Jordan is at a low ebb in 2004, but five years ago it was all so different. Adam Cooper recalls how close it came to title glory
Ford’s decision to abandon Formula One has created a cloud of uncertainty, not just over Jaguar — up for sale to the highest bidder — but also the teams who expect to use its Cosworth engines next year. Eddie Jordan could have done without this extra hurdle as his team struggles to survive.
These days, with the manufacturers holding all the cards, the odd point for eighth place is regarded as an achievement. And yet exactly five years ago, Jordan was within reach of the drivers’ world championship. Had fate played a different hand on one or two occasions that year, Heinz-Harald Frentzen might have become the least likely champion of recent times — and with a customer Mugen Honda engine.
“It all happened in a blur because it was over so quickly,” says Jordan. “I see the publicity that BAR is getting today. I can only assume that we were having something similar. The difference is that we won races that year. They’re great memories, but it’s also very sad, because we’re nowhere near where we were then.”
Michael Schumacher’s mid-season accident opened the door for Frentzen, but there were good reasons why the Jordan 199 was so competitive. Take a look at a roll-call of the team’s staff. Not only was the current Toyota supremo Mike Gascoyne in charge as technical director, but his opposite number at Williams — mercurial Aussie Sam Michael — was Frentzen’s race engineer. To get those two on board today you’d have to invest an awful lot more than EJ paid them.
The groundwork for the 1999 season was laid the previous summer, when Gascoyne joined from Tyrrell. As his methods were absorbed, the team’s form picked up. The highlight was a memorable win for Damon Hill in the wet at Spa, just before design stalwart Gary Anderson moved on.
“The process was very different from before because Gary had tended to oversee all the detail himself,” says Mike. “It was an enjoyable period because everyone had far more input than they were used to, and it was interesting for me to work with a different group of people.
“I rearranged the drawing office, and pretty much started immediately on the layout of the 1999 car. In the background there was all the aerodynamic work — the same work I’m doing at Toyota and I did at Benetton in terms of getting the wind tunnel fixed. The ’99 car was mechanically an evolution of the old car, with an aero package put on it.”
Unhappy at not being allowed to fight Hill at Spa, Ralf Schumacher revealed that he was off to Williams. In effect he did a straight swap with Frentzen, a Jordan Formula 3000 driver back in 1990. The latter’s reputation had taken a battering through two difficult years at Williams, and he was keen to make amends. He formed a good working relationship with Michael.
“Heinz had fresh motivation because he’d been removed from a top team,” says Michael. “He was out to prove himself. That year there was only Bridgestone supplying tyres, so we all had a hard control compound. The tyres had low degradation — it meant that the most important part of a stint was towards the end.
“From his sportscar days Heinz was good at saving fuel and using the tyres in the last seven or eight laps before the pitstop. He would control the pace and save the tyres as much as he could. We also had a slightly bigger fuel tank than anyone else, probably by about 10kg. So we could always run three or four laps longer.”
Aware that Hill was losing interest, Heinz-Harald seized the initiative and soon got the team on his side. The season started strongly in Melbourne, where he finished second to Ferrari’s Eddie Irvine, although problems for Michael Schumacher and the McLarens helped. In Brazil H-HF finished third, only to run out of fuel on the slowing-down lap. In theory he did not have enough left in the tank to satisfy the FIA checks, but no exclusion followed.
At Imola he went off on oil, but made amends with a good fourth at Monaco. In Spain he retired with a transmission problem while fifth, and then in Canada he had a spectacular crash after a brake disc failed. He was running second, and priceless points were thrown away.
“Montreal was a cock-up because we had bigger brake ducts and we didn’t run them,” says Gascoyne. “At this point we were really under pressure. Then to go to France and win the race was a big breakthrough.”
That’s some understatement. On a sensational soggy afternoon in France a canny performance from Frentzen and a bold tyre strategy earned Jordan a memorable victory.
“It was the first win for a car I’d designed,” adds Mike. “I’d been at Tyrrell, done a reasonable job and some fairly innovative things, but we were in the bottom half of the grid. I’d always had Harvey [Postlethwaite], and this was the first time I’d done it all from scratch. In fact, apart from Barcelona 1994, that year was the first time I’d had a car on the podium.”
Next time out at Silverstone Heinz finished fourth. But the real significance of that race was Schumacher breaking a leg. It seemed that the championship was now a contest between Irvine and Mika Häkkinen. While all eyes focused on these two, Frentzen subsequently picked up a string of thirds and fourths, leaving the struggling Hill in his wake.
Heinz also qualified second at Hockenheim and third at Spa, but nobody paid him too much attention — until Monza. There he qualified second to Häkkinen and inherited the lead when the Finn spun off. The Jordan sailed past and from there Frentzen didn’t put a foot wrong.
Gascoyne recalls: “We were five or six seconds behind, but pushing reasonably hard. Mika had the race in the bag if he didn’t made a mistake, but he was braking late and pushing hard because he was under pressure.”
The title favourites both seemed to be doing their best to throw it away, for Irvine had a difficult run to sixth. With three races left he and Häkkinen shared the lead on 60 points, while Frentzen had 50. Suddenly it dawned on everyone: Heinz had a genuine chance. Then at the Nürburgring he stunned McLaren and Ferrari by taking pole. Perhaps it could really happen.
“We had a fantastic strategy in qualifying,” says Michael. “It was wet but drying. We came into the pits and put fuel in for two laps for the second-last run. We did a time, came in, changed tyres, and went out for another timed lap. That’s how he got pole.”
But Sunday didn’t get off to a great start for the team. At the first corner Hill suddenly slowed when his engine cut out, triggering a spectacular crash. But from pole Frentzen led in accomplished style. With rain clouds threatening he made a perfect pitstop, but after rejoining the track, he slowed to a crawl. The engine was dead, and the devastated driver abandoned ship and walked backed to the pits.
Gascoyne and Michael are still cagey about what actually happened. In fact, four or five races earlier the team had introduced a system that allowed the drivers to make better starts on very low revs, using the anti-stall function to stop the engine bogging down.
“Let’s say it was taking the interpretation of the anti-stall device to its limits,” says Michael. “It was completely legal, and the FIA knew what we were doing. But they had a clarification for the following year to stop anyone doing it.”
Gascoyne: “We were doing what everyone does, which was pushing the boundaries. It’s part of being innovative.”
The only thing the driver had to do was remember to cancel the function by pressing a button within 10 seconds of the start, or risk the engine cutting out. At the ‘Ring, Hill simply forgot and paid the price at the first turn. Frentzen triggered the device when leaving the pitlane — it gave no benefit at that stage — and by co-incidence, he also failed to press the magic button.
The rain turned the results upside down, with Johnny Herbert’s Stewart winning. Häkkinen scrambled home fifth, while Irvine failed to score. With just Malaysia and Japan to come, Mika now had 62 points, Eddie 60, and H-HF 50; had the Jordan actually won, the scores would have been 61-60-60.
It’s easy to put a spin on ‘what if’ situations, but had the latter numbers applied, Frentzen and his team might have approached the first grand prix in Malaysia in a very different frame of mind.
“We could have gone into the last two races within a point of the title,” says Jordan ruefully. “Psychologically, it was a huge chasm to climb out of after Nürburgring. That race was his.”
Michael agrees: “If he’d won and carried that momentum into Malaysia, it would have been a different story.”
Gascoyne: “Having thrown the ‘Ring away, it affected him greatly.”
Frentzen struggled to come to terms with Sepang. A loose headrest contributed to a spin in qualifying, and then he had brake problems with the T-car. He qualified a miserable 14th, but on Sunday he woke up and charged to sixth, setting a fastest lap bettered only by the returning Schumacher — and quicker than any posted by Häkkinen or Irvine.
“Heinz-Harald said that the car was very bad,” recalls Gascoyne. “He drove a storming race, set second-quickest lap, went faster than he did in qualifying, and swore blind that the car worked better when the track picked up grip. I think he probably just learned how to go round it!”
With his title hopes history, he nevertheless started and finished fourth at Suzuka, behind Häkkinen, Schumacher and Irvine. The final margin of 22 points to the victorious Finn did not fully reflect what might have been.
Frentzen never again showed such consistently good form, as Gascoyne recalls: “That year he was fantastic, he just drove the car and didn’t try to design it. Interestingly, in Australia 2000, he came up and said, ‘I want to have more input in the aero, I want to do this, I want to do that.’ To me, he lost focus and went back into his old ways. But in ’99, he just drove the car.”
Tensions developed, and in the middle of 2001, a frustrated Jordan sacked his German driver. Meanwhile, the technical ‘dream team’ broke up as key members accepted better offers.
To Gascoyne and Michael you can add John Iley, currently chief aerodynarnicist at Ferrari, and Dr John Davis, today in charge of the wind tunnel at Williams. Mark Smith went on to become chief designer at Renault, but has recently returned to Jordan as its technical director. He rejoins designer John McQuilliam. The Class of ’99 was by any standards a very talented group.
“I didn’t take anyone into Jordan,” admits Gascoyne. “I used the people that were there. It was good to build them into a team, show them how to work in a different way. And to do the 199 as our first car was tribute to everyone.”
Jordan: “The one thing I’m proud of about the team is that we were able to win races and we were consistently strong. That doesn’t happen by accident. We had to have a good team, good people, high-quality engineering.
“To be fair, Gary Anderson pulled all those guys together. To assume that it went downhill just because Mike and Sam left would be wrong. They were very good, important people. But we mustn’t lose sight of the equally good guys who are still at Jordan and who will potentially be able to pick this up again and run — if I’m able to get them the budget and the necessary wherewithal to get back on track.”