Today marks exactly 20 years since Michael Schumacher made his Formula 1 debut. While his current performances have been lacklustre to say the least, there is no denying how incredible his debut was.
Schumacher spent most of 1991 in Group C racing
In 1991, Schumacher was racing in Group C racing with the Mercedes team. It was a strange choice by his manager Willi Weber, as many had speculated it could have ended his career prematurely. Very few drivers were able to make it to Formula 1 by this route, Formula 2 being the better option. Nevertheless, he performed well in Group C, alongside teammate Karl Wendliger.
His opportunity arrived when Jordan driver Bertrand Gachot ran into a spot of trouble with a taxi driver. After an argument with Eric Court, Gachot dealt with the situation in a bizarre manner – by spraying him with CS gas. While many expected a fine or suspended sentence, the judge dealt him 9 months in prison.
Gachot had a tyre test in Monza scheduled the day after, and so the Jordan team fell into disarray. The Belgian Grand Prix was less than a week away, and they were one driver short.
The main issue with any new driver was sponsorship, as Gachot had brought a substansial amount of money to the team. Team boss Eddie Jordan wanted to go for Keke Rosberg, even though the Finn had retired 5 years ago. Stefan Johansson and Derek Warwick were also contacted, but all three were requesting payment. Senior figures in the team soon spotted Schumacher as a prime talent.
The 22-year-old German was given an opportunity to prove himself, being allowed to lap the Silverstone South Circuit several times in an older Jordan car. On his first flying lap, he almost lost the back of the car, but held the Jordan in an impressive rally-style slide.
According to several news sites also reporting this story, the team members had to stand in the middle of the track to force Schumacher to stop driving!
Within several laps, he was within several tenths of a second of the South Circuit record. He had impressed the team, and a one-off payment of £150,000 was given to Jordan from Mercedes for the Grand Prix opportunity.
Oddly enough, Michael may have had to lie in order to get the drive. Manager Willi Weber had promised Eddie Jordan that Schumacher had lapped the Spa circuit “hundreds of times”, but in actuality Michael had never even seen the track.
Schumacher on his debut test with Jordan
Nevertheless, Michael turned up in the Ardennes mountains amid fury regarding Gachot’s imprisonment. Many of the drivers and fans had started a campaign to release Bertrand from jail.
With this, much of the pressure had escaped Schumacher, as he calmly lapped the track in a fold-out bike to learn the layout. Andrea de Cesaris, his teammate for the weekend, was supposed to take him around the 7km circuit, but never found the time to do so.
On Friday practice, Schumacher went eigth fastest. He repeated that position in qualifying on Saturday, shocking the entire paddock. In the final sector alone, gained 1.2 seconds from his previous lap:
While he was 2.1 seconds away from Ayrton Senna, there was no denying that Schumacher was a fantastic talent. After Ricardo Patrese’s lap was disallowed for the car having no reverse gear, Michael was elevated to 7th, 4 places ahead of his experienced teammate.
In the morning warm-up Schumacher went 4th fastest – another incredible performance. But what happened at the start of the race is one of the most brilliant pieces of driving in recent times.
Within seconds, Schumacher had flown past Jena Alesi and triple world champion Nelson Piquet. He was so fast off the starting line that Piquet thought the German had jump started.
Here is a video showing the start. At 0:15 seconds in, you can see Michael (blue car in the middle) sail around Alesi:
Unfortunately, this miracle start didn’t last for long. He dipped the clutch at the La Cource hairpin, and brought it up again too quickly, burning the clutch out. He coasted to a halt after Eau Rouge.
After that, Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell, Jean Alesi and Andrea de Cesaris all were in contention for the race win. Engine failures for Alesi and De Cesaris, as well as an electrical problem for Mansell, handed the win to Senna.
With De Cesaris having challenged for the lead from 11th, who knows what Schumacher could have done on that day. The aerodynamic and mechanical stability of the Jordan suited Michael perfectly.
However, he didn’t even start the next race for the Jordan team. Benneton had seen enough of Schumacher to want him, and the German was poached from under Eddie Jordan’s nose. He took his maiden win a year later, at the same circuit. And the rest is history…