Pour a good German beer and toast the 45th birthday of three-time Grand Prix winner Heinz-Harald Frentzen!
A favourite driver among many of the sport’s fans, Frentzen – or ‘HHF’ as he was affectionately abbreviated – was blessed with an uncharacteristically well-developed sense of humour and a great sense of irony.
The son of an undertaker, he learned to drive in the family hearse, and would delight in terrifying other motorists by controlling the car from the passenger’s side!
Electing not to pursue a lucrative in the funeral industry, Heinz-Harald was a hot property in the junior categories, and considered by many as a man quicker than his very famous up-and-coming compatriot, a certain Michael Schumacher…
The perception was borne from their days as rivals in the German Formula 3 championship in 1989, before they were paired in Mercedes’ ‘Junior Team’ in the 1990 World Sportscar Championship.
Too impatient to wait upon Mercedes’ plans to return to F1, Frentzen quit the team at the end of the season and signed to race for Eddie Jordan’s Formula 3000 team in 1991. It was a dreadful decision, and he was consigned to rebuilding his career in the Japanese F3000 scene, all the while watching Schumacher go from F1 debutant to race-winner in the space of a year. With good grace, Frentzen blamed no one but himself for the poor career move.
Sadly for Heinz-Harald, this perhaps set the tone for the balance of motorsport career. By dint of equipment and circumstance (and some felt, not enough hunger on his part), he was never able to stand up to that tag during a Grand Prix career that spanned from 1994 to 2003.
His F1 debut came about with the support of his old Mercedes team boss Peter Sauber, who signed him for the 1994 season. Three promising seasons with the team yielded plenty of praise for his efforts in the midfield cars, and he picked up a podium at the 1995 Italian Grand Prix.
But it all turned sour. Just a single win in two seasons and he left the team a broken man, only to rediscover his form and passion for racing with Jordan in 1999, where he picked up two further wins and was an outside chance for the Drivers’ Championship, only to falter in the final rounds.
Viewed therefore to be a strong contender for the 2000 championship, the Jordan Mugen-Honda combination didn’t deliver that season and he was sacked in curious circumstances in mid-2001, finding refuge in Prost for the remainder of the season before it collapsed.
He moved to Arrows in 2002, and again showed form when the car worked (which was rarely, given the team’s perilous financial state), before the team too went into liquidation mid-season.
A final season with Sauber yielded a lucky podium finish at Indianapolis, but his motivation had well and truly gone and no further F1 opportunities were forthcoming.