Derek Warwick has always worn his heart on his sleeve. With only a Le Mans drive for Courage on his itinerary, he bares his soul to Mike Cotton
Confidence and self-belief are part and parcel of a racing driver’s make-up. Derek Warwick has these in full measure, and why not? At the age of 41 he is younger than the presently redundant Nigel Mansell, who according to popular opinion could still step back into Formula One if he so chose.
He can hack it with the best, getting up to speed in the alien environment of Super Touring last year and sometimes showing the way to his fiery young Italian team-mate, Giampiero Simoni.
It was out of Warwick’s control, of course, that the Alfa Romeo deal folded up at the end of last season, and that Prodrive had nothing else to offer Warwick, but still it rankles with the Hampshireman.
“I’m just stunned, I suppose, at not being part of Super Touring this year. I miss it, I miss it like hell. The Alfa Romeo was uncompetitive, and I had to come to terms with the fact that the championship-winning car had gone to the back of the grid.
“By a third of the way through the season I knew that I wasn’t going to win races but it became the biggest challenge of my life, and I really began to enjoy it because I could come to terms with it.
“I created five times more press than anyone else out there and in my view, obviously it’s a little bit clouded and biased, there are very few drivers who can win races and win championships. I am one who can, and I believe I belong there.”
There are echoes here of Warwick’s last days in Grand Prix racing, a cliff-hanger which restored his fortunes, only briefly, after a successful sports car season with Peugeot in 1992. A season, let us not forget, that culminated in the long-awaited World Sportscar Championship and a coveted Le Mans victory.
Back he went, to the Footwork team, but only for a single season that netted him four points. “I finally came to terms with myself, knowing that Formula One was finally over for me. Not because of my speed, but because for whatever reason I wasn’t at the top at the latter stage of my career and there wasn’t any future for me.”
Some Formula One drivers think next of IndyCars, something that grates with the American establishment. But Warwick didn’t want to race in America, both for family and business reasons he employs 100 people in his Honda dealership and the family’s trailer company but he didn’t want to stop motor racing.
How could Warwick continue his career as a professional racing driver, with the emphasis on being paid to do his job? He didn’t need the money, but a paid driver doesn’t enjoy watching his commercial value dwindling to nothing.
“Then a good offer came up at Alfa Romeo. I thought it would be a great place to launch the next stage of my career, but it backfired on me to be honest. For sure if Prodrive had got another manufacturer, or been able to keep Alfa Romeo, I would have stayed with Prodrive.
“They are the best bunch of professionals I have ever raced with. I think that if you asked them I would be their choice for another drive, but unfortunately they lost Alfa Romeo and that left us with nothing. It’s very sad.”
Warwick makes a clear distinction between the top teams, “the real professionals” like Volvo and Renault, BMW and Audi, “and those who haven’t really got past being weekend racers. “Some of them just haven’t realised yet what it means to compete with the top teams. They need a complete package, the car, the personnel, the drivers, the budget, everything.
“A lot of teams out there have the potential to take the next step but they lack the foresight, they’re not prepared to take it. With the right direction, leadership, motivation and publicity they could raise their game.”
The International Touring Car series flickered on Warwick’s screen, but not for long. “It’s a closed shop, isn’t it? Because two of the best young drivers to come out of Europe in recent years, Jan Magnussen and Dario Franchitti, have gone into ITC and done such a fantastic job, they’ve created a trend to put young drivers into the cars… even so, I do wonder if the ITC will be there for ever.”
Warwick shows himself to be a staunch supporter of Super Touring, and tactfully criticises Bernie Ecclestone for labelling them ‘Hertz rental cars’.
“That isn’t true at all. When you have as much respect for Bernie as I do, it is sometimes disappointing when he says things for other reasons. He has his own game, with ITC, but I’m sure he knows how good Super Touring is. He’s not stupid.
“He knows it’s not a threat to Formula One, the difference in costs is so great. It’s not like the old World Sportscar Championship where he saw Porsche, Mercedes, Jaguar and the Japanese manufacturers, and thought, ‘I need you guys in Formula One.’
Warwick’s one competitive drive in the first half of the 1996 season will be at Le Mans, sharing a Porsche-powered Courage with Mario Andretti and Jan Lammers. He went to the qualifying day in April and settled into the car immediately. Even that deal wasn’t confirmed straight away, though.
Rumour had it that Derek Warwick was too expensive, but Courage himself denied this and said it was “other things” that delayed the deal.
“It’s always a fallacy,” says Warwick. “I wanted to drive a Ford Mondeo this year, and when I called I was told that they heard I wanted half a million pounds! That’s ridiculous, only half a dozen drivers in Formula One get that sort of money, so you’re not going to get that for driving a touring car.
“I might be a little bit more expensive than some of the drivers, but you get what you pay for. Am I too expensive? No, if I wanted to do something badly enough I’d do it for nothing!”
Warwick pauses, reflecting on what he’s just said. “But realistically, for me to drive for nothing is almost an impossibility!”
He acknowledges that, at the age of 41, he can’t afford to have any more sabbaticals. It’s the wrong end of his career, he says, and any more enforced layoffs could finish his time as a racing driver.
Derek Warwick is a single-minded man, and he has made up his mind to continue his career in Super Touring. He has one or two irons in the fife and is fairly confident of being back in the British Touring Car Championship before the end of this season.
“I am still fast enough, I know it. I keep fit. I have a lot to offer and I want to carry on for another five or 10 years.”
The route to the top of the mountain is bumpy and hazardous, as every driver knows. And if he doesn’t retire at the top, the journey back down again is equally difficult. Ask Derek Warwick, and check with his friends and admirers who hold their breath as he trots to the local newsagent with his card: ‘Wanted secure seat in the British Touring Car Championship. Team may not be at the top but must have potential, foresight and determination to succeed. Big budget an advantage but not essential. Terms negotiable. Apply within.’