Derek Warwick: Former F1 star on Senna, Silverstone and business success
‘I had the best life in the world,’ says Derek Warwick, recalling his time as a Formula One racing driver as he sits in the office of his flagship Honda dealership on Longueville Road, with a grin etched on his face.
‘I was a Grand Prix driver in the Eighties and early Nineties, when you could have fun. You were a superstar and everything was at your beck and call.
‘If you wanted to be a little prima donna you could be, but it never occurred to me to be that way because I’ve got a great family who used to keep my feet planted firmly on the ground.’
It was this humble approach to life in the fast lane that helped him win many friends during a career in which he started 147 Formula One races, achieved four F1 podium finishes and triumphed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race and the World Sportscar Championship.
His enduring popularity was evident at the Autosport Awards in London earlier in December, when 1,500 leading figures from the motor sport fraternity gave him rapturous applause as he received the Gregor Grant Award for his work with promising young British drivers.
A day later Derek (63), who stepped down from his position as president of the British Racing Drivers’ Club in October, received the prestigious gold medal at the BRDC Awards in recognition of his exceptional contribution to British motor racing and years of service to the club.
During his 6½-year tenure as president and ten years on the BRDC’s board, Derek played a key part in ensuring that Silverstone – which is owned by the club – remained the home of British motor racing by fighting to retain the British MotoGP and negotiating to keep the British Grand Prix on the F1 calendar at Silverstone.
He says his decision to step down as the club’s president was partly influenced by his battle to overcome bowel cancer two years ago.
After a large tumour was found during a hospital screening, in 2015 he underwent a six-hour operation to remove the tumour and 15 inches of his bowel. However, the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes, which required six months of chemotherapy before he got the all-clear.
‘That really knocked the wind out of my sails and I wanted a bit more “me time”.
'However, I’m staying in the club to run all the young driver programmes. At the BRDC we look after several young drivers, including people like Formula 3 European Champion Lando Norris and George Russell, the GP3 champion. We give them advice on contracts, PR and marketing, and general career guidance.’
For the past eight years he has also been chairman of the McLaren Autosport BRDC Young Driver of the Year – a competition which rewards young racing drivers from the UK – and he has helped to mentor many finalists through the early stages of their professional careers.
What would Derek, who started racing in karts at the age of 12 in the early 1970s, have given to have received the same level of advice and guidance early in his career?
‘This would have been fantastic for me. Having that help would definitely have made my career shorter in terms of the time it took me to get to F1.’
While Derek’s expert advice is readily available, for the vast majority of aspirational young motor racers, the money isn’t.
‘We’ve got some great young drivers but I know a lot of them are strangled by financial restraints. I won the Formula 3 Championship in 1978 on £17,500.
'Now, to do Formula 3 properly you probably need £800,000. To make it into F1, you need serious sponsors and a family with serious wealth – multi millions.’
He says that even in his day, three-time F1 champion Ayrton Senna arrived in the sport from a position of privilege.
‘People forget that even someone like Senna, arguably one of the greatest racing drivers ever, came with a pot of gold behind him. These guys drove the best cars with the best budgets – that’s why they won Formula One championships.’
Derek himself never won an F1 championship or a race, but he did manage four podium finishes – including a second place at the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch in 1984, when he kept Senna behind him.
He is adamant he could have achieved more in the sport had Senna allowed him to be his team-mate at Lotus in 1986.
Derek had a contract with the team, but the Brazilian demanded number one status and wanted a team-mate who would play second fiddle.
‘My contract read that I be equal number one with alternate use of the spare car, but Senna had such strength with the sponsors that he got the sponsors to tell Lotus to tear up my contract.’
Does Derek believe Senna felt threatened by his talent?
‘Yes, 100 per cent. He didn’t want the threat of a British driver in a British team, he knew the team probably weren’t good enough to run two “number one” cars and he wanted the spare car just for himself.’
After a poor season in 1985 the team Derek had been contracted to, Renault, withdrew from F1 and Derek raced in the World Sportscar Championship for a year.
‘Senna screwed with my career. I returned to F1, but raced with lower-grade teams, whereas I do believe I could have won grands prix and been world champion.’
Even before Senna denied him the opportunity to be his team-mate at Lotus, Derek had rejected a race seat with Williams-Honda for 1985, to stay at Renault.
His compatriot Nigel Mansell went on to win two races with Williams that season, but Derek insists it can only be seen as the wrong decision with the benefit of hindsight.
‘I was having that great season with Renault in 1984 and midway through it, Renault offered me a ridiculous amount of money to stay the next year. I had an offer from Williams, but the Williams didn’t look super-competitive.
‘With hindsight was it the wrong move? Yes, 100 per cent. Could I have made a different decision at the time? No.
‘There’s a lot of people who wish they did things and there’s millions of people who wished they were Senna…’ He leans forward and whispers: ‘But unfortunately he’s dead.’
In Derek’s day, the sport’s triumphs were too often pockmarked by tragedy.
He will never forget the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder, where legendary Canadian driver Gilles Villeneuve was killed after his car was catapulted into the air following a collision. Villeneuve’s Ferrari was airborne for more than 100 metres before it crashed nose first into the ground. The impact ripped Villeneuve’s helmet from his head and threw him into the catch fencing.
‘I cradled Gilles Villeneuve in 1982 at Zolder in Belgium,’ recalls Derek. ‘I was in the hotel room with my wife, Rhonda, when Gilles’ death was announced. We went to bed that night crying. I woke up the next morning, showered, started to get ready and Rhonda asked me, “What are you doing?” I replied, “It’s race day”. That’s how black and white it had to be to race.
‘During the ten years or so that I was in Formula One, 12 racing drivers competing in top-level motorsport died, including my little brother.’
His brother Paul was a promising racing driver in his own right. He won the Autosport British Club Driver of the Year in 1986 and four races in the 1991 British Formula 3000 series, but he was killed while leading the fifth race at Oulton Park in Cheshire, after his car slammed into a circuit barrier at 140 mph.
Paul was awarded the win posthumously – and he had scored enough points in the races he had contested to ensure he won the championship.
‘I created, very early on, a little safe in the back of my head and I used to put disasters like my brother Paul’s death and Gilles’ death in that safe, and it wouldn’t come out until the Sunday night of a race weekend.
‘I’m not a hard, callous person, but somehow I found that ability to lock disaster or tragedy away.’
Derek’s F1 career ended in 1993, but not before he had enjoyed success on the world stage in other motor sport categories.
He won the 1992 World Sports Car Championship with Peugeot and triumphed in the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans race that same year, and continued racing in various formats until 1998.
What, though, was the best race of his life?
‘Finishing second at Brands Hatch in the British Formula One Grand Prix and winning Le Mans is well up there.
'But nobody remembers when I started at the back of the grid at the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka in 1989 and drove that Arrows car to a seventh-place finish [later amended to sixth after another driver’s disqualification].
'That was arguably one of the best drives of my life.’
Although there is plenty in his racing career for Derek to savour, he does not do nostalgia. ‘Never in my life have I looked back. I’m only interested in the future, and that goes for my businesses and my family.’
He has lived in Jersey for 32 years, having moved over on 1 January 1985.
‘I’m not quite a Jerseyman but I love Jersey – it’s been fantastic to me and my family.
'I’ve got some great friends on the Island and I run all my businesses from my Honda Garage.’
Aside from his Derek Warwick Honda Garage in the Island, he runs a motorsport team in Australia called Triple 8 which employs 50 people and he also owns several UK-based construction companies.
‘We employ nearly 100 people in the UK building residential houses at eight sites on the UK south coast.’
Sitting in his office chair, he points in either direction.
‘This is my office for my worldwide businesses and it works really well. This is where I come every morning and where I leave most nights, and from here I ran most of the stuff for the BRDC.’
It was in the summer that the BRDC triggered a break clause in Silverstone’s contract to host the British Formula One Grand Prix, meaning there might not be any more F1 races at the venue after 2019.
Derek says the BRDC will resume talks in the new year over the possibility of renegotiating the contract for the race with Liberty Media, which has a controlling interest in Formula One.
‘The grand prix is too expensive, we’re losing money and that’s why we triggered the break clause.
‘Britain is the home of motorsport. Does that mean there will always be a British Formula One Grand Prix? Absolutely not.
'Of course we want a British Grand Prix and for it to stay at Silverstone, but we want it to be affordable so that we can make just enough money to reinvest in the circuit.
'We can’t do that under the present deal.’
Derek attends five F1 grands prix a year as the driver’s FIA steward and for the past 26 years since his brother’s death, he has been a member of the Motor Sports Association’s safety committee.
He has myriad business interests, but nothing matters more to him than his family.
He has been married to Rhonda for almost 42 years and the couple have two daughters – Marie and Kerry – and three grandsons – Harrison (6), Benjamin (5) and Daniel (3).
‘I’ve got two gorgeous daughters and three adorable grandchildren, and I couldn’t be happier.’
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