Sunday, 4 March 2012

1999 French Grand Prix - Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours

June 27, 1999

As Heinz-Harold Frentzen limped painfully around the paddock at Magny-Cours, he did not look like a man about to win a Grand Prix. The bones in his knee that he broke in a crash at the Canadian Grand Prix two weeks earlier were still far from healed, but if his leg was sore, he said, it did not affect him in the car. With a broken knee, the race cannot have been easy, but Frentzen was more than a match for anything the French Grand Prix threw at him.

On the surface the race seemed quite unremarkable. They raced in torrential rain for most of the afternoon Rubens Barrichello (Stewart) in front for the bulk of it; Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) against his brother Ralf (Williams); Mika Hakkinen (McLaren) against everyone; Eddie Irvine (Ferrari) through the field - but ultimately the race came down to the relatively mundane question of fuel strategy.

Not that Frentzen felt it to be mundane. When you consider that he made it through on one stop, running heavier fuel loads than the two-stop opposition at virtually every stage of the race, yet still maintaining their pace, you cannot help but feel that there was more to this race than simple mathematics. Frentzen was helped in his cause by two factors: one, it was wet for all but the opening phase, which slowed the race down and made everything less physical; and, two, the race was neutralized for a while by the Safety Car. That gave him a breather and helped the fuel consumption. More than strategy, therefore, it came down to design. The Jordan Mugen-Honda 199 was built as a car that could run one-stop to the finish. The Stewart-Ford was not. The Stewart was designed with a smaller, two-stop, fuel tank. In the conditions that prevailed in Magny-Cours, that is what beat them.

1999 French GP - Frentzen drove brilliantly on a one-stop strategy.
Designer Gary Anderson is the common thread here. He was involved in the early concept of the 1999 Jordan - and then switched to Stewart, where he took over the Alan Jenkins/Egbhal Hamedy design. By then, it was probably too late for him to design a bigger tank, even if he had wanted to. He would have known, though as the race drew towards two hours, that Jordan had them beaten. All Heinz-Harold Frentzen had to do was not make a mistake.

It wasn't easy. Frentzen did a great job in qualifying, missing the vital, opening minutes but still going out early enough to secure a position near the front. Frentzen drives well in the wet, searching out the grip and using unconventional lines, but he was very prone to locking a wheel here and brushing a kerb there.

That Sunday, though, he kept it all together and Jordan quickly adjusted to a one-stop strategy. Frentzen's race was thereafter comparatively trouble-free.

He didn't, for instance, have a problem with his radio, like Michael Schumacher. Nor did he have a problem with wet or dry settings - again as Michael did. The Ferrari was all over the place in the opening, dry laps of the race. Hakkinen was charging, and so was Irvine, who'd been in neutral for the start, but Michael was ... just there ... tagging along but not making any impression.

Barrichello - on pole, but needed one pitstop too many in the race.
He didn't have a complete electrical failure, like David Coulthard (McLaren), who drove brilliantly past Barrichello into the lead and looked as though he was going to win, pulling away. Schumacher's electrical problem, meanwhile, lost him eight seconds on one lap. He was even forced to swap steering wheels in his pit stop. The problem seemed to have improved, but not enough to prevent brother Ralf muscling past in the closing stages.

Frentzen didn't spin, like Mika Hakkinen, who executed a quick 360 as he left the Adelaide hairpin. Jean Alesi spun out of a points finish just before the Safety Car emerged and Jacques Villeneuve (BAR), Alexander Wurz (Benetton), and Alex Zanardi (Williams) all spun while they were trailing the Safety Car.

Nor did Heinz have a chaotic pitstop, like Eddie Irvine. The Ferrari mechanics were not ready for him and bolted dry tyres on instead of wets. Frentzen's pitstop was surely longer that he anticipated it would be ... but that was only because Mike Gascoyne, Jordan's Technical Director, had switched to the one-stop strategy.

He didn't collect a slower car in the pitlane, as Damon Hill (Jordan) did. The impact punctured a rear tyre and Damon lost an age - and then the electrics limping back to the pits.

And he didn't have to make that second pitstop, as Barrichello did - as they all did. Rubens qualified brilliantly on the pole, taking to the track while everyone was asleep, and his defence of the lead, under pressure from the McLarens, was sensational. Ralf was a great fourth, racing Michael hard, and the Ferraris were fifth and sixth.

Frentzen kept the pace and was error free in tough conditions.
In many ways, then, it was that simple. Except, again, that it wasn't, for here was a guy who'd had a huge accident two weeks before, when the right front brake of his Jordan had exploded at something like 190 kph. He'd hit the wall hard in Montreal, at well over 7g, and his legs in the cockpit had banged heavily against one another. But it was mind over matter in France. You just needed to watch Frentzen through Grande Courbe, the fast sweep at the end of the Magny-Cours pit straight, to see each lap mesmerizing evidence of a confidence level miles higher than the storm clouds that were soaking the track.

The entry to the corner, fifth gear and 275 kph in the dry, maybe 210 kph in the wet, is framed by a wall to the right, parallel to the straight. Every driver, even Michael Schumacher, gave the wall a few inches of respect as they turned in. Apart from Heinz-Harold that is. Each lap he would make you wince as he ran the Jordan into a gap measurable only by laboratory equipment, the better to squeeze just a little more track space, a fraction more speed from the car. But it looked natural, flowing, as though we wasn't even placing it there by sight or reference, but by feel or something even more ephemeral. It made the others appear to be painting by numbers.

Frentzen delivers, to the joy of the Jordan team
Those millimetres shaved didn't necessarily win him the French Grand Prix but they gave an insight into a couple of things. The wholly different state of mind of Frentzen the Jordan driver to that of the haunted, put-down Williams man; and the God-given caressing way he has with a car that was just not apparent before. No question, Frentzen was at home with the Jordan team. 

Maybe it's simply the difference between a team that was looking to get a foothold on the first rung of success and one which had only seen the view from the top for two decades. One was trying to cosset and tease a performance, the other expected it as a given.

It all meant that tensed up within that Williams cockpit for two seasons was a talent most people just never got to see. Many began to think the ability which had so impressed Frank Williams just wasn't there. Because once he'd climbed out of the Sauber and into the Williams , a car which Jacques Villeneuve was taking to the world title, Frentzen looked ragged. Unconvincing. Not only was the form not there, but the style suggested it was never going to be.

Frentzen and Jordan, a combination of confidence and talent.
A marvellous thing, confidence. And a team, like Jordan, that knew how to engender it. Frentzen flourished at Jordan, where he rewarded the team's faith in him with a string of fast and flawless drives. In addition to his victory in France, he also won the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. The consistency that so eluded him at Williams now underpinned his bid to pull off one of the biggest title upsets in F1 history. Had the Jordan not failed while he was leading the European Grand Prix, at the Nurburgring, he would have entered the final two races as joint leader in the championship.

A talent fully unleashed is a special thing to witness, and when it happens to a genuinely nice person like Heinz-Harold Frentzen it is even more enjoyable.

France 1999 is where Frentzen rose from the ashes.

No comments:

Post a Comment