So, I’m interviewing Ford’s global boss Jac Nasser in the F1 paddock at Melbourne when Jaguar’s number two driver Johnny Herbert walks past, absent-mindedly adjusting his crotch. ‘Hey, Johnny, what’re you doing?’ Nasser yells at his employee. ‘That’s company equipment!’
Everybody laughed, but it was the only time laughter was heard in the Jaguar garage that weekend. It was the spring of 2000, the first race of the season, and Jaguar’s first ever F1 outing. A crucial departure for the big cat – then owned by Ford – who had snapped up the Stewart F1 team, painted its cars green, signed Eddie Irvine from Ferrari at vast expense and announced to the world: ‘The cat is back!’
Only one journalist was invited to spend the entire race weekend camped in the corner of the pit garage: me. And CAR photographer Tom Salt.
It’s fair to say things didn’t go well. During three days of practice, qualifying and racing Herbert did not return to the pits with his car even once. In the race he managed a handful of corners before his clutch failed. Irvine fared little better, but drove like a demon to qualify seventh, before being forced to retire when he spun and stalled while trying to avoid debris from Pedro de la Rosa’s crashed Arrows.
When Irvine crashed out I was in the back of the garage with Herbert and his parents watching the race on a monitor. Once Eddie was gone, Johnny walked up to the set and switched over to the swimming.
CAR Magazine had desperately wanted to see Jaguar do well – that’s why the two of us flew 12,000 miles and why we published a major feature on the trip in the May 2000 issue. But it was not to be – not that weekend, not that season, not ever. Jaguar’s F1 odyssey was a failure, eventually consigned to the bin into which many of Jac Nasser’s ambitions for the Ford Group were destined to land.
But the F1 adventure taught me something about Jaguar. It may be flawed but it is passionate, and the thousands of fans who turned up at Melbourne that weekend wearing green shirts or green face paint, brandishing Irvine cut-outs and big cat cuddly toys, proved that there’s an affection for the big cat that rivals even Ferrari’s Tifosi. And they were still smiling at the end.
Five days of my life I’ll never forget.