There aren’t many facts likely to make me feel older this week than that on Wednesday Derek Warwick will celebrate his 60th birthday. This seems impossible but I’ve checked and it’s true.
His name came to me earlier this month when on this site Paul Fearnley put forward Jean Behra’s name as the greatest driver never to win a world championship F1 race, challenging the established view that it is Chris Amon who’s most entitled to this most unofficial of soubriquets. I’d still back Amon but I did wonder for a moment whether Warwick’s name should have been tossed into the mix too.
So I did some checking and it seems it should not. I know statistics are not the only guide but when one guy (Amon) gets five poles and 11 podium finishes in 97 Grands Prix and the other (Derek) zero poles and 4 podia in 147 races there doesn’t seem to be much of an argument to have.
But a huge Warwick fan I remain, and for reasons that stretch beyond the tightly focussed world of Formula 1. For instance his record in sports cars is too often unrecognised. Who recalls the fact that in winning the Brands Hatch 1000km race in 1983, he and John Fitzpatrick pulled off the mythically rare feat of beating the full factory Porsche team in a private 956? Or that he took Jaguar’s first Group C victory, his XJR-6 claiming pole and the win at Silverstone in 1986?
And remember it should have been Derek and not Teo Fabi who won the 1991 World SportsCar Championship and had Tom Walkinshaw not caused him to be disqualified from the Silverstone round for winning in a car he was not entered to drive, he would have done. Even without that victory, nobody else won more races that year. He made good in 1992 with Peugeot, gaining the title he so richly deserved and winning at Le Mans too.
I have two other reasons to like Derek Warwick, one he will not remember, the other he most certainly will. Back in 1991 when I was working full time for Autocar, I invited him to spend a day with us at Castle Combe because I wanted a big name to boost a feature we were doing about the most entertaining cars on sale.
He was huge celebrity at the time, emerging from 10 straight seasons in F1 and Jaguar’s lead sports car driver. Yet he turned up, mucked in, drove like the wind and instead of bolting the moment the circuit shut, stayed over in the local pub and spent the evening with us talking cars and racing to his (and our) unconcealed delight.
What he is rather more likely to recall is a stock car race at Wimbledon in 1973. This might seem an odd detail from such a stellar career but when back in 1997 this magazine asked him to name his greatest race, it was that year’s Superstox World Championship Final he unhesitatingly nominated.
He won the race and the title aged just 19. It was a series in which both his dad and uncle Stan competed and success came to Derek not through privilege and ‘arrive and drive’ contracts with professional race teams but by spending seven days a week designing and building his own cars for this rare form of motor sport where contact was not only allowed, but essential for success.
Grids were reversed according to results so the fastest always started last and in the world final he began in 22nd or 23rd place out of 30 cars. By the time he’d fought his way into the top six his father deliberately retired his own car so he could devote all his attentions to the lad’s progress through a race he eventually won with ease.
“What I’ll always remember most clearly from that night is the way my dad and my uncle Stan both hugged me, both in tears because they were so happy. I remember thinking this had to be out of the ordinary to make such a pair of tough guys cry.” The picture we published was of Derek on the podium with the second and third place finishers, all standing on what look suspiciously like cardboard boxes.
This is why I like Derek Warwick and actually care little whether he is or is not the greatest driver never to win an F1 race. What cannot be disputed is that this former works Lotus, Renault, Brabham, Peugeot and Jaguar driver who won Le Mans, the World SportsCar Championship and is now President of the British Racing Drivers’ Club named a stock car race with his family at Wimbledon Stadium as his greatest ever. And to me at least, that is pure class. Happy birthday Derek, I hope you have a great one.