The Longest Journey

This year’s Australian Grand Prix should have been one of the great moments in Jaguar’s history. In the end, the team travelled 20,000 miles to see its cars last less than ten minutes. Andrew Frankel sifts through the wreckage of the weekend from hell and finds a few crumbs of comfort.

Heathrow airport, Terminal 4, Tuesday 7th March 2000. The Grand Prix fraternity mills around the corridors and lounges, waiting for Qantas and BA flights to turn into mobile Formula One dormitories, transporting the circus to Melbourne, a 20,000 mile round trip for an hour and a half’s racing.

I’d like to say the Jaguar people are quietly confident but they are clearly, transparently nervous as hell. They are not ready for this and the car, despite being the first of the 2000 collection of F1 machinery to be shown to the world, is very far from ready. The winter test programme has been a disaster; entire test sessions rendered useless by the weather. By the time the problem is found, it is too late. Those tests that did go ahead in wet weather failed to reveal that the engine’s oil pressure went south in high-G corners and when the problem was discovered, figuring out what to do about it was problematic in itself.

This is not what Jaguar wants from its return to international motor sport, and its debut in Formula One. Nearly fifty years ago, the works first went racing and won Le Mans at its first attempt and only missed two in seven consecutive attempts. Now the talk is not of winning or even finishing second only to McLaren and Ferrari; the talk is simply of finishing.

Albert Park, Melbourne, Thursday 9th March 2000. The very first thing we see when we step from the Qantas Boeing is a huge hoarding, bearing a picture of the Jaguar R1 and the words “The cat is back.” Melbourne, it turns out, has been hired by Jaguar for the weekend. The car is everywhere, from bill-boards by the motorway to bill-boards on the sides of the city’s trams.

At the circuit Jaguar’s managing director, Jonathan Browning, is talking in marketing speak. “We’re doing this to make the maximum number of people reappraise their attitude to the brand. We need to reach a younger audience and to do that we need not only to be in F1 but also reach a place where we are credibly competitive.”

I asked whether he felt that, in the light of the three year warm-up period with Stewart, Johnny Herbert’s victory at the Nürburgring and the historical successes of the marque, there was an unreasonable burden of expectation upon the team.

“Frankly, I’d be really pissed off if there weren’t unreasonable expectations on us. It would mean people wouldn’t care. There’s a phrase we use to describe the way we wish to be perceived. If we are not able to win races outright, we want to be seen as ‘the emotional loser.” Emotion isn’t a commodity Jaguar lacks out here. Everyone is talking Jaguar and not simply within the perimeter of Albert Park.

This is interesting. A marque that has never entered a Grand Prix in its life, disparaged by many journalists as a badge-engineered marketing exercise for the Blue Oval… and still people talk lovingly and of little else than Jaguar. Interestingly, it is a Stewart — JYS himself— who provides the most concrete proof of this popularity. “You know, when we came here last year we sold $25,000 of merchandising over the race weekend. Jaguar has sold over $400,000.” And that, rather more than 24 hours before the race.

Clearly, fans are not deterred by Jaguar’s form on the track. In Thursday’s first session, Herbert’s car, R1-01, stops after just four laps; it is a feeling he would become used to during the weekend. Eddie is ninth, a reasonable performance considering its driver reckons there is a deal of development left in the car before it realises its true potential.

It is their engine that promises most. Last year Gerhard Berger reckoned the Cosworth V10 in the back of the Stewart was the best engine in the paddock and, as Cosworth’s Trevor Crisp makes clear, things have moved on since then. Crisp is a Jaguar man, through and through and the glorious V8s that now power almost all its road cars is his work. “The engine is an evolution of last year’s but, really, everything has been changed. We know it is the smallest and lightest on the grid.” Tucked away deep inside the R1, it appears impossible that something so small could power an F1 car. After all, the best packaging in the world can do nothing to tackle the fact that it must displace 3-litres and, looking at it you’d not suspect it could manage half of that. In total, this 800bhp engine weighs 97kgs or, to put it another way, less than me.

It’s problem is also its strength. Designed to have just one oil system to cope with both engine and gearbox, the advantages in weight saving and packaging are evident, but there is a problem. And every morning they say, and believe, progress has been made in solving that problem.

Sadly, the facts fail to support this. Both drivers continue to experience problems with the oil system and even though they appear to run a smoothly on the track, back in the pits, telemetry can see the pressure falling away. Usually it is only a matter of time before the electronics kick in and shut the system down.

Saturday dawns and the drivers head out for the warm-up on light fuel and old tyres. Eddie has had a better run of the luck while Johnny has had hardly any track time at all to familiarise himself with a new racing car and a new F1 season. And again, what little luck there is is resident inside R1-04, Eddie’s car. Johnny’s car shuts down before a single representative lap is in the bag.

He packs up again in qualifying, though not before scoring a time which is just enough to squeeze him into 20th position. Eddie, on the other hand, at last provides the team with some cheer. In an undeveloped car, during a nightmare first weekend for a new marque to Formula One, he goes 7th fastest and, significantly, is less than a second off the pace of pole-sitter Häkkinen. Right from the start, Jaguar’s stated ambition is to challenge Jordan’s claim to be the third team in F1 and Eddie qualified immediately behind both of them.

It is a short-lived moment of elation. In the race Johnny doesn’t even survive the first lap, the clutch giving out and pitching its hapless driver off the track. Eddie shines briefly but has to lift off the throttle to avoid being collected in an accident, causing his car to spin and its engine to stall.

Jaguar came here with such hopes but the history books have rather more space for hard fact and the cold truth of Jaguar’s Formula One debut is that theirs were the first two cars to retire.

Before the race, Neil Ressler, the boss of Jaguar’s race team, told me it was 50/50 that they’d get one car to the finish; frustratingly, they might just have done it. Late on Saturday night, the team made a huge step forward in the their understanding of the problem. It wasn’t just one problem, it was two which had been masking each other. For sure the oil scavenging system on the car was not behaving how it should but this was compounded by a return valve in the gearbox not functioning as it should. We will never know and only fools dwell for long on ‘what-ifs’; I will limit myself simply to saying the difference between ignominy and a triumphant return could have been as little as De la Rosa losing control of his Arrows. For if Eddie had done no more than maintain his start position, never overtaken a soul and simply run to the end, a Jaguar driver would have stood on the podium in the marque’s maiden Grand Prix.

It was not to be but, then again Jaguar is not here simply for this race and no one is more realistic about the situation than Jac Nasser, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Ford Motor Company.

“This is one tough race. It’s the first of the season, it’s a tough track, it’s hot and we have anew team. We’re not doing this just for business reasons as, to be honest, the returns are pretty lousy or, at best, difficult to quantify. You have to have an emotional involvement in it and, importantly, you have got to have a team that feels emotionally connected to it and to make sure that that is rubbed off on the rest of the organisation. That is probably the single most important factor that made us decide to move from Ford to Jaguar. There is less emotion in the Ford brand than there is in Jaguar.”

Nasser has no view as to how long Jaguar will remain in Formula One but is convinced of two things. First that the results will come, second that the team’s true position is not only further ahead than that suggested by the results but also further ahead of his own expectations. For both of these he credits the team, the leadership of Ressler and Crisp and the technical ability of Gary Anderson, the car’s designer.

We went out on Sunday night, though not with anyone from the team. For them, there seemed little worth celebrating, merely more testing and preparation for the next race in Brazil, in which both cars retired again, even if Eddie managed not only to improve his qualifying position by one place to sixth, but also to beat both Jordans in the process.

This is what the team must cling to. In those all too rare moments of reliable running, the car has proven itself to possess precisely the performance hoped for: if it is nowhere near a Ferrari or McLaren yet, it is directly comparable to the Jordan. Add that elusive reliability to the package and you could expect to see Jaguar drivers in the points more often than not, a handful of podiums through the season and, who knows, maybe even an inherited win.

Reliability is a curious commodity; sometimes it can be transformed for the rest of the season by one test session, sometimes it can take years. But it will be worth the effort. In its drive to attract a younger audience, Jaguar stands to gain more from its full works involvement than either BMW or Mercedes, limited as they are to putting their engine in someone else’s car. And for the rest of us, there is the real possibility of a British team with a pit-lane profile second only to Ferrari. For this, they not only deserve your support but also a sight more luck than is currently coming their way.