GP Masters has saved the stars’ careers from extinction. Derek Warwick tells Richard Heseltine why…
Photography by James Mann
“Are you the c**t who woke me up at two in the morning?” “Sorry. Didn’t realise you were in Australia.” “I’m just messing with you. My fault for leaving my mobile on. Anyway, nice to meet you. And don’t call me Mr Warwick as it’ll only confuse me. Nobody’s called me that for years. It’s Derek, all right?” “OK Derek, right you are.”
It seemed like a good idea at the time. The boys at GP Masters were laying on a car; all we needed was an ex-Formula One ace over the age of 45 to wring its neck. The sort of driver this slightly skewed take on historic racing is hoping to attract. So let’s call Derek. Top bloke. Media friendly. Can string a coherent sentence together. Warwick may be sleeping off jet-lag in a different hemisphere, yet he is still happy to play. What’s more, within a couple of weeks of us contacting him, and despite not having sat in a single-seater since his final F1 year with Footwork in 1993, he’s gone and signed up for the series anyway.
So here we sit in a motorhome, parked within Silverstone’s South circuit on a wet Wednesday morning in October. Oh the glamour. As fellow GPM new (old?) boy Andrea de Cesaris reads his newspaper, Derek gets animated about his racing comeback: “To be honest, it’s a bit surreal. I went for my seat fitting yesterday and it felt weird to be in overalls again, trying to get comfortable in a type of car I haven’t sat in for 12 years. I don’t know how I’m going to drive the thing! It seems so low, more so than most of the cars I raced. I suppose the closest comparison would be the low-line Brabham (BT55) I drove in ’86. The problem with that car was that you used to sit like this (he tilts back almost horizontally for emphasis), which meant my chin was on my neck. I broke my nose a couple of times boxing so I couldn’t breathe properly, which was a real problem. I’m saying all this before I’ve driven the car. I’m sure I’ll get used to it.”
First impressions? “I keep using the word because I can’t think of a better one: ‘wow’. The car looks fantastic, sounds fantastic and I think the proportions are spot on. It’s got to look spectacular and with its long wheelbase it’ll have a massive physical presence on the track. There’s no traction control so these cars are going to be moving around a lot and will be quite hard work for us to drive, especially when you get to Kyalami with the altitude (the first race was due to take place at the South African track on November 12/13, after we’d gone to press).
“You know, the other great thing about this series is seeing your old rivals. What was really nice about yesterday was chatting to Patrick Tambay. Of course we used to race for Renault together but I hadn’t seen him for a few years. Andrea made a point which is very true: the situation’s different now. Whereas before you used to knife each other in the back and try and steal each other’s drives, these days it’s not so important. The pressure’s off. I suppose it’s going to be important down the road once we’ve got some mileage under our belts but I’m really only doing this for fun.”
Fun? Just a little gentle competition, then? “Let me answer that,” laughs GPM operations director Bob Berridge. “These guys, I promise you, will be racing each other from the airplane steps to the carousels to see whose bag comes off first.” Warwick: “I’ve asked Bob a million questions and tried to catch him out over parity of equipment. I am aware that there are a couple of high-profile drivers signed up and I would hate for them to get preferential treatment, if you like, but my mind has been put 100 per cent at rest. The enthusiasm from all those involved in the GP Masters project is fantastic. I’ve been taking the mickey out of myself, you know, about old timers having another go, and thought, ‘I’ve got to stop doing this.’ There won’t be any more competitive people than us at Kyalami. There’ll be some psyching going on by the time we’re on the grid, I can assure you!”
It’s already started. This ‘seniors tour’, by way of a lazy analogy, has in a very short period of time attracted some of the most victorious drivers in F1 history. And Christian Danner. The German found himself in the firing line from 1980 World Champion Alan Jones, who quipped: “The closest he ever got to a podium was when he passed it on the way to the toilet! Maybe if Christian starts the night before, he’s in with half a chance.” Keen for retribution, Danner has already done an Italian F3000 race at Misano as preparation — finishing eighth and scoring a point! It’s getting personal.
“That shouldn’t come as any great surprise,” says Berridge. “These guys have lived it but maybe got disenchanted by having had the crap kicked out of them by the pressures of F1. The whole point of GP Masters is to reignite that flame and that’s down to everything, from the circuits we’ll visit to the car. When (sports entrepreneur) Scott Poulter first put together the project, there was a proposal to use a Formula Nippon chassis. Considering what they’d driven and walked away from, I suggested that it was highly unlikely that they’d want to get into a Nippon car. The best design philosophy would be for an Indycar type single-seater with three bulkheads before the driver and a great big crash structure at the front. And, as some of the drivers will have been away for a while, a commodious cockpit. Delta Motorsport, which is largely ex-Reynard, designed the car to our brief: medium downforce, decent mechanical grip, wide tyres and 600bhp. We evaluated various options and the Nicholson-McLaren NME-V8 was perfect. It’s a very mature evolution of an engine that goes back 20 years, so the bugs have been ironed out.”
As the rain eases off, de Cesaris’s car is ready. The Italian looks pensive. Minutes later he’s kicking up rooster tails of spray on his installation lap as Warwick looks on, chided by Ian Harrison, his Triple Eight business partner and former Toleman spannerman. As Derek does his best ‘I’m a little teapot’ impression while cleaning the soles of his Sparcos, Harrison whips out his camera and takes a shot: “That’s one for the guys in the factory. Lovely.”
Warwick’s car arrives just in time for another downpour. De Cesaris comes in and looks wide-eyed: “I’m confused! I’m lying down in the car like I’m in bed. I didn’t think I would ever do this again. I can’t believe I’m doing it again. I keep thinking what am I doing here? Then I drive the car and…” His voice trails off as he struggles for thought. “You know, when I did my last race for Sauber in 1994 I didn’t want to come back. Now I’m really looking forward to Kyalami. It will be a day for sport rather than business. No sponsors to look after, no pressure. I’ll be doing it for fun.”
That word again. Warwick does a few laps and comes in, a few random expletives audible before he kills the engine: “F**king hell! Oversteer through the slow stuff. It won’t go through Club.” Regaining his composure: “These are very difficult conditions but I tell you, as soon as I went out I was grinning from car to car! Phew! The funny thing is, you lose any real idea of where the corners are because you’re not used to sitting so low, and I’ve never driven the South circuit before. The car is well balanced, although we didn’t get any heat into the tyres because of the amount of standing water. It’s got oodles of power; I was spinning the rear wheels in sixth. The gearbox is a bit chunky but I’m not revving it hard enough. It’s a very easy car to drive but it’ll get harder once there’s some grip.”
Out again. This time much faster. De Cesaris is on track and catching. “They’re racing each other!” yells Berridge. Warming to this theme, he allows a slow-burn smile before adding: “We’ve come in for a bit of criticism, you know, the stuff about how all these guys are past it. I’m sorry, but you can’t tell me that guys like Prost, Mansell, Fittipaldi, Patrese and Arnoux can’t get the job done anymore. You forget how talented these guys are. Did you see Derek going into Stowe? Commitment. That’s why we brought him in and had a word! So far I’ve watched seven of the drivers who’ve signed up for GP Masters and they’ve all been absolutely on it. You should have seen Mansell at Pembrey. We’ve got the data, we know what the car will do. I swear, within 10 laps he was driving it at 99.99 per cent of its capabilities: he had that thing dancing.”
Both cars back in. Warwick can’t stop smiling: “It’s still very dodgy out there, what with all the standing water. I spun it twice, which was a bit embarrassing, but at least it means I’m trying. It’s just a question of confidence. You know, I had a few things on my mind before I drove the car; question marks over whether it would frighten me, tax me too much. There are no doubts now. I’m not too sure about the balance but we can work on that. I couldn’t really push it any harder in these conditions but… The last proper racing I did was back in 1993. I know I did touring cars but back then I was employing over 200 people, working 12 hours a day and then expecting to compete with the top guys. I didn’t take it seriously enough. The thing is, the mindset of a driver doesn’t leave you. It filters through everything. Right now it feels like I’ve never been away.”
The last thing motorsport needs in this era is yet another one-make series, but even as a devout cynic it’s hard not to get swept away by the enthusiasm bubbling around GP Masters. Just watching Warwick and de Cesaris feeling their way back in, rediscovering their competitive mojo, is a joy. Contrived it may be, but the prospect of seeing some of the biggest names in motorsport history duke it out like it’s the early 1980s all over again is a major draw (and how about a FISA/FOCA war or maybe a drivers’ strike for added authenticity?).
As Delboy points out: “The cars have got enough power but not all that much aero, so there will be lots of overtaking and long braking distances. I think it’ll be really good to watch. I don’t know if I’ll be quick enough to be at the front but then none of us do. It’ll be fun finding out, though.”
TechSpec — Delta GPM-05
Carbon-honeycomb monocoque with five lateral bulkheads down length of chassis.
Fabricated steel aero-section wishbones and pushrods, fabricated steel uprights, Quantum three-way adjustable dampers, adjustable anti-roll bars front and rear.
Rack and pinion, no power assistance.
3.3-litre all-alloy 80-degree four-cam Nicholson-McLaren (Cosworth) NME-V8, Pectal SQ6 ECU; Max power approx 600bhp @10,800rpm.
Ricardo longitudinal six-speed ‘box with paddle shifts and foot clutch for take-off.
Height 893mm, Length 4705mm, Width 2036mm, Track front/rear 1745mm/1628mm, Weight 610kg minus driver (including all fluids and 10 litres of fuel).
Top speed 170-200mph depending on gearing and aero package, 0-100mph 4.5 seconds (estimated).