October 16, 2005

End of an era for Jordan, Minardi, Sauber

The 2005 Chinese Grand Prix is a particularly poignant one. As well as marking the end of the championship, the Shanghai round is the last time we'll see three of Formula One's most famous team names - those of Jordan, Minardi and Sauber.

The three teams' infrastructure isn't set to disappear - they will be competing under different names from the start of the 2006 season. It is still the end of an era, though. Between them the teams have clocked up 805 race starts, taken four wins, 25 podiums and scored 521 Championship points.

Of the three, Jordan - set to become Midland F1 next year - has undoubtedly enjoyed the most success. It was founded in 1991 by Eddie Jordan, a charismatic Irishman who had enjoyed success as a constructor in Formula 3 and F3000. And it was certainly an exciting first season - Ford power providing the team with a competitive car, and allowing lead driver Andrea de Cesaris to finish the drivers' championship in ninth place. The team's second driver, Bertrand Gachot, missed the end of the season after being sent to prison for assaulting a taxi driver - and in his place at the Belgian Grand Prix, Eddie Jordan gave one Michael Schumacher his Formula One debut. Sadly for Jordan, Schumacher signed for Benetton and only ever made a single start for the team.

By the mid 1990s Jordan were establishing themselves as an up-and-coming team. Rubens Barrichello got the first of the team's 19 podiums in the 1994 Pacific Grand Prix - and also landed the first pole position with a brilliant qualifying performance in Belgium. Over the next couple of seasons the team's fortunes continued to improve as they secured their place at the top of the mid-table group of teams. Many of Formula One's most talented drivers passed through during this period, including Eddie Irvine, Ralf Schumacher, Giancarlo Fisichella, Damon Hill and Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

It was the last two drivers who were to deliver Jordan's greatest victories. After a lacklustre start to the 1998 season, former world champion Hill redeemed himself by taking the team's first win in the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix - with team mate Ralf Schumacher following him home in second. And the following year, Frentzen took the team to a third-place finish in the constructors' championship (and bagging third in the drivers' title himself) after a strong season in which he scored two victories and entered the final race of the year with a mathematical possibility of emerging world champion.

It would turn out to be the highlight of Eddie Jordan's time in Formula One. From the 2000 season onwards Jordan began to suffer from a lack of pace. In part this was due to the disintegration of the engineering team that Jordan had put together - but as Formula One budgets began to really boom, the relatively small team also found itself unable to raise the sponsorship income to match the spending of its rivals. By 2003, when Honda withdrew its engine supply, the team was clearly in trouble - and spent the following two years battling at the back of the grid with Minardi. After Midland's takeover Eddie Jordan was replaced, and the decision was made to compete under the Jordan name for one more season - with the end of the race in Shanghai the chapter comes to an end.

The Sauber team have enjoyed less success - never taking a win and only finishing on the podium six times in 214 races. Yet many in the paddock reckon that the Swiss team is looking towards a rosier future after being taken over by BMW. Sauber had been a sportscar race constructor before they entered Formula One in 1993. Their involvement in the sport got off to a fairytale start as JJ Lehto finished fifth in the team's inaugural Grand Prix. It was not an omen of things to come, and the team struggled to rise as far as mid-table in the seasons that followed.

For many years Sauber enjoyed very close links with Ferrari. Their Petronas-badged engines were near-identical to Ferrari's units, while for the 2003 and 2004 seasons the two team's chassis had strong similarities. With the full takeover by BMW, this technical partnership is at an end - and with the German manufacturer's hunger for the championship stronger than ever after experiencing Grand Prix success with Williams, few would bet against the BMW team becoming a major force in seasons to come.

And although it was a rare race when Minardi managed anything better than qualifying and finishing at the rear of the field, the Italian team may arguably be missed the most of the three Shanghai retirees. They competed in their first race as early as 1985, and since then the Faenza-based team's plucky determination, relentless optimism and limited technical resources have stood in stark contrast to the rise of the wealthy, manufacturer-backed teams that dominate the paddock now.

And although Minardi will be remembered, principally, for their lack of success - during their 340 race starts they did have its moments. Italian driver Pierluigi Martini managed to qualify in fifth, fourth and third positions in 1989 - going one better with P2 for the 1990 American Grand Prix. Despite this, the team never managed to score a podium, with three fourth-placed finishes their best results.

By 2001 the team was in serious difficulties and bankruptcy was a real risk. They were rescued by Australian businessman Paul Stoddart, who quickly established himself as one of the paddock's more colourful characters. And although the results didn't improve markedly in the years that followed, Stoddart's policy of recruiting talented new drivers meant that several Formula One superstars made their debut in a Minardi - including Giancarlo Fisichella, Jarno Trulli, Mark Webber and current world champion Fernando Alonso. It was Webber who gave the team their best performance in recent years, driving to an emotional fifth-placed finish in the 2002 Australian Grand Prix - his first race for the team.

More recently, Minardi's lack of resources have meant that their drivers have been expected to bring large quantities of sponsorship money to secure their seats. The surprise takeover towards the end of 2005 will see it emerge next season as a ‘junior’ team for Red Bull, which we now know will be called Squadra Toro Rosso.

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