A champion's special relationship with a special track
Michael Schumacher has driven many of his most successful races at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit. After his domination of the season so far, few will be expecting him to be on anything other than top form at this weekend's Belgian Grand Prix, but a glance at the history books will cause his rivals' hopes to sink even further.
You could almost say that it all started in Spa for Schumacher - he made his Grand Prix debut there in the 1991 race, the one and only time that he drove for Jordan before moving to Benetton. The following year he took his first ever race victory there, after a brilliant drive in wet conditions that saw him snatch victory from Nigel Mansell, who was leading the drivers' championship by a vast margin at the time.
In 1995 Schumacher had an extremely memorable trip to Spa. A disastrous qualifying session had left him 16th on the grid, and his hopes for the Sunday seemed to be dashed. But the race was once again afflicted by the Ardennes regions notoriously changeable weather, and Schumacher began a steady rise through the ranks, helped by several accidents that took out key opponents. By lap five he was already pressing Eddie Irvine's Jordan very hard in the scrap for sixth place. After a brilliant battle, Schumacher eventually passed the Irishman (his future team mate) on lap 11 at the Bus Stop chicane, and was gifted another place as David Coulthard retired from the lead.
During the first wave of pit stops, Schumacher actually moved into P1, before emerging from his own first stop in second place behind Damon Hill. Then it started to rain heavily - and Hill pitted in for rain tyres. Schumacher didn't, staying out on the sodden track on slicks in what looked like a spectacularly foolhardy move. He then proceeded to hold off Hill's challenge with brilliant defensive driving, eventually surrendering first place to a very committed move by Hill that forced Schumacher onto the grass. He recovered and rejoined, and as track conditions began to dry, the German ace found the pace he needed to get his revenge, re-passing Hill and accelerating away, carrying on to take one of the most remarkable victories of his career.
Two years later, at the 1997 Belgian Grand Prix, Schumacher - by now driving for Ferrari - once again proved his dominance in wet conditions by opting for intermediate tyres while other front-runners chose full wets. In the sodden conditions at the start it looked like a very risky strategy, but the track quickly began to dry out and he was proved right again - quickly putting in laps ten seconds quicker than the rest of the pack. He turned his early dominance into another remarkable victory.
And in 2001 Schumacher took his 52nd Grand Prix victory at Spa, putting him above Alain Prost's previous record tally of career victories. It would be a singularly appropriate location if, as many expect him to do, Schumacher clinches his seventh drivers' championship there this weekend.