Matters of moment, October 1991

Rule by Polemics

It is every driver’s wish to see his name in banner headlines, and Michael Schumacher’s dominated the past month’s motorsport. Unfortunately, the reasons were both good and bad.

At Spa Francorchamps the 22 year-old German burst into the F1 firmament and drove with an elan that wholly belied his complete lack of experience in the category. Prior to first qualifying he had amassed but a handful of laps in the Jordan 191 round Silverstone, yet he coped with his situation well enough to end the day within the top 10, and to remain there during Saturday’s qualifying. He burned the clutch out on the line when the race began, but a dramatic new talent had made the ultimate graduation.

If that was apparent to the Jordan team, it was also equally obvious to everyone else, and therein lay the rub. Jordan believed it had Schumacher under a water-tight agreement for the rest of 1991 and up to 1993. Others thought differently. The knives came out, and they were sharp.

Thereafter the situation degenerated swiftly into a morass of lies and counterlies.

Jochen Neerpasch, competitions director for Mercedes Benz, on whose behalf Schumacher was being touted around the F1 paddocks in the first place, accused Jordan of trying to overplay his hand and of changing the contractual goalposts in an unacceptable manner. He began talks with Benetton.

Jordan accused Neerpasch of deliberately engineering a technicality on which he could avoid signing a full contract on the Monday prior to the Italian GP.

Once the teams had gathered in Monza, legal actions abounded. Jordan was unsuccessful in obtaining an injunction from a British judge preventing Benetton running Schumacher. Roberto Moreno, however, ousted by Benetton in favour of Schumacher, was successful in obtaining an Italian injunction against the German driving his usual B191. The wrangling dragged into the early hours of Friday morning.

The mechanics of the situation were ultimately resolved by the diplomacy of Bernie Ecclestone, which may or may not have comprised banging together the heads of unruly infants in the F1 kindergarten, and Schumacher duly drove for Benetton and Moreno for Jordan. By the time the German had scored his first World Championship points on Sunday the story had already begun to become old hat, as these things tend to. Unfortunately, parts of the outside world do not forget so easily.

The situation made parties in Japan uneasy, for the Orient prides itself on its business ethics, and uncompromised morals were clearly missing from parts of the Schumacher equation.

A week later, those same Japanese circles were rocked once again when Akira Akagi, boss of Leyton House, was arrested on charges of alleged involvement in the massive fraud case that has swept through Tokyo’s banking circles. To our knowledge, two significant Japanese companies, poised on the brink of sponsorship investment in the sport, have as a direct result of these incidents decided that F1 isn’t quite the ticket it was looking for. At a time when the recession has finally begun to catch up with Grand Prix racing, that is the sort of further aggravation it can well do without.

Throughout all the hoopla and hyperbole it is easy to lose sight of the catalyst behind all the polemics: the imprisonment of Bertrand Gachot in August following his CS gas attack on a taxi driver in Hyde Park last December. That in itself had made world headlines, and his supporters made more as they protested in Brussels and again at the Belgian GP. Judge Gerald Butler’s draconian 18-month sentence brought racing people down to earth with a harsh taste of what can happen in the atmosphere outside their insular bubble, but at the same time was a graphic indication that when it comes to overreaction, the F1 fraternity does not enjoy a monopoly. — DJT