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How to win a Grand Prix with a broken leg (without knowing it)

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Jun 27, 2020, 2:05 PM

Heinz-Harald Frentzen was one of Formula 1’s great enigmas of the late 1990s. The son of a funeral director was rated by some as “faster than Michael Schumacher” in their time racing in Group C for Mercedes and in his early F1 years. But although he joined Williams-Renault at its peak, he struggled to fit in – and found his F1 home at another (albeit very different) British team in Jordan Grand Prix.

Having starred at Sauber in the early years of his F1 career, Frentzen replaced reigning world champion Damon Hill at Williams for 1997.

Yet he scored only one win to champion teammate Jacques Villeneuve’s seven, leaving him a very distant second in the world championship – and only once Michael Schumacher had been stripped of all his points for his indiscretion at the Jerez finale.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Williams FW19

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Williams FW19

Photo by: Sutton Images

Ralf Schumacher, Williams FW21, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jordan Mugen Honda 199

Ralf Schumacher, Williams FW21, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jordan Mugen Honda 199

Photo by: Sutton Images

As Williams’s star waned after Renault pulled out, Frentzen moved on to Jordan for 1999 in a straight swap with Ralf Schumacher (above, right).

Regarded as a driver who required an arm around his shoulder, rather than tough love, Frentzen gelled with the fun-loving madcap nature of Eddie Jordan far better than with taskmasters Frank Williams and Patrick Head.

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“It was a great season with the Jordan team,” he reflects. “We had a fantastic relationship and could fight for the title when perhaps people didn’t expect us to.”

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jordan Mugen Honda 199

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jordan Mugen Honda 199

Photo by: Sutton Images

Frentzen was bang on form in the opening races of 1999, but his breakthrough Jordan victory in France only came after a horrifying crash in Canada.

In a bruising race in Montreal, which required four safety car periods, Frentzen suffered a huge crash into the barriers with four laps remaining. He had been on course for second place but a brake disc failed, sending him plunging head-on into a tyrewall.

“The impact knocked me out briefly, and my left knee was bleeding but my right leg seemed fine,” he recalls. “There was no visual sign [of injury], but my right leg had smashed against the bulkhead.

“My kneecap actually had thousands of tiny fractures, and one of the bones in my leg had completely split down the middle. When they released me from the hospital, I couldn’t walk properly because my kneecap was pushing down against the broken leg bone.”

Yikes! How painful was that?

“It was extremely painful – actually I couldn’t sleep with a blanket touching my right leg – but it didn’t stop me driving the car, or affect my concentration. It only hurt on full throttle, but when it rained I didn’t need full throttle so much.”

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jordan 199 Mugen Honda

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jordan 199 Mugen Honda

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Jordan 199

Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Jordan 199

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jordan Mugen Honda 199

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jordan Mugen Honda 199

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jordan

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jordan

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jordan 199

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jordan 199

Photo by: Sutton Images

And so, on to Magny-Cours, a “wet, rainy French Grand Prix – and although I didn’t realise it at the time, I won with a broken leg!”

Following a bizarre, weather-affected qualifying session – in which Rubens Barrichello took pole for Stewart ahead of Jean Alesi’s Sauber and Olivier Panis’s Prost! – Frenzten would start from fifth place.

“The race started dry, but it began raining on the seventh or eighth lap,” he says. “We had a set-up that, in the dry, wasn’t the best. The car rolled about a lot, and so we had a few aerodynamic difficulties.

“The whole weekend had been spoiled by the weather, and when we got started in the dry, I thought, ‘Uh-oh, we’ve gone the wrong way here.’ I was pushing very hard, but it was difficult. Then it started to rain, and the whole situation played into our hands.”

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jordan Mugen Honda 199, Mika Hakkinen, Mclaren MP4-14

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jordan Mugen Honda 199, Mika Hakkinen, Mclaren MP4-14

Photo by: Sutton Images

This was back in the days of in-race refueling, so having a wide window to fit in with changing track conditions was a definite bonus. In Frentzen’s case, the team decided to pack the car full of fuel when he stopped for wets.

“At the start of the season people asked why we had such a big fuel tank, but the real question was, who had the biggest?” smiles Frentzen, who always took a keen interest in the engineering side of car. “In those days the one-stop strategy was the fastest, but you had to do it way over half distance – and when was dictated by how big your fuel tank was.

“Of course, having a big tank had an impact on weight distribution, wheelbase and so on. We had a good one-stop race car, and when that pitstop came so early, it felt like an age as I sat there, with all that fuel going in. I didn’t realise at the time that when they said ‘we’re going to fill you up’ that they meant full, full, full!”

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jordan Mugen Honda 199

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jordan Mugen Honda 199

Photo by: Sutton Images

Of course, this meant that when he emerged from pitlane, HHF was struggling relative to those around him, but Jordan was playing the long game in terms of strategy.

“When I came out, the track was really wet, and all the guys were slipping and sliding all over the place,” he adds. “The safety car had to come out, so I was thinking, ‘How much fuel do I have compared to the others?’

“The heavy rain passed, the race restarted, and I was still sliding around a lot, even though I knew the set-up should favour us in the rain. Mika Hakkinen came past me quite easily, I just couldn’t keep him behind, he was maybe three- or four-tenths faster.

“But with ten laps to go, all my competitors like Mika [Hakkinen] and Rubens were pitting, and I didn’t have to. I realised, ‘Oops, sorry guys, but that’s why I had such a hard time against you earlier on!’

“We decided to be a bit careful in the closing laps, but after the race it turned out I could have gone flat-out for the entire stint.”

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jordan, Mika Hakkinen, McLaren, Rubens Barrichello, Stewart

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Jordan, Mika Hakkinen, McLaren, Rubens Barrichello, Stewart

Photo by: Sutton Images

As it was, he won the race by over 11s from Hakkinen’s McLaren, with Barrichello a distant third.

“After the race, I had a full, detailed scan on my right leg, and the doctors couldn’t believe how many fractures they saw. I still have the picture of it at home.”

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Series Formula 1
Author Charles Bradley