Derek Warwick spent over a decade racing in Formula 1. Having endured a debut season in which he only qualified for one race, within a few years he was contending for race victories.
But unreliability often struck at the worst times, as he explained in an exclusive interview for RaceFans.
1981: Toleman-Hart TG181
“But then when we got to the first race, which was Imola in ’81, we were like seven seconds off the back of the great. It was just horrendous. The car was without doubt the worst Formula 1 car, with hindsight, I’ve ever driven by far.”
With more cars available than there were spaces on the grid during 1980, at race after race the team turned up, failed to qualify, and headed home. “We struggled with the sponsors. The car didn’t respond to any changes whether it was springs, roll bars, ride height. It was just shite. The car just flexed everywhere. It was completely wrong.”
The drivers only dragged the TG181 car into a race on two occasions. It took Warwick until the final grand prix of the season to qualify. “Brian Henton qualified at Monza and I qualified at Las Vegas,” he recalls.
Toleman were one of just three teams on the grid using turbo power when they made their debut at the fourth round of the championship at Imola. The rudimentary early turbos – the team used a Brian Hart-developed four-cylinder engine – were notorious for the severe lag in delivering their power.
“Zolder is a very good example,” Warwick explains. “At the back of the pits, at the chicane where Gilles [Villeneuve] ended up losing his life, you would come down the back straight and as soon as you braked, you’d left-foot brake going into the chicane and then keep the throttle down and it would go left, right, over the top of the hill, and then it would kick in. That’s how much lag I had.
“It was just horrendous. The turbo was on the back of the gearbox. So you’ve got a flexing chassis and you’ve got a lag that you can almost measure by seconds with very little horsepower. So it was a recipe for shit car of the century, I think.”
Toleman brought another innovation to F1 which, according to Warwick, also made life difficult for the drivers. Uniquely, it had agreed a tyre deal with Pirelli, while the rest of the field ran Michelins at the beginning of the season.
“In ’81, when the car was horrendous, we went to Ricard in the winter months and we were as quick as Ferrari. So we were quite optimistic.
“But as soon as you got to other circuits… Pirelli tyres were brilliant at certain circuits, but over the course of the season they were horrendous. Pirelli didn’t really know what they were doing. They’d come out with a new compound and you’d say ‘is this compound [for] qualifying or race?’ And they would just say ‘let’s wait and see’. So it really was dreadful.
“As a racing driver whenever I was on Michelin and I was on the best tyres. They were the best race tyres I’ve ever driven on all the way through my career, closely followed by Goodyear.”
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1982: Toleman-Hart TG181C
Development of the car came slowly. “We had to roll that car over to ’82 with a few changes,” said Warwick, “so as you can imagine ’82 wasn’t a lot better. Although the Brian Hart engine was.”
The continued lack of results presented a financial problem for the team. They hit upon a controversial solution at that year’s British Grand Prix.
“We qualified for a few more races, never scored any points, and almost lost the sponsor Candy,” Warwick remembers. “We did a little bit of a cheat at Brands Hatch. We started the race on half [fuel] tanks and soft Pirellis.”
From the start of the race, Warwick knew he was never going to finish. But he stunned the crowd by rising from 16th on the grid to hold second place behind eventual winner Niki Lauda for 16 laps.
“That’s where there was a famous recording of me coming through the back and passing [Didier] Pironi for second place in the Ferrari in the little old Toleman. It was just a way for us to try and get noticed and try and keep the sponsor. And we did!”
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1982-83: Toleman-Hart TG183 and TG183B
That was one of the last outings for the TR181C. The team had been working on a long-term solution to its lack of pace, which arrived late in 1982 in the form of the TG183. A B-spec version followed at the beginning of Warwick’s third season with the team.
“It was much better,” he says. “Different monocoque, much stiffer. The Hart engine got better and better.” With more power on tap, the team introduced a novel design to increase downforce. “It had a dual-wing rear end, typical Rory Byrne and Pat Symonds design.”
The new car “actually responded to changes” in the set-up, said Warwick. “The engine was certainly down on power but a lot better than ’81, ’82. I scored the first points for Toleman in Zandvoort in fourth place.”
Showing an eye for a good stat, Warwick adds: “I was the only driver to score points in the last four races” in 1983. That lifted him to 14th in the championship. But it also attracted the attention of Renault, who had narrowly missed out on both titles that year.
1984: Renault RE50
Then the suspension broke on his RE50 – the legacy of an earlier collision with Lauda. Worse, it proved the first of many retirements. The car proved to be Renault’s first design for six years which failed to win a race.
“The car was not very reliable,” said Warwick. “The gearbox broke quite often, we had a lot of turbo problems.”
Nonetheless, he recalls the RE50 very fondly. “The ’84 car was absolutely amazing. A great chassis, an amazing engine, good mechanics, good strong team. What you expect from a manufacturer.”
“We did a lot of testing. We had our own testing facility at Paul Ricard on the back straight just before Signes. I was there 24-7 almost, testing. But it didn’t really pan out in the race. The car was quick, it was unreliable. I led Brazil, I led quite a few races.”
When the car held together long enough, Warwick almost always brought it home on the podium. From 16 races he registered four podiums – including second in his home race at Brands Hatch – one fourth place and 11 retirements.
“It’s easy with hindsight to say I’d like my time again but it was what it was. Michelle Tetu, [Gerard] Larousse, [Jean-Claude] Migeot the aerodynamicist, we had a great team and great guys.” That persuaded him to stay on for 1985.
1985: Renault RE60
“When I signed I said to Larousse ‘everything staying the same Gerard?’. And he said ‘yeah, absolutely’. And then of course, at the end of ’84, we lost Michel Tetu, we lost Migeot, we lost Larousse and quite a few of the key guys from the engineering side.
“So we were left with a bunch of nobodies. The chief designer was a guy that came from Renault’s car plant. And we went from arguably the best Formula 1 car I’ve ever driven to one of the worst cars.
“No, actually, that’s not true, because obviously ’81/’82…”
Pre-season testing indicated the new RE60 was a massive step backwards from the previous year’s car. But continuing with the old car wasn’t an option.
“The ’84 car we didn’t take into the ’85 season,” says Warwick. “The boss of Renault would let us.
“I remember testing the car at Rio de Janeiro and the ’84 car was something like nearly three seconds quicker than the ’85 car. And we all got our ears chewed true because they didn’t want us to test the ’84 car because they knew how bad the ’85 car was.
“But we rolled it out and just did some laps in the ’84 car and it was nearly three seconds quicker. I’m not saying that it was three seconds quicker everywhere, but at the time of the development of the ’85 car, it was.”
The new car was little more reliable than the old one, only now Warwick was lucky to get in the lower reaches of the points. Mid-season, Renault pulled the plug on its F1 team, having failed to win a championship with the turbo technology it had introduced to the sport eight years earlier.
1986: Brabham-BMW BT55
Left without a drive at the start of 1986, Warwick returned to F1 after Elio de Angelis was killed while testing Brabham’s BT55 at Paul Ricard. Team boss Bernie Ecclestone called him up, having ignored the entreaties of those who called him immediate after the tragedy.
The team still had the use of BMW’s explosively powerful turbos. But the radical, low-slung BT55 proved an innovation too far from technical director Gordon Murray, who had produced many pioneering designs for the team.
“It was a tough year because the Brabham was another one of those cars that was flexing all over the place,” said Warwick. “Beautiful car. Very low, very aerodynamic, amazing engine. In qualifying we had like 1,350 horsepower. But of course, the car didn’t handle very well.”
Warwick had high hopes that the team’s star designer would turn their season around. “Gordon Murray knew the car was not very good, but I always thought that Gordon had such a great reputation that the next race he’d come up with a new widget valve and all of a sudden the car would be on pole position and win the race by 10 seconds. But I think Gordon had lost a little bit of heart in Formula 1. He was doing other things, not really focussed.
“That was the demise of Brabham, really, because they never really got back on top after that.”
Joining Brabham also reunited Warwick, unhappily, with Pirelli. “The Pirellis were just awful. Like I said earlier on, they were great at some circuits, [but] I had an explosion by one in Austria, put me in the wall.
“The tyres were just inconsistent. They were very strong on some circuits but very difficult to keep them under you at other circuits, especially when you’re in qualifying putting 1,300 horsepower through the rears.”
The unusually low design, which Murray later refined at McLaren with Steve Nichols to produce the dominant MP4/4 of 1988, also created a more immediate problem for Warwick.
“My biggest problem with the car was because you had to lay down in the car. I had problems breathing through my nose because I’d broke my nose too many times so I struggled to breathe in the car. And, for sure, that was a problem.”
1987-88: Arrows-Megatron A10 and A10B
Warwick’s stint at Brabham at least put him back on the radar of F1 teams and earned him a place at Arrows for 1987, using BMW customer engines which didn’t quite live up to their spectacular moniker ‘Megatron’.
“The engine was not in the same level as the works BMW in the Brabham,” said Warwick. “We couldn’t run the ultimate boost” in order to ensure the engines lasted. “We couldn’t destroy engines like we did at Brabham. So we had to make do with the best with the budget that we had.”
In 1988, as the number of turbo-power entries dwindled, and with Arrows using an updated version of its A10 chassis, the team became regular points-scorers. Warwick finished eighth in the championship, one place lower than his career high of seventh in 1984, thanks to his seven top-six points-scoring finishes.
But a major change in engine formula was coming, and for 1989 Arrows’ new chief designer Ross Brawn had penned an all-new design, his first full Formula 1 car.
1989: Arrows-Ford Cosworth A11
Brawn’s A11 was “one of the best cars I’ve ever driven”, recalls Warwick. “That car with the right budget would have won races.”
“It was that good. Very, very nimble, very light, but again, underfunded. Jackie Oliver did the best he could to bring money in and to make the team work, but he had to make every penny count. Him and Alan Rees did a good job to do to keep the team going on very limited money.”
A pair of fifths in the first two races got the season off to a good start. While team mate Eddie Cheever bagged a podium in his home city, Phoenix, Warwick almost did even better when a cloudburst hit the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
From 12th on the grid, smart tyre strategy put him in the lead of the Canadian Grand Prix for four laps, until he was passed by Ayrton Senna’s McLaren. Warwick’s engine failed shortly afterwards, and Senna’s subsequent retirement for the same reason made this another of the potential wins which forever eluded both Warwick and Arrows.
As with his 1984 Renault, reliability proved the shortcoming of an otherwise promising car. “The ’89 Arrows, I just can’t say enough about it,” said Warwick.
“I’d put it up there with the ’84 Renault in terms of a good, manageable car that you could change for various situations and it would react to it. The ’89 car was just such a lovely car. [But] we had so many problems with it, with the diffs and with the gearbox.”
1990: Lotus-Lamborghini 102
Now with a decade’s F1 experience under his belt, Warwick was lured to drive for Lotus in 1990. The team had landed a deal to use Lamborghini’s V12 engines, but the launch of the 102 boded ill for what was to follow.
“On paper it looked good,” Warwick recalled. “The engine was very heavy but we thought we could make it up with other things that we were doing in the chassis and suspension. But they were new to carbon fibre, really. The car was flexing all over the place, it was really weak.
“I remember at the press launch the deal was I was going to drive it out of the factory and drive it into the marquee in front of all the journalists. And driving out of the factory the engine pulled out the back of the monocoque so we couldn’t have any drive.
“So in the end we jacked it up, put some clamps on it to clamp the engine back onto the chassis, started it up and pushed it into the marquee blipping the throttle, which sounded beautiful with the V12 Lamborghini. But that was the start for me of worrying about the strength of the chassis.
This was to prove a concern throughout the rest of the season. “It had a lot of weaknesses in the chassis, a lot of flexing. Every time you went to a circuit, it was a compromise because it would just flex all over the place. You could do what you like to the car in terms of roll bars, suspension springs, and like I said before with the Toleman, it just made no difference.”
Warwick survived a huge crash in the car at Monza. Then three weeks later at Jerez team mate Martin Donnelly suffered an appalling crash, the car splitting in two, after what Warwick believed was a failure in the chassis.
Donnelly’s life hung in the balance while Warwick took a brave decision to get back in his car for the race. He did so after consulting his mechanics on the steps they had taken to strengthen the car. “They worked all night to take the pedal box out and fabricate a titanium strengthening piece around the front footwell.” He got within 10 laps of the finish and had just passed Mauricio Gugelmin for seventh place when the gearbox failed.
Donnelly survived, but never raced an F1 car again. The dangers of racing hit Warwick even closer to home the following year when his younger brother Paul was killed in a Formula 2 race. But he continued driving, and tasted success at Le Mans in 1992, winning the race for Peugeot with Mark Blundell and Yannick Dalmas.
1993: Footwork-Mugen Honda FA14
The following year Warwick, now 38, returned to F1 with his former Arrows team, which was now branded as Footwork. Great technological strides had been made in his three-year absence, and the FA14 included a computer-controlled active suspension system.
“What you what you could do with it was just outrageous,” he said. “I mean, it really was absolutely amazing. You could change the ride height, the suspension, the dampers, the roll bars for every millimetre of the circuit.”
However the Footwork operation was too small to unlock the full potential of the system, said Warwick.
“Again we were short of budget but Jackie put a deal together with McLaren and we run the McLaren active suspension in ’93 which was amazing. Absolutely amazing. But although we had a McLaren engineer with us I don’t think we had the brains to get the most out of it. So for me, ’93 was a bit wasted in terms of getting the most out of that car.”
Warwick also had a tricky relationship with Alan Jenkins, the team’s technical director and chief designer, who was frustrated that Michele Alboreto had been forced out in favour of their new driver.
“There was a bit of animosity [with] Alan, we never gelled at all. In fact, I think we worked against each other. As much as I tried to get Alan on-side, he never really was.”
Warwick managed a pair of points finished in the car, which was powered by a customer engine based on a Honda design. “It was okay, it wasn’t amazing. I called it an anvil because it was just a big, heavy weight. Again, didn’t run the maximum power out of it. It was built by Mugen and it was too heavy with not enough power.”
The wins that got away
Reflecting on his 14 years in Formula 1, Warwick admits he feels he “underachieved”, notwithstanding several years spent in uncompetitive machinery.
“Some of the cars that I had – ’81, ’82, ’85, ’86, ’87 and ’90 – were all horrendous, bad cars. Probably not the worst cars out there, but one of the worst cars out there.
“My strength was the fact that I never look back, I never looked sideways. I only concentrated on what we’ve got. Otherwise, I could have been very down on myself. I was very strong mentally.
“I think we got the most out of most of the cars. I was disappointed with the reliability of some of the good cars, [particularly] ’89 and ’84.
“But overall I’m very fortunate to come from where I come from in stock car racing, Formula 2 super stocks, to become a grand prix driver and to last a 150 grands prix. I can’t say that I achieved what I set out to achieve, but I equally feel that I achieved more than most people would have done in the cars I drove.”
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