On this day in F1 – February 22nd 2001
Newly appointed Jaguar Racing team boss Bobby Rahal lashed out at the team’s first driver Eddie Irvine for openly criticizing the new Jaguar R2 after suffering a heavy crash during the car’s first outing at a testing session in Valencia: ‘I think Eddie is trying to tweak us into getting the job done, but I believe the way to motivate is to be positive. I mentioned to Eddie that I thought he needed to contribute his commitment more positively.’ Rahal’s reproach was the onset of what would become a very blurred relationship between Irvine and the three times CART champion who in the beginning of his career was also a nameless participant to the 1978 American and Canadian Grand Prix for the Wolf F1 team.
After Jaguar’s disappointing maiden season in 2000, team owner Ford – that in June 1999 had purchased Stewart Grand Prix for renaming it to Jaguar Racing as a marketing initiative to promote its premium car company – appointed Rahal with the task of turning its F1 team into a credible force. One of the reasons for selecting Rahal was his friendship with McLaren’s technical director Adrian Newey as it was Ford’s plan to get Newey on board at Jaguar when his existing McLaren contract expired at the end of 2002. At first the plan seemed to work as immediately after the 2001 Monaco Grand Prix it was announced that Newey had signed a contract to join Jaguar Racing as from August 2002 thanks to an initiative masterminded by Rahal, but two days later Newey abruptly changed his mind and committed to staying with McLaren until 2005. Jaguar took the matter to court and Rahal was quoted saying ‘I don’t want to get into semantics but it is a legally binding agreement, very specific in detail’, but as time went by it became clear to Jaguar’s lawyers that under EU employment law a judge was unlikely to force an individual to work for them against his will, and a couple of days before the hearing a settlement was reached that saw McLaren pay an unknown amount to Jaguar and that compelled Ron Dennis and Newey to make a public apology. The Newey fiasco inevitably weakened Bobby Rahal’s position in the Jaguar team, and a couple of weeks later he was fired after reportedly attempting to sell Eddie Irvine to the Jordan team that was in need of a new first driver after Heinz-Harald Frentzen had been axed.
The man who was instrumental in the elimination of Rahal was Niki Lauda who, shortly after his dismissal from the board of directors of the airline company that once carried his name, had been engaged by Ford to give a helping hand to Rahal but who very soon had his shovel under the American that was not very familiar with F1 politics. Firstly Lauda was deliberately leaky on the details of the pending Newey engagement so that it could only abort, and as soon as he found out about the backroom talks between Rahal and Jordan about the prospect of Irvine moving he rushed into an alliance with ‘Irv the swerve’ for a public disclosure that left Ford no other option than to sack Rahal. Quite ironically, Lauda fired Irvine little more than a year after Rahal’s firing.
Video: After claiming that even a monkey could drive a modern F1 car with all the technical driver aids such as traction control and power steering, Lauda himself took the steer of the 2001 Jaguar R2 hoping to shock his drivers Irvine and de la Rosa by showing them up in a test in January 2002. ‘We’re going to need to put an even smaller steering wheel on to get it past his belly’, Irvine returned the favor. Stay tuned until the end of the video to see who of the two had the last laugh.