He never got the GP win he deserved, but what niggles him more, this tough racer tells Adam Cooper, is a mysterious near-miss at the outset of his career
Derek Warwick contested 147 Grand Prix in a long career, but never quite managed to win one. He came close a few times, notably when a suspension breakage stopped his Renault at Rio in 1984. However, long before he made it to Fl, a potential victory slipped from his grasp that still rankles with him. It’s not so much the fact that he failed to win the 1976 Formula Ford Festival, but the way it happened.
“My first year in circuit racing was 1975,” he recalls. “I had a Hawke DL12 and, coming from stock cars, I was finding out how to change gear, learning the circuits, just about everything. It was unimpressive, really. For the second year we bought a Hawke DL15, and we just took off from the word go. We were more organised, we knew the gear ratios, and we had good engines from Minister.
It was a fantastic year, everything gelled really well. I think we started 52 races and won 32, although we did everything on a shoestring.We didn’t really have a shunt all year. We couldn’t afford to as we were still running it out of the family firm. I had two of my best mates as mechanics — one was a diesel engineer and the other was a chippy, so we didn’t really have a lot of knowledge. But it showed us how to win and keep the car in one piece.”
Then, as now, the highlight of the season was the Festival at Brands Hatch. That year the event had added prestige, since it supported a Shellsport Group 8 race for F1/F5000/F2 cars. Not only that, but it was also dubbed the ‘Tribute to James’ meeting, and the new world champion turned up to demonstrate his McLaren M23. “As usual, the British constructors were bringing out their new cars. Hawke loaned me the new DL17, which was nowhere near as good as my 15. But I owed it to them to race it, basically. Derek Daly had one too, and we went there as joint favourites.”
Daly and Warwick duly won the third and eighth heats on a soggy Saturday afternoon: “Everything was fine. As I remember it, on Saturday night Daly took both our cars to Southend, where Hawke was based. Remember, it was a works car — albeit with my engine in it. But with hindsight you might say it wasn’t the smartest thing to do.”
A huge crowd filled Brands come Sunday morning, including this writer. We were there to see Hunt and the Group 8 cars, of course, but the FF1600 boys knew that they’d never have a better stage on which to showcase their talents. “The car appeared from Southend, we checked
it over, warmed it up, and I set off. We didn’t have a warm-up lap; instead we drove from the paddock, round the back of the garages, straight onto the grid. But when we got there we found brake fluid leaking out of the back. We tried to tighten the joint up and pressed the brakes again, and it was pissing out.
“We dried it all off and filled it up with fluid. The scrutineers were hanging around and we made out that! was pressing the brake. It didn’t leak, but I wasn’t pressing anything. So they let us race. But we did that whole quarter-final with no real brakes.”
Despite the obvious handicap, erstwhile favourite Warwick scrabbled home third, behind Michael Bleekemolen and Don MacLeod. Back in the paddock, his glum little team checked the car over. Their conclusion — sabotage.
“After the race, we stripped down the leaking brake union and, to our amazement, there was no bevel on the end of it. We were scratching our heads, asking how did we do all the testing, all the practice, all the qualifying, and then win the heat with no bevel on the end of the female joint? One started to question a few situations.”
To win the Festival outright, the general rule is that you have to win your heat, quarter and semi and guarantee yourself pole for the final. Derek had lost that crucial momentum: “What that did was put us further down the grid in the semi-finals, and we struggled to get up and pass anybody.” A misfire hampered him further still but, luckily, trouble among the cars ahead lifted him to second in a soaking wet race, behind MacLeod. Daly won his semi, meanwhile, and took pole for the final. Warwick started from third. It wasn’t quite good enough and, in the atrocious conditions, he could not get on terms with his rival. After MacLeod spun, he finished second.
Daly accepted his trophy from James Hunt, and immediately marked himself as a star of the future. Sadly, Warwick’s frustrating afternoon was to get much worse. “My wife was pregnant at the time, and while I was up on the rostrum, obviously not very happy after finishing second, I saw an ambulance go along the back of the grandstand. It stopped and! realised the driver was waving to me. It transpired that my wife was having a miscarriage. I jumped off the podium, leaped over the fence, and we went off to hospital. We went flat out, but there was a lot of traffic from the race. The driver was trying to put a bit of a show on and I’ve never, ever in all my life heard so much swearing as I did from this driver going through the traffic. Poor Rhonda was five months pregnant, and she lost the baby.”
This family tragedy took priority and it was only later that Derek was able to reflect on the meeting: “I was disappointed, sure. We were quick enough to have won, and when you’ve won 32 races in a year, you deserve it. Derek got the BP money for F3, and I was always a little bit peeved by that, because the Festival does carry a lot of kudos.”
Did he ever get to the bottom of the brake saga?
“Derek Daly was my ‘security guard’ and, by coincidence, Derek Daly won the final! I always wondered who did it, because for sure I couldn’t have done practice and so on without it, as there was no joint there at all. In my mind I’ve always — maybe correctly or maybe incorrectly — blamed it on Derek, or at least one of his fellow ‘Paddies’ who were eating, sleeping and drinking in Southend! “Many years later, Derek and I met at an airport in America. By then he’d had a massive Indycar accident, and was now a born-again Christian. I thought it was the ideal opportunity for him to come clean. But he didn’t, or wouldn’t. He didn’t have an explanation, or didn’t know who did it. So it remains a mystery.”