Warwick returns for tour of duty

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The Independent Online
Another week into spring, and it must be time for another motor racing championship and more boasts of the best and most compelling action on the track. Unlike Formula One, however, the British Touring Car Championship tends to deliver.

The tin-top brigade may submerge into their occasional technical squabbles, but they have the saving grace of coming up with consistently close, competitive, captivating racing. This is contact sport on wheels and although it will be hard pressed to produce a spectacle "even better than ever", it is unlikely to be Formula Bore.

Nine manufacturers line up for Sunday's opening double header at Donington, eight of them intent on stripping Alfa Romeo of their title. The newcomers are Honda, and among the new drivers are the former Formula One men, David Brabham and Derek Warwick.

At the age of 40, Warwick has accepted his grand prix days are over and has taken on the dubious task of defending Alfa's honour. It is one he clearly does not underestimate, and even the ebullient Warwick cannot suppress his trepidation.

He said: "I struggled all last year, feeling sorry for myself, feeling sorry for Ayrton [Senna] and Roland [Ratzenberger]. I went through all that. By the middle of the year the writing was on the wall and I made two decisions: one, I wasn't going to be in Formula One anymore; two, I wanted to carry on racing because it's what I know and I love everything about it. I'm not ready to stop that yet.

"Touring cars offered a great opportunity and I was able to make that important transition. This is my priority now. I've come to a good team and hopefully will have a good car. It's great for me to wake up in the morning and think I've got a chance of winning the race.

"But I know what the competition is. I know it's hard. There are some very talented guys out there, some good teams. There could be 16 drivers capable of putting their car on pole. I'm still on a vertical learning curve. These things are different, so I've got a lot of homework to do.

"I'm trying for it to give me a buzz, for it to turn me on and motivate me, because if it doesn't I can't take myself to the level I need to beat these guys. Yes, I'm quick, yes, I want to win, but I've maintained all my life you have to take yourself above that. If I can take myself above that I can win.

"I know a lot of people believe I'm on a hiding to nothing, but I don't. I've made a few bad decisions in my life, driving the wrong car at the wrong time, but I've never regretted it. I've never wished I was driving a Williams, that I was Nigel Mansell, that I was this or that.

"This is what I've got, this is where I'm going, and I've got to get the most out of it, to try and repeat Alfa's success. I've had pressure all my life, personal as well as professional. I lost my little brother Paul in racing. I've learned to handle things. This is another challenge."

Warwick has never shirked a challenge and he is aware the BTCC is no place for the claustrophobic but he is concerned some of his new colleagues may crowd in a mite too close.

He said: "The racing is fantastic, there's a lot of wing mirrors flying and that's good. I'm sure there's going to be a few people taking a pop at me and I'll give as good as I'll get. There'll be a few punch-ups and I'm sure I'll be in the gravel trap a couple of times. I'm also sure there will be a few other people in the gravel traps as well.

"But they've got to clamp down on bad driving, on those deliberately punting people off, otherwise we'll degrade the championship, we'll lose manufacturers, we will lose drivers, everything. That would be sad."

Warwick's anxiety has not been eased by the late completion of his red 155, but then most teams have been scrambling to the start line. Alfa's operation this year is run by Banbury-based Prodrive, who are responsible for Subaru's World Rally Championship campaign. Team and driver may require time to get their act together.

Renault have the expertise of Williams behind their bid this time and Alain Menu, of Switzerland, is expecting to be among the championship contenders. Brabham drives for the past champions BMW, while James Thompson, at 20 the youngest factory driver, joins John Cleland in the trusty Vauxhall Cavaliers.

Volvo switch from 850 estates to saloons and appear well prepared. Peugeot and Toyota, like Honda, will hope to build their momentum through the season.

The strong paddock fancy for the title, however, is Ford's Paul Radisich. The New Zealander is partnered by England's Kelvin Burt, a combination capable of coaxing the best out of the Mondeos.

Come Sunday evening, Warwick will know exactly what he has let himself in for, but whatever his fate this season, he intends to be around for a few more challenges. "I may go on for another five, 10 years, break all records, I don't know," he said. "I'll stop when I'm not fast enough or it becomes too much aggravation, but I hope that's not for some time."