Born in Monchengladbach in 1967 to a German father and a Spanish mother, Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s first introduction to motorsport was through his father Heinrich-Harald, a funeral director and part-time racing driver, who bought him his first go-kart at the age of twelve.
Heinz-Harald was successful almost immediately, winning the 1981 German Junior Kart Championship before he and his father who was acting as team boss, financier and chief mechanic spread their wings further afield, competing across the globe.
His first taste of single-seater racing came in 1986 when he entered the German Formula Ford 2000 series, where he remained for two seasons, finishing runner-up in 1987 before graduating to former Grand Prix driver Jochen Mass’ team in German Formula Opel Lotus.
Here, he found success straight away, winning the championship at his first attempt, earning him a drive in German Formula 3 for 1989 where he first encountered future F1 grandee Michael Schumacher.
Keen to have German representation in Formula 1, ONS – the body that represents German Motorsport – put up a reward of a Formula 1 test for the first German winner of an F3 round in 1989.
This test went to Schumacher as he beat Frentzen to victory at the Osterreichring, but typical of Schumacher it didn’t pass without controversy as Frentzen claimed to have been forced off the track by his German rival.
Frentzen won next time out at Hockenheim, but despite ending the season with the greatest number of wins, Frentzen was pipped to the championship by a point by Austrian Karl Wendlinger with Schumacher third, tied on points with Frentzen but with one fewer win.
Joining Irishman Eddie Jordan’s Formula 3000 outfit was next for Frentzen where he failed to dazzle and was thoroughly outperformed by team-mate Eddie Irvine.
A second season in F3000 followed in 1991, this time with Vortex Motorsport where he marginally improved on his 1990 campaign, but ended the season in a disappointing 14th place.
In tandem with his F3000 efforts, Frentzen – alongside Wendlinger and Schumacher – was drafted into Mercedes’ junior team by Mercedes head of motorsport Jochen Neerpasch who’d entered the World Sportscar Championship with team boss Peter Sauber.
There Frentzen would enjoy some success, but limited running denied him any opportunity to make enough of an impression to propel him into Formula 1 – the logical next step, but unbeknown to him, and though he was disheartened he’d made an important connection that would land him a F1 drive for 1994.
Without a contract going into 1992 Frentzen was fortunate to find himself a last-minute Formula Nippon drive deputising for fellow German Volker Weidler who’d been forced into retirement following a huge crash.
There he’d spend two seasons, scoring a brace of top three finishes leading to a testing role for Bridgestone in a Tyrrell-Mugen giving him vital mileage in Formula 1 machinery.
Meanwhile, Mercedes and Peter Sauber – Frentzen’s employer in World Sportscars – had built their own F1 car and assembled a team for 1993. It would be Mercedes’ first foray into Formula 1 since 1955 (though it was to be badged a Sauber-Ilmor rather than a full works Mercedes entry – that would follow in 1994).
Peter Sauber, finding himself a driver short for Sauber’s second season remembered Frentzen from their days together in sportscars and drafted him in for his F1 debut in 1994.
When Ayrton Senna was tragically killed in the San Marino Grand Prix, Frank Williams contacted Frentzen as a potential replacement, but the German felt he owed too much to Peter Sauber to jump ship. #honourable
Four points finishes in his debut season was enough for a second term, where better still was to come when Frentzen stood on his first F1 podium at the Italian Grand Prix – now in a Sauber-Ford after the team had lost their works backing to McLaren.
A third season in 1996 saw the team slip back, but Frentzen was thinking of the future. Sir Frank was once again in contact, this time seeking a replacement for Britain’s Damon Hill who had fallen out of favour at Williams for 1997. This time Frentzen agreed, and he took on the unenviable job of filling the shoes of the World Champion.
Frentzen later admitted that the 1997 season began as expected – difficult! Two finishes outside the points and a DNF, before he stood on the podium as a Formula 1 winner for the first time at round four at Imola.
A strong second half of the season allowed Frentzen to help team-mate Jacques Villeneuve pip Schumacher to the 1997 crown, his team to the constructors title, and – by virtue of Schumacher’s disqualification from the championship for a signature Schumacher attempt to take out his rival when glory was at stake – runner-up spot in the championship.
Williams lost their works Renault engine deal for 1998 and were forced to use the same 1997 engines, but reconditioned and rebadged Mecachrome.
In the fast paced world of F1, it simply wasn’t good enough to keep pace with their rivals and after a promising third-place for Frentzen in the 1998 season opener, Williams noticeably fell away and he wouldn’t trouble the podium again.
Frentzen and Villeneuve were both replaced at Williams for 1999 by Ralf Schumacher and Alex Zanardi, Frentzen deciding to join his old F3000 boss Eddie Jordan’s F1 team, powered by Honda and who’d recently become Grand Prix winners.
“It was a great move” said Frentzen “confirmed at the first race in Australia. I was second. In this season everything ran sensationally on and off the track. In France and Italy I collected my second and third Grand Prix victories.”
“And I got married to Tanja before the last race of the season. I finished the 1999 season as third in the championship, a result that astounded many self proclaimed experts and critics.”
After such a strong 1999, Frentzen was one of the favourites for the 2000 title, but with Honda’s efforts now divided between Jordan and the BAR team it all came to nought and despite a couple of podiums they finished in sixth, behind BAR who became Honda’s main concern as a result.
2001 proved to be a massive disappointment for Frentzen and following a disagreement with Eddie Jordan about the direction of the team, he was sacked mid-season (by fax!), replaced with Jean Alesi leaving a vacancy at Prost which Frentzen duly filled.
Upon Prost’s collapse at the end of 2001, Frentzen moved to struggling Arrows where he scored a couple of points before it too collapsed mid-season (Frentzen and his team-mate Enrique Bernoldi were ordered to fail to qualify for the 2002 French Grand Prix as they didn’t have sufficient funds to race!)
Frentzen’s F1 career came to a close where it had began, at Sauber, where he signed off with a podium at the penultimate round of 2003.
Heinz-Harald is one of seven Grand Prix winners from Germany – three of the other six are world champions.