20 years on - Schumachers spectacular Spa debut 23 Aug 2011
Hard to believe as it is, this weekends Belgian race marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the most successful career in Formula One history. On August 25, 1991, Michael Schumacher made his Formula One race debut at the wheel of a Jordan 191. It was short-lived - less than a lap - but instantly hinted at what the future might hold. We look back on a remarkable weekend, and how it marked the start of Schumachers special relationship with Spa-Francorchamps.
Schumacher wasnt really on Formula Ones radar in 91. He had won the German Formula Three title with relative ease the previous year, before switching to Mercedes works sportscar squad, where there seemed little to mark him out from fellow Silver Arrows proteges Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Karl Wendlinger, both of whom would subsequently reach F1 following the trail blazed by Schumacher.
But Mercedes, who had no direct Formula One involvement at the time, had recognised Schumachers potential and it was their management - and money - that helped manoeuvre their driver into an F1 seat when an unlikely and unexpected opportunity arose.
Just a week before his team were due to set off for Spa and round 11 of the championship, Eddie Jordan suddenly found himself a driver short after Bertrand Gachot was imprisoned for his involvement in an altercation with a London taxi driver earlier in the year. Foregoing the more obvious option of drafting in an experienced replacement, Jordan found Mercedes offer of Schumachers services - and the substantial cash sum that came with them - too hard to resist.
Well, in 91 we had an obscure situation, recalled Schumacher in recent interview with Mercedes. Bertrand Gachot suddenly being in jail, us talking to several teams about Formula One - that was more the plan for 92 at the time, but nevertheless we got this opportunity and my manager got a phone call that we may have a seat available.
Schumacher and manager Willi Weber wasted no time in getting on a plane to England for a seat fitting and on the Tuesday prior to the Belgian Grand Prix he was at Silverstone, sat in a Formula One machine for the first time. It was essentially a brief shakedown test to help Schumacher familiarise himself with the car and its controls, but despite his inexperience the youngster from Hurth-Hermulheim was instantly on the pace and Jordan realised he might just have found his team a star.
By Thursday evening late finally it was clear that I was going to drive that car for the weekend and it was clear because Mercedes supported this, financially and from the management side, to get me into Formula One, said Schumacher, who almost two decades later would come full circle to lead Mercedes driver line-up in their new F1 team.
Arriving in Belgium, Schumacher faced another, rather major, unknown - Spa-Francorchamps. Despite his sportscar experience and several seasons of European single-seater competition, he had never driven the famous but daunting circuit - a discovery that came as quite a shock to the Jordan team. They neednt have worried. A handful of laps on a pedal bike on the Thursday evening (proof in itself of Schumachers commitment and fitness) was all their new driver needed to acquaint himself with the finer points of the seven-kilometre track.
In Fridays and Saturdays sessions Schumacher took a very mature, measured and distinctly un-rookie-like approach. Also un-rookie-like, however, was his speed. While Jordan stalwart Andrea de Cesaris, a veteran of 160 Grand Prix starts, deemed it impossible to go flat through Blanchimont, telemetry showed his new team mate was keeping his foot on the floor. Schumacher was eighth fastest on Friday - in a car that had only once that year qualified higher than tenth - and on Saturday went one better, clinching seventh on the grid for his F1 debut despite being blocked on his final lap, seven-tenths and four places ahead of an awe-struck De Cesaris.
Sunday mornings warm-up saw Schumacher third on the timesheets - just the Williams duo of Riccardo Patrese and Nigel Mansell and the polesitting McLaren of Ayrton Senna were quicker. Only at the start of the race did his lack of F1 experience finally catch up with him. Watch footage of the field rushing into Turn One and you will see Schumacher lying fifth, having already overhauled the Ferrari of Jean Alesi and the Benetton of Nelson Piquet. However, in the subsequent run up the hill following Eau Rouge the number-32 Jordan starts to slow and lose places. Unused to starting on such a heavy fuel load, Schumacher had punished his clutch on the getaway from the grid and it very rapidly proved terminal. De Cesaris also retired, but the fact that he did so just three laps from home having run as high as third highlighted just what might have been for Schumacher that day.
Ultimately, though, the result - or lack of - was meaningless. Schumacher had shown what he could do and the rest, as the cliche goes, is history. One race later Eddie Jordan was left lamenting his lack of a formal contract with his new star, who was swiftly signed up by rivals Benetton, the team with which he would take his maiden F1 victory - at Spa - a year later. Indeed, the Belgian circuit was to become the venue for many notable moments in Schumachers career.
In 1995 he won from 16th on the grid after an epic battle with Damon Hill that earned him a suspended one-race ban for blocking the Englishman. In 1998 he gave up a near-40-second lead and almost certain victory after crashing his Ferrari amid thick spray into the rear of David Coulthards McLaren. And in 2004, second place behind Kimi Raikkonen - the man who would go on to replace him at the Scuderia - was enough to secure the last of his seven world titles.
If you imagine what has happened at Spa in all those years - my start in 91, my first win in 92, the phenomenal races in 95 or the strange race in 98, or finally the championship in 2004 - to win in Spa, all of those steps marked Spa with a very particular touch, said Schumacher. For me, in my whole history, everything comes back to Spa, where everything started and where lots of great stories happened. The emotion of the track, the combination of history, is the reason that Spa became my living room.
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