Friday, August 26, 2011

Schumacher's 20th 'birthday

Statistically the greatest driver in F1 history, Michael Schumacher celebrates the 20th anniversary of his debut today and goes back to the circuit where it all began hoping to rediscover the old magic

Spa remains the great man's 'living room'
Twenty years ago a young man drove his first Grand Prix and it was the start of a career that rewrote the Formula One history books. That young man was Michael Schumacher and he's now 42. He has won 91 GPs -- 40 more than the next man on the list, Alain Prost.

The F1 season resumes this weekend at the circuit where Schumacher made his debut -- Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, generally regarded by racing drivers as the best road course in the world.

Many people forget that Schumi's first GP was with Eddie Jordan's team, then in its first season in F1 (and now Indian-owned). A vacancy arose after French driver Bertrand Gachot was jailed for spraying gas on a London taxi driver. Mercedes-Benz paid Jordan 150,000 English pounds to put Schumacher in the seat.

The legendary F1 journalist Denis "Jenks" Jenkinson watched the new kid in his first practice session through the Eau Rouge, the most revered bitumen in motorsport. James Allen, a much younger colleague of the late Jenkinson, recalled this week that "Jenks" commented that day: "We should keep an eye on this boy. He looked like the real thing."

On that very first weekend Schumacher upstaged Jordan's other driver, veteran Italian Andrea De Cesaris. The rookie was in the top eight in every session and qualified seventh. It might have been sixth had he not been blocked by Jean Alesi on his last lap.

In the race Schumi's Jordan quickly expired. The clutch melted off the start line. It may even have been his fault. But in the paddock the wise heads knew that someone special had arrived in F1.

Even during the few laps Schumacher had done in the Jordan car at Silverstone early that week the talent had shone brightly. Trevor Foster, the team manager, had called him in to tell him to slow down. He also ordered that Eddie Jordan be rung and told that a star had been unearthed.

"Instantly, within three laps, he looked like he'd been in the car all season. He looked totally at home," Foster said. Then at Spa -- the F1 circuit closest to Schumacher's home at Kerpen but at which he had never raced, despite his manager Willi Weber telling Jordan the opposite -- the team wondered whether he was driving beyond the limit. Even on his debut at 22, Schumacher had the self-confidence to tell the team: "I'm on the limit, but not over it."

Somehow Jordan didn't tie up the newcomer tightly enough and for the next race, the Italian GP at Monza, he was in a Benetton car.

It is one of the best F1 tales that the evening before practice began Schumacher was standing in a small group in the foyer of a hotel as his future was being thrashed out. He was confused but, as the discussions went on, F1 tsar Bernie Ecclestone turned to him and said: "Michael, go to bed. When you wake up in the morning you will be a Benetton driver."

Ecclestone and Benetton team boss Flavio Briatore engineered him out of Jordan and into the team with which he would win his first two world championships, in 1994 -- after Ayrton Senna's death and by biffing Damon Hill out of the title decider in Adelaide -- and '95.

Then for 1996 he was lured to Ferrari, where Frenchman Jean Todt had begun a resurrection and also recruited the technical whizzes around Schumi at Benetton, Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne.

The GP wins started to accumulate but it was 2000 before the planets aligned for the German maestro to win another championship there. It was to be the first of five straight. Even if his teammates sometimes were ordered to finish behind him, they knew he was The Man.

In his early days in F1 Schumacher raced against Senna, Prost and Nigel Mansell. Later his main rivals were Canadian Jacques Villeneuve, briefly when he was at Williams, and the Finn Mika Hakkinen in a McLaren. Later still it was Spaniard Fernando Alonso, who -- in a Renault (nee Benetton) -- dethroned him in 2005 and repeated the dose in '06.

Schumi was still a mighty force when he bowed out at the end of that year. His drive in the season finale at Interlagos in Sao Paulo, Brazil, was a sight to behold, although not victorious. He went away for three years but had an ambassadorial role with Ferrari. His feet got very itchy, but Ferrari had moved on -- even from the driver with the greatest statistical record in F1's history.

Mercedes, long aligned solely with McLaren, suddenly bought the BrawnGP team that had been Honda -- before the Japanese manufacturer's withdrawal from F1 at the end of 2008 -- and miraculously won the '09 constructors' championship and the drivers' title with Jenson Button.

Despite his Ferrari success, Schumacher had always been a blue-eyed boy with Mercedes, which had been the patron of his junior career -- along with fellow young Germans Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Karl Wendlinger. They all drove Mercedes-engined cars for Swiss team owner Peter Sauber.

As Mercedes sealed the deal to campaign its own F1 team in 2010 its motorsport chief Norbert Haug complemented the dream by orchestrating a Schumacher comeback, signing him to a three-year deal.

Eighteen months into his second GP career it hasn't produced the fairytale Mercedes hoped. Not only has Schumacher not won this time around, he is consistently outperformed by young teammate Nico Rosberg. As he returns to Spa, where he announced himself 20 years ago and scored his first GP win a year later, Schumacher is equal 10th in the world championship with a second-year Russian driver on thin ice with his Renault team, Vitaly Petrov.

As Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari share victories between them, Haug has now admitted that it is going to take longer for Mercedes to succeed as an F1 constructor than he and it envisaged. Despite constant speculation that he will give it away, Schumacher has vowed to soldier on until his contract expires at the end of next season.

It is doubtful that the Mercedes-Schumacher combination will have proved victorious by then. It is a pity to see the driver who ruled the sport so imperiously for so long just a shadow of what he was. Yet a sprinkle of rain, perhaps at Spa on Sunday night, Australian time, might yet produce a miracle.

"The race in Spa will certainly have a special touch to it this time -- it's hard to believe that this (his first GP) was such a long time ago," Schumacher said this week.

"A lot has changed in those 20 years, but one thing has not: the track is still sensational. I just love the great nature of the location and the resulting layout with all the ups and downs.

"To me, Spa remains my 'living room', because it has been the stage for so many things which have been remarkable for my sporting career.

"This is why this time I would like to specifically send a big thank you to all my fans for their loyalty and support, which I was happy to receive during those 20 years and also since my comeback.

"Talking about the sporting side prior to Spa, we are all returning from the summer break with fresh motivation and energy, and will try to set an exclamation mark at the Belgian GP."

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