The Ferrari Owners’ Club
of Great Britain

20 Years Ago Today, Schuey Started


Today 20 years ago, on 15 February 1996, Michael Schumacher started his Ferrari career with his first laps  around Fiorano.

This reflective piece was written by Richard Williams and is posted on The Guardian’s website.


A winter sun was shining on the Fiorano test track as Michael Schumacher helped pull the wraps off the Ferrari F310. Twenty years ago today, a couple of hundred people applauded politely, unaware they were bearing witness to the first day of a new era in Grand Prix racing. On a bright but bone-freezing day, Schumacher’s smile radiated a warmth that seemed to reach even the local butchers, bakers and candlestick makers who had parked their vans and lorries on the low road bridge running alongside the circuit, hoping for a glimpse of their new hero at the wheel.


That wonderful day – Schuey (right), Montezemolo, Larini and Eddie Irvine


These were still the old days of Formula One. The days before cost-control limitations and gimmickry aimed at improving “the show”. The days when a team with a test track could make unlimited use of their facilities. When manufacturers were not told how many cylinders their engines could have, or how many engines they could use during the course of a season. When the drivers could rev those engines as high as they would go. When mechanics could work long into the night while their No1 driver stayed with them, sharing the task of fettling a piece of equipment with which he could win the next day’s race.

Schumacher was one who habitually stayed late, and those Ferrari mechanics – the heirs to a 40-year tradition – soon discovered if their labours made the car half a second quicker, then he would respond by digging into his own resources and finding another half-second to go with it. That ability to knit the team together and drive it forward was what Luca di Montezemolo was buying when he offered the 27-year-old German a king’s ransom and promised to build the team around him.

At the top table of the marquee erected for the press launch at Fiorano that day, Schumacher was flanked not only by his new team-mate Eddie Irvine and the F310’s English designer John Barnard but by the top brass. Alongside the legendary Gianni Agnelli, the president of Fiat, owners of 90% of Ferrari’s shares, sat Piero Ferrari, the founder’s son and owner of the other 10%, and Di Montezemolo, the former team manager who had returned to Maranello with a mission to revive the fortunes of an outfit whose long period in the doldrums had been punctuated by the death of Enzo Ferrari in 1988.

Agnelli had rescued Enzo and his company in the late 1960s, when a dire financial position almost led the founder to sell out to Ford. The thought of handing such a precious chunk of Italy’s patrimony to the barbarians in Detroit was more than Agnelli could bear, so he bought 50% of the shares, on the understanding that Fiat would take another 40% when Enzo died, leaving Piero with the 10% he still holds today.

Di Montezemolo had been Agnelli’s protege. Taking over the management of the racing team in 1974, he and Niki Lauda – both still in their mid-20s – had brought about a renaissance on the track before he left to run Juventus football club, Italy’s America’s Cup campaign and the hosting of the 1990 World Cup. But in 1996, five years after his return, there had been few signs of progress. The acquisition of Schumacher – already a champion with Benetton in 1994 and 1995 – was the big move. The sense of anticipation that day at Fiorano was palpable, although it was undercut by a realism built up through long seasons of underachievement.

Outside the tent, the F310’s voluptuous red bodywork glittered in the sunlight. Among those clustering around it was a group of old men in winter overcoats, whose presence went unnoticed by many but who represented precious links with the company’s traditions. They were Enzo Ferrari’s oldest surviving friends and associates, assembled for an annual ritual initiated soon after the first car had rolled out of the new factory in 1947.

Nello Ugolini, known as the Maestro, had been one of the Scuderia Ferrari’s most distinguished team managers before the war, when they operated as the official Alfa Romeo grand prix team, and the incomparable Tazio Nuvolari was among the drivers. Sergio Scaglietti, who had made bombs for the partisans to throw at the Nazis in the last days of the war, had gone on to create the aluminium bodywork that clothed the most beautiful Ferraris in the 1950s and 60s (including the 335S sports racing car auctioned for €32m in Paris last week, almost 60 years after it set a lap record at Le Mans). Don Sergio Mantovani was the parish priest from Modena who had blessed generations of Ferrari drivers (and had held masses for some after their deaths). Franco Gozzi was a former journalist who had become Ferrari’s trusted confidant, the equivalent of a papal consigliere.

Of that quartet, only Don Sergio survives today. At 90, he is still to be seen in the paddock at Monza, popping in and out of the Ferrari pit. The rest have taken their place in the gallery of historical figures who created the legend that gives the Scuderia Ferrari the right to claim a place as first among equals at the modern Formula One table, enjoying enormous advantages, including vast financial bonuses and a veto on new technical regulations.

The light was fading and the old men had long since driven home by the time the mechanics made the F310 ready for Schumacher to fire it up before setting off on his maiden outing in a Formula One Ferrari. Those who had stayed on listened intently to the roar of the new V10 engine, a less striking sound than the soprano scream of its 12-cylinder predecessor. In the near-twilight they could see the flickering LED readout on the steering wheel and the red glow from the carbon brake discs as Schumacher slowed for the tight corners during the half-dozen laps before he brought it in and cut the engine.

There had been many speeches during the afternoon, including the one in which Di Montezemolo promised – rather rashly, some thought – three victories that season. But the only speech that really counted was Agnelli’s, laced with an elegant cynicism. “Let’s enjoy this car today,” he told the assembled company before helicoptering away to more serious business. “After all, it hasn’t lost a race yet.”

The F310 turned out to be one of Barnard’s less distinguished designs. It was, in fact, a bit of a dog. But, somehow, Schumacher managed to get those three wins. He was on his way.