Seizing the moment

One of the things I love about Formula 1 racing is that one event can alter the life of a team and can make or break a driver. You never know when something like that is going to happen and often at the time you do not always see the significance of the events. World Championship showdowns are the obvious dramatic moments but there are always others back through the field.

This is why Formula 1 is always going to be stranger than fiction and why fiction about Formula 1 is never very convincing. Imagine if you submitted a film script of the 1999 season to a Hollywood studio. It would be rejected immediately because no-one would ever believe the story. One of the problems which afflicted Sylvester Stallone's plan to make a movie about Formula 1 (and there were a lot of them) was that he and his cigar-toting pals never really came up with a decent story. Stallone was too old to be playing a driver and so the story had to revolve around him coaching a pretty young actor.

Yawn, wake me up at the end.

Of course, Sly and his pals never bothered to ask any of the professional writers in F1 what they thought would be a good idea. Film people are like that. They are like big tobacco companies and automobile makers from Bavaria. They always know better than everyone else. If F1 was not a difficult activity, why did a clever man like Ron Dennis have to have a team called Project 4 when he should have been in F1 with Project One? Why when you look up Frank Williams in the history books do you find his name listed with Frank Williams (Racing Cars) Ltd., De Tomaso, Politoys, Iso-Marlboro and Wolf-Williams before Williams Grand Prix Engineering? Why is Tom Walkinshaw now struggling with his third F1 team?

Success in the sport is all about grasping the right moment and I was wondering the other day if this is the right moment for Jaguar Racing. The team has had a pretty meteoric rise to fame - and that despite some pretty poor decisions along the way. Will it have what it takes to be successful in 2000? I ask the question because I know that there will be a lot of fuss about Jaguar in Australia and I cannot decide if it will be a success. The team is not Stewart Grand Prix but nor is it really Jaguar Racing and it does not seem to have a charismatic leader because the Ford Motor Company has chosen to leave the role of chief executive open. Obviously Ford has someone in mind for the job but they are not ready to join the team just yet.

Successful Formula 1 teams always have strong managers. Weak ones blow away like chaff in the wind. But, it's the first time I have ever seen no leader at all, although I suppose one could argue that some team bosses over the last 15 years might as well not have been there because they were utterly ineffectual. Whatever the case they were not successful...

The thing that worries me is that Jaguar may need someone to shout at the drivers this year. Eddie Irvine and Johnny Herbert are not friends. I noticed their body language at the launch when they were busy telling everyone that they were big boys now and would be fighting for the good of the team and not against one another. It was fishier that Billingsgate Market on a Friday, particularly when one studied the body language it was clear that something was going on between them.

But what had caused this?

I decided to investigate. Aside from the recent years in Formula 1, the pair had only been in the same series at the same time on one occasion. It was in Formula Ford in 1985. Both were driving less than competitive machinery with Herbert in a car called a Quest and Irvine in a Mondiale. I couldn't find any references to a problem between them.

The obvious clash would have been at the Formula Ford Festival, where careers are made and broken. I read the entire 1985 report but they were never even in the same race as far as I could understand. Herbert won a glorious victory and moved up and after that Irvine was always a step behind. Herbert made it to F1 in 1989, Irvine did not arrive until 1993.

So where was the problem?

And then I remembered that after his time at Benetton in 1989 his F1 career took a dive and he spent 1990 in Japan. But that was no good because Irvine did not get there until 1991 and by then Herbert has rejoined Team Lotus.

Or had he? I remembered that Julian Bailey had done the first few races for Team Lotus in 1991 before Herbert took over.

Where was Herbert? In Japan. Ah-ha! More investigation was needed. Yes, the books said, both men had done all races the Japanese Formula 3000 that year. But there were no mentions of any incidents. Herbert once finished second behind Irvine at place called Mine. Nothing.

I was beginning to give up on the idea and was willing to conclude that perhaps they were once both out chasing the same woman at some point and then I remembered Monza in 1994 and suddenly everything fell into place.

Those were the days when Team Lotus was still around and it was a good team. They never had any money but they were good people and fun to be with. They had struggled all year, with debts mounting, and everything hinged on the arrival of the new Lotus-Mugen Honda 109 at Monza. The car was going to save the day.

I recall that the Lotus Press Officer at the time declared, somewhat rashly, that she would perform immoral acts on Johnny if he qualified the new device in the top five. There seemed to be little risk that she would lose any sleep, clothing or virtue but then Johnny blasted around Monza and grabbed fourth on the grid. I went to see him after the session and he had a huge smile until I mumbled: "Well, your press lady is going to be very happy" at which point JH, who had obviously forgotten the agreement, went very pale and said: "Oh, no." and began to hyper-ventilate.

I left him leaning on a truck and wandered off to the motorhome to find the PR lady in question. Her face made white look like a strong color and she was incoherent with fear and embarrassment.

"I wonder if there are any boke sheds around here, you and Johnny can nip behind," I said gleefully.

Being the gentleman that he is, I expect Johnny took a cash settlement because I never heard any more of the matter.

On Sunday the whole team was pumped up. For weeks there had been rumors that Lotus was on the verge of disaster. It is hard, seven years later to remember just how powerful a name we used to think it was. Lotus was like Ferrari. It was part and parcel of Formula 1. But we knew the rumors were true and we knew that a big result was what was needed to save the day.

And so when the field set off down towards the first chicane at Monza the Lotus fans in the paddock held their breath. The two Ferraris got away well with Jean Alesi leading Gerhard Berger down towards the chicane. Damon Hill and the others had been left behind but Irvine had burst through from ninth on the grid. He was right behind Johnny as they went into the braking area. And then he hit him. Herbert was spun in front of the whole field. The race was stopped, I think. But Johnny had an old 107C as his spare and he would start from the pitlane.

It destroyed the team.

The next day Lotus sought protection from its creditors with an Administration Order. Tom Walkinshaw rang the administrator and offered money for Herbert's contract. At the next race Herbert was driving a Ligier.

Lotus was sold to a new owner but there was no money and the dream died during the winter.

When you look back in Formula 1, you will always find such pivotal moments. A driver can make his career with one impressive manoeuvre, or he can kill himself. There are no second chances. Irvine was going nowhere in 1993 when Eddie Jordan decided to give him a run in the F1 car. He was, if I remember correctly, the fifth driver that year to drive the second Jordan, following in the footsteps of Ivan Capelli, Thierry Boutsen, Marco Apicella and Emanuele Naspetti. He seized the moment and finished sixth, annoying Ayrton Senna to such an extent that the Brazilian went to see him after the race and boxed him around the ear.

Herbert's career has always been a matter of moments that were seized: he won the Formula Ford Festival, he finished fourth on his F1 debut in Brazil in 1989 when he could barely walk, he has won three Grands Prix but all of them were because he seized the moment. Irvine's wins in 1999 were much the same.

One wonders where the two will have their next moment - and who will seize it...

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