Features - Interview
MARCH 1, 1992
BY JOE SAWARD
Until the accident Erik had been having a good weekend. He was quick from the start of practice, but misfortune when it mattered dropped him to 15th on the grid. Not deterred Erik was fifth fastest in the warm-up and ran as high as fourth in the race - and then Boutsen came along...
The Belgian tried to dive inside Comas, who was himself overtaking Johnny Herbert's Lotus. The result was a disaster.
"It was not my problem," said Erik. "I was doing my job and the rest was Boutsen's problem. It was a bit optimistic to try to overtake two cars in such a small corner."
"Actually," he added, "I didn't realise that he touched me."
A couple of laps later Erik's race was over when his engine failed.
"It would have been difficult to do better than seventh today," he admitted. The grid really determined the race. We didn't get any points, but the car is now good. We'll have a pocketful of points by the end of the year.
"The team did a great job - working like crazy in the last week - and it's starting to pay off."
You might have thought that Erik would be fired up and angry after the race, but he was calm and relaxed. He is the epitome of what a French racing driver should be. He has dark, rugged, Mediterranean good looks and a twinkle of mischief in his eye. He speaks English like Charles Aznavour, in a voice which melts romantically-minded English ladies.
When he came to Grand Prix racing at the start of last season, Erik was France's newest young hope. He had a string of championship victories to his name. In fact, he had won titles at every level in which he competed, not just in single-seaters, but also in touring cars. And yet, the prodigy did little to impress in his first F1 season.
"That is easy to explain this," he smiles. "You can put Senna, Mansell - whoever you want - in a bad F1 car and they can't do anything. The car is good now. That was not the case last year. I've never been quick in a bad car. I won a lot of championships by setting the cars as I like them, but I am not able to drive a car which is not in my style of driving. I am interested in being quick in a good car, if you are quick in a bad car you cannot win races.
"You can see that as soon as the car is OK, I am on the pace, as I am here."
"It was frustrating, but everyone in F1 knows that the car was bad and, anyway, it was my first season: I was learning the tracks and the team. What is important in F1 is to be able to win races and be in the race for the championship. That is my objective for next year. If the car is quick this year I will have no problem for the rest of my career."
But it was a disconcerting winter with Ligier trying to get Alain Prost to join the team. Erik, it seemed, was the driver who would have to stand down for the triple World Champion. It must have been a worry?
"No," he says mysteriously, "I would have been happy if Prost was driving with me! I would have been happy to stand down. In everything you have positive and negative things. The positive thing was that, even if I am not as well paid as Senna, I would have become the only driver who had more holidays than him. I learned a lot by seeing Alain working on the car and it was interesting to discuss it with him.
"I was happy to stand down, but much happier to drive with him."
As a result of the talks with Prost Erik did not drive at all during the winter.
"I didn't sit in a car between the Australian GP and practice in South Africa," he says. "Physically, South Africa was very hard. I was doing the right fitness programmes but there is nothing to replace practice. We all know that. It is difficult even if you are well prepared."
Exhausted or not, Erik finished seventh, ahead of team mate Thierry Boutsen. A fine performance.
"My objective is not to be quicker only than Boutsen," he says. "It is to improve the team and be at the front.
"What is good is that I work with Maurizio Nardon. He is a top guy, a wonderful man. I am very happy to work with an engineer like that. We have a good feeling together and we do a good job. It has to be like that, you have to be well-integrated."
Even before the incident on Sunday, the impression was that he did not get on well with Thierry. How was their relationship?
The answer, delivered with a charming smile, is unequivocal.
"I have nothing to say about that."
It is a surprise. Erik is a very likeable guy. He came through French racing in the shadow of Jean Alesi and Eric Bernard - and yet there were never problems with them.
"Yeah, we were friends," he says. "On the track we were rivals but otherwise we had a good relationship."
It must have been galling to see Alesi leap straight into the top level?
"Sure," he says, "If you can start F1 with some big performances like Alesi did, it's nice. But the fact is that what is most important is to win races and be fighting for the championship in the third year in F1. I never did big performances so far, but I will be there one day.
"Last year was hard because the team was in full reorganization, but I think for me it was the best way to start. In fact it was a political choice. I am in F1 because of Elf which has been my sponsor for 10 years from go-karts, Renault 5 Cup, Elf Volant, Formula Renault, F3, F3000, F1. And also Renault was important. You know, my first job in 1981 and 1982 was as a Renault salesman in a garage.
"Whatever, today I prefer to be in my position rather than Jean's."
For a driver with such French national connections, Erik took the decision to live in England. Why did he do that?
"Because I want to win the championship and the teams that win are in the UK. It is better to live there and be ready when it will be the time.
"I am not the first French driver to do this. Patrick Tambay, Rene Arnoux and Jacques Laffite all did the same. There are two reasons: the main teams are in the UK and there are French taxes. All the sportsmen in France move away. We cannot go to Monaco so we go to Switzerland or the UK.'
But for someone used to the Mediterranean sunshine, it must be hard sometimes with English life.
"I spend some time at my house in the south of France, but with the job we spend a lot of time outside France and the UK."
The 'we' refers to Erik and his wife Brunella and son Antony.
"My family is very important," says Erik, "especially since my little boy was born a year ago. In F1 there is such pressure that you obliged to get out of it and it's nice to have a little boy and a wife you are happy with, because when it is very hard - like last year - it's good to have your mind at home rather than on F1."
Right now, however, Erik's mind is firmly and fully on F1 and in Brazil - on the first anniversary of his F1 debut - he gave notice of his intentions.