It is easy to forget just how close Heinz-Harald Frentzen came to winning the 1999 Formula One World Championship for Jordan.
He finished only twenty two points behind title winner Mika Hakkinen, but it could have been much closer if not for bad luck.
An electrical problem during the European Grand Prix robbed Frentzen of likely victory and ten championship points. If he had finished that race and won as expected, Heinz-Harald would have been in contention for the world title at the final round in Japan.
That electrical problem wasn’t his only misfortune in 1999. Frentzen lost third place at Imola when he spun on oil that was not flagged by marshals. He was also cheated of fifth in Spain when his gearbox broke, and second place in Canada when his brakes failed in the dying stages.
There is also the Malaysian Grand Prix to consider where Frentzen ended up sixth. He had to start the race from fourteenth because the headrest on his Jordan fell apart in qualifying, and if it wasn’t for that drama he would have comfortably driven to fourth on race day.
If Heinz-Harald Frentzen had finished those unlucky races he would have won the World Championship by four points. Not only that, but he would only have needed to finish sixth in the final race to sew it up.
Frentzen and Jordan came oh-so-close to producing the Formula One upset of the century.
Mika Hakkinen also had his share of mechanical issues in 1999 so the direct comparison with Frentzen is not a fair one. Needless to say, if Heinz-Harald won the world title he would have been very deserving. He did not make a single driving mistake all season and made the most of every opportunity that came his way. Frentzen may not have been able to match Mika’s speed but he drove faultlessly in every Grand Prix, something which no one else managed.
Hakkinen, Schumacher and Coulthard threw away easy race victories in 1999 with stupid mistakes. Eddie Irvine also cost himself valuable points by running off the road.
Frentzen did not.
It is interesting to think just how close the team now called Force India came to winning the championship.
However, Formula One is a sport where it is very as to ask ‘what if?’
This year was a great example with two drivers missing out on the title by the slimiest of margins. Both Alonso and Hamilton had plenty of chances throughout the season to make up the extra point they needed to become champion, but neither will want to look back in regret.
Alonso in particular will want to forget about 2007 because he threw away more opportunities than his rookie teammate.
The two McLaren drivers were evenly matched on pace this year and the gap between them was always small. Overall Alonso was quicker but he was not able to transform that slight advantage into more championship points because the mistakes he made had more of an impact than Hamilton’s.
Lewis made just as many errors as Alonso, but his were not as critical. Hamilton ran wide during the Australian and Belgian Grands Prix, and he spent most of the weekend at Monaco bouncing off the barriers. The rookie also made a meal of his pitstop during the race at Silverstone and ruined the following Grand Prix at the Nurburgring when he aquaplaned at turn one. Then of course there were the mistakes he made during the final two races.
Hamilton’s blunders were minor and only one of them resulted in lost points. Fourth place went begging in the Chinese Grand Prix when Lewis beached his McLaren just short of the pitlane, but Hamilton was not entirely to blame. He was put into that position by his team because they did not call him into the pits quickly enough to fit new tyres. Hamilton’s only other serious error came on lap one of the Brazilian Grand Prix when he ran wide at turn three. However, Lewis only dropped four places on that occasion and he would easily have made them back up with an agreeable gearbox.
Unfortunately for Alonso, his mistakes were not so insignificant.
Fernando’s biggest slip-up came in front of his home crowd at Barcelona when he threw away a very strong chance of victory. Quite simply Alonso cracked under pressure and drove into the gravel at turn one, which is the same mistake he made at the Canadian Grand Prix a month later.
The double world champ also wiped himself out of the contest at Fuji with his high speed crash, although that was just as much down to the atrocious conditions as it was his driving. Then again, he was the only driver who made that mistake.
You could also argue that Alonso made an error of judgement during qualifying at Hungary. Fernando said he was talking to the team on the radio whilst Hamilton sat behind him in the pits, but the stewards disagreed and so did a lot of fans. If Alonso intentionally delayed Lewis during that fateful pitstop it was not a wise decision.
It is not fair to say that Alonso’s errors cost him the title because the other drivers around him made mistakes as well. However, it is quite bizarre that Alonso made any mistakes at all given that he won the world title last year without putting a foot wrong all season. Schumacher threw his Ferrari at the scenery more than once during his final year and it was enough to hand victory to Alonso who became the perfect model of consistency.
Alonso won the title in 2006 because he drove like Heinz-Harald Frentzen, but he lost it in 2007 because he didn’t.
The current points system rewards consistency, and the cars are now so reliable that any DNF is very decisive. Simply finishing each race in the points can put you in title contention.
Nick Heidfeld should take note.
His only mistakes in 2007 were collisions with other drivers in Japan and Europe, and he was not solely to blame in either instance. Heidfeld scored points in every race that he finished this year so if BMW can improve just a little over winter he has the consistency to emulate Frentzen and aim for a championship upset.
It would be amazing if he did follow in Frentzen’s footsteps given the many similarities that already exist between the two drivers,
Both were born in the same German town, Monchengladbach, and both raced for Mercedes before breaking into the Grand Prix scene. Quite amazingly, both have driven for exactly the same teams in Formula One; Sauber, Jordan, Williams, and Prost.
It doesn’t end there because the two drivers raced with Sauber early on in their careers, only to leave and return at a later date.
Quick Nick will be hoping the similarities continue and that he can use his consistency to challenge for the title.
If Heidfeld can continue to drive steadily next year he could be a dark horse for the championship. It would take a few lucky wins and a lot of problems for McLaren and Ferrari, but a slightly quicker BMW and a bit of luck could throw him into contention.
The odds of Nick Heidfeld becoming the 2008 World Champion are very slim, but you can never rule anything out in Formula One.
The odds were just as long for Heinz-Harald Frentzen.