Motor racing: Jordan still his team's driving force

The irrepressible team owner has targeted third place in the constructo rs' championship.
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THESE DAYS Eddie Jordan's interviews are by the contention he is no longer going to make extravagant statements because some of his pronouncements in the past have caused him deep embarrassment.

Firstly, of course, that prompts the question: can you imagine Eddie Jordan ever being embarrassed, to any degree? But then, having taken the point, you listen in bewilderment as he proceeds to offer his unbridled views on the season ahead and talks of his team's "desperation" to finish in third place in the constructors' championship.

The recent suggestion that Damon Hill would probably quit if he found the going "too tough" this year, despite the driver's insistence that retirement did not feature on his agenda, was typical of Jordan's inability to stick to this guarded script.

It could be put down to his irrepressible enthusiasm, his irresistible love of a headline, his sense of mischief, or in his inherent naivety. It is also just possible that here may be a clue to his cunning method of man management and a well-honed business acumen. Jordan and his team are in Formula One to win and Hill, at his sharpest, is an important asset.

The former champion proved as much in the second half of last season, when he presented Jordan with their maiden grand prix victory and continued to deliver the points which enabled the team to finish a best-ever fourth in the standings.

All this, however, after a fruitless and frustrating first half of the season. The car was not good enough, but at least Jordan's other driver, the youthful Ralf Schumacher, managed to generate some pace and maintain a flicker of defiance.

Hill, having enjoyed championship success and 21 grand prix wins with Williams, admitted he could not so readily motivate himself with inferior equipment and the team were palpably dismayed by his contribution to their ailing cause.

Formula One's oldest competitor hinted then at retirement if he could not assure himself of some professional satisfaction and, despite conflicting messages from driver and team, the transparent and persistent indication from Jordan was that they would not be too distraught if Hill walked away. At any rate, they were advised to keep him only at a reduced fee.

Suddenly circumstances and the mood in the camp changed. Hill, provided with a much improved car, responded to the challenge, rediscovering his form and appetite and giving the team the kind of leadership they felt they were paying for.

Eddie Jordan will have heeded the lessons of those chastening and fulfilling experiences. A year on, he has a clearer understanding of Hill and how to get the best out of him. He has publicly lauded Hill to the hilt, acclaiming him as the man who taught his team how to win. But then he has been at pains to lavish praise on his new driver, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, predicting the Englishman could be seriously pushed by the German.

And then Jordan broaches the subject of Hill's future. If he goes well he will be offered a new contract. If he does not and he finds it all a bit too much then he would surely wish to go gracefully, and Jordan can appreciate that. Just a touch of the Irishman's wicked blarney? Or a premeditated strategy to ruffle Hill's feathers and keep him on his toes?

The commendation for Frentzen would certainly seem to dig Hill in the ribs too. The very presence of Frentzen in the team should serve the same purpose. Hill was sacked by Williams to make way for the driver now alongside him. What delicious irony.

Pride plays a significant part in the make-up of achievers, and Hill is conscious of the comparisons about to be made. The internal duel will occupy his resolute endeavours, which in turn should ensure the forward momentum of the team effort.

At the age of 38, Hill does not have much racing left in him, but he goes into another season comforted by his year with the team, the development of the car, and the quality of his driving. Although he acknowledges the championship may be beyond Jordan's range, race wins are perhaps not, and his immediate objective is to add to his haul of 22.