The Ferrari Owners’ Club
of Great Britain

25 Years Ago Today: Schuey Makes his F1 Debut

25-08-2016

On the eve of the Belgian Grand Prix we reproduce the following article by Daniel Johnson which was posted on The Telegraph website:

 

Twenty-five years ago, the son of a German bricklayer arrived at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium to experience first-hand one of the most fabled circuits in motorsport.

His first laps were completed on a bicycle and on his first attempt behind the wheel of a Formula One car he qualified in seventh position on the grid.

Michael Schumacher’s debut grand prix, held on this day in 1991, was derailed by a gearbox failure in his Jordan after just a few hundred yards, but nobody who saw him conquer Spa-Francorchamps, and its notorious Eau Rouge corner, in that qualifying session could doubt that a new star had appeared.

Even now, the story of Schumacher’s emergence is startling. Then aged 22, he got to drive for Eddie Jordan only because the No 1 driver, Bertrand Gachot, had been imprisoned for two months for spraying a taxi driver with CS gas in London. Schumacher assured Jordan he “knew” Spa. He did not, having never driven there. But a couple of laps on his bike were enough for this outstanding talent to familiarise himself. It was a precursor of things to come.

Schumacher went on to redefine what it was possible to achieve in Formula One. In the view of those who worked most closely with him across a career spanning more than two decades, Schumacher managed even more than that: he redefined what it meant to be a Formula One driver.

The results are testament to his monumental achievement. There were the seven championships, five consecutively from 2000 to 2004, and two more than anyone has ever managed. He won 91 races, nearly double those of the next best, Alain Prost. Schumacher holds the record for most victories in a season, for pole positions, for fastest laps, for podium finishes. A personal favourite statistic is that he won the 2002 championship with six of the 17 races to spare.

Some would fairly argue that Schumacher enjoyed advantages no other driver has ever been blessed with. Tyres that Bridgestone effectively designed to suit him, and an all-conquering team centred around him, are just two examples. But he was in a position to exploit those benefits because he was instrumental in creating the environment in which they came about. Not only was he the greatest driver of his era in Formula One, he was perhaps its greatest leader.

These considerable qualities – a ferocious attitude to fitness, awesome commitment and a team-building ethic that ran contrary to the public image of the German as the cold ‘Red Baron’ – were immediately apparent to Ross Brawn, who worked with Schumacher for almost all of his career.

Brawn was with Jaguar in sports cars when he first spotted a rare talent. Schumacher stood well above his Mercedes team-mates, Karl Wendlinger and Heinz-Harald Frentzen. “He went faster and further than the other two by some margin,” Brawn recalls. “It meant I was not at all surprised by what we saw on his debut at Spa.

“Clearly he had a huge natural talent. But what separated him was a massive commitment to fitness and preparation. Very quickly he was setting new standards for Formula One. He was relentless. He wouldn’t leave a track until he was absolutely sure he hadn’t left any stone unturned. With some drivers, you had to twist their arm a bit to get that level of dedication, but from Michael it was there as soon as you started.”

His talent and commitment enabled Schumacher to drive races in a way no one else could. His 1998 victory in Hungary is remembered with particular awe, the German turning an improbable three-stop strategy into a winning one with a series of remarkable laps. “We used to have a lot of fun watching him do this,” Brawn adds.

Others who have worked with Schumacher speak glowingly of his dedication and capacity for concentration. Sabine Kehm became the German’s personal PR officer in 2000, the year of his first title with Ferrari. Before this, Kehm remembers interviewing Schumacher as a journalist during a testing day. Midway through an answer, an engineer interrupted and said they needed Schumacher to do three laps immediately to correct an issue they had.

“Michael got up, went for five minutes, did his laps, came back and finished the sentence,” Kehm tells The Telegraph in a rare interview. “Even I didn’t remember what the sentence was or what I even asked. I really thought, ‘This guy must have so much concentration’.”

It made Schumacher a demanding, but rewarding, driver to work for. “He would not be too proud to not follow your opinion,” Kehm adds. “It’s one of the secrets why people who worked with him love him so much. He respected everybody. He never said, ‘I’m Michael Schumacher, who are you?’ ”

Schumacher would never criticise Ferrari, or any of his teams, publicly. “Internally yes, but never publicly,” Kehm said of Schumacher. “When Michael was p—-d, he was not shouting around. He would go to the meeting and would very calmly point exactly to the problem.”

The biggest praise Brawn can give is that no one who ever worked with Schumacher has a bad word to say about him. The former Ferrari technical director remembers Schumacher knowing his mechanics intimately, helping them out with problems at home if he could, without any fanfare. Jean Todt, the team principal who took Schumacher to Ferrari in 1996, agrees.

“Michael was one of the nicest champions of Formula One, one of the nicest drivers,” Todt, now the president of motorsport’s world governing body, the FIA, says. “He was dedicated, he was special. He was very generous to everyone. He always wanted to protect himself, to protect his family.”

But away from the German national hero, warm team player and family man, there is the side of Schumacher that the rest of the world, not to mention his rivals, are more familiar with.

In a career pockmarked by title-deciding collisions, team orders and acts of driving skulduggery – including the parking of his car at Rascasse in qualifying for the 2006 Monaco Grand Prix – one vignette from David Coulthard stands out. At Spa in the pouring rain in 1998, Coulthard was being lapped by Schumacher, when the Ferrari driver inadvertently drove into the back of him. He accused the Scotsman of trying to kill him.

At the next race in Monza, Bernie Ecclestone hosted a meeting to try and clear the air. “He was still absolutely adamant it was entirely my fault,” says Coulthard, who recalls the conversation as follows:

Coulthard: “Surely you’re not right all the time Michael?”
Schumacher: “Yeah, I think so.”
Coulthard: “Come on, at home with your wife, you’ve never been wrong?”
Schumacher: “Not that I recall.”

“I left it at that,” Coulthard says with a smile. “When you’ve got that level of self-belief and commitment, and are not prepared to acknowledge a weakness, it’s very difficult to negotiate.”

There was no negotiating with Schumacher on the track. It helps to explain why controversy was never far away, from the crashes with Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve in 1994 and 1997, to forcing his old team-mate Rubens Barrichello up against the pit wall at the Hungaroring on his comeback in 2010.

Even the move to Benetton, the team who gave him the first two titles in 1994 and 1995, was controversial, taking some help from Ecclestone and an army of lawyers.

Brawn believes the divisive incidents on track were hard-wired into Schumacher’s personality; a small bit of rough to take with all the smooth. “He was this contradiction,” the 61-year-old says. “He was relentless in asserting himself – you’d see him fly into corners with unbelievable speed and the confidence that he could deal with whatever came. That was his style.

“Then there was the odd aberration, which you wouldn’t explain from a rational person. Somewhere in there was an intensity which occasionally misfired. For 99.9 per cent of the time, you stood back in awe. And then 0.1 per cent you would see some aberration, which you knew was part of the package.”

Kehm believes Schumacher is unfairly maligned, and singles out over other drivers who have occasionally been just as ruthless, if less flagrantly. “What people underestimate is that Michael has driven for the championship more than any other driver. I’ve seen a lot of other drivers criticise him and then when they are fighting for the championship they do the same things.”

Although not without merit, this is perhaps a slightly generous interpretation of a driver who pushed boundaries to their absolute limits. Yet even he had moments of doubt. Todt reveals that, before the start of a new season, Schumacher would ask to do private testing to confirm he was still quick. “He was always wondering how good he was from one season to another one,” the Frenchman adds.

Doubts did not visibly manifest themselves on his three-year comeback with Mercedes in 2010, but he was not the same. One podium finish and one fastest lap in qualifying in Monaco were his only reward, while his team-mate Nico Rosberg starred on a regular basis. It has been curious to witness how the shine this period took off his reputation has been restored since his dreadful skiing accident nearly three years ago, in which he sustained traumatic brain injuries.

The accident left him in a medically-induced coma before the lengthy process of rehabilitation. Few details of that recovery are known, other than that Schumacher is facing a fight bigger than anything he encountered in his racing career.

Sometimes it can take a tragedy to force a re-evaluation. Perhaps the definitive test of Schumacher’s legacy is by comparing the 47-year-old with the sport’s current stars. In Brawn’s view, Lewis Hamilton, Vettel, and Alonso all have considerable talents, but none have the complete package of Schumacher.

“I don’t see it, quite frankly,” he said. “None of them are changing the perception of a racing driver in the way Michael changed people’s perception of what a racing driver should be. He raised the bar. They all have to achieve that now. He changed the landscape of Formula One drivers. I don’t see anyone doing that now.”

However controversial or divisive Schumacher may be, this has more than a ring of truth about it. This generation may go on to surpass Schumacher, to take being a Formula One driver beyond what it meant in his time.

But until then they will still be defining themselves against the achievements of the man who made his debut a quarter of a century ago at Spa.