1999 European Grand Prix, David Coulthard, Ford, Heinz-Harold Frentzen, Jackie Stewart, Johnny Herbert, Mika Hakkinen, Paul Stewart, Ralf Schumacher, Rubens Barrichello, Stewart Grand Prix
“Wherever there is danger, there lurks opportunity; wherever there is opportunity, there lurks danger. The two are inseparable.”
The blazing Australian sunlight glimmered off a dazzling vista of multi-coloured carbon fibre as twenty-two cars crept to a halt on the black tarmac. The heat haze lifted languidly above the reverberating engines, each driver waiting impatiently for the lights to change and the contest to commence. Unfortunately, it wasn’t haze but billows of white smoke that were emanating from the rear of Johnny Herbert’s Stewart-Ford, quickly enveloping him and his chariot. The lights changed from red to yellow, blinking the message to teams and drivers alike that the race start had been aborted. While Herbert’s car was being enthusiastically doused with foam by the fire marshals it was joined by a second “puffing dragon” as, much to Jackie Stewart’s dismay, both his cars were now exhaling smoke in unison.
Herbert’s teammate, Rubens Barrichello, had qualified in fourth but was forced to start the 1999 Australian Grand Prix with the team’s sole spare car from pit lane. The engine remained silent until the last possible moment to decrease the risk of it joining its brothers in venting forth flames. He dragged it through the field to finish an almost unbelievable fifth. As the season progressed, Stewart’s results continued to slowly improve with Barrichello getting two podium finishes. Most races had at least one car seeing the chequered flag, unlike the multiple double retirements that had afflicted them the year before.
The third to last race of the 1999 season was the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring. Four drivers representing three different constructors were still in contention for the championship trophy and every point was vital. Mika Hakkinen (McLaren) and Eddie Irvine (Ferrari) were tied on 60 points apiece. They were closely followed by Heinz-Harold Frentzen (Jordan) with 50 points and David Coulthard, Mika’s McLaren teammate, was only marginally behind him on 48. Rain showers all morning prior to qualifying had kept the track glistening and greasy. Heinz-Harold Frentzen’s Jordan had revelled in the cold, wet conditions as he captured pole position for only the second time in his career. The Stewart duo were in their typical midfield positions of 14th and 15th.
The race that followed was a mixture of misfortune and mishap, aided greatly by the weather gods throwing in a duet of rain showers. No one was immune and drivers of less competitive machinery that typically found themselves much further down the pecking order managed to make their way through the maze of hazards to find themselves in positions challenging for seldom seen, though greatly desired, points and podiums.
After an early safety car when three cars became entangled in a second corner collision, Frentzen’s bright yellow Jordan led the field, with two of his rivals for the championship tucked up behind him. Mika Hakkinen had leapfrogged his teammate on the start to snatch second and the duo were closely followed by Ralf Schumacher in his Williams. Unable to get past the Jordan despite their speed advantage on the straights all three were left biding their time for the first round of pit stops, each hoping for the possibility of the undercut.
Further back, Eddie Irvine was trying to quickly reduce the disadvantage he had suffered from starting seventh on the grid. His Ferrari appeared to have a significant speed advantage over Fisichella’s Benetton, but Fisichella defended vigorously until, much to Irvine’s relief, he eventually ran off the track while braking too late for a corner. Irvine needed no further encouragement to make his way past and continue his quest to close the gap to his rivals ahead of him.
Quarter race distance and a bright flotilla of umbrellas lit up the stands. The rain had arrived and with it the lottery. Who will risk staying out…and who will play it safe and come in? The circulating lap times increased rapidly as the track became as perilous as an ice rink. Despite every lap demonstrating the necessity of friction in keeping tires attached to tarmac, Ralf decided to tempt fortune. He and Coulthard went side by side around the last corner onto the main straight, but Coulthard held his ground, refusing to give way. His defensive driving to maintain track position was short-lived as at the very next corner Ralf squeezed past and there was now a red Williams separating the two silver and black McLarens.
As the rain continued sprays of water began streaming off the rear of the cars. Hakkinen was called into the pits for some rain rubber, Ron Dennis hoping to give him an advantage over Frentzen ahead of him. Unfortunately, luck wasn’t on his side when the rain departed as quickly as it had come. The three front runners tiptoed around gingerly in the soggy and slippery conditions, having to work hard to keep their cars off the grass. Mika had come out in 11th but it wasn’t long until the rapidly drying track resulted in him going slower…much slower.
When Eddie Irvine pitted a couple of laps later, his race fell into disarray when there were only three “grooved” slick tyres waiting for him. A last-minute decision to put on slicks rather than wets had resulted in a tyre going missing. After what seemed like an eternity (though it was “only” 28 seconds) he finally had four wheels securely attached to his car and was able to return to the race…now relegated to 13th place. His grooved tyres resulted in him quickly catching and passing Hakkinen who was then forced to pit again…this time for grooves! Neither driver had much hope for points now…and neither driver was to blame for their current track position. Stewart driver Rubens Barrichello had kept his hard tyres firmly planted on the slippery surface and was now up to fifth with teammate Johnny Herbert in sixth…both aided by those who had needlessly pitted for the now ineffective wet rubber.
However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for those at the front. First Ralf slid off onto the grass going through the final chicane. He came in for new grooved tyres and Coulthard set the fastest lap of the race, trying to prevent the undercut. Frentzen now had to defend, trying desperately to keep Coulthard behind him but the next lap they came into the pits in unison, looking like synchronised swimmers. A sea of yellow surrounded Frentzen’s car…tyres going on…fuel going in. Seven seconds later he accelerated out of his pit box, Coulthard following in his wake. Most importantly, Ralf was still behind them, having failed to achieve the undercut.
Two corners later Frentzen’s fight for the win was over as his car glided to a stop by the side of the track. David Coulthard was now in the lead. The win would place him only two points behind Mika and Eddie…who were currently so far behind him that they were in a race of their own. Mika had completely given up the chase, cruising around even slower than the backmarkers. Barrichello was now up to third, with Herbert behind him in fifth.
Half race distance and again the gods throw their dice…and the rain returns. Johnny Herbert had yet to pit, and he now comes in…for wets! The leaders stay out, preferring to maintain track position and hope that the showers will be short-lived. With the rain coming down heavily the less experienced backmarkers now start slipping and sliding off the track. Herbert’s advantage becomes greater with every lap of rain, circulating five seconds faster than those still on grooved slicks.
Coulthard began to push, hoping to build a buffer between himself and Schumacher, and so cement his current advantage. Unfortunately, he misread the precariousness of the conditions. The rear of his car twitched…the wheels just touching the grass. Gently and elegantly his car sailed towards the barrier. Despite preventing contact with any immovable objects his engine stalled. It was the end of the race for yet another leader. Ralf Schumacher was the next in line to step into the prime position.
Fifteen minutes later the rain had stopped and small patches of blue sky were now peeking through the clouds. Johnny had passed Rubens and was now rapidly closing on Giancarlo Fisichella in second. His quest was aided by Fisichella first spinning…then sliding sideways across the grass. Able to keep his engine going he made a brilliant recovery but his gap to Johnny had disappeared much quicker than he was hoping for.
When Ralf stopped a second time for fresh rubber Fisichella became the fourth person to inherit the lead. On lap 47 Herbert made his final stop – grooves to take him through to the end of the race. He came out in third while his teammate Rubens was in fifth and stuck behind Jarno Trulli. Just as the commentators were discussing the possibility that Fisichella might have enough fuel to get through to the end of the race he hit some standing water. Stalling his engine while spinning backwards off the track, he got out of the car and broke down in tears. It would have been his first win. Ralf Schumacher is once again in the lead but only for a couple of corners before he too is off the track…his excursion onto the gravel due to a right rear puncture. He limped slowly home to replace it which then left Johnny Herbert’s Stewart in the astonishing position of leading the European Grand Prix!
There were still an interminable 16 laps to traverse. Trulli was 14 seconds behind Herbert and in third was his teammate Rubens. Paul Stewart watched anxiously from the pit wall, gnawing at his rapidly disappearing fingernails. Can Johnny’s car get him through to the finish? Will it start to rain again? Behind Herbert, Rubens and Jarno spent the last seven laps fighting tooth and nail over second place. The Stewart was faster but the tarmac off the racing line remained wet and slippery. He never gave up, trying until the very last lap to find a way past the Prost. Trulli kept his nerve and didn’t let Rubens distract him or terrify him or bully him…maintaining second place despite everything Rubens could throw at him.
The last misfortune of the day was to hit Minardi. Luca Badoer was in fourth with only ten laps left to traverse when his engine expired, blowing up in a cloud of smoke. Three world championship points…gone in an instant. His despair was apparent when, head in hands, he collapsed beside his car. The only consolation was that Marc Gene in the second Minardi was now up to fifth.
Mika had the sudden realization that he was only 2.5 seconds behind Eddie Irvine in sixth. It was possible that one of them could get a point…which would then give that person the lead in the championship. With something tangible to fight for Mika now stopped cruising around dreaming of a rapid end to a race where everything had gone wrong and got the bit between his teeth. With Mika attacking from behind Irvine broke late, massively locking up his left front wheel. Forced to take the escape road through the chicane Mika passed him through a thick cloud of tyre smoke for sixth position. Into his line of vision came a Minardi. A Minardi trying to hold off a McLaren? It didn’t have a hope. Shortly afterwards Mika had taken fifth place off Gene.
Eventually, only having to nurse his car through to the end with no competitors close enough to mount a challenge, Johnny Herbert weaved his car through the final chicane, negotiated the final turn, and proceeded triumphantly down the main straight. He took the chequered flag for Stewart Grand Prix’s one and only win…which became a double victory when Rubens crossed the line in third. Gene just managed to stay in front of Irvine to get one single, rare point for Minardi.
With two Stewart drivers on the podium and Prost driver Jarno Trulli between them it was a day of celebration for teams owned by past F1 World Champions. Mika Hakkinen’s two points were all that separated him and Eddie Irvine at the end of the season, giving Mika his second championship title. Marc Gene’s point for Minardi was their only point for the entire season. In fact, their last points had been in 1995 and they wouldn’t get any more until Mark Webber’s fifth place at his inaugural race at the 2002 Australian Grand Prix.
After the race Jackie Stewart was effervescent. “It is difficult to describe how I feel. It’s just tremendous for the whole team. This is undoubtedly the most important moment in my racing career. I have won Grands Prix, I have won World Championships, but to win as a constructor is the highest emotion imaginable. The drivers made no mistakes at all. Our strategy was absolutely right. It was a complete team effort and every member of the team deserves equal praise. It is also a fitting reward for Ford and it justifies the confidence they have shown in us.”
The days of Stewart Grand Prix were almost at an end as Ford had already made a deal to buy them outright from Jackie. They wanted a Ford team with the Ford name first and foremost. Jackie Stewart was getting the glory when it could all be theirs. With a vision of green-clad fans in the podiums competing with the red attired Tifosi of Ferrari, they thought their advertising dollars would be better spent if they had complete control. It wouldn’t take long for them to learn that it takes more than money and dreams to succeed in Formula One. Ford would rename the team Jaguar…and after five long winless years would eventually sell out to Red Bull Racing.
Stewart Grand Prix started with nothing and it took persistence and tenacity to reach the pinnacle of success. Winning requires careful attention to every small and seemingly mundane detail. It takes more than money…much, much more. There are teams that have thrown hundreds of millions of dollars at their Formula One endeavour, but success has eluded them. It also takes more than a single person with drive and ambition and charisma. It needs a leader capable of giving direction and consistency from the top. It needs a leader that can understand what is happening in every nook and cranny behind the scenes. It needs a leader able to inspire every employee from those cleaning the garage and providing the catering all the way up to their millions of dollars-a-year superstar drivers. Without each and every one of those essential behind the scenes personnel, all driven by the same ambition and dream as the owners and drivers, the car will never be constructed, the engine will never roar, and the driver will never triumph