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Eric van de Poele official web site

11/07/2008 - A Champion humain being

Joe Saward

I remember very well the first time I met Eric Van de Poele, although I cannot really remember the year. It was at some point in the mid-1980s and we were at the freezing old Nurburgring in the middle of winter. There was fog and snow. It was pretty miserable. Eric was one of 20 talented youngsters who had been selected to try to become members of a new BMW Junior Team. I was there with a bunch of drivers, engineers, BMW types and so on to advise on the matter. The chief judge was Niki Lauda.

The assessments were based on all-round performance both in terms of driving ability, ability with the media, social skills, even table manners. Most of the candidates were desperately keen to please - and many went on to good careers in the sport - but Eric spoke no German and very little English and so we communicated as best we could in French.

He seemed like a nice guy but was very quiet. I thought it was probably shyness.

In the end, when it came to judging, Eric scored poorly in everything apart from the driving, if only because he had not been able to communicate much. Lauda would have none of it. The great Austrian champion was never one to mince his words and said that BMW had to have the fastest guy, not the one who could use the right knife and fork.

He was quite correct. Some racing drivers have it all, but they are few and far between. What you need is speed. The rest is just window- dressing.

Eric was chosen and his career took off from there. He did a great job in touring cars and was a star in Formula 3000, finishing second in the championship in 1990, beating the likes of Eddie Irvine, Allan McNish and Gianni Morbidelli. In 1991 he went into Formula 1 with the Lamborghini team, alongside Nicola Larini, who would later become a Ferrari F1 driver. The two were well-matched but at the time there were too many teams in F1 and the fight in pre-qualifying on a Friday morning was tough. Many careers were ruined in those desperate sessions. More often than not, the men who failed to get through lapped faster than those who had an automatic entry, but that meant nothing. It was a baptism of fire and there were several cars quicker than the Lamborghinis. Despite this Eric qualified for the San Marino GP in 1991 in 21st position on the grid, ahead of some famous names, such as Mika Hakkinen. He then moved up to run fifth on his Grand Prix debut. Sure, he was helped by retirements, but that is true of any young F1 driver in his first race. The dream debut was spoiled less than a kilomatre from the finish when Lamborghini ran out of fuel. One can speculate what would have happened if he had finished that day, for F1 is a world built on hype, instead he was ninth and no-one paid him much attention. He went on to join the struggling Brabham team and then switched to Fondmetal but he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and ended up in sports and touring cars where he has enjoyed the kind of success that one would expect to see from a top F1 driver. I always think of him as a great talent that was never allowed to be as successful as he might have been. Nonetheless he has built an impressive career. He learned languages and performs so well with the media that these days he does commentary himself. He is not bitter about his career for it has been a success despite the F1 experience.

Motor racing can do strange things to human beings and in this respect Eric is a complete winner. He is a great human being. I always look forward to seeing him and I cannot say that about all the stars I have known over the years.

Joe Saward

F1 journalist

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