x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Schumacher back to where it all began

Michael Schumacher is reflective as he approaches the 20th anniversary of his debut in the Formula One series at Spa.

Michael Schumacher says he is 'proud to be here', as he prepares to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his first start in Formula One.
Michael Schumacher says he is 'proud to be here', as he prepares to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his first start in Formula One.

Saturday night, surrounded by fir trees, fresh air and familiar faces, Michael Schumacher will celebrate his 20th anniversary in Formula One.

Arguably, the occasion to mark the seven-time world champion's career will be arriving a few hours early, but the following afternoon's Belgian Grand Prix will in all likelihood be no time for celebrations.

Schumacher has struggled since making his return to the sport in Bahrain last year following a three-season hiatus, and that will not change simply because this weekend is marked with significance.

Thursday, as the likes of Sebastian Vettel and Vitaly Petrov spoke of showing him no more respect than usual, the 42 year old maintained realism to acknowledge "seventh and eighth" as Mercedes-GP's target - "unless there are unusual circumstances".

It was certainly unusual circumstances that led to the German making his initial bow back in 1991.

He was given a late call-up to Eddie Jordan's team after Bertrand Gachot, the Belgian driver, was jailed for an altercation involving a taxi driver and a can of tear gas.

Schumacher, then 22, had been asked by Jordan, the team principal, whether he had been to Spa-Francorchamps before, and the young rookie answered in the affirmative.

Only this week was it revealed he had told a white lie: he had been to the track - but only on as a spectator and never actually as a driver.

He finished the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix as a spectator, too, after being forced to retire on the opening lap after his inexperience at the start had seen him burn out the clutch during the start line procedure, but since then he has won seven world championships, 91 grands prix and secured 154 podiums.

He holds the record for most wins at Spa, triumphing there six times [it should have been seven but he was disqualified for a technical infringement in 1994] although his last success here was back in 2002.

He is, without doubt, the most successful driver the sport has ever seen despite his underwhelming past season-and-a-half at Mercedes. "If I had not raced him, who knows what would have happened in his career," Jordan said.

Schumacher certainly had little idea what lay ahead for him, acknowledging yesterday that he was "doubtful whether my quality was good enough to compete".

"You see them as untouchables, especially in those moments when you had [Ayrton] Sennas, [Alain] Prosts, [Nigel] Mansells and so on," he said

"I didn't really think I could match. But at the end of the day, we are all humans. We all have limits and you drive within those."

Schumacher said his limits have changed over time, and while a German continues to dominate the drivers' standings, it is in the form of Vettel, the 24 year old, who was yet to start school when Schumacher was lining up on the grid at Spa on August 25, 1991.

A few years later, Vettel travelled with his father to Hockenheim to watch "the hero of my childhood".

"We went all the way down to the first chicane," he said. "It was raining like crazy, and Michael had his yellow Benetton at the time. To see a Formula One car and then to see Michael passing was really very special."

The two met a few years afterwards when Vettel won a karting championship and it was Schumacher who presented him with his trophy.

Photographs continue to float around the internet of a young Schumacher and a prepubescent Vettel. "To know what happened in the past, and to see today that we are racing against each other in Formula One, is quite crazy," Vettel said.

Petrov, the Russian driver with Renault, is the anomaly of the paddock in that he did not even know who Schumacher was until he had already started racing in ice rallies.

Growing up in Vyborg, a small town near to the Russia-Finland border, Petrov had little access to F1. Yet even he found himself quickly being mesmerised by the veteran's achievements.

"I was racing myself, but I never even knew what Formula One was," he said.

"I think I started to watch when Michael was battling with [Fernando] Alonso [at the start of the 21st Century]. When I heard he would stop racing, I was a little bit like, 'no, why?' because I wanted to race with him."

Petrov gets another chance on Sunday and where better for Schumacher to mark his 20th anniversary than at Spa?

"It is certainly not something to be expected from the beginning, but I am proud to be here," Schumacher said.

"As I often call it, Spa is my living room and a very particular place that lots of things - great things and special things - have happened. It is obviously a perfect scenario to celebrate this moment here."

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae