Archive: Schumacher's verdict on his Spa F1 debut

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Even before the Belgian Grand Prix, Michael Schumacher was on a high. He’s had one of those careers where everything falls into place, thanks to a great natural talent, unshakable self confidence, and the support of some very influential people.

Johnny Herbert had that same momentum a couple of years ago, and like Herbert, Schumacher has benefited from an ability to get in a new car and go quickly straight away with minimum fuss, and no excuses. Nothing builds a reputation better than that.

Schumacher may have avoided the hothouse of European F3000, but anyone who has followed his career expected him to make a comfortable transition to F1.

His background is impeccable. He was a world class karting star as a teenager, and then a frontrunner in continental FF1600 in 1988, his first season of racing. His maiden F3 test was so impressive that Willi Weber – now his manager – signed him up straight away. He finished a point behind 1989 German F3 series winner Karl Wendlinger and was selected for the Mercedes junior team along with Heinz-Harald Frentzen and the Austrian.

Jochen Neerpasch was determined to groom the youngsters for the Mercedes 3.5-litre sportscar programme, and eventually push at least one into F1. Schumacher was quick from the start, finding no problems with the move from F3 to the V8 turbo Merc. The knowledge gained from vast testing mileage (and from the personal tutelage of Jochen Mass) was invaluable.

Schumacher dovetailed his Mercedes commitments with another season of F3 with Weber’s WTS team. Bouyed by confidence gained in sportscars, he won the German title, to which he added a remarkable double success in the end of year Macau and Fuji events. Such credentials could have landed him an F1 seat, even without his Group C pedigree.

Schumacher's close relationship with Mercedes boss Neerpasch helped him into Jordan seat

Schumacher’s close relationship with Mercedes boss Neerpasch helped him into Jordan seat

Photo by: Motorsport Images

This season, still shying away from European F3000, Schumacher has concentrated on sportscars, sharing a car with Wendlinger. The new 3.5-litre Mercedes has been hamstrung by a lack of power and engine reliability, but the duo have put on some good showings, taking second place at Silverstone. At Le Mans, they drove the old turbo car and Schumacher – on his debut there – was quick throughout, although the car struck problems. Would he recommend sportscar racing to would-be F3000 drivers?

“Yes, if you’re with a team like Mercedes,” says Schumacher. “Working with a big team, you get a lot of experience, you get a lot of miles. And in the racing situation you learn also. I know cars with a lot of power; when we drove the turbo car we had more than 700bhp, and in qualifying nearly 900.

“But in F3000 in Europe, if you’re in the wrong car, you are nowhere. The situation is so dangerous that you should leave it. Frentzen is also a really good guy, really quick. He can do the same job, but he’s in the wrong car.”

“We have quite a good basis with this car, we haven’t had to change so many big things, and that’s one of the reasons why I can learn the circuit quickly. If you have a situation like this, it’s quite fantastic for a guy without experience in F1” Michael Schumacher

As a prelude to any possible F1 opportunity, Neerpasch arranged for Schumacher to run a Japanese F3000 race at Sugo a month ago, to give him useful single-seater experience away from the spotlight of Europe. He had the right package; good chassis, engine and tyres, and in Sugo he chose a track where European drivers traditionally do well.

Once again Schumacher showed that ability to step into a car and go quickly. He qualified well, and drove a strong race, running fourth initially and then picking off a couple of cars to finish second, behind Ross Cheever. Was Japan a valuable experience?

“Surely,” says Schumacher. “It’s quite a good championship, because there are so many people who have driven there for a long time, they know the cars so well, the tyres, they know the situation. There are many points which bring the level of Japanese F3000 very high; I didn’t expect it to be as high as it is.

“It was a good experience for qualifiers. The difference between race and qualifying tyres is more than in F1. You need a lot more power from yourself to hold the steering; the tyres have so much grip, and you really feel it. Also, F3000 is a quick formula car, nearly the same as F1 in corner speed and so on, so it helped me a lot. Sportscars is another kind of feeling, you need another style, so F3000 brought me back to the formula car style.”

Schumacher felt Sugo F3000 race helped him get back into the single-seater mindset after a season of Group C with Mercedes

Schumacher felt Sugo F3000 race helped him get back into the single-seater mindset after a season of Group C with Mercedes

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Sugo was part of the plan to round off Schumacher’s F1 training, but not even Neerpasch could have foreseen how quickly it would pay off. There had been talk of a drive at Footwork a couple of months earlier, which had been turned down, but when the Jordan opportunity arose Schumacher seemed the best bet for both parties. He could bring to the team both finance and publicity, while the vacant seat was a dream drive for anybody, let alone a newcomer.

At the Nurburgring SWC round, just a week before Spa, Schumacher claimed that it was unlikely to happen, and in any case Spa would be too soon for him. But behind the scenes, feverish negotiations were underway. Mercedes guaranteed the backing initially, and later TicTac and Dekra picked up the tab.

“We just knew there was a chance to do it,” says Schumacher. “They didn’t involve me really in what was going on, because they wanted me to have a clear head in the Nurburgring race. But after the race I heard that I had to go to England. I was to go anyway, as I had a meeting with Jackie Oliver. We talked together – we were in contact before – and after that meeting I went to Eddie and heard that I can do the race.”

On Tuesday morning Schumacher gained his first experience of the Jordan 191 on the Silverstone South circuit. As usual, it came easy to him.

“The first three laps were quite impressive, but then it was normal,” he says. “Sure it was something special, but not over-special.”

PLUS: The half-truths and deal-making behind Schumacher’s first F1 racer

With barely time to get used to the idea that he was now a grand prix driver, Michael went to Spa; a daunting drivers’ circuit, and one he’d never raced on before.

Despite his lack of local knowledge, he set competitive lap times in the opening minutes. For a while he was fourth quickest, but he slipped to 11th as others tried soft rubber.

“Without a good car you can’t learn a circuit well,” says Schumacher. “But we have quite a good basis with this car, we haven’t had to change so many big things, and that’s one of the reasons why I can learn the circuit quickly. If you have a situation like this, it’s quite fantastic for a guy without experience in F1. Also I talked with Andrea [de Cesaris], and he told me which gears you have to use in which corners.”

Schumacher quickly earned the respect of his Jordan team

Schumacher quickly earned the respect of his Jordan team

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Apart from car and circuit, Schumacher was also learning his way with the team, settling in as if he’d known them for years. His commitment earned their respect and every time he went out there was an air of anticipation.

“The relationship between me and the team is quite fantastic,” he says. “They accepted me, and that’s quite important for me. And working together is quite nice, there’s not so many political things in the team, because it’s a really small team. There are a lot of good people there.”

Was there anything he found difficult to adapt to?

“I liked to take it easy, because I wanted to qualify the car, and not more. I didn’t want to take any risks” Michael Schumacher

“On Friday I never tried Eau Rouge flat,” says Schumacher. “I nearly braked, and firstly I took it in fifth gear, and then sixth. That was a problem, to get used to a part of the circuit like this where you can do it flat, but without experience you do it slowly and then step by step.

Insight: Driving the F1 icon that launched Schumacher’s career

“With my first set of qualifiers I was just on my lap when Eric van de Poele went off and practice was stopped. The second time I tried with the same set of tyres, and Alain Prost blocked my lap. He was starting his quick lap; I braked at the limit for me, but he braked a little bit too early for me, and there were only two possibilities; crash into him, or use the escape road. I thought it was better to use it…”

Prost messing up his lap! This was some cheeky newcomer. And the second set?

“The time was not at the limit, not 100%, but maybe 98% really good,” he says. “But I liked to take it easy, because I wanted to qualify the car, and not more. I didn’t want to take any risks.”

The time was set on Schumacher’s 22nd ever lap of Spa-Francorchamps, including ins and outs from the pits. And it qualified him eighth on the grid, five places ahead of team-mate Andrea de Cesaris.

Schumacher took his time to work up to taking Eau Rouge flat

Schumacher took his time to work up to taking Eau Rouge flat

Photo by: Motorsport Images

By now everyone was taking note of car #32, and Schumacher attracted even more attention on Saturday morning. Now Eau Rouge was flat in sixth every time, no problem, and he even had the nerve to top the times for much of the session, with a lap on race tyres. On a run on qualifying tyres, he improved his grid time by two seconds, and finished the session in fifth spot. He didn’t quite match that time in the afternoon.

“The first run was clear, but there were some points where it was not really at the limit,” he says. “It was OK, but it was also a lap which I wanted to take easy to have a time, and then with the other one you can take a little bit more risk. On the second one I did this section better, but that the chicane I had to overtake and lost maybe one second. I think I maybe could do a time in the middle 50s.”

Traffic was a genuine excuse, Schumacher’s problems caught by the in-car camera of the following Jean Alesi, whose lap was also screwed up. But the earlier time had secured eighth, which became seventh after Riccardo Patrese was penalised [for not having a working reverse gear]. Sure the Jordan was great at Spa – although speed trap figures showed how much it lost out on power – but Schumacher still had to do the job.

“I can’t believe it,” he says. “How can I explain it? I dreamed of something like this, but I never expected that it could be like this. I dreamed of a situation where I could just qualify the car and finish, and that would be a success.”

Sadly Schumacher’s race was over almost before it had begun, the car slowing suddenly first time into Raidillon. He’d already jumped to sixth place.

PLUS: The remarkable story of Schumacher’s F1 debut

If you look at the attrition rate at the front, and how close de Cesaris was to come to leader Senna (from four places behind Schumacher on the grid), you wonder just what he could have done with a clear run…

It seems that Schumacher has the Midas touch at the moment. With Neerpasch and the might of Mercedes steering him in the right direction, he can do no wrong. But he agrees that the good times won’t last forever.

Schuamacher's race was short-lived, but his qualifying performance had set tongues wagging and created much interest in his signature

Schuamacher’s race was short-lived, but his qualifying performance had set tongues wagging and created much interest in his signature

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“It will happen,” he says. “Every time you have a high point, you can come down to a low point. But you have to handle the situation, and come back to the same point – or maybe a higher point. Maybe I won’t qualify the car or something like this. That would be a situation where I think it would be really good from the press for them to not push too hard for me.

“Don’t bring me to a level where I am not yet. If there comes a time when it’s not so good, don’t make it too hard for me. In Germany, the press is like this. They push so hard, and if you lose then you fall down so quick and so deep.”

“The future is to do F1, nothing more. I can’t do sportscars and F1 next year, I hope I can concentrate only on F1” Michael Schumacher

So what of the future?

“The future is to do F1, nothing more,” says Schumacher. “I can’t do sportscars and F1 next year, I hope I can concentrate only on F1. If I can do F1 I will, if I can’t, I will continue in sportscars.”

Many observers are convinced that Schumacher, still only 22, is being carefully groomed for a Mercedes F1 super team, supposedly a year or two down the line. Wouldn’t that be something for a young German driver?

“I don’t know, we will see,” he says. “It would be really fantastic if it happens, but you can’t start with that question yet.”

Spa was to be Schumacher's one and only outing for Jordan before he was whisked away to Benetton

Spa was to be Schumacher’s one and only outing for Jordan before he was whisked away to Benetton

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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