He’s likely to become Britain’s third F1 champion in the past 20 years, but he’s lost his drive. Mark Skewis considers the controversial replacement of Damon Hill by Heinz-Harald Frentzen
How could he do it?
How could Frank Williams sack Damon Hill when the Englishman was on the brink of delivering the World Championship?
Quite easily, really. After all, he’s had plenty of practice, not since 1982 has Williams actually hung on to a champion. In the meantime, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost have all departed after winning the sport’s most prestigious mantle.
Hill’s future or, more to the point, lack of it has been the subject of speculation since last November. He heard the stories, but refused to give them credence. With good reason, you would think, given that his 20 victories from 65 races equates to a start/win ratio eclipsed only by Ascari, Clark and Fangio.
“My view is always that the reward for winning races should be the opportunity to drive the best equipment,” reasoned Hill as the news of his replacement sank in. “I thought the fact that I’m leading the World Championship would be regarded as something of an ace up my sleeve. But you can’t count on anything.”
Especially at Williams.
Hill would appear to have done all that could have been expected of him, so why was he shown the door?
Some believe that, like the breakdown of talks with Mansell, it was purely a question of Hill’s advisors over-estimating his worth. Certainly the initial request, for 15 million dollars, went down like a lead zeppelin. Contrary to what many would believe, the Grove-based team operates on a finite budget; one that will be reduced still further by the loss of Elf sponsorship.
The second proposal, believed to be for 12 and a half million dollars, but with fewer public appearances and more personal sponsor space available on the driver’s overalls, was only slightly more palatable. That the financial saga was reduced to a trial by media was as inevitable as it was regrettable. Gone are the days when Stirling Moss drove for Rob Walker, and Jackie Stewart for Ken Tyrrell, on the strength of a handshake. . .
For all that Williams suffers budget constraints, the story does not end there. Had Frank really wanted Damon, you would imagine that the lure of a World Champion could open a few sponsorship doors. Hill, meanwhile, his financial security already assured by a six million pound contract for the present season, has stressed all along that his first priority is a competitive car.
In reality, the whole episode revolves around two legends. One, the legacy of Alan Jones, is little-known but goes a long way towards undermining drivers at Williams. The other, the suggestion that Heinz-Harald Frentzen was quicker than Michael Schumacher as a Mercedes Junior, is well publicised, but in fact had little bearing upon negotiations.
God was still a boy when Jones last raced a Williams, but a stream of drivers will testify that the Australian’s enduring influence has haunted their relationship with the team.
“You never forget your first girlfriend, and Williams have never forgotten their first really successful driver,” explains Eurosport commentator John Watson. “Alan didn’t give a toss about anything in Formula One. He sort of thought, apparently, that Villeneuve wasn’t bad, but everybody else was a flake as far as he was concerned. On the racetrack he was hard, aggressive and a good racer. Fast, but a real mean bastard. And the team loved him, You could see this glaze in their eyes.”
Understandable, perhaps, but why should that have any bearing on Hill’? As fine a team as it is on the racetrack. Williams is renowned for giving its drivers little support. Unlike Jones, Hill, it seems, proved incapable of securing its full trust.
“The decision was shocking,” says Alain Prost of his former team-mate’s dismissal. “I always got the feeling that the team never supported him fully.”
Keke Rosberg, the last man to win a title with Williams and hang around to defend it, says that it was hard to feel truly part of the ‘family’ and that he never felt forgiven for not being Alan Jones!
David Coulthard was also bemused to find the legacy lingering even during his days with the outfit. He first suspected as much when he heard someone refer to ‘Alan’ and thought it was a reference to ‘Alain’, his predecessor. It wasn’t. That became evident when, sitting on the grid before the start at Monaco in 1995, technical director Patrick Head advised him how Jones used to tackle the first corner . . .
This ghost in the Williams machinery wouldn’t have presented an insurmountable problem had Hill been able to play the hard man in the manner, say, of Nigel Mansell. While Mansell could be out-manoeuvred, there was no doubting his commitment in a wheel-to-wheel fight. But whilst Hill’s credentials are impeccable on paper, they are not so impressive on a strip of tarmac contested by another driver. Certainly not if that driver happens to be Michael Schumacher. Just as Ayrton Senna became Prost’s nemesis, so the German has often tortured Hill, no more so than in the back-to-back Japanese races last season when Williams effectively capitulated in both the drivers’ and teams championships. It is that period from which talk of Frentzen’s signature first emanated.
Hill’s treatment is more sad than it is outrageous. As Stirling Moss observed recently in MOTOR SPORT, he is probably more talented than his father. Yet doubts have always persisted over his true ability. Damon is not a bad driver, it’s just that he is not the best, and it is his misfortune to have faced an adversary such as Schumacher. Whilst battling Michael on the track, he has also had to contend with the spectre of Jones away from it not least when Alan suggested in the media last November that Williams should tear up Hill’s contract. In his hour of need, Damon sought support from the team. He didn’t get it.
That was obvious after incidents such as the collision between Hill and Schumacher at last year’s British Grand Prix. Williams apologised to Benetton… The biggest irony of all about the team’s obsession with Jones is that it discovered him almost by accident.
“I remember we had a board meeting and there was a list of possible drivers: Reutemann, Regazzoni, Jones and a few others,” recalls Dave Brodie, one of the founders of Williams Grand Prix Engineering. “We whittled them away and in the end it came down to Jones, who we didn’t know much about other than that he was an Aussie who liked to speak his mind. It was like, ‘Ah hell, we’ve got to use Jones. It looks like Jones.’ None of us wanted to tell him, because we all felt so deflated. I think the company secretary finally volunteered to tell him. In the end, of course, he turned out to be brilliant…
If Frank little dreamed what his new recruit would be capable of, he clearly feels that six years have taught him all he needs to know about Damon, and has concluded that his best is simply not enough. Williams’ sights are set beyond this year’s honours. They became a formality from the moment it was clear that Schumacher’s Ferrari was as reliable as a train timetable, and that his former team, Benetton, was still coming to terms with his loss. Instead it is 1997, when Schumacher could have a car to do his talent justice, that is already his objective.
Williams admits that there was a day when just being allowed entry to the F1 party was enough for him. The death of his friend, Piers Courage, in 1970, hardened him, as did losing his financially beleaguered team to Walter Wolf. Precious little has ever been given to him on a plate. Accordingly, sentimentality is not his strong suit, he is a hard man who takes hard decisions. Often, they have been criticised, but to my mind his driver changes live up to examination. Mansell’s replacement by Prost provoked a public outcry, but was it really so shabby a decision when you consider the manner in which Alain had gained the ascendancy during their time together at Ferrari? Prost too was pushed towards the exit, a move that would have been inexcusable had any man but Senna been taking his place. But Heinz-Harald Frentzen?
At face value, the 29-year-old, whose best result from 46 GPs is third place, would hardly appear the dream ticket. That judgment overlooks the fact that you are more likely to win the lottery with a bus ticket than you are a Grand Prix with a Sauber. Had he achieved the latter feat, it would have qualified him for a call from a far higher authority than Williams.
Those who reach straight for the conspiracy theory would have you believe his signature simply guarantees the team BMW engines once Renault has left the fold. Yet the German giant is by no means certain to re-enter the sport, and Frentzen was courted long before the first indications that the Regie was preparing to withdraw.
Instead, Frentzen’s recruitment revolves around the hope that he will be capable of combating the threat from Schumacher next season.
The outgoing world champion is, of course, a former colleague from the Mercedes Junior sports car team, where Heinz-Harald is said to have rivalled him for speed. But is that merely a myth? Not so. insists Max WeIti, who oversaw the programme and has subsequently become his team manager at Sauber.
“Michael had muscles all over the place. It was terrible absolutely the wrong thing to be a quick racing driver,” he recalls. “What was surprising was the nonchalance with which Heinz-Harald was doing quick laps at the time.
‘I’ll never forget his second day in a sports car. He had just gone from a 180 bhp F3 car to a 900 bhp Silver Arrow. He was strapped in the cockpit and I gave him a long lecture. I said, ‘Look youngster, don’t try too hard. The aim is to get a lot of mileage. Don’t destroy this bloody car. We are doing this whole joke because we believe in you, not just for your pleasure.’
‘Just as we went to close the door on him, he shouted: ‘Hey, have you heard this one?’ and told me a dirty joke. We slammed the door and he did a lap as quick as any of the others on that day. He was an extraordinary talent. But very unprofessional.”
That assessment has remained pretty much the anthem for a career in which he has continued to impress people with his natural speed. And continued to make mistakes.
But Williams’ faith is based not on the legend of a past decade, but on observations from the driver he always sought and admired, Senna.
The Brazilian followed Frentzen at one of the Sauber pilot’s first F1 tests. He didn’t have a clue who the driver was, but he knew he was impressive and reported as much to his boss. It was on Ayrton’s recommendation that Williams first made contact, and it was to Heinz-Harald that he turned after Senna was killed. Deeply shocked by the events of Imola, and by the subsequent accident in Monaco that left team-mate Karl Wendlinger in a coma, Frentzen rejected the approach, citing his loyalty to Peter Sauber who had given him his break in F1. Williams has stayed in touch ever since.
If Frentzen can count himself lucky to land the best seat in the sport, the man he replaces is perhaps no less fortunate to be seeking employment with a CV that boasts 20 victories. “Left to my own devices, neither Damon nor David Coulthard might have found themselves in the car,” concedes Williams. “Anyone can make a judgment on a driver like Ayrton or Michael, but at the end of the day we usually go on the consensus among the engineers. The days of, ‘Well done Frank, that was a good judgment,’ are long gone. Formula One is very much an engineering exercise now and you have to rely on the people who work with drivers every minute of the day, who know their strengths and their weaknesses.”
Had he not been plucked from Brabham – a passport to obscurity if ever there was one after just two races, where would Hill be now?
Frentzen, likewise, can count himself fortunate. He deserted the Mercedes-Benz fold for the lure of a Camel-backed F3000 campaign that was intended to take him to F1. Germany did ultimately get the star it had longed for since Stefan Bellof, but it wasn’t him. Camel went with Schumacher; so did Frentzen’s girlfriend.
By 1992, he was an outcast. The only drive he could get was in the Porsche Supercup, courtesy of Welti. “He was very arrogant,” remembers Max with a sigh of exasperation. “Within Porsche there are people saying, ‘Never ever again with him, even if he becomes world champion.’ “
Perhaps their resolution will yet be put to the test.
Before he was rescued by a Japanese F3000 campaign, Frentzen had returned to the family business: undertaking. The Williams drive caps a remarkable turnaround for a man whose career, like his father’s clients, appeared to be dead and buried.
Will he prove an adequate replacement for Hill? Schumacher believes so.
“Who would you fear most in a Williams?” he was asked recently. “Heinz-Harald or Damon?”
“I think that’s a bad question,” came the riposte.
“Do you think so?”
“Well,” came the reply, with a slight smirk, “it’s a good question for Heinz-Harald maybe, but not for Damon. . .”