Jordan’s Missed Opportunity?

On October 16, 2019, the official Formula One YouTube account released an episode of the Beyond the Grid“ podcast featuring former Reject of the Year podium finisher Ralf Schumacher. The German driver talked, amongst other subjects, about his career in the premier motorsport series. Of course, every story has a beginning and Ralf’s was the 1997 Formula One season. Thanks to a major sponsorship package from German brewery Bitburger, the 1996 Formula Nippon champion received a chance to drive for the ambitious Jordan team. Despite being discontent with not having Martin Brundle mentor him, Ralf had an okay debut season with a couple of highlights.

Of those highlights, none surpassed his first podium finish at the 1997 Argentine Grand Prix. Despite a collision with his teammate Giancarlo Fisichella, he managed to come home in third position. In doing so he became, at the time, the youngest driver to ever score a Formula One podium finish. 

Despite that, Ralf mentioned, however, that he felt Jordan missed a beat. According to him, the team would have won their 100th Grand Prix in Formula One had they used a team order to prevent the collision with Fisichella. Whilst Ralf’s memory of events is flawed (namely, the collision with Fisichella did not force him into an additional pitstop), there is nothing that makes his opinion seem like the delusional ranting of a former Formula One driver trying to stay relevant.

Such a claim, especially when made with conviction, is always interesting. “If” is, as is well-known, a very long word in Formula One. Therefore it is worth analysing that claim. For that purpose, this column will take a look at the 1997 Argentine Grand Prix. Whilst the author lacks a lot of data that is available in viewing current races (such as a permanent display of gaps), there should be enough visual evidence and data to form an opinion on whether Ralf’s claim has any ground to stand on.

Plus, it allows for an opportunity to look at some stories and memories of the time.

The grid does not seem to allow for a Jordan victory. Or, for that matter, anything but a Williams victory. Jacques Villeneuve took pole position by 0.798 seconds over Williams teammate Heinz-Harald Frentzen, as the British team celebrated their 100th pole position. A Wiliams 1-2 on the grid was a relatively common sight in the mid-90s, even if the five 1-2s Williams would take in qualifying that year were a drop-off to the nine 1-2s of 1996.

Screenshot 2021-03-07 125430

unnamed1Despite Villeneuve’s strong qualifying outing, a win was not guaranteed. The Canadian suffered from a severe case of infectious diarrhoea, which seemed to be an issue for Williams at the Argentine Grand Prix: Damon Hill won the 1996 Argentine Grand Prix despite a stomach issue. It might be worthwhile to find out what Williams were doing in the Buenos Aires night scene and avoid doing that. Performing well despite illness over one timed lap is one thing. Surviving 72 laps of the twisty Autódromo Oscar Alfredo Gálvez configuration used by F1 in the 90s is a completely different task.

The two Jordans started sixth and ninth respectively, Ralf outqualifying his Italian teammate by 0.404 seconds, taking a 2-1 lead in the qualifying battle at the Irish team (the qualifying battle would eventually end up being a 10-7 victory for Giancarlo Fisichella; in turn, Ralf Schumacher would be 3-2 in races where both cars finished).

Villeneuve got away well at the start and behind him, chaos unfolded. Michael Schumacher, who was blinded by oil from Frentzen’s Renault engine, lost places and crashed into future teammate and Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Rubens Barrichello, taking himself out and ruining Stewart’s race. As the safety car neutralised the field after the messy start, Jordan took their places, Giancarlo Fisichella in fifth and Ralf Schumacher in ninth. They were separated by Damon Hill, who had a terrific start to haul his Arrows from 13th to 6th; Jan Magnussen in the Stewart-Ford and Johnny Herbert. Herbert was driving for Sauber in the first year of the Sauber-Petronas marriage that would later see Martin Brundle and Murray Walker accuse reject Norbert Fontana of involving himself in the championship battle at Jerez.

Both Jordans soon gained a position as Heinz-Harald Frentzen retired from the race, but they lost time to Villeneuve and Olivier Panis. Ralf used the Peugeot power to fly right by his future teammate in Damon Hill before dispatching Johnny Herbert in a similar manner. Jordan were now in a 4-5, still significantly slower than Olivier Panis and Jacques Villeneuve, who were in a race of their own. Regrettably, that race was cut short as Panis retired. The leading Prost pulling over was something rather rare in 1997, as they and Jordan had the most extreme dissonance in retirements between their two cars.

Team Retirement dissonance between both cars
Jordan 6
Prost 6
Arrows  5
Sauber 3
Ferrari 2
Stewart 2
Minardi 1
Benetton 0
McLaren 0
Tyrrell 0
Williams 0

Williams were going for a three-stop strategy. After coming out of the pits, the two Jordans were able to at least see a blue dot ahead. Giancarlo Fisichella and Ralf Schumacher were close to each other, as Schumacher was taking out a lot from Fisichella’s advantage. A major part of that was also found in Fisichella’s car being quite unstable on a lighter fuel load, the footage clearly showed it twitching badly through some corners.

jordan2Of course, then the accident happened. Schumacher drove carelessly into his teammate, trying to get past him. It must be noted that Ralf’s retrograde assessment of events was, in fact, perfectly correct in one regard: a team order would have helped matters very much. Ralf was losing time behind the struggling Fisichella. Especially with the extreme one-stop strategy, Jordan could not afford to lose too much time in the low-fuel laps. Keeping up with three-stopping rivals who, in theory, had stronger cars required an efficient time use. Murray Walker and Martin Brundle criticised the two Jordan drivers, Ralf in particular, but failed to give Eddie Jordan’s man-management the same treatment. Though, in fairness to the two, that was a time where team radio was not a feature on the TV broadcast and thus the pit wall often seemed to not exist. Giancarlo Fisichella refused to comment on the incident when ITV finally got a hold on the Italian with a bit less than 20 laps remaining in the end. Ralf was rather cool in comparison, calling it “a little accident with [his] teammate” and saying he was going to talk with him later. According to him, the relationship with Fisichella never recovered from that incident during the 1997 season (Ralf’s philosophy that teammates are not friends and never can be certainly did not help).

If Schumacher’s Jordan 197 was damaged in the incident, the German managed to hide that fact quite well. Driving quicker than Jacques Villeneuve, he reduced the gap to a mere 4.240 seconds with his first and only stop approaching. Shortly before his future team would call in Schumacher, Damon Hill pulled over, retiring for the third time this season. Certainly, Damon Hill had one of the more rejectful title defences of all time, though he is not alone in having a major post-title hangover.

Worst Formula One Title Defences ( only defending champions with >5 starts )

Driver Points of title year in %
Jody Scheckter, 1980  3.333
Damon Hill, 1997  7.216
Sir Jack Brabham, 1961 9.302
Niki Lauda, 1985 19.444
Mario Andretti, 1979 21.875

2.6 seconds separated the Jordan from Villeneuve when his fuel was running low. As if to emphasise how hard Ralf was pushing before his stop, Murray Walker accidentally called him Michael as he entered the pitlane. After a clean stop of 11.1 seconds, Schumacher rejoined the track in fifth. Unfortunately, traffic threatened to be a major issue: he was now caught behind a battle between Jean Alesi and Mika Häkkinen.

With the heavier fuel load, Ralf obviously could not go at his previous pace. Villeneuve pitted again shortly thereafter, but enjoyed a reasonable lead over Ralf as he left the pitlane. Eddie Irvine took the lead. Murray Walker claimed to never have been able to remember Irvine leading. To prove that “we have invented nothing”, as Pablo Picasso once put it, Murray predicted that thousands of people were going to call him out on not remembering that Irvine had led a race before. 

This time, however, his memory was correct: these were Irvine’s first leading laps in Formula One. He would go on to amass 843 leading kms. Had Irvine won the 1999 championship without adding any more periods of leading a Grand Prix, he would be the world champion with the least amount of km lead by a major margin (~55% of Phil Hill’s career km led, which is currently the lowest career total for a world champion).

Ukyo Katayama spun out of the Argentine Grand Prix, his Minardi M197 coming to a standstill. Despite Fondmetal investment and a reasonably reliable Hart engine, the M197 was one of the cars that proved that the concept of “if it looks good it flies good” is best left to military airplanes. Being one of the prettiest cars of 1997, the year the author considers the greatest year of all time in Formula One livery history, did not help the Italian team at all. To compound the misery for Japanese fans, Shinji Nakano went off right behind him.

Martin Brundle was certainly optimistic regarding his former team’s chances, as he had Ralf Schumacher in the back of his mind as a potential danger man. He even went so far as predicting him to be the biggest threat to an Irvine win if Villeneuve would prove unable to improve his pace. Irvine pushed hard, taking advantage of the fact that he had the lowest fuel load of the current contenders for the win. Incidentally, he ended up breaking the lap record of that track variation of Buenos Aires.

Eventually, Irvine was forced into the pitlane. A 28-year old Mattia Binotto was taking notes when it took Ferrari too long to service their number two driver, being inspired for his approach towards Sebastian Vettel’s pit stops, especially in the 2020 season.

lariniOf course, Ferrari’s pitstop misery fell short of Nicola Larini’s. His two stops combined for a total of exactly 50 seconds (37.5 and 12.5 seconds) before he had to park his car in the pitlane, his mechanics working on something regarding the fuel flap. Eventually, he was sent out again, but he was dead last, a lap behind even the remaining Minardi. His race would come to an end with an undignified spin whilst getting lapped by Magnussen’s Stewart later.

With such a day, the author can understand why Nicola Larini was paranoid about Herbert receiving preferred treatment. Said paranoia would result in open conflict with team owner Peter Sauber and the eventual dismissal of Larini. Whilst of course there could be a conspiracy theory spun around getting the Ferrari-mandated driver out of the cockpit as soon as possible, Hanlon’s razor has not gone anywhere. Furthermore, it was not even like Larini was much of a threat to the popular British driver. He qualified six places behind Herbert and was not close to him at any point during the Grand Prix, even before the pitstop mayhem. 

On the yellow front, Ralf was only a bit more than three seconds behind Irvine after his stop. The duo trailed Villeneuve by nine and twelve seconds respectively. Soon after, Ralf’s ambitions took a heavy blow: he struggled to get by the backmarkers. In particular, future Toyota teammate Jarno Trulli proved to be a problem, as it took him a long time to get past the Minardi.

Looking at this scenario, the author cannot help but be happy there was no publicly broadcasted team radio back in those days. Even though such an entertaining scenario is impossible in current Formula One, a rookie fighting for a win in only his third Grand Prix whilst having trouble with backmarkers only leaves the author imagining lots of annoying (if justified) whining on the team radio. When even veterans of 200+ Grands Prix sound absolutely insufferable when complaining about backmarkers, young “children” would be a complete nightmare.

Ralf Schumacher could not quite regather the speed he had before his stop, the fuel load was as heavy on the feeling of the car as it was in the tank. On the other hand, Villeneuve was pushing really hard to ensure he was in a competitive position after his third and final spot. Breaking Irvine’s earlier lap record before breaking his own lap record a couple of times, he expanded his lead over his two rivals. As Villeneuve entered the pitlane, the author can only lament the fact that nowadays the idea of an open fight between a one-stop (Schumacher), two-stop (Irvine) and three-stop (Villeneuve) strategy is merely the realm of naive fiction and fading memories. A masterpiece of pitstop execution saw Villeneuve out in 7.2 seconds, allowing the Canadian to maintain a healthy lead.

As the fight to the flag got tighter between Irvine and Villeneuve, Schumacher proved unable to fully follow their pace. His tyres were more worn out because of their age. With his fate in this race, finishing third and taking his maiden podium finish, sealed, Ralf backed off and nurtured the famously explosive Peugeot V10 to the flag. Villeneuve survived Irvine’s ruthless aggression to match the career win total of his father. Schumacher came home third, not receiving a warm welcome by his crew. Despite having worked hard with sickness, Villeneuve looked fine. Apparently, the Argentine camera crew were Fisichella fans: they showed a random helicopter shot when Ralf was handed his third-place trophy.

With the story of the race now well-analysed, it is time to answer the question that was posed: could Jordan have won this Grand Prix?

Yes, they could have. However, the author disagrees with Ralf on his assessment that they lost this race because of a lack of a team order. The time Ralf spent behind his teammate was not the most relevant factor in taking Jordan out of contention for the win. If Jordan were to win this Grand Prix, they would have needed two things: one being Villeneuve and Irvine behind Ralf after their second stops. Perhaps a team order could have helped with Villeneuve, but to keep Irvine behind, Jordan would have needed better handling with the heavy fuel load after the stop. The other factor needed was Schumacher not losing as much time behind the backmarkers as he did. If Ralf (or anyone else) is looking for anyone to blame for the lost victory, Jarno Trulli would be a more fitting answer.

Regardless, especially with the tyre situation, it would have been a hard challenge even if everything had gone perfectly. Ralf’s judgement of Eddie “giving away” a certain victory by not imposing team orders is wrong, though Jordan did lose his team some points that way. Even with his slower pace compared to Ralf, Giancarlo easily would have finished in the top 6. Given Ralf’s later issues with Eddie (such as the Irishman threatening him with release if he did not finish the 1998 British Grand Prix (a race which Ralf started second-to-last because of a FIA ruling) in the points), him wanting to assign and exaggerate a mistake like that on Jordan is hard to condemn.

All in all, Ralf’s certainty about a lost victory is not justified, but with the right choices, it could have happened and it certainly would have been as good a story as Jordan’s actual first win. Taking on the mighty giants of F1 in Williams and Ferrari in open combat and coming out on top through supreme strategy with a rookie driver in his third start would have been a story worth remembering.

“If” is a very long word in Formula One, indeed.

Sources: formel1.de, ITV, motorsport-total.com, Formula 1 (Youtube)

Image Sources: Thomas Bersy (licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; picture cropped and resized), J.H Sohn (licensed under CC BY 2.0; picture cropped and resized), Pixabay