Damon Spa 1998Spa-Francorchamps circuit.  Framed by the Ardennes, designed for the committed and courageous, a flowing theatre of racing wrapped in a ribbon of tarmac.  If there was a venue at which to choose your team’s maiden win, Spa would be it.

For Jordan Grand Prix this was a circuit which already held memories. In 1991 we had unleashed Michael Schumacher upon the world of Formula One and come within a litre of oil of bringing Andrea De Cesaris a Grand Prix victory.  In 1994 Rubens Barrichello put his Jordan on pole position, making the most of a drying track and further sealing the team’s reputation as the one most likely to cause an upset.

The Belgian Grand Prix in 1998 was special, but well before the race was run.

Our factory staff were there.  We’d arranged a trip, the take-up was good.  Denise from accounts was coming.  Lots of others; the people who made Jordan Grand Prix run seamlessly, whatever the challenge.  The unsung, unrecognised, unfamiliar heroes who are the people that really make a team work.

Our fans were there.  Club Jordan, run by former Saab UK PR man Paul Banks, had been running a coach trip to the race for the previous two years.  Visit the factory at Silverstone, take the coach to Spa in time for practice, dinner on Saturday night at which EJ and the drivers would turn up, and an allocated block of grandstand seats on the run down from La Source.

Our sponsors were there.  Nigel Northridge from Benson & Hedges, the man who first met EJ when he was working with the Suilk Cut brand back in the days of TWR Jaguar’s Le Mans programme, and later transformed Jordan’s fortunes with a deal starting in 1996.  Richard Child from MasterCard, attracted to F1 by the stillborn Lola programme in ’97, but converted to the Jordan cause soon after.  And Richard Surface, boss of Pearl Assurance, who wasn’t sure the wing mirrors were a great space on the car until he saw them feature in every cockpit shot.

Our favourite journalist was there.  Maurice Hamilton, chronicler of Jordan Grand Prix, who had penned a superb book ‘Race Without End’ in early 1994 and was now working a follow-up, ‘Jordan’s Drive to Win’.  He came to Spa with our truckies, sitting in the cab of one of our high spec Scania tractor units, experiencing what it is like to be responsible for hauling an F1 team around Europe.

Our documentary crew was there from UK broadcaster ITV, desperate for something positive to record for ‘Driving Ambition – A Season with Eddie Jordan’.  The project hadn’t been going well, the team not scoring a point in the first half of the season.  There was a sense of crisis about the documentary not having much of a story to tell.  

Everyone was there who mattered.  Except Gary Anderson, the man under whose technical direction Jordan Grand Prix had arrived with a bang in 1991 and upset the establishment ever since.  He was not in Spa, instead Mike Gascoyne had been parachuted in prior to Silverstone in an effort to bolster the team’s apparently ailing fortunes.  There was tension at the top.

And then it all came together, starting with qualifying and a mesmerising lap from Damon Hill.  

Employed to show Jordan what was needed to win, and less than two years after he had won the World Championship for Williams, Damon set things up perfectly for Sunday.  Third quickest in final practice he looked set to be edged by Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari during the final run in qualifying.  Michael was up on sector one, and again in sector two.  The Ferrari duly sliced across the line in P3. Only for Damon to blitz sector 3, back when the Bus Stop chicane was as tricky as hell, and drop his arch rival back to fourth.  Perfect.

The race was manic, chaotic and wonderful.

Damon & Ralf SpaThe huge accident on the run down towards Eau Rouge caused by DC’s spin in the McLaren at the exit of La Source.  The 13 car pile up which ensued, and through which both Jordan-Mugen Honda cars emerged unscathed and ready for the restart. 

The restart when Damon powered between the two McLarens to take the lead.  Although Michael overtook him after 8 laps we were all watching and knowing that on this track, in this weather, anything could happen.  And it did.  When the Ferrari appeared out of the mist and rain running on three wheels, thanks to another intervention from DC, there was the sudden realisation that this might become our day or days.

And then there was our other man, Ralf Schumacher, suddenly running in second place and closing on Damon.  Ralf’s car had more downforce, was set up for heavier rain, and he had Jean Alesi’s Sauber coming up fast.  Jean, the man whose career had been saved by EJ after he was dropped by Marlboro, who went on to win the FIA Formula 3000 Championship in 1989 for Camel Eddie Jordan Racing.  The man who, that same year, Eddie parachuted into Tyrrell at the French Grand Prix.  Could he really be about to screw up our first win, our 1-2 finish?

It all worked out.  Damon stayed in control, made it clear he didn’t think Ralf would do the team any favours by going for the overtake, and Ralf duly did what he was told.

A one-two finish.  The first time a team had taken its maiden win in Formula One in such style, with a Hill and Schumacher on the podium, and a madly dancing EJ joining them for an ecstatic celebration.  

The trophy.  Even the trophy was Irish.  The Exxon Mobil Flying Pegasus, crafted by none other by Waterford Crystal.  This was a day you couldn’t make up if you tried.

Our hotel, Le Plein Vent situated on the road beyond Les Combes chicane, hosted our celebratory dinner that night.  The owner opened his wine cellar, and we did some damage.  I called Gary Anderson to congratulate him, and handed the phone onto Andy Stevenson, these days sporting director for Racing Point Force India.  Gary sounded emotional, but then we all were.

The stories flowed for days after.  The staff coaches got stuck in traffic leaving the track, but no one minded.  They got off.  Denise from accounts danced on the road.  Maurice Hamilton told us he had never experienced anything like it as the trucks headed back to Silverstone, with cars flashing their headlights, horns sounding, people waving.  The ITV documentary crew could not quite believe what had happened; suddenly they had a story to tell.  Someone from Club Jordan wrote to me to say it was the best day of his life.

That was it.  Spa ’98; a full twenty years ago. 

Watching Racing Point Force India qualify on the second row last Saturday, and scoring a bucketful of points on Sunday, heightened the memories.  In sport, even a sport where the technology dominates, Fate still has a role.  Some things, it seems, are meant to be.