Okay, it’s 20 years since a remarkable victory for the Stewart F1 team. Jackie Stewart’s effort arrived in F1 back in 1997 and after a middling two seasons was competitive by ’99.
The season was a hellish mishmash, similar to 1982. The expected Michael Schumacher VS Mika Hakkinen battle ended when the former break his leg at a crash during the Silverstone GP.
Ferrari’s Eddie Irvine stepped up to take Hakkinen on, but McLaren’s David Coulthard (DC) and Jordan’s Heinz-Harald Frentzen were also in the mix.
At the Nurburgring, the third to last race of the season, it was a four-way scrap for the title.
Practice & Qualifying
In a practice session 1996 World Champion Damon Hill lost it and hit the barriers. Very similar to an accident he had at the same track in 1995, effectively ending his title changes.
Four years later and he was a few races away from retirement, having blamed the grooved tyres, his age, and how he was starting to get scared of racing in F1.
It was only five years since the death of Ayrton Senna at Imola and the various injuries to Schumacher, Jean Alesi, and newcomer Riccardo Zonta that year were a reminder of the sport’s dangers.
1998 reigning world champion Mika Hakkinen was also in the wars. He had barely survived a horrible crash at Adelaide in 1995. But recovered and was now in the fight for his second title.
But there were questions over his psychological toughness. At Monza a few races earlier, he’d spun out of the lead and then burst into an incredible fit of tears beside the track.
It’s worth remembering these drivers are under an astonishing amount of pressure to deliver. And Hakkinen was simply appalled by his error.
Come qualifying, a wet/dry session, all hell broke loose. In the old 60 minute format, drivers would head out and land a team as and when required.
In most sessions the final few minutes were a frenzy of activity as the tracker was “rubbered” in and at its peak.
Stunning everyone, Jordan’s Heinz-Harald Frentzen stuck his Jordan on pole!
It took three efforts to get the race going. This was commonplace 20 years back, but modern technology ensures anti-stall technology exists.
Once the race started, Pedro Diniz in the Sauber was caught up in the start chaos and flipped in spectacular fashion.
He was very lucky to get away with serious injury as the rollover hoop on the car failed.
That led Professor Sid Watkins to take a closer look at safety standards, already on the up since Ayrton Senna’s fatal accident in 1994.
Once the safety car returned to the pits we were left without Diniz, Alex Wurz, and Damon Hill’s Jordan. The 1996 champion’s car triggered the violent crash as it suffered a mechanical issue, leading to much avoidance action.
Frentzen led with the McLarens not far behind, with Ralf Schumacher’s William behind the leading three.
These opening phases of grand prix often confuse non-F1 fans as it appears like a procession, but it’s typically the drivers setting into their strategies and eking out a performance advantage for the trials ahead.
Further down the field, Irvine’s rise through the field was dented as Giancarlo Fisichella put up a robust battle for 6th.
The Benetton driver eventually went off the track briefly and Irvine blasted through, allowing the Ferrari driver to put his foot down in pursuit of the leaders.
Then it all hit the fan. As driving an F1 car in the rain is astoundingly difficult, whenever it rains at a race there’s typically mayhem.
The rulebook is out of the window—and as it heaved it down at the Nurburgring, drivers had to judge whether to pit for not.
Frentzen and DC decided to stay out, thinking the rain would stop.
The Jordan even began pulling away at the front, but Hakkinen’s decision to pit backfired disastrously as the rain stopped He had to pit again and plunged down the order.
Ferrari also destroyed Irvine’s race with a legendarily comical pit stop. Unable to find his fourth tyre, the mechanics stood around baffled trying to figure out what to do.
That destroyed his race and left two title contenders at the back of the field.
This was a golden opportunity for DC and Frentzen, floored it and prepared for a race-long battle for the win.
However, when they pitted simultaneously Frentzen emerged still in first. But then, agonisingly, his car suffered a technical issue and he broke down. Title fight gone.
This left DC with a fairly straightforward win, but then it started really pissing it down. As commentator Martin Brundle remarked the Scotsman was pushing too hard, shortly after Zonta in the BAR spun off the circuit.
And then cameras cut back to DC parked in a barrier having slid off the circuit.
That’s at 8:20 in the below clip (Frentzen retires at the 40-second mark) complete with Murray Walker‘s outstanding commentary.
Then it got weirder. Ralf Schumacher’s sterling work was rewarded with 1st place and he looked all set for his maiden win.
The worst of the rain past by, but the track was still damp. But for Ralf, a puncture sent him off the circuit and left him way down the order.
Fisichella inherited the lead and looked good for his first win, but then spun off at the Veedol Chicane.
This left Johnny Herbert in the Stewart in first, a driver plagued with horrendous bad luck throughout a tumultuous career.
The plucky Brit from Essex had impressed in F3 in the 1980s and was thought of as an upcoming genius. He was so fast when he tested an F1 car Ayrton Senna stopped what he was doing to check out the lap times.
Unfortunately, in 1988 he suffered a terrible accident in F3 that almost destroyed his feet. Having to totally change his driving style after a lengthy recuperation, at Benetton in 1989 for his first race his mechanics had to carry him to his F1 car. He couldn’t walk.
Although he improved over time he still had no ability to run, but proved adept in F1. But sadly what might have been was forever gone.
Thankfully, he still got a chance in F1 and won three races, two in 1995 as Michael Schumacher’s team-mate.
For Jackie Stewart’s fledgling F1 team, which ran from 1997 to the end to 1999 (Jaguar then took over in a doomed F1 big), and it was an emotional day for the Scottish team.
The Aftermath of Nurburgring 1999
Johnny Herbert retired in 2000. In his last race he suffered a suspension failure and crashed heavily. Marshals had to carry him from his car – exactly as how he started his F1 career.
Now he’s a chirpy presenter for Sky F1’s channel and general busybody. His enthusiasm and charm and infectious.
But the 1999 race effectively ended the title chances for Frentzen and DC. The former raced on with Jordan until 2001, then rejoined Sauber (where he started his career in 1994) before retiring at the end of 2003.
He won three races in total, but he was touted as the next big thing at the start of his career, supposedly faster than Michael Schumacher.
Frank Williams snapped him up in 1997 and he was in a title-winning car, but was too laid back for his own good and clashed with the team’s work ethic.
In the 1998 season he was actively avoiding chief engineer Patrick Head, which is why he made the fortuitous switch to Jordan for the next year. It was well-timed as the car was great, the atmosphere of the Irish team chilled out, and he excelled.
Now 52, due to the legacy of a big crash at Canada in the 1999 race his knee injury sustained there means he’s retired from racing and returned to his father’s business—a funeral home, where he drives hearses.
We always loved Frentzen, with his great sense of humour. We read an interview of him for F1 Racing in 1999 where he talked of messing about as a young man driving his father’s hearses.
He’d pull up to traffic lights and hop over into the passenger seat. Sitting stony-faced as a car beside him pulled up, he was skillful enough to be able to get the seemingly driverless hearse to set off—no doubt leaving the people beside him mortified. Hopefully, Frentzen still does that little trick now.
DC continued on until the end of 2008 winning plenty more races, but never the title.
Mika Hakkinen won the 1999 championship and retired at the end of 2001.
Eddie Irvine called it a day at the end of 2002. The Ulsterman was thought of as a “character” around the paddock. In his first race at the end of the 1993 season, he enraged Ayrton Senna on the track, then wound him up afterwards with his garrulous personality. This led the Brasilian to punch him in the face.
In his second race at Brasil in 1994 he triggered off a jaw-dropping four-car pile-up that left Jos Verstappen catapulting through mid-air. Irvine got various race bans for that one.
He joined Ferrari in 1996 to act as a solid No. 2 driver to Schumacher’s genius, but in 1999 was handed a golden opportunity to lead the team following Schumacher’s leg-breaking crash.
He almost capitalised on it, missing out on the title by a handful of points.