Features - News Feature
MARCH 1, 1989
Driving with Derek
BY JOE SAWARD
Listening to the tape recording without knowing what was going on, you might think Derek had a split personality. Strange curses suddenly leapt into the conversation.
In fact he's pleasantly down-to-earth about life.
"I think my feet are on the ground," he says, "and if they are not, they get lead weights put on them very quickly, particularly by my family. I think being a racing driver is very difficult. It's easy to start believing in what is written. The press makes us gladiators, makes us heroes, and it's easy to think 'I'm a hero, thank you very much, that' great'. Of course in reality it isn't like that. You can't walk around like the big prima donna all the time. It's just not possible.
"I'm fit, I'm enjoying life, I have a beautiful wife and lovely children. I'm very lucky already. The only thing is that I haven't got myself back into a winning situation. I think that with USF&G Arrows and Ross Brawn I have my best chance since Renault.
"Equally I'd rather be in a McLaren, but I can't be. What I can do is to try and get the Arrows as near to McLaren as possible. That's the attitude I've always had in life, I get sick and tired of listening to people whining and whingeing, 'if only'. Motor racing is full of 'if onlys' and that doesn't get you anywhere."
Derek has been in F1 since his debut with Toleman in 1981. Does he feel he has changed a great deal in that time?
"Yes, I've changed. I'm getting younger, I just look older. I feel completely at ease now. You know, you bubble with confidence, you are able to handle any situation. Whether I'm going out to eat with the Chairman of USF&G or with the local refuse collector, I can enjoy both evenings thoroughly.
"I am still hungry. I still need and want that elusive win and championship. It is just that now I am able to wait rather than blow chances."
"You never forget how to win. The thing you forget is how nice it is to climb up to that rostrum.
"I said to my brother Paul, 'Everytime you get a win now, chap, take it all in' because it gets less and less. One season in Formula Ford I won 34 races, in stockcars I won 2-300 races. It doesn't matter what you are in, winning is winning. It is what it is all about. It is the reason I am able to give 11/10ths. I am that sort of a person. I want to win races."
Derek is certainly competitive, but does that urge to succeed spill over into everyday life?
"I wasn't really aware of it until with my young girls, Marie and Kelly. Even they are now super-competitive. I didn't realise it but everything was a race in our family. You know, the first one up the stairs, the first to get undressed, the first in the bath, the first to get washed, everything was competition. That was the way I was brought up and the way I bring up my family. It is something inner built, it's in the genes, but also something that gets developed more and more."
For a while in 1985 Derek lost his place in F1. He joined Jaguar, he won races and was challenging for the championship. Did he enjoy that period?
"Jaguar was a good time for me.They are a great team, one of the few teams I feel are professional enough for me to drive for in sportscar racing. They saved my career. I have such a respect for Tom Walkinshaw, Roger Silman and those guys. The experience to drive for Jaguar at Le Mans is something you will tell your grandchildren about, I suppose. It was another part of my life as a racing driver, but I still had such a burning desire to be in F1 and because of that I was never satisfied driving the car. I don't really feel I was driving as well as I could have done, even though I only missed the championship by one point. I was driving well, but I felt as though it was a temporary situation."
Indeed it was, Derek was quickly back in F1, experiencing the days when Grand Prix cars were at their most powerful. "They were great times. I am glad to have been around through it. The 100 GPs, if you like, were a combination of things: I had turbos at their worst, at their best and at their most powerful.
"In 1981 you were getting delay of something like 5 seconds after you put your foot down before the power came in. That's what you call throttle lag!
"They were the bad times, the good times, as far as engine and driveablility, was at Renault when turbo lag was not that big. It was quite an enjoyable time. Then you had the time, with Brabham in particular, with high boost -- and phenomenal horsepower. I remember at Monza one year, with a seven-speed gearbox and 5.4 bar boost, the engineers reckoned something in the region of about 1300 horsepower. It was like being shot from a rocket. I did a lap and the engine completely disintegrated into a million bits -- the block broke in half!
"I was also around during the time of the skirts when you had a lot of downforce. They were exciting times, dangerous times and good times to get rid of and to survive.
"FISA had to do something. We were getting more and more downforce, more and more grip, and going faster and faster. With modern GP cars you cannot be seen to be doing 250mph going into the Bosch Curve. It's pretty hairy, you know! They had to slow it down for safety and for economics as well. We were blowing up engines, like there was no tomorrow.
"You had the situation where there was such a difference in development between, say, Honda and Zakspeed. That couldn't be allowed. F1 will always be cost-related, the bigger teams will go faster because they do more development and wind tunnel work, but the engine thing was just too big a story.
"Here we are now with normally-aspirated engines and you have grip the same as the skirted era. It's phenomenal now. At the end of the pit straight at Rio you just throw it into the corner and it's flat, amazing!
"I think it will be good for F1. You will see close, hard-combat, racing, like F3. They are exciting races and, in F1, we have to get that back across to the punter. That's why F1 has the best drivers in the world -- and they are the best -- let's show everybody just how good we are."
Derek and his family have lived on the tax haven island of Jersey in the Channel Islands for the last five years. A place far removed from the high pressure of the Grand Prix world. Is that why Derek has settled there?
"Jersey for me is a haven, but not for the obvious reason," he says. "I consider myself very fortunate. As a GP driver I do something I love, I get paid well for doing it and I live on an island which is just fantastic.
"Island people and island life are different from the mainland, they really are. They are the sort of people who extract the most out of life. I am not talking about the Bergerac-style idle rich people, I am talking about Joe Public and the guy that's trying to earn a living out there. The people I socialise with are certainly not rich people, they are just hard workers. I have a great life out there and even if the tax was now exactly the same as in England I'd still live in Jersey. That is my home now. I remember when we first went out there Rhonda and I had a lot of hassle, we were having 20 divorces a day. Now I think if I said 'we're moving back to England', it would be the same in reverse!
During the winter, with no car to test, Derek has spent a lot of time on the island running, playing squash, tennis and as much golf as possible.
"The golf does two things for me: it relaxes me and I get great pleasure out of it. The way I play golf -- from one side to the other -- means that it's also quite a workout! It is something I want to be good at and I will work to try and get the handicap down to single figures.
"Golf is the complete opposite to racing, where everything is done at a thousand miles an hour. You get on the golf course and the time doesn't matter. You've got no pressures on you. It is a precision sport, just like racing, so there are parallels and oppposites. It's a great sport, why the hell I didn't do it 10 years ago I don't know!
"This winter I have been doing a lot of work with my brother Paul. We put in a lot of work trying to put his deals together. At the end of the day he was offered his drive by Cellnet on his credentials rather than us going out and finding money so he's being paid to do it. I did a lot of work getting him organised. It was great for me because I've needed something to occupy myself when there was no testing."
For some reason Derek seems to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time for most of his F1 career. Looking back, does he ever wish he had made different decisions?
"The grass is never greener on the other side of the hill," he says. "I've never wished I'd done something else or I was something else.
"I'm a great believer that your life is to a certain extent mapped out, Obviously you can ease that situation. I felt that I had a good chance at Renault in 1984 then I was also offered the Williams and the Lotus. Had I known that the Renault chief designer, team manager and a few top people were to quit at the end of the year, leaving the team in total disarray for 1985, I would have made a different decision. At the time I made the decision it was right. It turned out wrong, but at the time I was right.
"A lot of people say to me I must bear Ayrton Senna a lot of malice because he screwed my career (during the second Lotus drive saga of 1986). He certainly dented my career, but if anything I take my hat off to Ayrton. I'm not sure I'd have been strong enough to have stuck by my guns like he did. That, I think, is good quality. I think he was wrong, because I could have helped him and the situation, but that is not to say that I can say whether he's right or wrong. We are all entitled to our opinions."