FEATURED – Underrated Drivers: Heinz-Harald Frentzen

Heinz-Harald Frentzen was born on 18th May 1967 in Mönchengladbach. The German driver was part of that generation of talented drivers guided by Michael Schumacher. He was always a great team player, greatly capable of giving the right indications to his mechanics for the car setups. Unluckily, he was never able to fully express his talent, not being able to win that ambitious World Drivers’ Championship.

Written By Giuseppe Gaetano Dino, Edited By Ty Fuller

He got into motorsport thanks to his father, being a driver himself. As Heinz-Harald grew up, Frentzen Sr became a great fan of his, supporting since his early karting experiences.

Aged 18, Frentzen made the jump to single-seater racing, taking part in the German Ford 2000 Championship. After two seasons, with a second place in the standings in 1987, he was ready to move on to the next category.

In 1988, he made his debut in the German Formula Opel Lotus, driving for Jochen Mass’ team, the ex F1 driver having noticed the young German’s potential. After winning the title in his rookie season, he moved on to the next level.

In 1989 he was ready for a great challenge; he raced in the German Formula 3, competing against the likes of Michael Schumacher and Karl Wendlinger, ending the championship in second place, behind Wendlinger and tied on points with Schumacher. Unfortunately, despite the great success in junior categories, the call from F1 didn’t come yet.

In 1990 the German took part in Sport Prototypes Championship and was also signed for the Mercedes Junior Team, together with his F3 rivals from the previous year. He then decided to race in Formula 3000, leaving Mercedes, but didn’t get above 14th place in the final standings during the two years spent in the championship. 

In 1992 he debuted in the Le Mans 24 Hours, driving a Lola T92/10 for the team Euro Racing, ending the race in sixth place.

After driving in the Japanese Formula 3000 in 1992 and 1993, but with poor results, he finally got the call from Sauber to race in F1 alongside Karl Wendlinger.

After Senna’s fatal accident in Imola, he was offered a place at Williams for the rest of the 1994 season, but he declined and stayed with Sauber. The next year he got his first podium at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza, with a third place.

After three years with the Swiss team, in 1997 he made the move to Williams, who had won both championships the previous year, replacing the departing reigning champion Damon Hill, who had moved to the Arrows team. Driving alongside Jaques Villeneuve, he got his first win in F1 in the San Marino Grand Prix, his only success that year. At the final Grand Prix of the season in Jerez, he famously set the same exact qualifying time as title contenders Villeneuve and Schumacher. After Schumacher’s move on Villeneuve, which resulted in Michael’s disqualification from the Championship, he ended the season in second place, 39 points behind teammate and World Champion Jaques Villeneuve.

His 1998 campaign was quite anonymous, with a best result of third at the inaugural Grand Prix in Melbourne. After this poor season, he decided to move to the Jordan team for 1999.

In 1999 Frentzen had his best season in F1, scoring two wins in Magny-Cours and Monza, constantly outpacing teammate and 1996 World Champion Damon Hill, in his last season in F1. And right after the Italian Grand Prix, surprisingly it became clear the German had become a serious title contender, 10 points behind Ferrari’s Eddie Irvine and McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen. However, at the following Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, he retired from the race while leading, which ultimately lost him the chance to fight for the title in the final two races of the season. Although it was first believed his retirement was due to some mechanical problem, it was revealed more than 20 years later by ex Jordan marketing chief Mark Gallagher, that it was actually a German’s mistake that caused him to retire: after the pitstop, he forgot to deactivate the anti stall system, which made him stop immediately after the pitlane exit. In the end, the title was won by Mika Hakkinen, and Frentzen ended his best season ever in third place with 54 points.

The following two seasons with team Silverstone were pretty disappointing, with only two podiums in 2000. He was fired by Jordan halfway through the 2001 season, and spent the rest of 2001 and 2002 driving for underperforming teams like Arrows and Prost.

In his last season in F1, in 2003, he came back to his first team, Sauber. Despite a not competitive car, he got his last podium in the category in Indianapolis, and retired at the end of the year, ending a career full of ups and downs.

CAREER STATS: 156 GPs, 3 Wins, 18 Podiums, 2 Pole Positions, 6 Fastest Laps, Best Championship Result: 2nd (1997)

FUN FACT: After retiring from racing in 2008, he became a hearse driver for his father’s funeral agency in Mönchengladbach.

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