Taken from the October 1992 issue of Motor Sport
by David Tremayne
In the end it was the least experienced of the upper echelon of F1 drivers, in the least technologically advanced of the top cars, who took the spoils in the Belgian GP. In doing so he benefitted from a slice of luck, but then Nigel Mansell was not without that himself when he scored the first of his 29 victories at Brands Hatch back in 1985.
In his reflections last month Jenks wrote of the majesty of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, and how right he was. Of all the tracks on the FIA Formula One World Championship trail, it has the greatest charisma, presents the greatest challenge, and the greatest opportunities. After the ludicrous Hungaroring, with its constant radius curves and manifest lack of passing places, it brought Grand Prix racing back to the days when overtaking was possible, and certainly we saw plenty of it. The 1992 Belgian GP had it all, really. It started on a track made so greasy by drizzle just before the start that one by one all of the drivers pitted for wets within laps. Then it began to dry again, necessitating further stops for slicks.
It was in precisely such circumstances that the depth of Michael Schumacher’s affair with Dame Fortune became apparent. Already, it might be said that she has smiled benignly on F1’s new Golden Boy. He went to Jordan at just the right time 12 months ago when he made such a sensational debut at Spa. He switched to Benetton at a time when Tom Walkinshaw’s influence on the technical side was beginning to make itself felt, and would then begin to manifest itself in the new season in the form of speed and reliability that saw Camel Benetton Ford the only team which could boast a car in the points at every race. And in Japan he not only walked away from a massive shunt in qualifying, but actually went faster immediately afterwards.
He felt good in the motorhome on raceday, he said afterwards, and certainly he was in contention throughout. Spa has traditionally thrown up, or threatened to throw up, unusual results in the closing stages. In 1958 Cliff Allison nearly won for Lotus when Tony Brooks, Mike Hawthorn and Stuart Lewis-Evans all ran into trouble within sight of the flag. In 1964 Jim Clark scored his hat-trick when Dan Gurney was sidelined and Bruce McLaren slowed on the final tour. In 1968 McLaren himself was the recipient of fortune after team-mate Denny Hulme and Jackie Stewart had fallen late from contention. This time it was Schumacher’s turn as Dame Fortune kissed him affectionately.
In the tricky conditions Brundle had been revealing a racecraft that would be rewarded with the sack from Benetton only days later, looking much the smoother of the two Witney pilots as he pushed Schumacher and began to engender small mistakes in the flamboyant German’s driving. There was a big twitch on lap 29, and then a more telling mistake at Stavelot on lap 30, as the Benetton slid wide and off onto the grass in the right-hander. In a moment Brundle had slipped by into third place, but Schumacher did a remarkably good job of recovering, somehow keeping the yellow and green car away from the barrier. Indeed, by the end of the lap at Blanchimont he was again really pressing Martin.
That was where the Briton lost his likely chance of victory. “I had a split second decision to make,” he said glumly afterwards, but without hint of rancour. “Did I come in then for slicks or leave it one more lap?”
The latter choice proved more tempting, Brundle reasoning that one more lap at full racing speed would give him sufficient cushion over his team-mate to stop next time round and retain third place. Schumacher, perforce, had to come in then. It would be the difference between first and fourth place. The German’s tyres were already dirty from his grassy moment, so really he had little choice but to pit, but he had also seen how blistered Brundle’s tyres were. In he came, and out he went, still in fourth place ahead of Hakkinen, Lehto, Herbert and Senna. Martin’s was a slow stop as he was unsighted on entry to the Benetton stall, and with Patrese’s stop Schumacher was second when Mansell came in at the end of lap 33. Williams got him out quickly, but not quickly enough. Superior tactics had, to everyone’s surprise, won Benetton the lead, and suddenly the race was alive again as Mansell began charging back from second place and Schumacher piled in what would be the fastest lap in the 39th tour.
Could Mansell do it? The odds suggested that almost certainly he could and would, especially with the Williams-Renault’s speed up Raidillon. Thousands of sodden fans prepared for the great clash. Sadly, it never came. Renault had enjoyed an 18-month period up to Patrese’s dropped valve in Hungary without a single race engine failure, and now, unaccountably, the left-hand exhaust came loose on both FW14Bs. In one lap Mansell lost 12s to Schumacher. Next time around it was another nine. The game was over.
As Bernard Dudot and his engineers blinked their eyes and perhaps pretended it was rain on their cheeks, Schumacher sped home unchallenged to become the first German since Jochen Mass in Spain in 1975 to win a Grand Prix, and only the third since the World Championship began in 1950.
“What can I say?” he asked anyone who would listen. “It is just so difficult to describe this feeling. I had tears in my eyes for the first time at Hockenheim but I can tell you I really cried today. Let me just say I’m very, very happy. I’ve won my first Grand Prix at a circuit just 100 kilometres from my home…”
There are times when you are aware of watching history in the making. Leaving Spa-Francorchamps, with Schumacher’s laughter ringing in your ears, you felt that this was one of them.