As the 1996 Formula One season is about to begin, we find only eight drivers with the same teams as last year: Damon Hill with Williams, Mika Hakkinen with McLaren, Olivier Panis with Ligier, Rubens Barrichello with Jordan, Heinz-Harald Frentzen with Sauber, Ukyo Katayama and Mika Salo with Tyrrell, and Pedro Lamy with Minardi. The other 14 drivers are either new to Formula One or are new to their teams. Among the latter group, of course, are the celebrated moves of Michael Schumacher, Eddie Irvine, Jean Alesi, Gerhard Berger, and David Coulthard.
The large number of driver changes raises the issue of loyalty--loyalty on the part of the drivers toward the teams and loyalty of the teams toward the drivers. For example, did Michael Schumacher abandon Benetton, a team that served him well, giving him a car capable of winning two championships? Conversely, is Frank Williams treating Damon Hill correctly? Both of these questions have been argued long and hard, and they will undoubtedly continue to engender much discussion.
What I found interesting this past off-season are the comments about and by Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Eddie Irvine, two drivers I really like. Let's take them one at a time.
Just a few short months ago Frentzen endeared himself to a lot of people when he claimed he was staying with Sauber because he had been with the team from its inception and wanted stay with the team as it moved to the next level in the pecking order of the grid. We all read and heard his comments about how progress had been made and the signs for this year were very bright. Yea, right.
Let's get real, folks. The truth of the matter is that the better seats had already been taken. There were rumors of Frentzen joining Williams, but the signing of Jacques Villeneuve put an end to that. Ferrari, Benetton, and McLaren filled their seats quickly, and it was apparent Eddie Jordan wanted seniority in his second car. Where else could Frentzen go? Sure, there were seats available at Arrows/Footworks and Forti, but those would have been steps down. Conclusion. Frentzen took the best ride available and he played his political cards correctly in the process. He put just the right spin on his public comments, but, of course, they were rather gossamer.
And, how about that Eddie Irvine? Here's a guy who was a smashing success when he crashed onto the Formula One scene a few years ago. Okay, so his entry wasn't a success, but the terms "smashing" and "crashed" are certainly accurate. I'm one of those who think he was simply racing, that the accident was just another racing incident, and that he was wrongly treated by FIA. However, I am equally convinced he was the most competitive personality on the track. Were Senna alive, I'm sure he would agree--world champions don't punch-out young turks for nothing.
Irvine has always been an out-spoken and colorful character. And, he has both said and demonstrated some interesting things about being part of a team. For example, it is no secret that he thinks he is a better driver than former teammate Barichello. At the same time, however, he spent much of the latter half of last year's Canadian Grand Prix of following the young Brazilian around the track. Had I not known better, I might have thought that Barichello was towing Irvine. It looked like a Jordan train, and Irvine not once even threatened to overtake, although he well might have been able to.
This year's Ferrari team will be an interesting one to watch. Irvine has always said that Schumacher is the best driver in the world. But, are his off-season comments about following team orders genuine? Will he not only let but also help Schumacher win? Perhaps. He did follow Barichello in Montreal. Furthermore, Ferrari is THE team which every driver wants to work for, and the Maranello-based team is paying him far more than he could ever hope to get from Jordan, or anyone else, for that matter. However, he is exceptionally competitive, self-confident, and skilled. I, for one, won't be surprised if he goes for the proverbial gold, especially in the latter half of the season if Schumacher doesn't look like he'll have a chance for the championship. Irvine might be the consummate team player early-on, but look-out if Schmacher doesn't begin to dominate by the time of the French or the British Grand Prix.
Well, what does all this mean? What are we to think of seemingly team players Frentzen and Irvine? Does the old adage "To thine own self be true" mean anything? I suspect that both of these talented drivers are the best team players on the Frentzen and Irvine teams, respectively. If there is anything we know about Formula One, it is that it's "every man for himself." Hey, wouldn't it be cool to see Frentzen and Irvine as teammates in 1997? Jackie Stewart will be needing drivers.