Heinz-Harald Frentzen believes he missed out on a chance at ever driving for McLaren due to an ill-timed joke with Ron Dennis.
The German driver had arrived in Formula 1 in 1994 alongside Karl Wendlinger at Sauber, thanks to the Mercedes background both he and Wendlinger had already carved out through a successful sportscar sint in the early 1990s.
Driving the Sauber-Mercedes, Frentzen quickly proved his worth by finishing fifth in his second race – the Pacific Grand Prix – and scored three more points finishes over the remainder of the season.
Heinz-Harald Frentzen reveals ill-timed joke with Ron Dennis
With Mercedes switching to join McLaren for 1995, Frentzen’s form through his debut year was enough to catch the attention of then-McLaren team boss Ron Dennis – at a pretty good time too, given Frentzen’s history with the German marque.
Summoned for a meeting with the legendary team boss, Frentzen duly showed up for the chat with Dennis but was unable to hide his infamously wry sense of humour during the conversation – a fact Dennis seemingly didn’t appreciate.
“You know why I never got a chance at McLaren?” Frentzen recounted while looking back over his career on the Beyond the Grid podcast.
“In ‘94 in Adelaide, my manager came to me. All Formula 1 teams were celebrating the end of the season and then I had a call to say Ron Dennis wanted to see me.
“Ron Dennis came to me and said, ‘Hey, Heinz, how is your English?’ I said ‘There might be some improvement in my English’ and then I said for fun, ‘And how’s your German?’ because we knew that Mercedes was coming to McLaren. ‘You have to learn German as well’ I said to Ron.
“He had a stone face.
“I was thinking I was funny and my manager just pushed my arm and to be like ‘What the f*** did you say?’ I saw the face of Ron Dennis and he never, ever spoke again with me. He was so upset that I made this joke. That’s why I never really had a chance at McLaren because Ron Dennis, for some reason, didn’t like my sense of humour.”
Heinz-Harald Frentzen: Williams approached me to replace Ayrton Senna
Frentzen would eventually get a chance with a front-running team after his Sauber stint, as he joined Williams for 1997.
But that opportunity had actually come up three years previously, with Sir Frank Williams seeking to hire the German driver after only a few races in order to replace Ayrton Senna following the Brazilian driver’s death in the San Marino Grand Prix.
But Frentzen’s loyalty to Sauber prevented him from taking the shot at leaving the Swiss outfit so quickly after they had shown faith in him.
“I have to tell you this story because this was quite special regarding my career because, what happened at Imola and after Ayrton Senna died, I got a call from Frank asking me to come to Williams in ’94,” he recounted.
“That was just before the race weekend [in Monaco] started, on the Thursday, when we had practice on Thursday. I was meeting Frank and he was asking if I would join Williams for [the rest] of ’94. Imagine, that was only three races into the season.
“I was so happy that I was at Sauber and staying at Sauber. I didn’t know anything about the politics around and what was going on. But I was so happy being at Sauber I said to Frank ‘I cannot leave the team’.
“I had such a difficult time getting into Sauber and Sauber did everything to convince Mercedes that I would be the right guy because Mercedes had their doubts that I would be the right guy.
“Peter was doing everything so I get the job in Formula 1. I said to Frank, ‘I am so grateful that I got the chance that Sauber has given me in Formula 1. I cannot just leave the team after three or four races and join you. I cannot break my contract.’
“It was very hard. I looked in a mirror and said ‘Can I do that?’ For me, it was impossible to slap somebody in the face – for Peter to give me so much trust and confidence, it was not possible. I said to Frank it’s not possible, I can’t do that.”
While Frentzen himself didn’t tell Sauber about the Williams approach, the German believes his then-boss was wise to the loyalty he’d shown – as he was gifted an F1 car at the end of the year.
“Somebody told him later because, after that ‘94 season, when it was clear that Mercedes was leaving for McLaren, Peter gave me as a present, my first Formula 1 car as a thank you,” he said.
“My mission was clear. I was staying with Sauber, no matter what – even without Mercedes, I was sticking with them.”