NEWS FEATURE

Van de Poele stars at Imola

Eric Van de Poele's career has been sustained by winning prizes. On Sunday at Imola he nearly walked away with one of racing's top prizes - World Championship points on his Grand Prix debut.

There were emotional scenes in many pit garages after the San Marino Grand Prix. At Dallara they were shouting and cheering after JJ Lehto's third place. At Minardi there were smiles thanks to Pierluigi Martini's fourth place. At Lotus there was a muted feeling of satisfaction and one or two tears. There were tears too down at Modena Team for Grand Prix debutant Eric Van de Poele had lost fifth place on the very last lap when his Lamborghini engine stopped without warning and his car rolled to a stop a couple of corners from the finishing line.

'The engine stuttered,' he explained. 'I couldn't believe it. It was not real. First of all I hoped it was the fuel, because then I could maybe have got a few more metres. But nothing happened. The engine stopped completely and I just sat there. I tried to start it again but there was nothing.'"

Eric came wearily back to the pits, acknowledging the congratulations of the crowd. He had time to consider what had been a remarkable Grand Prix debut."

'I remembered the first Grand Prix of Johnny Herbert,' said Eric. 'He finished fifth and in the last laps of the race I was thinking about him. I thought fifth was a good place to be on your debut, but it was not to be for me."

'But, you know, I am not too much disappointed. Not disappointed for me anyway. It's a pity, but I am more disappointed for the mechanics. Some of them were in tears when I came back.'"

In the pit garage Mauro Forghieri clasped Eric's hand."

'Una bella corsa,' he said. Eric apologised. It was exactly in character for Eric is a charming individual. A gentleman is the old fashioned sense of the word. In the dog-eat-dog world of motor racing, people have often thought this might work against him."

The one thing that has sustained his career, through its ups and downs, has been his speed. When BMW picked him for the Junior Team the company was looking for a fast young driver who could present a good image of BMW within Germany. Eric did not speak German. The trials for the Junior Team took place at the Nurburgring in thick fog. Eric had never been there before and yet he was fastest by a long way. Niki Lauda and BMW Motorsport boss Peter Flohr, decided that they had to pick the Belgian. He was too fast to ignore."

In F1 these days everyone is quick and a great deal depends on the machinery available and on the system. Having joined a new team Eric has had to pre-qualify. It is not easy. In Phoenix and Brazil Van de Poele could not get past the first hurdle and, arriving in Imola, he knew that up against the two Jordans and the Dallaras his chances of success in pre-qualifying were small. As things turned out Scuderia Italia ran into trouble and Eric made it through, the fourth of the four successful drivers, edging out Emanuele Pirro by just 0.18sec."

'Pre-qualifying is something we have to do,' he said. 'It's a good school because it is very difficult. We have to really fight to be successful. We knew the rules before we arrived and we accept them as they are.'"

Once the pre-qualifying hurdle was past, Eric had few difficulties in qualifying 21st. On the grid, with a thunderstorm passing overhead and heavy rain Eric and his engineer, former Grand Prix driver Dave Morgan, decided to keep the car on dry settings. It was a gamble. If everything went well, Eric would have to scramble around until the track began to dry and then it would be all right."

In the circumstances, Eric's start wa blistering. By the end of the first lap he was 15th. On lap two he was up to 13th. As the race began to stabilise Eri was running 11th."

'I had a big problem with the brake balance at the start but then on lap 15 I stopped for tyres. They uncovered the brake ducts and when the brakes heated up, everything was fine. I had no problems. The car was good."

With other drivers pitting the race was chaotic, but as it stabilised again Eric was in ninth place."

'I was fighting with the two Lotuses and with Thierry Boutsen's Ligier,' he explained. Then with about 15 laps to go I lost the clutch. I was still confident because Thierry had a problem and had dropped back. Then the Lotuses began to close in on me."

By now the field had thinned out and Eric was running sixth - in the points. It was a vitl position for Modena team because a point would more or less guarantee that the team would escape from pre-qualifying at Silverstone."

When Roberto Moreno retired, Eric was fifth. The Lotuses were close, but it looked like Eric would be able to hold on to the finish."

And then the engine stopped. The points had disappeared, pre-qualifying was still a reality...

In such circumstances many drivers would stalk off, furious that such a chane could have gone wrong. Eric, however, has a firm grasp on reality.

'You know,' he said with a smile, 'this is still a very good week for me. I had a second child this week - a girl. Maybe I need to have more children it seems it is good for my racing.'

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