Warwick puts his love to a ritual test

The appeal of this weekend's Le Mans is a strong as ever, says Derick Allsop
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Even now, when major sport is all pervasive and hogging every television and radio schedule, one of the most bizarre rituals of them all clings resolutely to its place on the calendar, in a corner of France few can identify, in an event still fewer can make sense of.

Yes, Le Mans is on again this afternoon.

It is bizarre because a race that lasts 24 hours cannot really be called a race in the accepted sense of the word and this is not a spectacle to sit and watch, beginning to end, anyway. It is and always was a pageant built round an endurance test for drivers, machines and public.

But once it was also a challenge some of the world's best drivers responded to and, until recent years, it was the cornerstone of a recognised world championship for recognised monsters of sportscar engineering.

However, the very best drivers long ago abandoned the intimidating ordeal and now the cars are a confusing mix, some belonging to a kind of "global" series, although participants themselves are uncertain what all of them are.

Le Mans exists in a vacuum, and that is its very strength, its very appeal. It is a monument to tradition and defiance. It's there because, well it has seemingly always been there.

This year, for Derek Warwick it also serves as a vehicle to re-generate his racing career. At the age of 41, he is among those who may never be as good as they were, but who are still competitive enough to get their kicks, and a pay cheque, out of it.

Warwick makes his first appearance in a race since the end of last season, when Alfa Romeo pulled out of the British Touring Car Championship. He could not find another drive for this year, and yearns for a chance next year. Victory this weekend, for Porsche, in partnership with Mario Andretti and Jan Lammers, would, he hopes, enhance his cause.

"I believe I'm good enough for another five years or more," he said. "I'm gutted not to be in the British Touring Car Championship this year, but it's such a fickle business and I know a few will have been grinning at my expense. I also look on it as unfinished business.

"I need to keep the continuity as a racing driver, I don't want a sabbatical. That's why I was determined to get this drive. I could have taken more money elsewhere, but that was not the priority or the motivation."

The Courage Team, like Andretti, have so far chased this prize in vain but Warwick, a winner four years ago, believes fulfilment is within reach.

He said: "It is a good car, good engine and good team. It's a kind of ambition realised for me to be driving alongside Mario. I genuinely believe we have an excellent chance of winning, that's why I'm here.

"I can't pretend I'm in 100 per cent shape because I've been burying myself in business this year and I've let the training slip. I know that whatever I do I can do better, and I only hope I don't let the side down.

"But I know I still have the speed, the ability and the will, and there will be no more determined driver out there. I still love this sport and still want more of it."

No one would ever question Warwick's commitment, but some, perhaps many, do question whether Le Mans still has a valid role to play in motor racing.

Warwick said: "I have to admit all the different categories confuse me so I can understand people wondering what its all about. But having been here in the past and being here now I can honestly say it is still a huge and significant motor race.

"All right, you've not got Mercedes or Jaguar, but you have got eight McLarens, three Ferraris and a very strong Porsche representation. Le Mans is a part of history and that is important, but I believe it is also important today.

"Let's face it, Formula One isn't exactly rich in talent at the moment. Michael Schumacher was magnificent in Spain a couple of weeks ago, in a class of his own, but quite frankly he had no opposition.

"I raced in 147 grands prix and in every one of those there were a number of great drivers. Today there is only one great driver in grand prix racing.

"There may be no Schumacher at Le Mans, but there are several very good drivers and the competition will be very close and very strong. That makes for good motor racing and makes it all worth while. Le Mans is a bloody good show."