Schumacher and Spa-Francorchamps – Back to where it all began
By Berthold Bouman
If there’s one modern Grand Prix driver who wrote history at the Belgian Spa-Francorchamps circuit, it must be Michael Schumacher. Eddie Jordan had a problem just ahead of the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix, as his driver Belgium Bertrand Gachot had been jailed after he had assaulted a London cab driver, and the Irishman decided to replace him with an at the time 22-year old German driver: Michael Schumacher, who became an ‘overnight sensation’ at Spa.
Little did Jordan know that his new driver would become a seven-times Formula One World Champion in the years to come, and would be regarded as one of the greatest Formula One driver of all times. Schumacher wrote history after he had qualified in seventh place in a relatively slow car, while his team mate for one race Italian Andrea de Cesaris, qualified in 11th place in the second Jordan.
But the race became a disappointment for young Schumacher, he was away quick at the start but just after the famous uphill Eau Rouge corner the clutch of his Jordan failed, and he had to retire from his first ever Formula One race. But Schumacher had made his name, the media and the fans loved him and so did the team bosses, who tried everything to contract the German for the next race, as Schumi as his nickname soon became, only had a contract for one race, a contract paid for by Mercedes — who paid $150,000 to get the German in the Jordan seat, at the time a huge sum of money for just one race.
Flavio Briatore, team boss of the Benetton team, immediately recognized the German’s talents and contracted him for the rest of the year. Jordan went to court to prevent Schumacher from racing for the Italian team owned by fashion tycoon Luciano Benetton, but he lost his case and the rest became history.
Schumacher’s first race was at Spa, and at the same legendary circuit he also scored his maiden win, exactly one year after he had made his Formula One début, Schumacher won the 1992 Belgian Grand Prix, and he finished over 36 seconds ahead of the number two, Nigel Mansell in the Williams.
On that day Schumacher also beat Riccardo Patrese (Williams), team colleague Martin Brundle (Benetton) and another Formula One legend: Ayrton Senna (McLaren). After the 1992 Belgian Grand Prix, Schumacher was on an incredible third place in the Drivers’ Championship, and he was together with Senna and Mansell one of the most popular Formula One drivers of the season.
Schumacher went on to win the Drivers’ Championship in 1994 and 1995, and also in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004. But in 1995, 1996 and 1997 Schumacher also won the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa. In 1998 Spa was the scene of the biggest crash in Formula One ever, after David Coulthard on a very wet track hit the wall after the La Source hairpin and spun across the track, in total 13 cars were involved and the race was red-flagged.
Schumacher, driving for Ferrari since 1996, was lucky as he and his car emerged from the crash unscathed, and was able to continue the race at the restart an hour later. After 20 laps Schumacher was leading the race in atrocious conditions — heavy rain and visibility was almost zero. By then he wanted to lap Coulthard who had spun after the restart and was in last position, he hit the McLaren from behind as the Scott had lifted to let Schumacher past at Pouhon.
Schumacher lost his right front wheel and the pair made their way to the pits. In fact, Schumacher was so fast on three wheels, that he had already climbed out of his Ferrari when Coulthard entered the garage. Schumacher was furious and made history by running to the McLaren garage, shaking his fist at a very surprised Coulthard shouting, “Are you trying to f*cking kill me?”
Next time we meet Schumacher and Spa again, but then in harmony, is in 2001. The German won the race once more, but the event became famous due the horrific crash of Luciano Burti, who got a small notch from Eddie Irvine in the Jaguar and the poor Brazilian in his Prost went straight into the tyre barrier at Blanchimont with 240km/h, a crash that almost killed him and was in fact the end of his Formula One career.
Schumacher however, broke another record at Spa on that day, this time he broke Alain Prost’s record of 51 Grand Prix victories. In 2002 Schumacher was on pole and won the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa for the sixth, but also last time.
This weekend Schumacher will start his 300th Grand Prix, yet another milestone in his career, and something to celebrate. About his special relation with Spa the now 43-year old driver said, “Spa is like my living room; for me, it’s clearly the number one race track in the world. It’s uncanny how I always seem to have special moments there — my debut, my first win, a world championship victory and many great races.
“The fact that I will also take part in my 300th Grand Prix at Spa was somehow almost inevitable and we will have to celebrate it in the right way. I’m proud to be just the second driver in the history of the sport (Rubens Barrichello holds the record with 326 races) to reach this milestone and there’s no question that we are looking to have a particularly nice weekend. We delivered a good performance in Spa last year; I’ll be doing everything possible to drive a strong race.”