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Reflections on Magny Cours

by Roger Horton, England

The two Jordan drivers were a study in contrasts. For Heinz-Harald Frentzen the win in the French Grand Prix cemented a rapidly growing reputation as a front-running driver. For Damon Hill the end of a distinguished career is clearly at hand.

Just what it is that one has so suddenly found and the other so mysteriously lost is hard to define. Skill does not come and go so quickly, and courage is not an issue. The answer lies somewhere in the motivation that all drivers must have to succeed at the highest level. Clearly for Hill the "hunger" for success is no longer there and the speed has gone with the hunger.

For Frentzen the view from the top step of the podium would have been sweet indeed. Perhaps more than most drivers, he has suffered from the pressure that surrounds life at the top in Formula One. Now he is intent on making the most of the lifeline that team owner Eddie Jordan threw to him when it became clear that he was to join a long list of drivers no longer needed by Frank Williams.

Two years ago, after seven rounds of the championship, driving the best car in the pit-lane, he had scored one win but just thirteen points. Sure his Williams' car had let him down somewhat, but already the murmuring was around that he wasn't up to the job. When he won his first race for Williams such was his relief that he described the win as "like oil on my soul"

That win in San Marino was about as good as it got for Frentzen in his two years' driving for the Grove based outfit. He ended the '97 season with 42 points, the trouble was, his teammate Jacques Villeneuve had 81. In '98 pretty much his last act in a Williams' car was to be outbraked into the last corner of the last race by, of all people - Damon Hill.

As Frentzen drove around the Magny Cours circuit for the last half of the race he passed the stricken BAR car of his erstwhile teammate Jacques Villeneuve. For much of their two years together at Williams, Villeneuve was the more convincing performer and he was at pains to be sure Frentzen never forgot it. Rule number one in Formula One is to dominate your teammate and then worry about the others. If, like Frentzen, this mentality does not come naturally to you then you have already lost that first crucial battle.

When Villeneuve jumped ship to BAR and Frentzen was "let go" it looked like Villeneuve had scored another points victory. Now Frentzen is on the front cover, while Villeneuve is embroiled in public disagreements with one of the founders of his troubled team. His last two races have resulted in DNF's through driver error and the car is constantly breaking. Seven races is a long time in Formula One.

Momentum it seems can be everything. When you have it the car never breaks. Like Mika Hakkinen's McLaren at Brazil, Frentzen's Jordan momentarily faltered with a gear selection problem but recovered. He fought wheel to wheel but the wheels never touched. He could have run out of fuel but he didn't. He resisted all the pressure and triumphed. Next time it will be easier, the memories of Magny Cours will guide him and so the confidence will build. It will seem much easier to be a natural winner than to be a constant loser.

Eddie Jordan must be wishing that all races could be held in the rain. This win, though, unlike the team's first win in the rain at Spa in '98, was as much down the quick-thinking of the brains trust on the pit-wall as to the driving of Frentzen. The gamble was that the track wouldn't dry, and therefore, filled with enough fuel during his one stop, he could stay out until the end of the race on his "wet" tyres. A stop for "dry" tyres would have killed his advantage and handed the victory to Hakkinen. The fact that Ricardo Zonta, the only driver on dry tyres in the closing laps of the race, was up to four seconds per lap faster than anyone else, shows just how close they came to miscalculation.

If Frentzen is the comeback kid of Formula One then Ralf Schumacher must rank a close second. Was it just a year ago in France that he trailed home to a sixteenth place finish three laps down after yet another car to car tangle? Since then he has hardly put a foot wrong and he drove yet another sensible race to bring his Williams home to a fourth place finish. The way he dealt firmly with Schumacher Senior was a sure sign that he has no intentions of spending anymore time than he needs to in his brother's shadow.

For David Coulthard this race was a total disaster, but this time the fault was not his. He did a better job than Hakkinen in the wet qualifying session and was running away with the race when his McLaren let him down again. Logic says that he should retain his seat with the team for next year but not all driver selection decisions are logical. For Coulthard the frustrations must be building inside, for he knows that he must break the vicious cycle of second place finishes-mistake-breakdown that so seems to be his hallmark since that Jerez race at the end of '97, when he was ordered to slow down and let his teammate Hakkinen win.

The French Grand Prix was a breath of fresh air to all involved in Formula One. A real race from beginning to end. For Heinz-Harald Frentzen and the Jordan team it was a step closer to that elusive summit to be seen as natural winners. The view is always better from the top step.

Roger Horton© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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