“The credit belongs to those who are actually in the arena, who strive valiantly; who know the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spend themselves in a worthy cause; who at best know the triumph of high achievement; and who, at worst, if they fail, fail while daring greatly, so that their place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
The resounding howl of a reverberating engine echoed in the distance, quickly followed by a white phantom appearing from out of the mist as if by magic. The spray emanating from the rear of the car blended with the rain gently falling from the leaden skies. The sweet smell of hot oil and burning fuel quickly blended with the sweet smell of success. The surrounding throng visibly relaxed and there were smiles all round. The engine had succeeded in turning the wheels without anything breaking…yet.
A few minutes before the fledgling Stewart SF01 had puttered slowly down the rough and soggy runway at the Boreham Airfield. Now Rubens Barrichello was bringing it back, this time at a significantly faster pace. After months of calculations and deliberations and estimations all the myriad pieces that make up a Formula 1 car had been designed, manufactured and assembled and it was now being driven, if not in anger, at least in aggravation. The first hurdle had been leaped cleanly…but it was only the first of many to come. Shortly afterwards the car ground to a sudden halt, its first outing bought to a premature end.
Jackie Stewart had never been one to suffer from boredom and since his retirement had continued to gallivant around the world with his finger in multiple pies. He had been intimately involved with Ford since 1964 and it was a casual conversation with two Ford vice-presidents that bought about the first inklings that the dreams of a Stewart Grand Prix team might actually become reality. The board members of Ford were dissatisfied. They had tasted recent victory as the powerhouse behind Schumacher and Benneton. Benneton had since moved on to Renault and Ford was now stuck with Sauber fighting it out with numerous mid-field teams for a few points and the rare, usually lucky, podium. It wasn’t where they wanted to be. Sauber didn’t have the experience, they didn’t have the budget, and most of all they didn’t have Michael Schumacher!
Jackie’s initial advice to them was to just quit – if you didn’t have the fire in your belly you would never get anywhere in F1. They countered with the argument that their whole marketing approach was based on racing. As their founder Henry Ford stated so succinctly, “Auto racing began five minutes after the second car was built.” Paul Stewart Racing, run by Jackie’s son Paul, had dominated British Formula 3. Maybe the time was right for Paul to expand into Formula 1. Jackie suggested to him that they draw up a proposition for Ford – a demonstration of what was needed to have a financially viable team.
“A Proposal for Partnership” was duly drafted and sent to every member of the board in advance of their first meeting. Ford queried the projected budget, worried the Stewarts had significantly underestimated how much would be needed for success…if they went over budget any extra money would have to be found elsewhere. Six days later Ford asked for a second meeting and the board unanimously agreed to fund Stewart Grand Prix as a factory Ford team for five years. They’d had a long association with Jackie Stewart. He was a perfectionist, never willing to settle for second best if the best was within his grasp. If Jackie was involved they were sure everything would be done properly.
As the newly formed Stewart Grand Prix soon discovered, getting the money was the easy part…well, maybe spending the hard negotiated for millions was even easier. Without careful budgeting it would slip through their fingers all too quickly. They now had just over a year before their car would have to be demonstrating its competitiveness, or lack thereof, in front of the world stage at the 1997 Australian Grand Prix. No-one was in any doubt about Jackie’s skills as a racer, but how would he fare as a businessman and manager in the cut throat world of Formula One.
Their designer Alan Jenkins started with an empty room…and an empty design sheet. There was no baseline model to work from, no parts or even ideas that could be carried over from the previous car to the next. The bucket of dough was limited. It would have to be spent wisely. It became the first Formula One car to be designed completely on a computer. They then lashed out 200,000 of their hard earned pounds on a half sized model for wind tunnel testing. Their computer design needed to have some hard data behind it. Bit by bit the pieces came together. To pilot their car they hired Jan Magnussen, Paul’s 1994 Formula 3 champion and lured Rubens Barrichello away from Jordan where he had spent the last four years.
With cold and inclement weather the order of the day during February in the United Kingdom the whole team packed up and headed south to Spain…not for a holiday, but for the long awaited testing of their newborn creation. Jerez greeted them with the same kind of weather they had just left – rain! Despite that they remedied some errant gremlins in electronics and oil seals and Barrichello got enough track time to assert confidently, “I tell you, this car is good!”
A fortnight later at Catalunya they finally got the long awaited sunshine to put some much needed temperature into tarmac and tyres. Barrichello beamed in relief and probably surprise when he set a time of 1 m 18.7 s. The other teams now started to sit up and take notice as it was almost two seconds faster than the pole setting time for the Spanish Grand Prix the year before.
But at their third test in Portugal everything came to a grinding halt when Jan Magnussen’s rear suspension failed. With minimal runoff he was a rendered a passenger, his car careering at high speed into a wall. Although trapped for some time he fortunately had minimal injuries but with logistics against them to re-engineer and replace their suspension they shook down their second car and headed home to prepare for Australia.
With their final days of testing ending up in disarray it hadn’t been a perfect start to their first season…but then again, things seldom are in Formula One, even with well-established teams. Stewart Grand Prix arrived in Australia with their third car still in pieces and never having run two cars together. Situated at the far end of pit lane with the other new boys, Lola, they were almost on a different planet from the movers and shakers of Williams and Ferrari situated far in the distance at the opposite end of the long row of garages.
Their first day was plagued with mechanical glitches. Rubens only managed one timed lap and was in 21st with Jan Magnussen fairing only marginally better with laps and times. There would be no rest for the mechanics as they worked through the night trying to sort the myriad of niggling electronic and mechanical issues. Bit by bit they started to slowly inch their way up from the back of the grid. Paul Stewart admitted that though he was dreaming of a top 10 qualifying position he had minimal expectations of actually achieving it.
As the final seconds ticked down on qualifying Barrichello was in P10…and setting green sectors on his final timed lap. A crash on track bought out red flags and a halt to proceedings. Then at the last minute he was pushed down to P11 as Gerhard Berger jumped ahead of him in his Benetton. Oh so close…but maybe points in the race could still be within their reach…though just getting through to the chequered flag would be counted as a major success.
The race in Australia summed up much of the year…broken suspension for Magnussen and a demise of his Ford engine for Barrichello. He had been running in 8th at the time and there were only eight laps left to run…so near, yet still so far. The season was littered with multiple retirements but Rubens’ dream second place in Monaco in the rain gave them the hope that better results were well within their reach.
Unfortunately 1998 was to prove even more difficult. The dimensions for the width of the car were narrowed in an effort to further minimize ground effects. A rapid change in regulations was always more difficult for those teams with minimal budget for redesign and continuing in-season development and the Stewart Grand Prix team struggled to maintain any degree of competitiveness. Added to this was the introduction of grooved tyres to further muddy the waters of car balance and control. Even a change of drivers midseason when Jan Magnussen was replaced with Jos Verstappen didn’t improve their results significantly. The sole highlight of the season would be the team’s first double points finish at the Canadian Grand Prix.
For 1999 they would replace their rookie driver with the added expertise that the more experienced Johnny Herbert could bring to the team. With two previous wins during the heady days of the 1995 Benetton he had managed to drag the midfield Sauber into the occasional podium position. If there were points and podiums for the taking Herbert was capable of getting them. To move up the standings in the Constructor’s Championship it was vital to have two drivers capable of carrying the weight of expectations. Now, just like their fans, waiting for the beginning of the season was all they could do…
Coming Soon…1999 Stewart SF03