UNCOVERED: Jordan insider explains real reason Frentzen retired from the '99 European GP
Ahead of our live stream this evening of the sensational 1999 European Grand Prix, Mark Gallagher – who was Jordan Marketing Director at the time – posted an intriguing tweet that needed following up…
“Poor Heinz,” said Gallagher, referring to Heinz-Harald Frentzen who was driving for Jordan at the time and retired from the lead of the race at the Nurburgring. “We threw an ‘electrical issue’ press statement together to save him any blushes. #WhatCouldHaveBeen.”
So we gave Gallagher a call to find out more – and it turns out there was no mechanical issue with the car, just a small driver error coupled with a little mistake by his race engineer Sam Michael, that led to Frentzen parking his Jordan 199 and - with the benefit of hindsight - much bigger repercussions...
How small two errors cost potential victory
“Teams had an anti-stall system to make sure the car wouldn’t bog down and stall,” says Gallagher. “The key to the system was that the driver had to enable it and then disable it. And Heinz didn’t disable it when he left the pits.”
For context, title contender Frentzen was leading the Grand Prix – having secured a brilliant pole position – and looked to have the pace to score his third race victory of the season. When he pitted on lap 27, McLaren’s David Coulthard followed him in, raising the tension. A sublime pit stop was needed to keep the German ahead – and they delivered. But in the pressurised situation, two mistakes were made.
READ MORE - ORAL HISTORY: The inside story of Stewart GP’s fairytale ‘99 European Grand Prix victory
“As Eddie [Jordan, Team Principal] talks about in his autobiography, Sam Michael as Heinz’s race engineer had always typically said to Heinz when he left the box, “cancel, cancel”, because you had to cancel the system in order for everything to operate in the normal way once you’re back up to racing speed.
There was a lot of pressure on Heinz, because he was leading the race
“On that occasion, Sam didn’t. He just said you’ve got ‘4.5s over Ralf Schumacher’. Eddie’s view was that Sam didn’t repeat the instruction that he normally does to remind the driver. There was a lot of pressure on Heinz, because he was leading the race, and the team at that stop. You can imagine all the focus was on getting the car back out first, which the team did beautifully.
“In that tension and excitement, Sam had perhaps overlooked he had to issue the standard instruction to Heinz to cancel the system and because Heinz equally was focused on maintaining his lead and getting back on track, the system wasn’t disabled.”
So when Frentzen re-joined the track, he reported what he thought was a loss of drive. But what the system had instead done was effectively put the car into neutral and put the revs up. Frentzen didn’t realise this so pulled off the track at the first corner and retired. It was only when the car was brought back to the garage and it fired up first time perfectly that it became clear what had happened.
How the team protected their own
The team were close knit and moved to protect Frentzen and Michael’s blushes by putting out the ‘electrical issue’ statement. Frentzen wasn’t made a scapegoat. “It’s beyond description what the feeling was in the team that evening because we realised so quickly that this was a self-inflicted retirement,” adds Gallagher. “But there wasn’t any anger towards Heinz.
“You have to bear in mind we had won two grands prix – Magny Cours and Monza with Heinz. The team’s feeling towards Heinz couldn’t have been any better. With all due respect to Damon [Hill, his team mate] Heinz was driving the wheels off the car, and Damon was effectively retired in his brain if not on track.
“So we had a one-car team and Heinz was driving his socks off. Mentally, he was in a very good place. When you look at the pole he achieved at the Nurburgring this was peak Frentzen.
Frentzen was in the form of his life, which is what made what happened on one hand devastating and on other hand forgivable
“He was in the form of his life, which is what made what happened on one hand devastating and on other hand forgivable because we knew this was a driver who was giving it his all. It didn’t need any of us to say to him this was a mistake you shouldn’t have made. He knew himself this was a devastating blow to his championship chances.
“And the whole thing was tempered by what happened in the race after he retired. There was a sequence of dramatic twists and turns, and when we were on the plane back home that night, we realised it might not have gone our way anyway.”
What might have been?
But what if Frentzen, rather than Stewart’s Johnny Herbert, had won that race? Well at the point he retired from the lead, his title rivals Mika Hakkinen and Eddie Irvine were running out of the points.
Had the German found a way to navigate the tricky wet conditions and win, he would have potentially left Germany and headed into the final two races of the season level on points and a real shot at the world title.
“You can say with hindsight that had he won that race so much would have changed in terms of Heinz’s fortunes as a driver and it probably would have transformed Jordan’s fortunes as a team,” says Gallagher. “Although we finished third in the world championship, which is a fantastic achievement, to have gone into the final two races level pegging with Hakkinen and Irvine would have continued transforming people’s views of Jordan.
If Heinz had finished second in the world championship or even won it would have been pretty transformational
“Unquestionably it would have put more pressure on Honda to reconsider their view of Jordan as a team to support into the future [Jordan were running Mugen-Honda engines but switched to a works Honda supply second in line to BAR for 2000].
“Although the BAR-Honda relationship was already underway, it was underperforming. If Heinz had finished second in the world championship or even won it would have been pretty transformational in terms of all the relationships with existed. You can say all of that with hindsight.”
We are showing this remarkable race in full here on F1.com tonight (Wednesday) at 1800 UTC (1900 BST). Click here for more details.