Eric van de Poele

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Last updated: 29-April-2007


Before Formula One Formula One After Formula One

Before F1

Born near Spa, destined for a life in motorsport!

Eric van de Poele from Belgium is one of those drivers on this site who, if he happened to be in the right place at the right time, might well have been World Champion. Being born in Verviers, near Spa, he was probably destined for a life behind the wheel. However, he was a comparatively late started in motorsport, only first coming to prominence in 1983, when he took part in the Volant Avia F3 school at the La Chatre circuit in France, and went home with the victory trophy.

That led to a year in French F3, but the going was too tough at this stage in his career. He only scored 3 points in his Anson SA4 Toyota, and ended up equal 16th in the standings. And so for 1985 he fell back into the comfort zone of the Belgian and Benelux Formula Ford championships, both of which he won. He also experimented with tin top racing in Belgian Group N touring cars, taking three victories in his BMW 325i en route to 3rd overall in the series.

That year, van de Poele also competed in the first time in the Spa 24 hours classic, teaming up with Freek Staal and Jacques Hendrickx in a Hoflijk Sport Opel Manta GT/E in division 2, the car eventually succumbing to electrical and fuel supply problems. At that stage, little did Eric envisage the success he would have in the event in the years to come. For the time being, he continued moving up the ranks, but in single-seaters he found success hard to come by.


Regular points in F3, carves out a niche in touring cars

In 1986, he raced twice in British Formula Ford for two podiums, and thrice in British F3 in a Mike Rowe Racing Ralt RT30 Volkswagen, only managing to score 1 point. In 1987, he would have a full season in the German F3 title, driving for the Hartge team in a Ralt RT31, again powered by Volkswagen engines. Although he improved as the season wore on, with a 6th at Hockenheim, a 5th at the Nurburgring, and finally a 3rd at Zolder, he placed only 11th in the series with 29 points.

Rather, it was in touring cars that he was finding a niche. He was 3rd again in the 1986 Belgian Championship in 1986, taking 2 wins in his BMW M525i. He also had three starts in the European Championship, at Spa with Pascal Witmeur and Jean-Michel Martin in a CiBiEmme Sport BMW 635CSi, where he retired with engine failure, in another 635CSi for the Juma team at Zolder with Hans Heyer, where he came 4th, and in a Luigi Racing Alfa Romeo 75 Turbo at Estoril with Georges Cremer and Christian Melville.

Eric was taken on by Zakspeed BMW Junior Motorsports for the 1987 DTM to drive a BMW M3, and stunned the establishment by finishing 2nd in his first race at Hockenheim, losing by only 0.62 of a second, before taking pole and fastest lap at the next round. A string of top 10 finishes followed, before the Wunstorf round where he took pole and finished 3rd - on the same weekend as the Spa 24 hours, which we'll come to in a moment. 2nd again at Diepholz, this time by only 0.29s, set him up for the title.

Van de Poele won the 1987 German Touring Car Championship with a stunning display of consistency - but he didn't win a race! Here he races at a damp Zolder.
Van de Poele won the 1987 German Touring Car Championship with a stunning display of consistency - but he didn't win a race! Here he races at a damp Zolder.


Takes out DTM title - without winning a race! - in a busy year on track

Going into the last round at the Salzburgring, it was a three-way shoot-out for the title between van de Poele, Manuel Reuter, and Marc Hessel. Amazingly, all three contrived to find ways to almost lose the championship. Reuter suffered a puncture, Hessel had a misunderstanding with his pit crew, and van de Poele also had a tyre problem, but Eric scrambled home in 10th to claim the DTM crown by 127 points to Reuter's 124 and Hessel's 123, despite not winning a race all season!

1987 was one of the busiest years in touring car history. Apart from national titles, there was also the European championship, and the failed experiment with the World Touring Car Championship. In the WTCC, Eric also drove in the first round at Monza in an Alpina BMW M3 with Andy Bovensiepen, but they were among the seven M3s disqualified because of the thickness of their roofs. At the Nurburgring, he finished 6th in the Team Vogelsang M3 with Harald Grohs.

But his greatest triumph that year was the Spa 24 hours, where he had to fit in his driving stints around the Wunstorf DTM round. In a CiBiEmme M3 with Jean-Michel Martin and Didier Theys, the trio picked their way through the rain and the more fancied runners to claim victory. As if all this touring car action was not enough, van de Poele also raced in the Zolder and Osterreichring rounds of the ETCC with Grohs in the Vogelsang M3, coming 4th in the Austrian round.


Moves to F3000 and impresses right away with 19 points

By 1988, van de Poele was not only an established player in international touring car racing, he was also entrenched in the works BMW stable, so much so that he earned a ride with the prestigious Schnitzer team for the ETCC. His team-mate for each race chopped and changed, and included Roberto Ravaglia, Ellen Lohr, Dieter Quester, Altfrid Heger, Emanuele Pirro, Grohs and Markus Oestreich, but his consistency and mechanical sympathy remained undiminished as he finished in the top 10 in each race.

That included a win at Donington with Ravaglia and Lohr, and another win with Ravaglia at Zolder, plus other podium results at Dijon, Vallelunga and Nogaro as he claimed 5th place in the last Group A ETCC with 224 points. He also showed up in the last round of the DTM at Hockenheim. Indeed, fleeting DTM appearances became something of a hallmark, as Eric also competed in just the one round at Norisring in 1989, and at Hockenheim again in 1990.

But for 1989, with the ETCC disbanded and BMW focussing on national championships, van de Poele returned to open wheelers, and moved straight into F3000 with a GA Motosports Lola T89/50 Cosworth. Scoring points in his first race at Silverstone, he then did a fantastic job at the next race at Vallelunga, coming from 15th on the grid to finish 3rd. Despite a mid-season slump, there were 4ths at Jerez and Spa, 5th at Dijon and 2nd at Le Mans Bugatti, and Eric came 5th overall on 19 points.

One of van de Poele's three F3000 victories in 1990 was at Birmingham. He easily displayed enough talent for a 1991 F1 birth.
One of van de Poele's three F3000 victories in 1990 was at Birmingham. He easily displayed enough talent for a 1991 F1 birth.


Three victories land Eric 2nd in the F3000 Comas-chase

GA Motorsports switched to a Reynard 90D chassis in 1990, and the season started promisingly enough with 6th at Donington, 5th at Silverstone, and a win on the streets of Pau. But another mid-year trough left him languishing in 6th place in the series with only 12 points, with three rounds remaining. But Eric then conjured up two wins at Birmingham and at Nogaro, shooting up to 2nd in the standings on 30 points, although runaway championship victor Erik Comas, on 61 points, was never in reach.

1990 also saw van de Poele take to sports cars for the first time, driving a Spice SE90C Ford in two World Sportscar Championship rounds at Monza and Donington, finishing a fine 6th and 5th respectively with Wayne Taylor and Bruno Giacomelli. Through his contacts, he also tested an IMSA GTO spec Ferrari F40LM in America, before getting an opportunity to race it at Lime Rock with Jean-Pierre Jabouille, where they finished 9th outright and 5th in class.

Formula One
Lambo / Modena

Flying lap at Phoenix destroyed by anti-F1 protesters!

On the strength of his touring car and F3000 performances, and with support from long-time sponsors Lease Plan, van de Poele was offered the chance to make the biggest jump of all into F1 for 1991 with a new team, known alternately as Lambo or Modena. Under the leadership and technical directorship of the experienced Mauro Forghieri, it was what remained of the stillborn Mexican GLAS F1 effort, but it was virtually a Lamborghini works team.

The ingredients sounded promising but the shift from engine supplier to constructor as well was a significant bridge for Lamborghini to cross. The 291 chassis with its distinctive triangular side pods and slanting radiators looked a treat, but pre-season testing times, first in the hands of Mauro Baldi and then with van de Poele and his new team-mate Nicola Larini on board, had been less than encouraging. Furthermore, when the team got to Phoenix for the first round of the season, both cars had to pre-qualify.

Larini not only made it through the Friday morning season, he also made it onto the grid, but Eric's weekend was over at the first hurdle. In fact, he was right at the bottom of the timesheets, almost seven seconds off getting through. But Tom Prankerd tells us that there was more than meets the eye. After teething problems hampered his first few laps, on his last attempt an anti-F1 protester lay on the track, and instead of throwing out the red flags, only yellows were shown, and Eric's last flying lap was destroyed.


Makes grid, and in debut race at Imola, he runs in 6th...

To show he was merely out of luck on his first attempt, at the next round in Brazil he went faster than Larini, and was only one spot away from the magic top 4. He went one better at Imola, and later that afternoon was 21st at the end of first qualifying with a slower time than he had done in the morning. Had he matched his pre-qualifying effort, he would have been as high as 19th. But when it rained on the Saturday, Eric's Grand Prix debut was assured.

And what a debut it turned out to be. From 21st he was up a spot before the race even started when Alain Prost spun off on the warm-up lap. By the end of the first lap he was 15th, and by lap 4 he was 11th, revelling in the wet-but-drying conditions as the likes of Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet and Jean Alesi all spun out as well. After changing to slicks, he remained 11th, with Ayrton Senna and Gerhard Berger untouchable out front, and Stefano Modena's Tyrrell and Roberto Moreno's Benetton safe in 3rd and 4th.

Ivan Capelli was next in the Leyton House, ahead of Thierry Boutsen's Ligier, JJ Lehto's Dallara, Julian Bailey in the Lotus, Andrea de Cesaris in the Jordan, Pierluigi Martini's Minardi, with van de Poele's Lambo next in line and fending off the Lotus rookie, Mika Hakkinen. But by lap 42, first Capelli retired, then Boutsen and Bailey needed new sets of slicks, de Cesaris fell out as well, and Modena's transmission failed, and suddenly Eric was in the points in 6th place!

Eric van de Poele's Lambo leading Mika Hakkinen's Lotus at San Marino, 1991. Eric almost picked up 2 World Championship points.
Eric van de Poele's Lambo leading Mika Hakkinen's Lotus at San Marino, 1991. Eric almost picked up 2 World Championship points.


... and then 5th, when disaster strikes his Lambo's V12

Seven laps from the end, Moreno's Ford engine gave up, and with Lehto and Martini 3rd and 4th, and van de Poele 5th, this was looking like not only an unusual result, but a stunning debut for the Belgian. But sadly it was not to last. Halfway through the very last lap, the Lamborghini V12 started coughing; the fuel pump had failed. A frantic van de Poele tried to haul the car to the line, but it finally died just before the Variante Bassa - literally within sight of the chequered flag.

Eric did end up being classified 9th, but that was scant consolation. It was then back to the harsh realities of pre-qualifying, and in Monaco, Canada, Mexico, France and Britain he was unable to go faster than Larini, and was never higher than 6th in pre-qualifying. But at mid-year, such were the idiosyncrasies of the pre-qualifying system that Larini's 7th place finish at Phoenix plus van de Poele's 9th at Imola was good enough to make Lambo the 13th best team over the previous two half-seasons.

That is, Lambo escaped from pre-qualifying along with Dallara and Jordan, whilst Brabham, AGS and Footwork were all relegated. But being guaranteed a run in qualifying proper brought van de Poele no closer to making the grid. Larini's experience and nationality made him the number 1 in the team, and he got into the race on four occasions, but Eric could not better 29th in qualifying. Although five times out of eight he was less than a second off the grid, and at Estoril he was slowest but less than 0.6s away from 26th.


Budget cuts out Lambo; Eric joins cash-strapped Brabham

He may have hoped that his knowledge of Spa may have held him in good stead there, but an accident sent Eric to hospital for a check-up. As Tom Prankerd tells us, considering Bertrand Gachot's run-in with a London cabbie in the lead-up to the race, which earned him a stay at Her Majesty's pleasure, and Thierry Boutsen's struggles that year, this prompted a local Belgian marshal to remark: "We have one of our drivers in gaol, one in hospital, and one in a Ligier!"

Overall, 1991 had been inconclusive in terms of Eric's place in F1, and although Lambo wanted to continue into 1992, they did not have the necessary budget and at the end of the season the team folded. For 1992, he joined the Brabham outfit, although this was no longer the glory team of old but rather the cash-strapped version in its death throes. The BT60B with the Judd V10 engine was getting long in the tooth, and Eric's team-mate Giovanna Amati caused a sensation for just about every reason except for her driving.

For the first round in South Africa, van de Poele scraped onto the grid in 26th by less than a tenth of a second, but he was helped by the fact that the Brabham was not new and therefore did not have teething problems, and three of the non-qualifiers, including Amati, were F1 rookies. The Belgian then soldiered on bravely in the race, staying out of the way of the frontrunners and coming home in 13th and last of the finishers, albeit 4 laps behind the winner Mansell.

Van de Poele driving his Brabham at Monaco, 1992. He failed to qualify.
Van de Poele driving his Brabham at Monaco, 1992. He failed to qualify.


Easily matches Hill at Brabham, but both find it hard to qualify

But realities hit home in Mexico, when van de Poele missed the grid by over a second, and for the first time in Brabham's history neither car qualified. The same happened in Brazil, and Amati was dismissed in favour of future World Champion Damon Hill. The situation was unlikely to improve though, as long as the team continued to be short of funds, such that they were having problems paying for their engines, and they were restricted in how many RPMs both drivers could use.

Van de Poele continued to be generally around a second off making the grid, although he did go quicker than Hill in Spain, Monaco, Canada, France and Germany, but Hill qualified for the race in Britain and Hungary whereas Eric never raced the Brabham again. The closest he came was at Monaco, where he was 27th fastest and pipped for the last place in the starting 26 by just 0.036s by Moreno, who had miraculously dragged the farcical Andrea Moda into a Grand Prix.

When Hill qualified in Hungary, in actual fact so had van de Poele, for Eric had left Brabham after Germany and gone to Gabriele Rumi's Fondmetal team, replacing Andrea Chiesa. Brabham had pared back to just the one car, while van de Poele became team-mate to the talented Gabriele Tarquini. Throughout 1992, Fondmetal had made great strides, especially with the introduction of the GR02 penned by Sergio Rinland, which coupled to a Ford HB engine was a competitive combination.


New car, and does enough to make the grid on his first flying lap!

The difference compared to the Brabham was marked. On his first flying lap in the Fondmetal, van de Poele had already done enough to get onto the grid, and eventually he qualified 18th with Tarquini in a magnificent 12th. However, the race proved to be a miserable one, with Tarquini taken out at the first corner in a collision with both Ligiers and Johnny Herbert's Lotus, whilst Eric made a mistake and spun off by himself after only two laps.

There was every reason to be optimistic for the Belgian GP at Spa, and once again the Fondmetals excelled in qualifying, Tarquini starting 11th and van de Poele 15th. In the wet-dry race he once again performed strongly as he had done at Imola the previous year, finishing 10th out of 18 classified runners, and placing 11th in the fastest lap standings. However, the following round at Monza was less kind, Eric only qualifying 25th and retiring on the first lap with a clutch failure.

But despite the promise, Fondmetal was also short of funds, folding after Monza leaving Eric out of a drive. All three teams he had driven for had run out of money. Although he did some testing for Tyrrell the following year, no more F1 opportunities came his way, but he tells us that he is still proud of what he achieved: "Many drivers who deserved to be in F1 never made it, but all drivers who have, deserve it. You know, it takes so many sacrifices. It is so hard to reach F1 even if you get the money to help."

A drive with Fondmetal saw a new lease of life for Eric. He qualified 18th at Hungary, before a collision put him out of the race.
A drive with Fondmetal saw a new lease of life for Eric. He qualified 18th at Hungary, before a collision put him out of the race.

After F1

First of many Le Mans 24hr starts, this time with Todt's Peugeot

Despite van de Poele's unhappy time in F1, he was still in favour amongst different manufacturers and works teams, his undoubted mechanical sympathy seen as a great asset. Even during his F1 career, he had raced elsewhere. In the 1991 Spa 24 hours, he had shared a CiBiEmme BMW M3 Evolution with Ravaglia and Pirro, retiring with a propshaft failure. The following year, in the same event he drove a Schnitzer M3 with Heger and Joachim Winkelhock, finishing 2nd by only 48 seconds after 24 hours.

1992 had also seen him picked up by Jean Todt's works Peugeot team for the Le Mans 24 hours, his first start in the event. Sharing a 905 with Karl Wendlinger and Alain Ferte, engine trouble forced them into retirement after 208 laps. But for 1993, van de Poele returned to touring car racing full time with BMW in the Belgian Touring Car Championship. By this stage the M3 was starting to show its age, and just a single win at Spa meant he finished 6th in the overall standings.

Indeed, come the Spa 24 hours, Eric had taken his Lease Plan backing away from the M3, joining the late Will Hoy and Julian Bailey in a Super Touring Toyota Carina. Although they started from 5th on the grid, mechanical problems left them in 23rd place by race's end. Later still in the year, van de Poele moved to yet another manufacturer, taking part in the FIA Touring Car World Cup for Nissan Motorsports Europe in a Primera, finishing 9th despite setting the fastest lap of the race.


Continues with Nissan in Europe, tests the waters in IMSA and does well

The association with Nissan continued into 1994, and he was given the opportunity to race a Primera in the cut-and-thrust of the British Touring Car Championship. But in the extremely competitive series, Eric's entry coincided with a downturn in Nissan's fortunes, and the Primera proved an ill-handling machine. After scoring only 2 points for a 9th at Snetterton in the first seven meetings, at Silverstone all three works Primeras were involved in a collision at Copse on the first lap, and none were able to take the restart.

It was clear that van de Poele's skills could be better utilised elsewhere. He had already competed at Le Mans in the IMSA GTS-spec works Clayton Cunningham Racing Nissan 300ZX with Paul Gentilozzi and Shunji Kasuya, although that effort ended after only 25 laps with engine failure. So after the Silverstone debacle, Eric went to compete in three IMSA GTS races in the 300ZX, coming 3rd at Laguna Seca and Phoenix, and 4th at Portland, plus two fastest laps to finish 5th in the series despite his limited appearances.

However Nissan lured Eric back into the Super Touring Primera for two seasons in the Spanish Championship in 1995 and 1996. There he had a lot more success than he did in Britain, taking four wins in 1995 (three at Barcelona and one at Calafat), as well as four other podium finishes en route to 3rd in the championship, before two more wins the following year at Jarama and Barcelona as he finished 5th. He also drove Primeras in the 1995 FIA World Cup, and in two races in the 1996 Belgian Procar championship.

Eric in a Nissan Primera at the Catalunya round of the Spanish Tour Car Championship in 1995 - he won both races.
Eric in a Nissan Primera at the Catalunya round of the Spanish Tour Car Championship in 1995 - he won both races.


Partners adventurer Steve Fossett at Daytona 24hrs

But in these two years van de Poele also started branching away from the Japanese manufacturer. At the beginning of 1995 he joined the Scandia Racing Team to race a Ferrari 333SP prototype in the Daytona 24 hours and the Sebring 12 hours. He partnered Gentilozzi, Fermin Velez and Andy Evans but retired after 417 laps. But he took out Sebring with Evans and Velez, and also had stints in the 4th-placed car shared with Michele Alboreto and Mauro Baldi.

Eric then went to Le Mans in 1995 with the works Courage team in the C41 prototype with a Chevrolet engine, and was scheduled to share it with Olivier Beretta and Slovenian driver Matiaz Tomlje. But the car was disqualified in practice for being underweight and did not start the classic. And lastly, in the Spa 24 hours, he joined Jean-Francois Hemroulle and Pierre-Alain Thibaut in a works Opel Vectra, but the car retired from engine failure.

In 1996, he rejoined Courage for the Daytona 24 hours, sharing a car with Rick Sutherland, Jean-Paul Libert and adventurer Steve Fossett, but the C41 crashed after 209 laps. For Sebring though, he switched camps to the Doyle Racing Riley & Scott Mk III, and took back-to-back Sebring victories when he, Wayne Taylor and Jim Pace decimated the rest of the field by 4 laps. It was then back to a Ferrari 333SP at Le Mans, where he drove the Racing for Belgium car with Marc Goossens and Eric Bachelart.


Makes the US his home, and the results follow

Van de Poele set the fastest time in pre-qualifying, and eventually also set the fastest lap of the race on lap 213, but another accident forced the trio out although Eric's reputation as a fast and versatile sports and touring car ace was growing with every outing. He confirmed his all-round ability later in 1996 when, in two Trans-Am events in a Rocketsports Chevrolet Camaro, he qualified 10th on the grid and finished 7th at Minneapolis, and qualified 8th at Elkhart Lake.

Given his success in the blue ribbon US races, in 1997 Eric took the bold decision to relocate to San Diego and focus on the IMSA World Sports Car Championship in the Doyle Racing Riley & Scott, teaming up with Taylor, with Pace and Scott Sharp joining at Daytona and Sebring. After retirements in the two longer enduros, an average season was kick-started when Eric took fastest lap at Sears Point. That led to podiums at Mosport, Las Vegas, Pikes Peak and Laguna Seca. Eventually, van de Poele was 8th overall with 158 points.

For Le Mans, he was recalled by the Tom Walkinshaw Racing-run Nissan squad to share a Nissan R390 GT1 with Riccardo Patrese and Aguri Suzuki. In the last minutes of qualifying, the Belgian surged from 7th on the grid onto the second row, remarking afterwards: "Qualifying at Le Mans is now as competitive as qualifying for a Grand Prix." Eric then started the race, and in the first hour even moved up to 2nd and battled with Alboreto for the lead.

Eric moved to San Diego in 1997, and concentrated on racing in the US. Here he is en route to a podium finish at Mosport.
Eric moved to San Diego in 1997, and concentrated on racing in the US. Here he is en route to a podium finish at Mosport.


Joins Julian Bailey in a Lister Storm for fruitless outings

Further on in the classic, the Nissan with the three ex-F1 drivers was safe in 4th place when it started developing a gearbox oil cooler problem that would soon afflict all the team's cars. After several lengthy pit stops which dropped them to 24th place, eventually the car retired at 1:47 am. Eric was then to have more success in his other favourite 24-hour event, the Spa 24 hours, where he finished 3rd in class in a BMW with Pascal Witmeur (whom he had partnered in the race in 1986) and Olivier Marechal.

To round out his 1997, van de Poele was also drafted by the Lister team, sponsored by the Newcastle United football team, to share Julian Bailey's Lister Storm in the last two rounds of the FIA GT championship at Sebring and Laguna Seca, undoubtedly because of his experience at those circuits. However, they turned out to be fruitless outings, the Lister crashing out of the Sebring event after only two laps, and engine problems forcing the car out of the Laguna Seca round.

In 1998, Eric raced almost exclusively for Doyle, although that team had merged with Risi Competizione to run a Ferrari 333SP for van de Poele and Taylor, with Velez joining at Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans. It was also the first year that Daytona was run as a round of the US Road Racing Championship, forerunner to the current Grand-Am series, and Sebring and other events were run as a round of the IMSA Professional Sportscar Racing Championship, forerunner of the present American Le Mans Series.


Drives 12 hours straight to brilliant class victory at Me Mans 24hrs; wins Spa 24hrs

At Daytona, unfortunately Eric crashed the Ferrari after 225 laps, injuring himself slightly, but he rebounded at Sebring, where the car took pole and 2nd in the WSC class, and 6th overall. Taylor and van de Poele then took poles at Las Vegas and another round at Sebring, victories at Las Vegas and the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, and either outright or class podiums at Lime Rock, Road Atlanta and Laguna Seca. In the end, the Belgian was a tremendous 3rd in the series with 155 points.

Doyle-Risi also took the Ferrari 333SP to the Monza 1000kms, where Taylor and van de Poele claimed 6th outright and 2nd in the WSC class, before winning the LMP1 class at Le Mans after finishing 8th outright, in a race where Eric drove 12 hours straight. The team also took 3rd in the Kyalami round of the International Sports Racing Series. And to cap off a successful jet-setting year, in his only race not in the Doyle-Risi Ferrari, Eric won another Spa 24 hours in a Juma Racing BMW 320i with Marc Duez and Alain Cudini.

With IMSA becoming the ALMS in 1999, van de Poele left for new pastures again, joining the Rafanelli team to drive their Riley & Scott, powered by a Judd engine. At Sebring, he shared the car with David Saelens and Tomas Enge, qualified 2nd, but had to retire with an oil leak. Rafanelli then brought in Domenico Schiattarella to partner Eric, with instant success when they won at Road Atlanta including the fastest lap of the race. The combination of van de Poele, Schiattarella and the Rafanelli car looked like one to beat.

Van de Poele in the Spa pits, well on the way to winning his second Spa 24hrs.
Van de Poele in the Spa pits, well on the way to winning his second Spa 24hrs, in 1998.


Serious back injury ruins year; awarded Autosport's "Personality of the Year"!

But disaster struck at Le Mans, when Eric returned to Nissan once again to drive their R391 prototype. A massive accident in practice injured his back, and he was forced to sit out several months. His old F3000 and F1 rival Erik Comas filled his Rafanelli seat, and in his recuperation Eric had to wear an unsightly corset, although he treated it with good humour: "I don't have to wear it in bed or the bath. It's fully adjustable. I only wear it for security. The set-up I go for depends on how much I eat."

He returned to the Rafanelli in time for the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, and did well with Schiattarella and Enge to finish 6th. The final races of the ALMS season brought disappointment with two retirements at Laguna Seca and Las Vegas, but if there was any consolation it was in the fact that Eric won a 'Personality of the Year' award from Autosport magazine. And there was more bright news on the horizon when van de Poele was signed for Cadillac's ambitious assault on sports car racing for the year 2000.

Cadillac was set to compete in the Daytona 24 hours, the Sebring 12 hours, the Le Mans 24 hours and the Petit Le Mans with their Northstar LMP, and as well as van de Poele signed other sports car guns such as Taylor, Franck Lagorce, Butch Leitzinger, Andy Wallace and Max Angelelli. But it soon became clear that the car had teething problems and was not quite fast enough, the combination of Taylor, van de Poele and Angelelli dragging it to 14th at Daytona (3rd in the SR class), and 6th at Sebring.


Retires from the lead with mechanical gremlins in successive Spa 24hrs and Daytona

But Le Mans was a disappointment, Eric's car only qualifying 16th and finishing a lowly 22nd. Despite a more promising 7th at the Petit Le Mans, van de Poele left the Cadillac program, and rejoined Risi Competizione in the familiar surrounds of a Ferrari 333SP for the Grand-Am rounds at Elkhart Lake and Watkins Glen, finishing 2nd at Elkhart Lake with Schiattarella. And for something completely different to high-powered sports prototypes, he returned to his beloved Spa 24 hours in a little Peugeot 306 GTI.

The car was a works machine run by Peugeot Belgium-Luxembourg, and part of a three-car operation. Van de Poele was to share his with fellow Belgian stars Vincent Radermecker and Jeffrey van Hooydonk. Led by Eric's experience, their car was leading when it expired, and eventually the other team cars came 1st and 3rd, just to emphasise Eric's misfortune. And indeed, his car retiring whilst leading would becoming something of an unwanted a recurring theme in the years to come.

For example, it happened again immediately at the beginning of 2001 at Daytona, when the Risi 333SP he was sharing with Ralf Kelleners, Allan McNish and David Brabham broke down with an engine failure in the 16th hour whilst in front. Then, in that year's Spa 24 hours, now a race for GT cars and part of the FIA GT championship, Eric partnered Emanuele Naspetti, Philippe Steveny and Martial Chouvel in a Rafanelli Ferrari 550 Maranello, which broke its suspension while, you guessed it, in the lead.

Eric hopped behind the wheel of a Ferrari 550 Maranello for the 2001 Spa 24hrs, which was also part of the FIA GT championship. The car retired while in the lead.
Eric hopped behind the wheel of a Ferrari 550 Maranello for the 2001 Spa 24hrs, which was also part of the FIA GT championship. The car retired while in the lead.


Takes podium 3rd outright at Le Mans 24hrs with Bentley

Elsewhere in 2001, apart from snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, it was also generally a disappointing year in van de Poele's career. Having left Cadillac, he was in talks with the works Panoz team for the 2001 ALMS season, but Panoz eventually went for ex-CART driver Gualter Salles, and come the start of the ALMS season he did not have a ride. Instead, Eric had to content himself with odd drives here and there, but if anyone's career has shown that he could make the most of such opportunities, Eric's did.

And so, apart from Daytona there was one other Grand-Am start at Elkhart Lake in a Robinson Racing Riley & Scott Mk III Judd with Jack Baldwin and George Robinson, coming 4th. There were two races in the European Le Mans Series for Dick Barbour racing in a Reynard 01Q Judd with Didier de Radigues, retiring with a broken clutch at Donington but winning the LMP675 class with a 3rd place outright after a sensational drive at Jarama.

He even bobbed up in the Belgian Masters round of the local Belcar championship at Zolder, driving a Gillet Vertigo with Bas Leinders, coming 9th outright and 2nd in class. But by far his greatest success came at Le Mans, for which he was picked up by Bentley to drive one of the EXP Speed 8 prototypes with Wallace and Leitzinger. Together they finished a marvellous 3rd outright and a resounding first in the GTP class, as Bentley began on the path that would lead to outright glory two years later.


Retires from the lead with mechanical gremlins in successive Spa 24hrs and Daytona

Now into his 40s, and without long-term drives, 2002 and 2003 saw van de Poele begin to wind down from regular competition and eventually relocate back to Belgium, but his skills remained undiminished. Once again he was in the Risi Ferrari 333SP at Daytona in 2002, this time with Brabham and Stefan Johansson, and once again it was leading when it retired from the lead due to accident damage. He also drove a Panoz at Sebring with Brabham and Jan Magnussen, but the engine failed after only 56 laps.

At Le Mans he was reunited with Wallace and Leitzinger in the Bentley, but whilst they just missed out on the outright podium by finishing 4th, they once again took out the LM GTP class. But there was once again disappointment in the Spa 24 hours, where van de Poele was teamed with Wallace, Jamie Campbell-Walter and Nicolaus Springer in a works Lister Storm. After starting 4th on the grid, the car was disqualified mid-race after using a wrong pit entrance.

It was more of the same in 2003, Eric once again driving for Risi in the Daytona 24 hours, but now in the GT class in a Ferrari 360 Modena GT, and this time managing to complete the distance in 11th outright and 5th in class along with Baldi, Justin Keen and Ryan Hampton. He also drove at Sebring and Road Atlanta in the ALMS in a Doran Lista Racing Dallara LMP MG, coming 7th in the 12-hour classic with Theys and Fredy Lienhard, and 5th with Theys and 3rd in the LMP900 class at Road Atlanta.

Van de Poele in the beautiful green of Bentley at Le Mans in 2002. He finished 4th overall, one place lower than his 2001 effort.
Van de Poele in the beautiful green of Bentley at Le Mans in 2002. He finished 4th overall, one place lower than his 2001 effort.


Eric takes on rallying and Mini Cooper challenge, before focussing on Formula X

In the Spa 24 hours, yet again there was heartbreak when van de Poele joined Walter Lechner Jr, Toni Seiler and Franz Konrad in Konrad's bright yellow Saleen S7-R, put it onto 2nd on the grid, and was leading at the 74-lap mark when the gearbox cried enough. Elsewhere, 2003 was a year of experimentation, as Eric made a guest appearance in the Belgian Rally Championship in the Rallye de Wallonie, driving a Citroen Saxo VTS to 28th place navigated by Roland van den Branden.

He also made another guest appearance a week later in the Belgian Mini Cooper Challenge, when he substituted for Frederic Bouvy in the Spa round, qualifying 3rd, failing to finish the first race, and charging through the field to claim 5th in the second. He even tested one of the ill-fated V8 Star silhouette machines at Zandvoort, but towards the end of the year he turned his attention to helping amateur enthusiasts and young guns get involved in motor racing.

Towards the end of 2003, van de Poele became the Sporting Director of a new motorsport concept called Formula X, of which Claude Chantala was the CEO and Quirin Bovy the President. The concept was for a hire-and-drive series with identical chassis and engines. All a driver needed was $40,000, a much smaller budget than for other series. For that price, the organisers would look after car transportation and maintenance, as well as track rental, fuel, tyres, and even hospitality for sponsors.


Formula X doesn't make it into year 2; retires from the lead again at Spa

David Baldwin, a former Lotus F1 man, was the engineer behind the project, and the unique aspect was that the chassis could be a single-seater or a sports prototype, and conversion from one to the other would take mere minutes. After testing the car at the series base at Sprimont and at Paul Ricard, Eric enthused: "Formula X is, in my view, the best series around when it comes to having fun for an affordable budget. With 200bhp for just 455kgs there is ample power available to have fast and close racing."

A healthy number of competitors subscribed for the first season of Formula X in 2004, run mainly as a sports prototype series, with rounds at Monza, Nurburgring, Spa and Dubai. Occasionally professional drivers took part, and at Dubai one of the entrants included now-A1GP Team Lebanon driver Khalil Beschir. But the series was slow to gain momentum, a Formula X Gulf Series in the Middle East was planned but postponed, and after just one season the concept appeared to have wound up.

In terms of competing himself, in 2004 Eric was enlisted by the A-Level Engineering team to drive a Porsche 996 Bi-Turbo with Wolfgang Kaufmann in the Nurburgring and Silverstone rounds of the Le Mans Endurance Series, but the engineering was anything but A-level as the car failed to start either race with mechanical woes. Then, in the Spa 24 hours, he joined the Vitaphone Saleen driven by Konrad, Michael Bartels and Uwe Alzen, but fuel feed problems struck, believe it or not, again when the car was leading.

At the wheel of the Formula X prototype during a test a Paul Ricard. Unfortunately, the series never caught on.
At the wheel of the Formula X prototype during a test a Paul Ricard. Unfortunately, the series never caught on.


Eric, Bartels and Scheider wipe the floor with the opposition at Spa 24hrs

With Formula X a thing of the past, Eric was back making sporadic appearances in 2005. His year started with a run in the Neige & Glace (Snow & Ice) Historic Rally, driving a 1964 Porsche 911 with Maggy Parries, but his run to 29th overall was not without drama, as it included a minor collision with a truck! He rejoined Kaufmann in the A-Level Porsche in the LMES round at Spa, and although this time the car made it to the start, it did not make it to the finish after engine problems.

Van de Poele later also ran in the Nurburgring LMES round, this time in a Horag Lista Lola B05/40 Judd with Theys, winning the LMP2 class in finishing 7th outright. The car was also due to run in the Petit Le Mans, where Theys and van de Poele were joined by Thed Bjork, but a practice accident with Eric at the wheel meant they did not start the race. 2005 also saw Eric lured back to touring car racing, appearing in the Spa 12 hours round of the Belgian Touring Car Series, a silhouette championship.

In that series, the Motorsport International team were running works Jaguar X-Types. For the Spa 12 hours endurance event, van de Poele was invited to join regular drivers Bernard Delhez and Christophe Geoffroy, but the car retired from an overheating engine after 3 hours. But there was no further bad luck in the Spa 24 hours, where Eric returned to the Vitaphone team with Bartels and Timo Scheider, this time claiming pole and a tremendous victory by 2 laps in a Maserati MC12 GT1.


Eric causes a splash in the GP Masters series, stealing the show in 2 races

In so doing, van de Poele cemented his place in the history books of the famous event by becoming the first driver to win it in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, after his wins in 1987 and 1998. Proving that, despite only racing semi-regularly, he was still able to mix it with the best in any series, Eric then started 2006 by being announced as one of the new drivers in the GP Masters series. At first, this caused a stir, as some debated whether Eric's limited and unsuccessful F1 career warranted a place in the series.

Van de Poele silenced the critics in the first masters race for 2006 at Losail in Qatar, held in appallingly hot conditions. From 11th on the grid, he stormed through the field to claim 3rd behind Mansell and Christian Danner. Then at Silverstone, embarrassing problems with the series' engine supply meant Eric started 14th after not recording a qualifying time, but in a brilliant drive in the wet, he caught and passed leader Eddie Cheever but spun twice, eventually settling for a fine 2nd having been the best driver on track.

With the Belgian F1 GP having been cancelled, van de Poele was behind efforts to have a GP Masters race replace the F1 event. That did not end up eventuating, but in other events on his home circuit, he was invited back for another crack at the Spa 12 hour Belgian touring car race with the works Jaguar squad, this time partnering Martial Chouvel and Pascal Mathieu. After starting 5th on the grid, electrical maladies limited the stunning-looking machine to 39th place.

Eric during the Grand Prix Masters event in Qatar, during which he stormed home to take a podium 3rd.
Eric during the Grand Prix Masters event in Qatar, during which he stormed home to take a podium 3rd.


Sensational victory with last ditch effort at Spa - Eric's 4th Spa title!

Eric was also lined up to rejoin the Vitaphone team to defend their Spa 24 hours crown, but as preparation, the outfit entered a Maserati Gransport GT3 for Bartels, van de Poele, Andrea Bertolini and Gianni Giudici in the Nurburgring 24 hours, the first time the Belgian had taken part in this enduro, having been a regular in the other classics at Daytona, Sebring, Le Mans and Spa. The Italian car only lasted 4 hours and 19 minutes, or 26 laps of the Nordschleife, but it was not an indicator of things to come.

In the Maserati MC12 GT1 with Bartels and Bertolini at Spa, van de Poele and the Vitaphone team held a thrilling race-long duel with the Team Phoenix Aston Martin in one of the most hotly-contested races in Spa 24 hours history. In the last stint, Eric overhauled a two-minute deficit with lap times up to two seconds faster than anyone else on the track, and with the Aston Martin making a late pit stop the battle was resolved in the Maserati's favour.

In so doing, van de Poele joined Thierry Tassin and Jean-Michel Martin as the only four-time winners of the Spa 24 hours. He rounded off the year by competing the Petit Le Mans with Theys and Lienhard in the Horag-Lista Lola in the ALMS, finishing 12th and 3rd in the LMP2 class, before climbing aboard the Maserati once more with Bartels and Bertolini at the FIA GT round in Dubai. Although the trio only finished 11th, it was enough for Bartels and Bertolini to claim the GT1 drivers title, with Eric 13th on 20 points.


More in store in GP Masters for the pride of Belgium?

2007 may see more GP Masters races in store for Eric, as he battles the likes of Mansell, Patrese, Herbert, de Cesaris and Martini in equal equipment, and continues to show the skill and speed that was disguised by poor and underfunded machinery during his time in F1. As Eric tells us, "Be sure that F1 today becomes only a step towards joining the fantastic series GP Masters!". Eric may also shoot for a 5th Spa 24 hours title that would make him the undisputed king of that event.

Meanwhile, van de Poele now lives in Sart-Risbart in Belgium with his wife Nadine and their five children. He is probably the best-known Belgian motor racing personality today, to the point where the 'Le Crouly' hotel, 1.5 kilometres from Spa, which names all its rooms after racing drivers such as Mansell, Prost and Alesi, has named its largest room after Eric, and decorated the bedsheets and chair fabrics in Eric's distinctive red, blue and green helmet colours!

After van de Poele, Thierry Boutsen raced on in F1 into 1993, Philippe Adams had two starts in 1994, and Bas Leinders drove a third Minardi in 2004, but Belgium has few F1 prospects at this stage. What it does have in Eric though, is arguably one of the most versatile racing drivers of the past 20 years, a man who has excelled in touring car, sports car and open wheeler racing, with the ability to drive anything, anywhere to its maximum potential. And, these days, that is a rare talent indeed.

Eric passes the chequered flag to win his 4th Spa 24hrs title in 2006, one of only 3 men to have done so.
Eric passes the chequered flag to win his 4th Spa 24hrs title in 2006, one of only 3 men to have done so.

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