British American Racing in 1999: Debut Season That Was All Hype with No Results

Matt HillContributor IIIApril 18, 2012

13 Jun 1999:  Jacques Villeneuve in action in his BAR Supertec during the Canadian Grand Prix at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, Canada. \ Mandatory Credit: Michael Cooper /Allsport
Michael Cooper/Getty Images

Coming into Formula 1 as a brand new team can be very difficult, as Caterham, Marussia and HRT have demonstrated over the past few seasons. The sheer amount of money required to put together a Formula 1 team can stop teams in their tracks. Proposed teams have collapsed due to a lack of funds before they ever really began, including Mastercard Lola, USF1, DAMS and Dome.

Each of these failed teams were run by people with motorsport experience, but money stopped them from ever taking part on a serious level in Formula 1. Tyrrell were, sadly, on the way to their demise due to financial problems and in December 1997 the team was bought out by British American Tobacco and Craig Pollock paying around 30 million pounds for the team.

Ken Tyrrell was still the team boss, however, so it would be a final farewell season for the Tyrrell name and Ken Tyrrell himself. However, this plan quickly changed over a disagreement between the drivers that were to be used for the 1998 season.

Ken Tyrrell had decided on keeping Jos Verstappen after the Dutchman had impressed in 1997, along with Japanese rookie Tora Takagi. However, Pollock and his consortium were looking for other drivers to bring in money, and they decided they wanted Ricardo Rosset to drive with Takagi. In the beginning, Rosset was given the drive with Takagi and Ken Tyrrell was so incensed by the decision, he resigned.

The 1998 season was a complete disaster with the Tyrrell team battling with Minardi right at the back. The team ended, along with Minardi, with zero points and they were actually classified lower than Minardi in the constructors title. Hardly the way Ken Tyrrell would of liked to have seen his team end their Formula 1 days.  

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26 Apr 1998:  Ricardo Rosset cuts a corner in his Tyrrell as his engine blows during the San Marino Grand Prix at the Imola circuit in San Marino.  \ Mandatory Credit: Michael  Cooper/Allsport
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Ironically, the 107% rule was applied four times to stop a driver from competing, and on each occasion it was Rosset. There is a story that after Rosset failed to qualify for the Monaco Grand Prix, not only did he receive a warning from the stewards for his poor driving, the Tyrrell mechanics swapped the "t" and "r" of his name on his scooter, spelling the word "tosser".

On another occasion, Murray Walker said, "A lot of people are debating whether Rosset is really Formula 1 material."

Brundle simply replied, "Well, it's a fairly short debate, Murray."

Overall, 1998 was a season that I think everyone involved with the team would like to forget. But, heading into 1999 there was a new optimism in the team with the new name, new owners, a lot more money than they had before and a former World Champion driver coming into the team.

Craig Pollock was the manger for Jacques Villeneuve, so given Pollock's role in the team, it was hardly surprising to see the 1997 World Champion join the team, and Villeneuve was signed from Williams on a highly-lucrative contract. However, it was not thought that it was just the money that enticed Villeneuve to BAR. 

16 May 1999:  Jacques Villeneuve of Canada prepares to race the BAR Supertec during the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix in Monte Carlo, Monaco. \ Mandatory Credit: Mark Thompson /Allsport
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

The truth was Villeneuve, despite his title victory in 1997, was not seen by many people as on the same level as Schumacher; the majority still considered Schumacher to be the better driver and Villeneuve wanted to change that. It was thought by many that Villeneuve was going to try and do his own version of what Schumacher had done at Ferrari.

At Ferrari, Schumacher managed to get the team to be built around him and they brought in the best people to work with him, such as Rory Bryne and Ross Brawn. What Villeneuve wanted to do was what Schumacher had done at Ferrari, but in a more extreme way—he wanted to take a brand new team from the bottom to the top.   

To team up with Villeneuve, they signed young Brazilian Ricardo Zonta after he had been the McLaren test driver in 1998. Ricardo had a strong resume with successes in every category in which he took part, so it looked like a strong driver lineup.

The team employed Reynard Motorsport to design and build the chassis, and the engine would be a Supertec engine, which in reality was a re-badged Renault. These were more promising steps with Reynard having produced successful cars in many other categories and the Renault engines being similar to the ones used in the championship-winning 1997 Williams.

At the launch of the car, though, there was confusion. Villeneuve's car was painted with a red-and-white color scheme with sponsorship from Lucky Strike and Zonta's was painted in blue with sponsorship from 555. Now, according to FIA, duel liveries was illegal and Pollock was asked to see the World Motorsport Council and explain his actions. Pollock made a grovelling apology.

6 Jan 1999:  Jacques Villeneuve of Canada and Ricardo Zonta of Brazil pose with the new British American Racing Car during the Launch at the teams headquarters at Brackley, England. \ Mandatory Credit: Tom Shaw /Allsport
Tom Shaw/Getty Images

To get around this, BAR painted half the cars with the Lucky Strike color scheme and the other half of the cars with the 555 color scheme with a zip painted along the centre of the car. It was a very controversial look, with some people loving it and some hating it. Martin Brundle once said it looked like something out of a lingerie catalogue.

Another slightly strange thing was the slogan used by BAR which was "a tradition of excellence." This seemed slightly odd considering it was a brand new team. Also, Craig Pollock said that the team expected to win the first race of the season, which considering the fact it was a new team born from the ashes of a team that was stuck at the back, this seemed like a ridiculous claim.

This claim backfired spectacularly with Villeneuve qualifying 11th and then failing to finish and Zonta qualifying 19th and failing to finish as well. In fact, Villeneuve got used to getting to the end of the race, as he had constant reliability issues through the 12th race of the season. Zonta didn't have much better luck at the start of the season.

Zonta suffered a huge crash during practice for the Brazilian Grand Prix and had to pull out of the event due to a foot injury. Zonta was unable to compete in the next three races and Mika Salo took over for the injured Zonta.

Salo was classified seventh in San Marino after having an electrical failure two laps from the end before making it all the way to the end in Spain, where he came a lap down in eighth.

12 Sep 1999:  Ricardo Zonta of Brazil and British American Racing locks his wheels during the Italian Formula One Grand Prix at Monza in Italy. \ Mandatory Credit:   /Allsport
Getty Images/Getty Images

Once Zonta returned, he also struggled with reliability, but did manage to get to the finish line more often than Villeneuve. At no time, though, did Zonta look able to drag the BAR into the points position. The same couldn't be said for Villeneuve, as he was running up in fifth in Spain before reliability again let him down.

The car did not only have reliability issues, but the engine had not really changed since the title win in 1997 and was therefore underpowered compared to many others. The car also had quite severe handling issues. The car, despite all the bravado, was not up to the task of being competitive at the front.

The handling issues really did show in Spa when the team had two massive accidents during the weekend. Eau Rouge had been modified and both Villeneuve and Zonta had massive crashes at the legendary corner, trying to take the corner flat out when the car simply couldn't take it.

Even before these crashes, Villeneuve had a suspension failure heading up to Le Combe, meaning BAR had three cars totally destroyed.

Perhaps because of the accidents and all the reliability issues, BAR ended up going massively over budget for the season. They were so far over budget that teams such as Minardi, Jordan or even Sauber could have been run just on the amount BAR were over their original budget.

29 Aug 1999: Brazilian Ricardo Zonta crashes his British American Racing car during the Belgian Formula One Grand Prix at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium. \ Mandatory Credit: Michael Cooper /Allsport
Michael Cooper/Getty Images

The team ended up the season at the bottom of the constructors table and they were the only team that failed to score a point. After all of the hype about them winning their first race, it must have been humiliating to be below teams such as Minardi who operated on a fraction of the budget.

Over the following few years, BAR did improve and they got better at controlling the budget. They finally scored points and eventually in 2005 they were bought out by Honda. Ironically, after claiming they would win their first race, BAR never actually managed to win a race.

It seems all the BAR bravado never came to fruition.

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