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How the Jordan F1 team's first triumph at Belgium in 1998 was made in Ulster

As Spa prepares to host its round of the Championship, we look at Northern Ireland's influence on a major breakthrough 20 years ago

By Martin McCarthy

This weekend's Formula One Belgium Grand Prix in the Ardennes forest will mark 20 years since Eddie Jordan's largely Irish, and significantly Ulster, team won their first Grand Prix, and set the foundation for their highlight 1999 season.

What was remarkable was the depth of Irish and particularly Northern Ireland involvement.

Belfast-born John Watson was the first person ever to drive a Jordan Grand Prix car - on a wet November day in 1990 at Silverstone. John's credibility as a five-time Grand Prix winner helped the Jordan team be taken seriously before they even got to the starting grid.

Conlig's Eddie Irvine drove for Jordan for three successful seasons (1993-1995) and the funds gained from his profitable transfer to Ferrari greatly helped the team survive 1996 and build towards 1998.

Eddie Jordan himself is as green as they come - except for the fact that he had his early success in a Crossle 30F made in Holywood, Co Down.

The 1998 Jordan Mugen Honda 198 was designed by Coleraine's Gary Anderson but it struggled in the early part of the season as the design team coped with a last-minute engine change from Peugeot to Mugen-Honda.

Anderson did an incredible job to get the car's aerodynamics into shape and at Silverstone in July they scored their precious first point - and amazingly scored points in every race bar one until the end of the season.

While Benson and Hedges supremo Nigel Northridge, a Sullivan Upper Grammar School graduate, was tolerant of the early season failures, he still needed results to justify his huge expenditure with the team.

In the background, team marketing director Mark Gallagher, another Belfast man, was having to placate a media following that expected much more from the team than a good party and excuses.

This was the era when Championship points were hard won - and only given to the top six finishers in the order 10-6-4-3-2-1.

Spa had been a lucky track for Jordan Grand Prix. Andrea de Cesaris was closing on race leader Ayrton Senna in 1991 when his engine ran out of oil with five laps to go. Earlier that day, Michael Schumacher had made his spectacular, if brief, Grand Prix debut in the other Jordan 191. In 1994, Rubens Barrichello clinched the team's first ever pole position. The Jordan team approached Spa 1998 with some confidence and hope.

Damon Hill was driving brilliantly for Jordan in late summer 1998 - he finished fourth in the two previous Grands Prix and was heading to a track where he had won twice. His father Graham won Monaco five times but Spa was Damon's favourite. His team-mate Ralf Schumacher was also getting to grips with the car, but as they arrived at a damp and overcast Spa, there was one key absence in the Jordan pit - Gary Anderson.

Having no points mid-season, Eddie decided to bolster the technical team by adding Mike Gascoigne as a further technical director. There was never going to be enough room for both Gary and Mike, and Gary did not travel to Belgium, the first race he had missed with the team since 1991.

Spa-Francorchamps is long, very fast and undulating, being a public road for 51 weeks of the year. It is a supreme test of aerodynamics, which if the car fails can lead to massive accidents.

In 1998, Damon Hill qualified in third place and on Sunday morning lined up behind Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher. It was wet and overcast when the race started and after the first corner, David Coulthard started one of the biggest accidents ever in F1. Eddie Irvine had a narrow escape in his Ferrari and today would be getting concussion protocol assessment after a wheel struck his helmet.

Eight cars were eliminated on the spot, the race was stopped and a reduced grid lined up for the restart.

Hill made a fantastic restart to grab the lead from arch-rival Michael Schumacher as they powered down to La Source, through mist and rain. Thereafter followed one of the best races in F1 history, at the end of which Hill was the deserved winner and his team-mate Ralf Schumacher was second.

After the celebrations, Damon Hill headed straight back home to Dublin, where he lived at the time.

It was an historic victory and set the team on course for 1999 - the highlight season for the team when Heinz Harald Frentzen won twice - and Eddie Irvine was runner-up in the World Championship in his Ferrari.

Spa 1998 was surely one of the great days in Irish motorsport, north and south. It is noteworthy that the 1998 race has been voted the best Belgian Grand Prix ever and has been watched online by millions as the ultimate masterclass in driving skill.

And where are they now?

Gary Anderson was snapped up by Jackie Stewart the moment he was out of contract, and went on to design the 1999 Stewart GP car which won at the European Grand Prix at the Nürburgring in the hands of Johnny Herbert.

With an unusual ability to put technically complex engineering topics in language a civilian can understand, he commentates on TV and writes for Autosport. He was awarded a Fellowship of the Institution of Engineers of Ireland and Honorary Doctorate by the University of Ulster for his work.

Eddie Jordan sold his team at the end of the 2005 season, having won four Grands Prix, had two pole position starts, two fastest laps and finished third in the Championship in 1999.

He is the most influential TV commentator in F1, being an analyst for Channel 4's terrestrial coverage and guest star on Top Gear. He recently hosted his 70th birthday party which was attended by Damon Hill, who retired to Ascot but also does TV work for Sky.

Nigel Northridge went on to a stellar post-Gallahers Tobacco business career, most notably as chairman of Debenhams (2010- 2016) and now chairing public company Hogg Robinson.

Eddie Irvine is a property developer based in Miami, but also has the Eddie Irvine sports facility in Bangor.

He featured recently in the Sky Sports 'Legends of F1' on foot of his 10 seasons in F1 with Jordan, Ferrari - where he won four times - and Jaguar, and is frequently back in Conlig, Co Down to see his parents.

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