The worst car I ever drove

Alas poor Warwick

Derek Warwick: Toleman TG181

Derek Warwick has driven a lot of terrible cars in his time but, of them all, it was the car which launched his career in Formula One which he now remembers as the worst of a very bad bunch

My worst car? To be honest there’s a bloody long queue of them. In there would certainly be the March 792 — a diabolical car — the Renault RE60 from ’85, the Brabham BT55 from ’86 and the Lotus 102 from 1990. But worse than all of them was the first Formula One Toleman of ’81, the TG181.

We’d come into F1 as the new kids on the block who were going to be faster than anything. We were arriving having just come off a 1-2 in the Formula Two championship and it all seemed easy. But we’d got it badly wrong. Basically the car that we came up with was a turbocharged version of the F2 car but it was completely the wrong way to go.

The engine was terribly underpowered and the turbo was so far away from the inlet we needed a trailer to carry it. The lag felt like days rather than fractions of a second. Actually there was about five seconds delay between flooring the throttle and having the power come in. At the chicane round the back of Zolder you quickly learned to press the throttle and the brake at the same time — left-foot braking before it had been heard of in F1 — because if you didn’t, you could turn into the corner, with your foot already flat down on the throttle, turn left, right, left and only as you were going up the hill would the power finally come in. Then you’d go from 3-400 horsepower to 8-900bhp in an instant. The car was just evil.

But it wasn’t just the engine. The concept of the car — with the aluminium sidepods supporting the engine as it had done in the F2 car — was wrong for F1. It was difficult to get the car properly balanced and because of the engine’s reliability problems and our late start we got very little test miles to find a decent set-up. We had Pirelli tyres, which were then an unknown quantity, and we just didn’t have the funding or technology of the other turbo teams. It was also not a particularly strong car. Whenever you hit anything it would just crumple.

I first drove it at Silverstone and while it didn’t feel brilliant, I thought it might be ok. But there were no other F1 cars there. Then we went to Imola for our first race. We had these Italian sponsors and we naturally wanted to be first team onto the track for practice. But I got about 300 yards down the pit lane then the car stopped and caught fire. And it went downhill from there.

When we did manage to do some running, we found we were 10sec off even the back of the grid. We were so far off we’d agreed that I’d try driving straight across the chicane. But even that got us nowhere near.

In Austria we couldn’t get the engine started for practice. When we eventually sorted that out I found that I couldn’t get it up the hill out of the pits. The engine would just not pick up enough to get the momentum needed to get up there. So I ended up having to park it about half way up.

What time I did get on the track that season was spent mainly driving on the marbles keeping out of people’s way. There were situations where you couldn’t get out the way of a faster car in time and that caused frequent aggravation.

Things like that were embarrassing, but the thing with Toleman and the people there — especially Rory Byrne — was you knew they weren’t going to make mistakes twice. Although it was a disastrous season, it didn’t cause any real tension between us. We were very close-knit and we were all confident that for the next year we’d get it right.

Eventually, we got some crucial testing miles under us, Rory made the car more driveable, Pirelli came up with some new tyres and it gave us the step that enabled us to get it on the grid by the end of the year. Brian Henton qualified at Monza and I qualified at Las Vegas.

Earlier in the year I’d had a bet with Jackie Oliver. He said that not only were turbos never going to catch on in F1 but that I would not qualify the Toleman for a single Grand Prix. The bet was for $20,000. So on top of the emotion of qualifying from my mechanics and family etc, I was doubly pleased because of this bet. Yet, to this day, he has never paid up.

For the race I desperately wanted to get the car home, but in the end it was a relief when the gearbox broke after about 40 laps because, physically, I was destroyed. I’d had so few miles in the car I wasn’t up to doing a full Grand Prix distance.

If it hadn’t been for Toleman I wouldn’t have got into Formula One and that I’ll never forget. In one sense there was no better team to come into F1 with, because they were such a good bunch of people. But at the same time, as a new driver you’re desperate to show your potential and that was an impossible thing to do in that situation.