Warwick on Cheever

This was something of a love-hate relationship. In sports cars they were firm friends (well, most of the time) but in Formula 1 at Arrows their rivalry turned sour
By Rob Widdows

This one starts with a dream. Derek Warwick has won the world championship. This is a universally popular achievement and, as we all anticipated, he turns out to be an exceptional ambassador for the sport.

A thoroughly good bloke, but a tough racer, and just the kind of character who knows how to wear the crown.

If only the dream had come true. Even his team-mates, and there were many, would have been a little bit pleased.

There are those, including Ayrton Senna, who did not want Mr Warwick in the same team, having witnessed his natural speed and forceful character. Great guy, yes, but also very quick. It can be reasonably argued that Derek’s failure to land that Lotus drive, his decision to stay with an unreliable Renault and his rejection of an offer from Frank Williams pretty much did for his Grand Prix career. Considered by many to be faster than Nigel Mansell, more likely to be a British world champion, Warwick soldiered on with Renault while Mansell went to Williams and won a world title.

So who will he choose as his team-mate? No hesitation. He jumps at the chance to chat about Eddie Cheever, his sparring partner for no less than four years, the highly strung Italian-born American sharing with him the trials, tribulations and turbulent times at both Jaguar and Arrows.

“Yeah, lots to say about Eddie, my friend and my enemy,” comes the famous Hampshire burr. “A lot of stuff went on in those years, I tell you. He was very young when he came to Formula 1, straight from the BMW Junior team, and he was fast, very talented. He was a strange guy, Eddie, a bit pleased with himself, aloof if you like. He came from a very wealthy family and was well educated. It was almost as if he thought he was a class above the rest of us. He was a lovely guy, very gifted, and with a big heart. But he had a massive chip on his shoulder, could be abrasive, and yet he could be such a good mate as well.”

Their partnership began in 1986 and it was somewhat edgy from the outset. Warwick had had a dreadful season with Renault in 1985 but thought he had a contract with Lotus for the following year. Then along came Senna who refused to have Derek in the team, telling sponsor BAT that Lotus wasn’t capable of running two number one cars and a spare car for himself. “Yeah, I had a contract,” says Warwick, “but it was torn up a week before Christmas. Senna knew I might give him a tough time speed-wise, and a rough ride in the team because I was the English guy in an English team and he was the foreigner. He didn’t want those threats and he stuck to his guns. So I ended up at the Jaguar sports car team with Cheever, [Jean-Louis] Schlesser and [Gianfranco] Brancatelli for ’86.”

The partnership did not get off to the most perfect start, says Warwick.

“We all went to a training camp in St Moritz with Gunther Traub and I was the last to arrive. By the time I got there the other guys had hidden my bed in a tiny cubby hole in the roof, under the eaves of our dormitory, and I thought, ‘OK, here we go.’ Then, on the first night, we’re all in the sauna having a chat, chilling out, and I told Eddie I was surprised he’d signed as my number two. He leapt up, banged his head on the ceiling, and shouted, ‘Hey, I’ve got a contract that says I’m the number one’. So we both go charging out to find a phone to call Tom Walkinshaw. Of course, only Tom could get away with signing us both as number one. Not a great start, but it was funny at the time.”

Things got better, however, and they became firm friends.

For a while.

“We won at Silverstone and we both cried at Le Mans. It was such an emotional occasion, Jaguar coming back to Le Mans – the hairs are standing up on the back of my neck, just remembering it,” he smiles. “We were a good pairing; we both looked after the car, and Eddie was quick as well. But at Monza he really got to me. Tom Walkinshaw made us practice pitstops – he ruled that team with an iron fist – and it was always going to be tricky as Eddie was six feet two inches tall and two feet wide, while I was five foot nine and about the same wide,” he laughs. “So the seat was always a problem, we were never going to have the smoothest of changeovers. Then, at Monza, we were running near the front and he comes in but doesn’t get out – it’s all happening in slow motion, he’s just sitting there and I’m thinking, what the hell are you doing? So I open the door, reach in, rip his radio out, drag him out by the scruff of his overalls and drop him in a big heap among the air bottles. He starts screaming at me, ‘I’ll get you for that you bastard, you ****,’ and he’s laughing his head off at the same time as yelling at me. So I get in the car, scream at the guys to get my belts done up, and as I’m moving off I see Walkinshaw out of the corner of my eye, and he’s absolutely livid, absolutely seething.” Derek is now doubled up with laughter. “Honestly, I don’t know why Eddie did that – I think he just came in and forgot to get out. He’ll probably say he was working at a million miles an hour, but he wasn’t.”

In sports cars, Derek and Eddie worked with each other, not against each other. And it was easy for them to become good friends. But it was a very different case the following year. In F1, your team-mate is no longer your friend, he’s your enemy. Neither of them knew it at the time, but Jackie Oliver was talking to both about a seat at Arrows for 1987.

“It was good for Jackie,” Derek says. “He had a British driver for a British team, and an American to keep USF&G, the American sponsors, happy. So Eddie changed overnight from being an Italian to an all-American boy, just like that, and to start with we got on pretty well. Eddie was a quick driver but he never really seemed to get the hang of F1. I was usually that bit quicker and he didn’t like that, he wasn’t used to being beaten, you know. To be fair, he was never really comfortable in the car, he was too tall, and he was never quite on the pace. He started playing a few tricks, not sharing all his information, and one time – when he saw the pitboard out for me – he came in the next lap and I had to stay out. He was up to all sorts of tricks like that which was disappointing because he was basically a good guy. He was a contradictory man – selfish and yet generous at other times. So who was the real Eddie Cheever? I’m not sure. He never really let his guard down.”

At the Monaco GP in 1989 – their third year together – things came to a head. In a big way.

“I’d already been sixth-fastest and I was on another absolute stunner of a qualifying lap. Remember, those were the days when you got one hot lap on the tyres, so I was on it. I came out of the tunnel, down to the chicane, and there was Eddie right in the middle of the track.” Derek looks angry, even now. “He had plenty of time to get out of the way but he stayed there, and I was just bloody furious. So I pulled alongside him, shook my fist, and he was giving me the finger, all that stuff. Then we started banging wheels. I was so angry I just drove him into the barrier at the swimming pool, bang, and went back to the pits. Ross Brawn asked me what went wrong, said it had been a great lap, possibly moving me up to the second row of the grid. So I told him, and as all this was going on, I saw Eddie climbing over the debris fence and running down the pitlane ready to kill me. So I jumped out the car, all cocked up for a fight, and there was a huge shouting match, the mechanics holding us apart. We were ready to kill each other.”

This was rivalry on an industrial scale. Both men, now in their fifties, have plenty of hair but, not surprisingly, it is grey. “Yeah, well,” Derek smiles, “it’s the same nowadays. If someone baulks your lap, especially your team-mate, you put it on the sun visor, you have to keep your end up. It’s dog eat dog, a tough old game. And it always will be.”

The weeks after Monaco were a misery. Bad for the two drivers, bad for the team.

“Well, he just didn’t speak to me,” says Derek. “From that weekend in Monaco until we got to Mexico three weeks later. And this was a side of Eddie that wasn’t very pretty, the other side of the nice guy. Anyway, we met in the hotel for a sponsor function and he just turned his back on me. I told him we had to sort it out, we were mates, we were both in the wrong at Monaco, and we couldn’t go on like that. Maybe he was trying to destabilise me, I don’t know. But then, all of a sudden, the next day he came over, shook my hand, said we had to put it behind us, and we were mates again from that day onwards. I have to criticise that side of Eddie Cheever, but I love the other side of the man. He was a good team-mate most of the time, quite quick, but I think maybe F1 was a step too far for him.”

Cheever’s rise through the ranks was nothing less than meteoric – he was hailed as the next big thing, and BMW took him all the way. Intriguingly, Warwick has a theory about why his team-mate never reached the summit.

“I’ve never spoken to anyone about this before,” he says, “but I think Eddie may have had a secret… what’s the right word… a secret desire for self-preservation, a secret desire to live. And they weren’t good days in F1 if you wanted to live… I’ve never said that to Eddie, or to anyone else, but I do wonder if that was the case. But then again he went to Indycar and did well, and that was bloody dangerous. The thing about Grand Prix racing, though, is that you have to put yourself on another plateau. To make those cars go really quick you had to always be outside the box, you could never be inside your comfort zone. You always had to find that next level, that extra edge, and that is not the case in sports car racing or any other form of racing.

“In our day, you know, we raced for 200 miles, we had to look after the car, the tyres, the brakes and the fuel. Nowadays they do three sprint races, driving the cars at 110 per cent, almost like qualifying. Lucky buggers.”

In a final twist to this tale of two racers, both Warwick and Cheever signed up for the ill-fated Grand Prix Masters series, alongside each other on a grid once more. And they remain friends.

In his Grand Prix days Eddie was known to be an avid reader of his press cuttings, letting his views be known to journalists, rivals and anyone else in the paddock who would listen. So, if you’re out there Mr Cheever, you will not be surprised to see that Mr Warwick has been as open and honest as ever he was at the circuit.