1999 French Grand Prix: Frentzen and Jordan Keep Their Heads to Win
June 20, 2014 by Jeremy McMullen
The 1999 French Grand Prix would seemingly be a race in which every driver and spectator would have liked to miss. However, had that been the case, Formula One would have lost one of its most memorable races and Heinz-Harald Frentzen would have missed out on his second career victory.
The French Grand Prix was just the seventh round of the World Championship in 1999. However, already by that point in time the season had become a rather processional affair. Eddie Irvine had demonstrated he was ready to take advantage of his seat at Ferrari when he took victory in the very first round in Australia. Then comes the storm of Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher. These two would win every race to follow. Hakkinen's victory in the Canadian Grand Prix would be his second in a row and third in five races ending Schumacher's run of two straight.
Heinz-Harald Frentzen would leave Williams at the end of the 1998 season following a disappointing season with the Mecachrome-powered FW20. Results at Williams had become few and far between. In addition to this, Frentzen and Patrick Head did not exactly see eye to eye. And, since Head was a co-founder of Williams, it was clear who was not going anywhere. Therefore, Frentzen would depart the Williams scene before it became too problematic.
Frentzen, however, needed a competitive drive. Though Williams was struggling in a bit of a downturn it was still Williams, and abandoning such a team seemed to suggest any more results would be few and far between. There were few options available. However, an old employer would come calling.
Eddie Jordan's outfit, Jordan Grand Prix had become the destination of the man Frentzen had replaced at Williams. Damon Hill had helped Jordan to its very first victory in Formula One when he led home a famous one-two victory for the team in a wild and rain-soaked Belgian Grand Prix. Having scored that first victory, and the apparent promise of the Mugen-Honda engine, would be more than enough for Frentzen to make the jump to Jordan.
Immediately, the German would find the atmosphere at Jordan much more to his liking, much more supportive. The more supportive environment and the improving Jordan package with the Mugen-Honda engine, would enable Frentzen to kick-start his season with a new team in very strong fashion earning a 2nd place in the Australian Grand Prix. This would be followed by a 3rd place in the Brazilian Grand Prix. Suddenly, Frentzen appeared to be a contender in the World Championship, and with a brand new team! The German would be revitalized with the move, but it didn't seem possible for Jordan to continue the success it was achieving.
Such a belief would be supported over the next four races. Besides a 4th place at the San Marino Grand Prix for Hill and the same at the Monaco Grand Prix for Frentzen, the next few races would be filled with relative disappointment. Retirements were stealing away the team's momentum at a time when they seriously needed to maintain consistency. The team, if it was to stay in the hunt at all, needed some kind of jolt, a step up in performance.
An 11th place for Frentzen and a retirement for Hill in the Canadian Grand Prix certainly didn't suggest things were going to turn around. What's more, Frentzen's finish would actually be a heavy shunt that would leave him with a broken knee. The accident, of course, left Frentzen limping and far from appearing to be on the verge of a grand result. The man could barely stand and it seemed he wouldn't have the 'legs' to compete. Therefore, the race in Canada had not been the kind of race in which Jordan could look back and say was a turning-point, or at least a positive experience upon which the team could build going forward. But, thankfully, the Canadian Grand Prix would be followed by a testing period at the very same track that would be next up on the grand prix calendar.
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The first free practice approached and Frentzen would appear to be a new man as he would end up fourth on the timesheets at the end of the first session. This would be a little skewed since, for whatever reason, neither of the Ferraris would take part in the session.
The second session would take place on Friday afternoon and would be conducted under truly oppressive conditions. The heat and humidity would make the circuit very slippery. This time the Ferraris would roll out and all would seem back to normal when Michael Schumacher dominated the session. But, it was clear. Everyone could smell and sense that there was rain in the air.
Saturday morning, the conditions would have been more befitting for Noah than for motor racing. Heavy rain would fall on the circuit and would throw the normal, the expected, right out the window. Heading into qualifying, it would be Rubens Barrichello at the top of the timesheets in the Stewart-Ford. David Coulthard's time less than a tenth slower would have seemed to suggest strangeness wasn't getting out of hand. But, the weather was just beginning.
Heading into qualifying, there were some questions as to what the weather would do. At the start of qualifying the rain would be falling and the conditions seemed absolutely treacherous. Many of the teams believed the conditions would improve over the course of qualifying, and therefore, very few would venture out in what many considered to be terrible conditions. Some of those that would brave the elements would be Rubens Barrichello, Jean Alesi and Olivier Panis.
Alesi and Barrichello would fight it out for the fastest lap time while many of the others believed the conditions would improve in time. Barrichello was told the rain would increase in a matter of minutes and would set about posting a flyer. He would be faster than Alesi, but would not be sure if the conditions would enable him to stay there when it was all said and done.
Frentzen would make the decision to head out and would barely make it onto the circuit for his out-lap before the rain began to pick up slightly. Heinz-Harald would do what he could and would end up setting a decent time in the conditions. Little would he know just how lucky he had been.
Heading into the latter-half of the session, Mika Hakkinen would still be too slow to qualify while many of the other top contenders would find themselves toward the bottom-end of the grid. The rain had thrown everything upside-down and that is nearly how the grid would look when qualifying finally came to an end.
Barrichello would be on pole for Stewart, the first for the team and second for Rubens. Jean Alesi would start in 2nd place on the front row in the Sauber Petronas and Olivier Panis would line up 3rd in the Prost Peugeot. The first of the usual front-runners would be David Coulthard in the McLaren. He would start in 4th place on the grid having set a time just two-tenths of a second quicker than Frentzen in the Jordan. Many other strong contenders, including Hill down in 18th place on the grid, would be looking at a view they were not entirely used to seeing heading into the race on the 27th of June.
The crowd would finally see a different sight when the cars began to take their places on the grid. The sight of the Stewart on pole certainly excited race fans, and the seeming certainty of more wet weather only made people drool from the mouth over what could possibly happen.
Despite the heavy overcast conditions, the circuit would be dry as the teams made their final checks of the car leading up to the start of the 72 lap race. Since the track was dry, all of the cars would start out on dry weather tires. The thought of having to see Schumacher and Hakkinen fight with Prosts and Saubers was very exciting, and there had to be a good number of people praying for more rain to fall.
At the start, Barrichello would get away and would lead the way with Alesi following along in 2nd place. Coulthard would dispatch Panis straight-away as the Frenchman suffered a poor start. Frentzen too would be able to get by the Prost over the course of the first lap when Panis would make a slight mistake and would drop back.
The conclusion of the first lap would see Barrichello holding onto the lead with Alesi under heavy attack from Coulthard in the McLaren. Frentzen would have Schumacher all over his backside, but would be able to hold his fellow countryman back through the first circuit. Alesi, however, would not be able to hold back the Scot who would already be by to begin the second lap of the race. Suddenly, it appeared the norm would return, and much too soon.
Barrichello would continue to hold onto the lead despite heavy pressure from the McLaren driven by Coulthard. Frentzen would also remain under attack from Schumacher while the Jordan made its way forward to challenge the Sauber. Coulthard would finally have the measure of the Stewart and would make a late move into the hairpin at the end of the straight. Rubens would give David room but would battle side-by-side for a few meters coming out before, ultimately, Coulthard took the position and began to inch away into the lead.
Frentzen would manage to breakaway from a seemingly uninspired Schumacher. Frentzen would continue to hunt down the Sauber driven by Alesi, but the Ferrari engine powering the Sauber would not make it an easy maneuver. Meanwhile, Coulthard was fast pulling away from Barrichello at the head of the field. Even after just a handful of laps the lead would be more than a few seconds. It appeared the race was going to turn into a processional affair, especially given Mika Hakkinen's charge up through the field and overtaking of Michael for 5th place. Frentzen was next in Hakkinen's sights. The usual was beginning to overtake the unusual.
Just when it seemed the usual order would be restored, Coulthard's McLaren would suffer from an alternator failure causing him to have to beach his car and abandon any hopes of a victory. Already by this point in the race, with the circuit dry and all of the violence a Formula One car is capable of producing, Frentzen would have to be struggling with his terribly sore legs. Barrichello was in the lead and up the road a little ways. Alesi was closer, but the pain and the pace were making it extremely difficult for Heinz-Harald to make up any ground. Hakkinen, on the other hand, was reveling in the dry conditions and was charging up through the field. The Fin would overtake Frentzen for 3rd just about 15 laps into the race, and then, would pass Alesi only about five laps later. Mika would be hunting down Barrichello by an average of more than a second a lap when, suddenly, the black overcast clouds opened up, not with a drizzle but with a deluge.
All manner of chaos would erupt as a result of the presence of the rain. Eddie Irvine would make, what seemed to everybody, a very wise choice and would pit right when the rain started. Ferrari, however, was not ready and the Irishman would lose nearly 45 seconds in the pits as a result of his apparent clever maneuver. He would no more than leave the pits when the rest of the field, assembled like a long-haul train, would come tip-toeing into the pits for full wet tires. One of those that wouldn't make it that far would be Alesi who would lose control in the heavy rains and would end up beached himself, thereby handing Frentzen 3rd.
Frentzen would come into the pits. All of the teams would be scurrying around to complete their stops as fast as they could. Jordan, meanwhile, would switch up the strategy while Frentzen waited for the tires to be fitted. The decision would be made to fill the car up to the brim so the German would not have to make another stop.
The choice was a risk. The race was only a third completed. It was entirely possible the rain could relent, the track would dry and the fuel would run out before the end. Then, of course, there was Frentzen himself. He was injured, sore and only at the last minute becoming aware of the switch in strategy. He would need to go back out on circuit and attempt to stay in contact with cars that would be lighter on fuel, in conditions that would make it very easy to throw it off into the gravel and with a body that was sore and already becoming tired. There were a lot of question marks, but Frentzen would peel out of the pits ready to get on with it.
Frentzen and Jordan would have one important thing going in their favor when the decision was made. The heavy rain and standing water made it so that the safety car would be deployed. This slowed the cars right down and enabled Frentzen to get a bit of a breather and to rest his weary body.
Ten laps would be completed under the control of the safety car. Then, after many frustrating laps, the safety car would peel off and the race would be back to full-speed. There would be many that would be frustrated the safety car period ran so long, but after Jacques Villeneuve, Alexander Wurz and Alex Zanardi all spun while traversing the circuit at more pedestrian speeds, it was entirely understandable.
Hakkinen had been about to dispatch Barrichello for the lead right when the rain began to fall. But now, after the rain and the pitstops, would find himself back behind the Stewart and rather uncomfortable. Just two laps would transpire before the Fin would demonstrate just how uncomfortable he actually felt behind the wheel when he performed a nice 360 degree spin to drop him down outside of the points with less than half of the race still to go. This briefly promoted Frentzen up to 2nd place, but Schumacher, who had been off the pace earlier on as a result of putting more wing on his Ferrari, would suddenly be on the move and would get by his fellow German for the position.
It would take just about five laps before Schumacher would dispatch Barrichello for the lead. Rubens slotted in behind Michael in 2nd place while Frentzen remained a strong 3rd. The Jordan driver would be having a fantastic race and would certainly have been pleased with the 3rd place he currently occupied. However, after 10 laps of leading, Schumacher would make another pitstop dropping him down to around 5th place as a result of the safety car period having bunched everything back up and the fact he would need a brand new steering wheel as a result of having no radio.
Heading into the final twenty laps, Frentzen would be trailing behind Barrichello by about a couple of seconds. But the pressure wouldn't be off. Mika Hakkinen would come storming back after his spin and would have his sights set firmly on the Jordan that ran in 2nd place less than 20 laps from the finish. Barrichello continued to hold onto the lead, but it was clear even he would come under pressure before the race was over. Hakkinen would be swerving back and forth in an attempt to unnerve Frentzen and force a mistake. The German would have none of it and would force Mika to get by with everything he had. But then, Frentzen would try to out-brake the McLaren, but he would out-brake himself and would hand the position to Mika.
Frentzen was back to 3rd place and seemingly en route to another fantastic result. But the team was finding things falling their way. Frentzen had kept his wheels on the track and the fuel load was coming down. The team wouldn't be without their concerns however as Frentzen would lose a number of seconds while trying to find a lower gear as he attempted to pass a lapped Arrows. Meanwhile, Hakkinen seemed to be in the strongest position because he was leading, having finally gotten around the Stewart after some fantastic laps dueling it out in the damp conditions.
Hakkinen would leave Barrichello behind as he needed as much of a gap as possible to come out of the pits with the lead. But nobody took a very close look at the Jordan of Frentzen. Heinz-Harald would be lapping quicker than Barrichello. It was becoming abundantly clear Rubens was trying to pick up every drop of fuel, but, with just six laps remaining in the race, both Hakkinen and Barrichello would peel off into the pits for some quick fuel and tires. Nearly everybody expected the Jordan would have to do the same at some point, but it would be Frentzen in the lead with Hakkinen and Barrichello emerging from the pits behind him.
Suddenly a Jordan in the lead of the race took almost everybody by surprise. Surely the German couldn't make it the rest of the way? Four laps remaining in the race, Frentzen would be enjoying the fuel loads coming down on the 199 and would be lapping at the same exact pace as Hakkinen who was just a couple of seconds behind. Heinz-Harald wouldn't just hang on to the lead though. He would actually use the traffic and the lighter fuel load on his car to pull away from Hakkinen slightly more with just a couple of laps remaining in the race.
Just when it seemed to the pundits that any of the other front-runners would come through to win the race over Frentzen, it would be the German that would round the final hairpin in the lead. Streaking toward and across the line, Frentzen would have his hand raised to the air enjoying his second Formula One victory. It too would be Jordan's second victory in Formula One and would come as a result of the team pulling off some truly professional tactics; tactics and decisions that were more commonly associated with McLaren and Ferrari. Rounding the circuit waving to the crowd, the rains would begin to symbolically fall again. The providential rain was also making a curtain-call appearance, a providential hand that provided one of the most dramatic races in Formula One history and a memorable moment for Frentzen and Jordan to shine.
Frentzen had come to Jordan looking for a new opportunity; a new home. Driving for Jordan would revitalize the German and would give him hope. Streaking across the line with sore legs in one of the most chaotic races in Formula One history, Frentzen and the Jordan team would utilize calmer heads to come out on top with the confidence they all needed. There, in those dramatic wet conditions in the heart of France, Jordan and Frentzen would find the momentum they had been searching for, and now, firmly became a part of the World Championship picture.
Jordan would have a solid testing performance at Magny Cours. Jordan Grand Prix would arrive at the test intent on regaining some solid footing. Less than a fortnight later would be the French Grand Prix. Therefore, the team would stay put and would look ahead to the next race of the season.
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