Few can claim to have seen it and done it all in racing, but there is one man in the ABB FIA Formula E Championship paddock who has seen and done more than most.
That man is Jacky Eeckelaert.
A quietly spoken, fiercely intelligent engineering force, Eeckelhaert has been involved in racing one way or another for over forty years.
When you hear the term ‘a racer’, which is often used to broadly describe someone of spirit and urgency, think of ‘Jacky E’, who now imparts his sage-like skills at the Venturi Formula E team.
From thrashing around Zandvoort and Zolder in the 1970s and 80s in his self-run Formula Ford and Formula 3 cars, to spotting future world champions, the Belgian is still enjoying life with his chief passions – racing cars and racing people.
“It all started when my parents bought me a kart at about 11 years of age,” says 63 year-old Eeckelaert.
“But there was no money for racing so I used to learn by taking the engine apart and driving around on my own. You learn a lot doing this and even at this time I knew I was more of an engineer than a driver.”
Eeckelaert concentrated on his mechanical engineering studies at the University of Leuven and despite his hunch, a Formula Ford career began after he graduated.
“I was convinced to go racing even though I knew I enjoyed the engineering more really. Still, I had a go and I suppose I was OK.”
Self-effacing as always, Eeckelaert was much better than just OK.
Strong results in Benelux Formula Ford 1600 came and he finished eighth in a European championship event organized by legendary racing administrator and promoter Dan Partel.
By that time he had also gained official Marlboro backing, then a big deal in racing.
“That European race was at Spa and there is a good story to it,” says Eeckelaert.
“I was talking to a guy recently who asked if I remembered that race, the one where I finished eighth. I did it by making a crazy move at the Bus Stop chicane.
“I said to him, ‘I do remember that yes, good race’ and the guy says, ‘I do too because it was me.’
“That guy was Franz Tost who is now boss at Toro Rosso in F1.”
After dabbling in F3 for a few years, where he learnt the basics of aerodynamics, Eeckelaert then concentrated on engineering and after an apprenticeship with Ford he undertook his first serious role as an engineer.
Eeckelaert went on to work with some of the golden generation of French drivers during the 1980s including Christophe Bouchut and Didier Artzet, the latter of which took the then prestigious Monaco F3 race in 1987 against the likes of Johnny Herbert, Jean Alesi and Damon Hill.
A chance to nurture more talent came in 1991 when Eeckelaert engineered Laurent Aiello at DAMS. It was a wretched season as the Lola T91/50 faltered after changing from crossply to radial Avon tires.
“After the F3000 times with DAMS, I went to Danielsson Sport and helped with the Peugeot 905 Spyder series and that is where my relationship started with Peugoet Sport really,” says Eeckelaert.
It was a relationship which would see Eeckelaert work in various guises for the French manufacturer for the majority of the 1990s in what was an often tumultuous period.
“In 1994 I was asked by [then Peugeot boss] Jean-Pierre Jabouille to look after Aiello who was trying to get back momentum after that difficult 1991 F3000 season.
“I was able to help Laurent in French Touring Cars and also some testing with McLaren because that was the year they had Peugeot engines.”
When McLaren ditched Peugeot for Mercedes at the end of 1994, Eeckelaert found himself seconded to work with his old F3 and F3000 acquaintance Eddie Jordan.
“I was the technical co-ordinator between the engine and chassis side at Jordan in ‘95,” recalls Eeckelaert.
“Eddie is just Eddie, a complete individual and a unique person for sure, but funny to spend time around.”
“I was flat-out at this time, working crazy hours at the wind tunnel, 7-post rig, design-office and in France and at Silverstone where Jordan was based.
“[Rubens] Barrichello and Irvine had some good results that year and both were on the podium in Montreal.
“By 1997 it was looking really good and [Giancarlo] Fisichella should have won at Hockenheim but he was lapping one of the Stewarts which blew up and it caused a puncture. We found one of the pistons in the rear tire!”
The Peugeot Sport years continued from 1998 to 2000 with the Prost F1 Team.
“Alain wanted an exclusive deal with Peugeot and I was not sure this was going to be the right way but of course it was his team at this stage so he called the shots,” explains Eeckelaert.
“1998 was a bit of a disaster because it was all new. The Ligier in ‘96 and ‘97 was a clone of the Benetton if you remember. Briatore and Walkinshaw also owned the team then and they ran things lean.
“The following year was better for Prost, and Jarno [Trulli] got second in the wet at Nürburgring and a good amount of points were scored.”
Eeckelaert left the team for 2000 citing Alain Prost’s propensity to change the structure of the team too quickly.
Sauber was his next destination and one of the more remarkable stories of recent F1 history saw Eeckelaert playing a significant part in unearthing a champion.
Having already arranged Jenson Button his first ever F1 test with Prost in early 2000, Eeckelaert played talent scout again when he came across a young, quiet Finn called Kimi Raikkonen.
“I arranged Jenson’s first test in January 2000 and then Alain did not take up his option which was hard to understand,” he says.
“Anyway, a year later Jenson went to Renault to make way for [Juan Pablo] Montoya and at this stage [Nick] Heidfeld was at Sauber with Mika Salo, but Mika could not continue as he had a lucrative deal at Toyota for when they started in 2002.
“I knew Kimi from karts and he only had a season of Formula Renault under him at this stage. He was phenomenal and there was no hesitation in putting him in the car after the test at Mugello.”
Eeckelaert stayed with Sauber until 2006 when he left to join Honda. It was a period in which he worked closely with Ross Brawn in his role as Engineering Director.
Majoring in vehicle dynamics and working with a secret future projects ‘cell of engineers’ in Japan, Eeckelaert expanded his technical horizons at what was the zenith of massive manufacturer investment in the sport.
“I wanted to stop in F1 at the end of 2009 because we won the titles with Jenson and the Brawn car which is a well-known story but a very magical one,” remembers Eeckelaert.
“But I was brought in to work with the HRT F1 team after I did some freelance work for Colin Kolles on the Audi R10s he ran at Le Mans in 2009, which was also the start of the Andre Lotterer story too!”
Over the last decade Eeckelaert worked for ABT in DTM, for Lotus (Kolles) in LMP2 and then when Formula E arrived in 2014, the Belgian was unable to supress his technical inquisitiveness.
“Initially I thought, ‘why not’, because in my mind it was a bit like the stock-exchange,” he said. “You see something is happening and you make an investment in it.
“Electrification of cars is interesting and relevant to what is happening on the roads. What I really like about it though is the focus on the drivetrain and not the aerodynamics.
“This means it has a good basis and won’t get lost with mad money!
“It was Hans-Jurgen [Abt] who turned me on to it. He said ‘take a look’.
“So I did the original proposal and feasibility study for ABT. It worked out and I ran the team initially from a technical perspective.”
Once Audi started to take more control as Season Two became Season Three, Eeckelaert moved on to Dragon Racing for a brief period until he was signed up by Venturi.
It was, as a resident of Monaco, a logical move for Eeckelaert who resides on the streets where he led Didier Artzet to that famous F3 victory 31 years ago.
“Now, I fire up my Vespa and three minutes later I’m at the Venturi office, perfect!”
“Formula E is a great place to be at the moment, very interesting for engineers in mixing old-school vehicle dynamics to new electric technologies.
Eeckelaert has worked with pretty much half of the drivers on the grid in Formula E, and while he is charmingly discreet about them he does have his favorites. Not that he will let on, publically at least!
“When I look back on it all I feel very lucky,” he says.
“At the end of the day I have been paid well to follow my passion of engineering. You maybe don’t get it better than that in this life.”