Motor-racing: How the other half drives

With a Schumacher at the wheel, Jordan's present and future look in good hands; Andrew Baker sees an Irish legend put his team through their paces at Silverstone
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Eddie Jordan slapped one hand to his ear and with the other gestured to the back door of the garage. The engine of one of his Formula One cars had just screamed into life, rudely interrupting its owner. Eddie had a message to get across, and in the quiet of one of his team's transporters, it could finally be heard. "We have been the fifth team in Formula One for some years now," he said. "But I hope that is now in the past tense. The top four teams are extremely talented and very well funded. They are strong. But the difference is that now we are strong too."

Jordan, a dapper, bespectacled Irishman whose aggressively trendy sideburns defy the onset of middle age, is legendary for his promotional skills. It is said that he could sell heaven to the angels, and his relationship with the Blarney Stone is positively pornographic. But this year the hype needs to be more than convincing. It needs to be true.

His team, now entering their seventh season of grand prix racing, are no longer fledglings. They have a big budget. They have powerful Peugeot engines, much coveted by other teams. And they have a Schumacher behind the wheel. Not Michael, who drove just once for Jordan before he was whipped away to championship glory with Benetton, but his 21-year-old younger brother Ralf, who is thought by many in the sport to be potentially just as quick. His team-mate will be another youngster, the Italian Giancarlo Fisichella, who is also thought to have a great future in the sport.

It looks like a good package, but then so did last year's Jordan line- up, which started well but then faded into the midfield. This year the team must do better, for some dangerous competitors are snapping at their exhausts.

Chief among them is Alain Prost, whose takeover of the Ligier team has secured the supply of the precious Peugeot engines for 1998. Jordan have to prove that they are worthy of sharing them next year. In short, they have to win races this year.

In his office at the Jordan factory, opposite the main gates to Silverstone, the team's designer, Gary Anderson, made light of the pressure. "Every year's a big year," he said. "Winning is difficult. What I want to be is competitive. Last year we started well and then went backwards - this year we have to start well and stay there."

Last Wednesday morning Anderson's Jordan 197 should have been pounding around Silverstone with the cars from five other teams: it was the last day of testing before the cars were crated up for the long trip to Melbourne. But instead the three bright yellow 197s sat in bits on the factory floor. The drivers loafed around in jeans and sweatshirts. "Is my baby," Fisichella cooed as mechanics clambered all over his car.

By mid-afternoon the team had transferred to the Silverstone pitlane. The sky was grey, the wind powerful and cold, and as Schumacher pulled out of the garage for his first lap a wave of sleet swept the circuit. It passed as quickly as it had arrived, and Jordan's two novices went to work.

Like his eminent elder brother, Ralf Schumacher could have been designed to be a racing driver: medium height, lean, and muscular only where it counts, in the arms and the neck. He is better looking than Michael, and has yet to acquire the expression of perpetual smugness. But he doesn't have so much to be smug about - yet.

Ralf already has the trappings of stardom: the Monaco apartment, the watch deal, the manager (in the back of the garage, humming tunelessly, dreaming of Deutschmarks). He has been ubiquitous in recent weeks on German television, and has learned to deal patiently with a recurring question, which is: has Michael given him a piggy-back to fame, wealth and a good grand prix drive?

"Sure, the name Schumacher might have helped a little bit in all sorts of ways," he said, with barely a sigh. "But I think also that I did pretty well in Japan, and that must have helped my chances too." He was referring to the Japanese Formula 3000 championship, which he won last year, a feat that has proved beyond such talented drivers as Ferrari's Eddie Irvine and Tyrrell's Mika Salo.

Eddie Jordan was certainly impressed. "In many ways, Ralf has a better pedigree than Michael," he said. "Michael was a year or two older when he came into F1, and he had the help of Mercedes. It has been harder for Ralf, but he has cleared difficult hurdles. He has won races, and he has won a tough championship."

Ralf reckoned that his time in Japan was the ideal preparation for his new job. "The car had less power than F1," he explained. "But in some corners it was just as quick, so the speed is no problem. Also, the races were long and the technology was similar. Apart from power and stronger brakes, there is not so much difference." Another useful aspect of Japan was acclimatisation. "They have the same shit weather," he observed, as another icy gust rattled the garage.

Then he climbed back into the car for one last stint. As the sun set over Silverstone, Ralf Schumacher was the only driver still on the circuit, stubbornly pursuing perfection. His elder brother would have approved. But he wasn't doing it for his elder brother.