Masters' High A-Cheever

US F1 and Indycar veteran Eddie Cheever stayed out of trouble to win the rain lashed Grand Prix Masters of Great Britain

Race Report from Autosport - August 17 2006

by Marcus Simmons


The last time Eddie Cheever won a major race at Silverstone, in May 1986 with a TWR Jaguar, it was with plenty of assistance from Derek Warwick, his co-driver on that day 20 years ago. Last Sunday, Warwick's help in a Cheever victory was inadvertent, but it didn't make the success any less sweet.

Warwick's first-lap clash with Christian Danner, which helped Cheever jump from fifth to second place and removed two potential winners from contention, wasn't the only incident to suggest that Grand Prix Masters is as much about re-enacting the past as celebrating the sport's heroes. We had a fist shaken at Rene Arnoux during qualifying, collisions involving Andrea de Cesaris in both qualifying and the race (both times with Jan Lammers!), politics in the paddock (substitute GP Masters organisers and Nicholson McLaren engines in place of FISA and FOCA) after a spate of engine blow-ups that, for a while, jeopardised the race, an amazing pair of sideburns on Emerson Fittipaldi's face that probably house a lost Amazon tribe...and bitter disappointment for Nigel Mansell to rank with the twin-chassis Lotus fiasco of 1981.

Images from the pre-race test at Silverstone

One thing was different though: the inaugural Grand Prix Masters of Great Britain race seemed to feature more overtaking and incidents that all the 1970s and '80s GPs at Silverstone combined. At one point you half-expected to see Fittipaldi take the chequered flag in the pitlane with the rest of the field enmeshed in wire fences around the back of the circuit.

The drama was largely triggered by steady rain on Sunday morning. What also helped was the control Avon rain tyres, which seemed to offer very little grip and meant the Delta GPM06 cars were sliding around helplessly. It was only in the last few laps of the race that times dipped below those from the Formula 3 race (with cars on a different type of control Avon wet) held two hours earlier, and since which there had been little rain.

What the rain and lack of grip did do was ensure that those drivers who had been disadvantaged during practice and qualifying by the engine dramas went to the grid on an equal footing with the rest, with set-ups thrown out of the window and a driver's feel and finesse coming to the fore. Cheever's win, after a cat-and-mouse battle with four-time spinner (!) Eric van de Poele, was as much a triumph for stealth as speed, but you wouldn't have predicted that in qualifying.

In the dry Saturday afternoon session, Cheever had qualified only fifth. He was fastest of all in the first sector, through the superfast Copse, Maggotts, Becketts and Chapel, but on one lap he ran over the grass at Stowe and on another he was caught out by water from Mansell's radiator at Vale.

"That was a good lap..." he mused, but stopped short of declaring that it would have erased all of the 0.576 second gap to poleman Christian Danner.

Strangely, Danner's pole gave him the outside slot on the front row for the rolling start in the wet, meaning that second fastest Stefan Johansson had the ideal position for the run to Copse. It was almost painful to watch as Johansson tiptoed around the first lap with Danner, Warwick, Cheever, Lammers, de Cesaris and Fittipaldi bottled up in a train behind him. The Swede was clearly struggling for pace, but those behind him were equally unwilling to try any desperate moves.

You can't wait for the stops in GP Masters though! As Danner said afterwards: "There are no tactics, no pitstops, no gimmicks, nothing to wait for." Unluckily for the German, as he got caught behind Johansson he was tapped by Warwick at Luffield and both spun around. Lammers, who had passed Cheever two corners before, was forced into an awesome avoidance job as he just squeezed between the two of them. But this allowed Cheever back ahead of the Dutchman and up into second.

While Danner had another big moment shortly after Becketts before settling into a fine recovery, Warwick hit Arnoux down at Stowe corner and retired to the pits with damaged suspension.

Delboy's ex-Jaguar and Arrows team-mate Cheever quickly closed down Johansson and, finding the grip on the outside of the track, he motored right around the Swede at the long Club Corner and into the lead on the third lap. Johansson would continue to plummet down the order. Debris on the circuit finally caused a puncture and forced him to retire a few laps from home, when it was found that he had also been down on battery voltage due to a snapped cable.

Van de Poele, meanwhile, had started from the back of the grid after not going out in qualifying. He had spin number one as the field accelerated over the line to start the race (although Eliseo Salazar had already revolved exiting Luffield), but took Johansson for second on lap four and soon closed in on Cheever. Just as he caught the American, he had a second spin at Club, but closed the seven-second gap in just three laps.

This was an intriguing battle. As he had been in the dry, Cheever was very fast in the quick corners at the start of the lap, where van de Poele took all sorts of weird and wonderful lines in the search for grip. But then the Belgian was considerably better in the predominantly slower stuff (Cheever really struggled at Abbey). It was what you'd expect from an IRL driver and the bloke who's just won the Spa 24 Hours!

But it was van de Poele who did the most typical IRL move when he swept around the outside of Cheever at Bridge Bend at half-distance. A couple of laps later Cheever got him back into Abbey, but slewed wide and lost the lead again. A few laps later, Cheever got a run into Copse and took the lead back for good.

At this point they were eight laps from the chequered flag, which came out two tours short of the scheduled 30 when the race reached the one-hour maximum. Van de Poele hung on in there, but suffered spin number three at Woodcote with five laps to go. When he rotated for a fourth time, at Club, it was all over.

Still, van de Poele didn't hold the spins record for this event. That was claimed by Mansell. He'd looked on for pole on his first proper flier in qualifying, only for a radiator hose to become detached as he headed into Vale. That meant he spun on his own water, and would line up 13th for the race. Still, everyone rubbed their hands at the prospect of a charge from the back, only to see Red Five heading down the pitlane before the start. "I thought I'd lost all my talent," he explained. "I spun three times going to the grid and I thought, 'Ooh goodness gracious me, I'm having a really nice time here'. We'd altered the toe-in and toe-out for the wet and thought maybe we'd had some finger trouble, so we changed that and off I went to Copse, only to turn left where the track goes right. Unfortunately the diff' had exploded going to the grid and I had no proper drive at the back."

Mansell entered the race on the second lap, only to spin and tour back to the pits. He re-emerged halfway through the event, spun again, waved to the crowd and drove back to the dry. "I managed to get back to the pits and that deserves a round of applause," he joked. "Thank you very much!"

"I kept looking for Nigel," admitted Cheever. "I kept looking in my mirrors thinking, 'I know he's going to be up here any minute,' but then I saw him sat in the garage on one of the big TV screens while I was going round and thought, 'Okay, I have a crack at this'.

"That was good fun, flat-out the whole way and there was hardly any grip in the slower corners. I got lucky when Warwick and Danner went skating - it made my job easier with Stefan and I had a great race with, er, what's your name?" Van de Poele: "Thierry Boutsen!"

Van de Poele was delighted with his second place. "I never watched my pitboard to see what my position was because I was afraid to lose concentration. Then I asked my engineer on the radio and he said P1, and I thought it was not possible! But my rear tyres were really bad and I could not come back to challenge Eddie."

Danner, who set fastest lap, had lost too much ground in the early laps, but won a battle of the lanky Germans with Hans Stuck by passing him with six laps to go in a good move that started at Copse and ended at Maggotts. Stuck had been mixed up in a great mid-race battle for third against Lammers, de Cesaris and Alex Caffi. That ended when de Cesaris hit Lammers at Becketts, snapping off the Dutchman's rear wing and forcing him into retirement. De Cesaris motored passed the pits one more time - bouncing across the grass at Woodcote - without a front wing before pitting to replace it.

Caffi, who had only been added to the grid on Saturday night, eventually fell to fifth and into the clutches of a subdued Riccardo Patrese, who trailed the younger Italian across the line. Pierluigi Martini, another not to qualify on Saturday, completed the unlapped runners, while Fittipaldi and Arnoux were lapped. Patrick Tambay also finished, despite spinning at Woodcote and pitting to replace a damaged nose. Salazar didn't make it, pulling off at Club after eight laps.

It was a great show but it was also, crucially, a great race. And in those conditions it could not have happened anywhere in the UK except on the wide-open expanses at Silverstone - all those incidents would have meant a win for the safety car driver had it been at, say, Brands Hatch.

"Thank you to all the guys from GP Masters," grinned Stuck. "They had 16 totally crazy drivers to get organised. This shows how racing can be - no traction control, no tactics. I want more and I think you want the same!"

Yep. A shame his old Brabham team boss didn't show up...

© Autosport magazine - Reproduced with permission