, but missed out on both the World Title and Le Mans victory. Tragedy came when his younger brother, Paul, whom Derek had always insisted was the real talent in his family, was killed in a British F3000 accident at Oulton Park and the subsequent Le Mans and World Sportscar titles with Peugeot (ironically enough, given that rival French car-maker Renault could arguably be blamed for his being consigned to making up the numbers in F1) must have had a bitter-sweet edge.

A final season in Formula 1 with Footwork (the team which had once, and would again, be known as Arrows) was a bit of a damp squib as the Mugen powered car was never more than a back end of the midfield device and at the end of the year, he found himself once again out of work, and at nearly 40, his career in F1 was run.

So how good was he? As good as Gerhard Berger or Jean Alesi, I reckon. Probably not quite in the same league as the real stars of his day, Senna and Prost. Someone with that level of ability would probably have been not merely quicker than people like Cheever, Tambay and Patrese, but would have dominated them utterly, which Warwick never quite did. But all the same, one wonders what he might have gone on to achieve had he taken that Williams drive in 1985. Perhaps he would have simply been destroyed by the fearsomely fast Rosberg, but maybe not. After all, at the time, people assumed that the same would happen to Nigel Mansell. Warwick's career is an all too telling illustration of the part that sheer blind chance can play in determining who becomes a star, and who an also-ran.

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Anonymous M A W said...

Nice write up! I have to admit to being a card carrying Mansell fan, but can also recall not knowing enough about Warwick when I started to follow F1 in the 80's.

10:30 AM  

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