It's not easy being green

It is 25 years since a small, cash-strapped team made a bold Formula 1 entrance, finishing its first season as fifth best constructor before going on to become a Grand Prix winner. It’s a story that simply couldn’t happen in the modern era, and at its hub was a gem of a car – the Jordan 191 | writer Simon Arron

The past 20 years have not been kind to Formula 1 newcomers. Of the three that arrived in 2010 only Manor survives – and then in much-recycled form. BMW’s brief Sauber takeover netted a single victory and Stewart GP scored one with the help of significant Ford support, but bottomless cash reserves couldn’t help Toyota to the podium’s top step. Haas enters this season with significant technical assistance from Ferrari, but in 1990 Jordan Grand Prix was established with a skeleton staff rattling around an empty factory. It had fierce ambitions, true, but those might not have been realised had pop icon Michael Jackson not set his own hair alight.

It’s an unusual yarn, even by F1 standards.

Originally a bank clerk, Eddie Jordan became a very capable racing driver and by 1979 was competing in the British F3 Championship, scoring frequent top-six finishes in a field containing, among others, Mike Thackwell, Nigel Mansell, Andrea de Cesaris, Chico Serra (that year’s champion, run by Ron Dennis’s Project 4 team) and Stefan Johansson. He made one F2 start that summer, but in professional terms his career had pretty much stalled and he turned his attention to Eddie Jordan Racing, a team that would plough the same career path coveted by young drivers of the day: Formula Ford 1600 and F3, up to FIA F3000 and…

“I’d earned some reasonable money by then,” Jordan says, “taking a cut from drivers for whom I’d found seats in Japan, selling drivers on to other teams and so on. We’d come off the back of a couple of strong seasons, securing the British F3 Championship with Johnny Herbert in ’87, winning F3000 races with Johnny and Martin Donnelly in ’88 and then lifting the title with Jean Alesi in ’89. Jean was a huge influence at that time. I’d helped him get a Tyrrell drive in the 1989 French GP, his F1 debut, and afterwards he said he thought our team would easily be able to operate in F1, that we had people of the right calibre. Lots of people say stuff like that, but I trusted Jean and he felt Tyrrell was similar to our team in many ways. We’d had a bit of a purple patch and I’d made about $5 million. My wife Marie was supportive, because she knew I’d never be truly happy unless I’d had a crack at F1, but I didn’t realise $5m was little more than toilet water in F1 terms. It would disappear just like that…”

***

He entrusted design of the first Jordan to Gary Anderson, a self-taught engineer who had built his own Anson F3 cars and led the design team for the Reynard 90D – of which EJR was running three Camel-backed examples in F3000. “I’d known Eddie well since the early 1980s,” Anderson says, “and he’d first spoken to me about his F1 dreams in 1987. Then one day, out of the blue, he phoned and said he was ready for go, so did I want to join him? I thought he was mad, but I was eventually persuaded. Of course, Eddie’s version of ‘ready to go’ differed from mine. I turned up in February 1990 expecting everything to be in place and found absolutely nothing! I spent quite a bit of time browsing catalogues for nuts, bolts, shelves – that kind of thing.

“At the end of March Andy Green and Mark Smith left Reynard to join me. We got a drawing board, bought a couple of pencils, sharpened them and set off on an adventure. In a way it was easier because it was just the three of us, plus Eddie and Bosco Quinn, who had worked with Eddie for a long time at EJR. [Quinn would see the fledgling F1 car test, but sadly died in a road accident before ever it raced.] At F3000 events Andy, Trevor Foster and I would engineer the three cars, and during the week we would draw stuff. I had my own board at home, in Stafford back then, about 80 miles from the factory. I did the bits you can see, all the bodywork, while Andy did the suspension and Mark the gearbox. At the time, though, F1 wasn’t vastly different from what we were doing in F3000. It wasn’t as though it was a whole new world.”

It might have been a small unit, but it had strength: Green is today technical director of Force India, a role Smith held until recently at Sauber. “I don’t suppose I realised how lucky I was to have access to guys like that,” Jordan says. “I didn’t want to go for a big-name designer because I felt so comfortable with Gary. I guess I was being a cheapskate, though, because I had him drafting the Formula 1 car during the week and engineering in F3000 at weekends.

“If I had to do the whole thing again, you could offer me any technical director – Adrian Newey, John Barnard, whoever – and I would still go with Gary. He was pragmatic, sensible and understood how much money we had. Having built and run his own F3 cars he knew about precarious financial situations.”

And this was precarious. Three seasons earlier EJR had graduated to F3000 with one Q8-sponsored car and the other – Herbert’s – in plain white, unliveried save for an unpaid Camel sticker hastily applied to each sidepod. Herbert won the season-opener in Jerez, however, and thereafter the car would carry official Camel branding. For the following two seasons the same applied to the whole F3000 team – and Jordan believed the cigarette company would remain on board for F1.

Not so.

“I really thought they were going to come with us,” Jordan says, “but we were going to be a customer Ford team and they went with Benetton, which had the works engine deal – so that put the kibosh on that. If I’d known earlier that Camel wasn’t going to support us, perhaps I wouldn’t have carried on.”

Anderson: “I recall a meeting we had with Camel at Heathrow. A senior executive had just flown in from the States and had barely put down his briefcase when Eddie said, ‘You might as well pull your trousers down now, because I’ll take every cent you’ve got.’ I’m not sure he was used to dealing with that kind of approach. Eddie was also telling him we’d be able to challenge for victory in the first race – and kicking me under the table because he knew I’d take a more realistic stance if I piped up. Anyway, we didn’t get the deal.”

Jordan: “I was so upset when I learned I hadn’t got Camel that I went to see some old contacts from Marlboro. They told me it was last-chance saloon for Andrea de Cesaris, and asked whether I’d take him, while Bertrand Gachot was also a Marlboro driver. Signing them didn’t bring a huge amount of money, but it was a useful chunk.”

***

Jordan had also been courting soft-drinks brand 7UP, which is where Michael Jackson played a fleeting – but crucial – role. “Before the start of the season,” Jordan says, “Bertrand was supposed to come with me to give a motivational talk to 600 7UP executives, to explain a little bit about F1. I spoke for 45 minutes and it seemed to go down quite well, but I was hugely pissed off that Bertrand didn’t show up. What I didn’t know was that he’d been arrested in the immediate aftermath of his infamous altercation with a taxi driver [which later led to Gachot’s incarceration, creating a vacant F1 seat for Michael Schumacher]. Afterwards, one of the 7UP marketing guys stood up to thank me, said they wouldn’t be able to do anything immediately in F1 but that we should keep in touch. 7UP was due to sponsor Michael Jackson’s world tour, but that was cancelled when he overlacquered his hair and somehow set it on fire.

“I then received a call saying that perhaps 7UP would have some funds available, after all. I had so much luck along the way…

“Because I’d first thought the car would be Camel yellow, I’d also been talking to Kodak – whose logo had a similarly coloured background. When I told them the good news about 7UP, however, the marketing director pointed out that we’d be running in the colours of Fujifilm, Kodak’s main rival, so we wouldn’t be getting any support. I then jumped on a flight to Japan and went to see Fuji. I didn’t have an appointment, but had done lots of driver deals in Japan and my name was reasonably well known. I got a bit of help from local contacts, was able to see the right people and Fuji bought into the F1 project.”

Back at base, meanwhile, the design team wasn’t certain its labours would ever become carbon reality. “Lotus had been struggling,” Anderson says, “and EJ had been chatting to them about a possible partnership. We were never really sure whether the rug was going to be pulled or whether our car would ever be used, but the Lotus/Jordan thing never happened and then one day Eddie just walked in and said, ‘Right, I think we’re going to do this.’ I’d probably have been happy to set Michael Jackson’s hair alight myself if I’d known we were going to get some sponsorship from it…”

The new car was initially called the 911, until Porsche complained. “The number didn’t mean anything to me,” Jordan says, “and I realised the following chassis would be a 921, so I offered to change the name to 191 if Porsche would give me a car. They didn’t exactly agree, but I had one on loan for 18 months.” 

It was also originally drawn to take a Judd V8, but… “One day Andy Green and I stopped for lunch at the Royal Oak [since closed] on the old A43 through Silverstone,” Anderson says.  “It was quite busy and we asked a chap if we could share his table, after which we began chatting. He asked what we did, so we told him and he seemed to know a bit about our team. He asked which engine we’d be using. When we said ‘Judd’ he produced a business card and mentioned that he might be able to do something for us. It was Bernard Ferguson from Cosworth. The change came quite late in the day, but if we hadn’t stopped for that sandwich it might not have happened.”

***

The Jordan-Cosworth ran for the first time on November 22 1990, with John Watson at the helm. “I’d known John since my days as an F1 mechanic with Brabham and McLaren,” Anderson says. “I recall chatting to him about our plans in the Silverstone car park, at the British GP in July. He asked what the hell any of us knew about F1! I knew John liked to race with a bit of understeer in a car that had a stable rear end and strong brakes – something that inspired confidence. I told him that’s what we were trying to build. After he’d done that first run, he came in and said the car reminded him of our earlier conversation. It wasn’t really very adjustable, but the basic structure seemed to be quite good.

“Later we went to Paul Ricard with all the big boys and we weren’t too far off. OK, we might not have had the same fuel load as some of the others, but we knew things weren’t too bad – that we could be in there fighting.”

Gachot came to the project after two seasons in F1 – the first with Onyx, a new team that had a solid structure, and the second with Coloni, a new team that hadn’t [in 1990, he didn’t qualify for a single race]. “I had a few reservations about driving for yet another newcomer,” Gachot says, “but with Jordan I could see from day one that there was something special. Eddie had a really good bunch of people, with Gary, Andy and so on. I felt very confident and totally trusted them. The whole attitude was different from what I’d been used to and the car had been designed using a windtunnel, rather than wild guesswork. It was on a completely different level to what I’d had even at Onyx.”

Jordan: “People assumed we were miles behind, but although we didn’t have much money we spent what we had on anything that might give us a performance edge – that windtunnel, for instance.”

Anderson: “We stuck to what three people could spend. We knew finances were tight – and Bosco kept a close eye on that side of things. I’m sure we could all have earned more elsewhere – I’d had sports car offers that might have doubled my income…”

Gachot: “I’ll never forget the first time I drove the 191. After three laps at Silverstone I couldn’t hold my neck – I wasn’t used to that kind of downforce. After the Coloni, it was a bit like stepping up from F3 to F1. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, what’s happening here?’ We had huge grip, although at first we didn’t really understand how to harness it. Once we did, the car was amazing. With a factory engine I believe it could have been a title contender, but the cockpit was actually a bit small for a guy like me. We still had a traditional H-pattern gearshift and my knees sometimes used to get in the way. That could be problematic, because you could take it to 13,700rpm… but if you hit 13,900 you’d bend valves.”

Latent promise was one thing, but there was a major potential hurdle in 1991: pre-qualifying. With 34 cars on the entry list, upstart Jordan’s 191s were among the eight cars that had to survive a one-hour session at breakfast o’clock on Friday mornings. The quickest four drivers went through to qualifying proper, the others packed up and went home.

“You could look at pre-qualifying two ways,” Anderson says. “One, you had an extra hour of track time – which was useful so long as you got through – but by the time practice proper started at 10am you felt knackered because of the stress. We were up against it a bit, because Pirelli’s tyres were very good on a dirty track and our Goodyears weren’t. You really had to time your runs accurately to get the best from them.”

Gachot: “Pre-qualifying was terrible. There was lots of pressure. Eddie was maxed out at the bank, so he was on edge, and Gary always worried whether we’d get through.

“Eddie and I fell out completely during the year – mainly over money. He’d been my manager since the start of 1990 and during our ’91 negotiations I’d told him I had access to a certain amount of sponsorship. He felt that wouldn’t be enough, but one day called and asked whether I could still find that money. I said ‘Sure’, flew over and signed. Then at the second race he said, ‘I need you to find another $2 million.’ I couldn’t do that, told him as much and we had big arguments, although we’re friends again now. At the time I wasn’t always sure we’d be able to get from one race to the next.”

Gachot made it through pre-qualifying for the opening race in Phoenix, but engine troubles thwarted de Cesaris. It would be the only time, though, that a Jordan failed to progress beyond Friday morning. The team scored its first points in Canada – de Cesaris fourth, Gachot fifth – and the team was exempt from pre-qualifying once the parameters were reviewed in mid-season. “We had a few teething problems,” Anderson says. “A broken throttle cable put Andrea out in Monaco for instance, when he was running eighth early on. The car suited that circuit and I’m sure he could have scored points, which would have been nice in our first year. And these were hard-earned points, remember, awarded only down to sixth place. It was possible to have a really good weekend and come away with nothing for finishing seventh. We eventually got on top of reliability, though, and after we scored our first points it became rather a disappointment if we came away from a weekend empty-handed.”

De Cesaris notched a couple of fourths – the team’s best results of the year – and by the campaign’s end Jordan had 13 points, modest on paper but enough to annex fifth place in the championship for constructors, behind McLaren, Williams, Ferrari and Benetton… but ahead of established names such as Tyrrell, Lotus and Brabham. “And it was all done,” Jordan says, “with people who had barely been involved in F1 before.”

Much of that tends to be forgotten thanks to the mid-season hubbub surrounding Gachot’s imprisonment, following the aforementioned spat with a cabbie, and the team’s recruitment of Michael Schumacher at Spa. “It wasn’t long before the race that we realised Bertrand wouldn’t be available,” Jordan says. “I could have taken Stefan Johansson, an old mate who I knew would do a good job, but at that stage of his career I couldn’t expect him to bring sponsorship. And then I was offered this guy Schumacher, who came with £150,000 from Mercedes. People thought I’d been clever to hire him, but I hadn’t: I took him because of the money.”

One race on, he made a bit more when
Bernie Ecclestone brokered a deal to sell Schumacher on to Benetton. “Bernie and I had a meeting in the Villa d’Este at Monza,” Jordan says, “with Tom Walkinshaw and Flavio Briatore from Benetton. Flavio wanted to keep Nelson Piquet in his team, Tom wanted Martin Brundle and Bernie was telling them they had to pay me to take Michael, because F1 didn’t have a German driver and he’d put about 20,000 on the gate at Spa…”

***

THE TEAM would go on to score its first F1 podium in 1994 (Rubens Barrichello, Aida), a maiden victory in 1998 (Damon Hill, Spa), challenge for the world title with Heinz-Harald Frentzen (1999) and score a fourth and final win (Giancarlo Fisichella, Interlagos 2003) before spiralling financial demands led Jordan to sell up at the end of 2005, the team morphing into Midland, Spyker and now Force India, which counts Gachot’s energy-drink company Hype among its sponsors. With a quarter of a century’s passage, do our three interviewees look back fondly on 1991?

Jordan: “Not really. I felt ill and with the money situation there seemed to be a noose tightening around my neck every second of every minute of every day. It was a tough existence and at home we had four young kids. Marie laid down the law, because I’d be getting phone calls from the far side of the world at all hours of the night. She banned me from having a phone in the bedroom and from taking calls between midnight and 7am. It became ridiculous, but we recently celebrated our 38th anniversary. People ask how the hell she put up with it and somebody said it was probably because I’d been away for so much of that time. 

“It would today be impossible for a team like ours to make the kind of impact we eventually did. I think it’s a terrible shame that young engineers no longer really have the chance to show what they can do. Modern F1 is a shadow of the way things were back then, when you could pick up an engine from Cosworth, Hart or Judd and do a decent job.”

Anderson: “I look back on 1991 as a stepping stone and think Eddie should regard it the same way. It wasn’t always a fun year, because of the pressure, but we did a competent job and Andrea might have won at Spa if his engine hadn’t failed. I think you have to say that we overachieved – and considered objectively it was a pretty seriously cheap season, too.”

Gachot: “Losing my drive no longer matters to me. I enjoyed my racing and am pleased to have emerged from that era in one piece. It’s ironic, though, because I’d had understeer problems in Budapest – but in the race it was terrific and afterwards I promised Gary that I’d qualify on pole at Spa if we left the car as it was – I was absolutely convinced I could do it, but Brixton Prison ruined that plan. I went to jail one race too soon…”