Michael Schumacher's scintillating Spa F1 debut: 'You just knew he was special'

F1

30 years ago today, Michael Schumacher announced himself to the F1 world – the man who was right beside him, Trevor Foster, recalled the weekend to James Elson

Michael Schumacher, Jordan-Ford 191, Grand Prix of Belgium, Spa Francorchamps, 25 August 1991. Michael Schumacher's eyes show his concentration. (Photo by Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images)

Schumacher's laser-like focus was immediately evident, says Foster

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

Never have one and half laps in a midfield F1 car sent such shockwaves through grand prix racing. It was 30 years ago today that Michael Schumacher, in the glinting emerald Jordan 191, qualified seventh for the Belgian GP, beating his vastly experienced team-mate and a whole host of other big grand prix names with a blistering, instinctive turn of speed. The next day he carried his pace into the race, launching into fifth from at the start, even entertaining ideas of a win on his debut, before the clutch exploded…

No matter – Schumacher was on an instant path to stardom. The man that was right by his side that weekend, his race engineer Trevor Foster, recalled the experience three decades later to Motor Sport – describing it as “a privilege – you just knew he was something special.”

The Jordan team’s rollercoaster debut 1991 season in F1 was worthy of its own film treatment, but perhaps the icing on the cake that year was that the Silverstone squad gave a race debut to a man who could claim to be the greatest of all time.

It all started when pilot Bertrand Gachot famously got into a scuffle with a London cab driver. Instead of being let off as expected, he was thrown in the slammer. Jordan had a problem on its hands.

Schumacher jr

Schumacher’s impressive junior performances, including his pictured performance at Macau in 1990, drew him to Jordan’s attention

“It was a shock to us all. We all expected Bertrand to get a good slap on the wrist,” remembers Foster. “it came completely out of the blue, but because the car showed quite competitively during the season, there were quite a few people ringing Eddie [Jordan, team boss] up.”

“[Technical director] Gary [Anderson] and I were always of the opinion that Jordan being a young team, would always have more success with younger drivers that we could bring in, nurture our way and build into the team.

“When we were working for Eddie’s F3000 team, we’d been seconded over to Japan to do some Formula Nippon work. We saw Schumacher over there, and he performed immediately. We knew it was not an easy transition to just pop over to Japan and perform in a very different culture. It came up in conversation when we needed a driver: ‘Why not Michael?’ He was a Mercedes junior too, of course,”

“Within five laps, you would’ve thought Michael had been driving the car all season” Trevor Foster

Schumacher got the nod, helped by the three-pointed star sweetening the deal with $150,000 – something a team with particularly finite resources found very useful as it headed toward the tail end of what had been a financially draining season. This was an overriding theme of the young German’s first outing in the car.

“We were working on a very tight budget and a very short timeframe before Spa” Foster recalls. “So we arranged on the Monday to do a test and seat fit for Michael, giving him a run on the little South circuit of Silverstone – just to get him acclimatised with the car.

Things started rather unglamorously for a man who would go on to become F1’s royalty.

“The race team had already left for Belgium with [his team-mate] Andrea de Cesaris’s car and the spare one too – so we literally ended up using a van and trailer to bring over Michael’s,” Foster remembers.

Schumacher might have been highly rated for a rookie, but this didn’t mean that arch-pragmastist Foster wasn’t racked with the usual worries for a novice taking a cash-strapped team’s highly expensive car for a first-time spin at Silverstone.

AUTO - F1 1991 - BELGIUM - SPA FRANCORCHAMPS - PHOTO: ERIC VARGIOLU / DPPI MICHAEL SCHUMACHER (GER) / JORDAN FORD - FIRST GP ACTION Reference: 00000520_005

The young German rookie looked immediately comfortable behind the wheel of the 191

DPPI

“We had a limited budget on engines – it cost £30,000 just for a rebuild,” he recalls. “I was quite anxious, because I was so nervous of the impact on our spares as we were going into a race meeting.

“It’s very easy for young drivers to get over exuberant, and we’d worked with a lot of them: ‘I’ve got to impress, this is my first outing, I’ve got to make my mark.’”

As soon as he was let loose on track, Schumacher certainly did – presumably to the accompaniment of much nail-biting for Foster, who was watching with Schumacher’s manager, Willi Weber.

“When you see a driver get onto it so quickly, you’re always a little bit concerned that they’re driving over the edge” Foster

“The strongest memory I’ve got is that within five laps, you would’ve thought Michael had been driving the car all season,” he says. “He was just instantly on it, flicking the car around, very much in control.

“When you see a driver get onto it so quickly, you’re always a little bit concerned that they’re driving over the edge.

“So we called Michael in, and I remember having a conversation with his manager. I said ‘Really Willi, please bear in mind, we need to take our time, this car is going into the trailer to Spa!’

“At the time Michael wasn’t 100% confident in his English, so Willi spoke to him, and then replied: “He doesn’t have a problem and doesn’t know why you’re concerned!’

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“By the end of it, you could see it was braking in the right areas and the right amount, no drama. Having worked with many young drivers, you recognise the ones that take it within their stride – and Michael really was one of those.”

This effortless confidence and easy-going assertiveness carried on as soon as the team pitched up at Belgium.

“Quite rightly, because of his sports car record, Andrea believed Spa was one of his strongest circuits,” says Foster. “So I asked him to take Michael round it, which he agreed to. I told Michael and he said ‘Don’t worry I’ve got a fold-up bike.’ So off he went, cycled by himself round Spa, and when he came back, Andrea said he was too busy, so Michael just did it again. That was how he learnt.”

It turned out that was all Schumacher needed. The Kerpen kid, who had never driven the Spa circuit, soaked it all up on two wheels before transferring the know-how to four.

“The following morning, in free practice, you would never know it was it was the first time he’d driven there,” Foster says. “He was just instantly competitive for where the car should have been at that moment in time.”

Michael Schumacher, Jordan-Ford 191, Grand Prix of Belgium, Spa Francorchamps, 25 August 1991. First Formula One race for Michael Schumacher. (Photo by Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images)

F1’s new star was soon on the pace in Belgium

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

The manner in which Schumacher carried himself in the Ardennes was no different from Silverstone, as Foster remembers.

“He was very relaxed in the car over the radio, very focused on what he was trying to do, along with being very calm and precise when he gave you feedback,” he says. “I remember saying to him because he was again so strong in the car, I was concerned about damage to the car.

“I remember saying to him ‘Michael – are you sure you’re not driving over the limit?’ and he said, “No, no, no. I’m on the limit, but I’m not over it’ – just as calm as that.”

What also sticks out in Foster’s mind is the young rookie’s attention to detail.

“It was phenomenal,” he says. “He wanted to practice stopping on his pits stop marks all the time. It’s standard now, but believe me it was not then. He would look at you and want to know ‘Am I six inches over or under?’ Every single time. He’d already worked out all those little details that he felt he should be doing.”

The next test came when a reliability issue struck. A water pump issue put Schumacher’s 191 out of action. De Cesaris had deemed his race car not up to scratch, so had switched to the spare. His original Jordan was handed over to the young German, with a result that now doesn’t seem surprising, but then only amplified the noise surrounding him which had been building in the pit lane that weekend.

“We popped him in, he went out and literally went quicker than Andrea had gone all weekend. He was just very, very much at home,” says Foster.

“Without being arrogant at any point, he was just very relaxed the whole weekend. He obviously got used to the qualifying tyre, and as result did an amazing job to qualify where it did in the end.”

Schumacher’s seventh on the grid confirmed what many had quickly come to conclude already – that the German was a future star. However, Foster says the young German had even more in the tank.

“In actual fact, on his last run he was actually quick enough to go to P5, but [Jean] Alesi spun the Ferrari at the bus stop, so Michael had to bail out.”

91 Schu Fos

Foster (far right) with Schumacher during the weekend

DPPI

Former Ferrari team-mate Eddie Irvine spoke to Motor Sport in December about Schumacher’s ability to handle an F1 on a knife edge, perilously close to losing it, but more often than not using his skill to squeezing out every last bit of lap time. It’s something Foster witnessed on the German’s very first grand prix weekend.

“When you would debrief with him, you realised he was also driving the car – if you understand what I mean,” explains Foster. “There was a couple of areas where the car was maybe a little bit unstable, and I said to Michael, ‘What can we change?’ He replied ‘Don’t worry, I just left-foot brake a little bit, keep my right foot on throttle, flat-out – it steadies the car and off we go!’

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Schumacher had arrived, and anticipation in Jordan was rising for an exciting race and strong result on Sunday.

“Everyone was impressed, within the team, up and down the whole pitlane – you couldn’t fail to be. Everyone was talking about him,” Foster says.

“Michael had no doubt he was there to do a job – and that was to try and win that race. That sounds very large expectations now but in reality, you know, he was thinking ‘I have to try and perform the best of my ability and I can race with these people.’”

So Schumacher was gunning for the win, but as we know his challenge barely lasted half a lap. Foster explains why the 191 gave up the ghost so early.

“It was possibly the only time his inexperience caught him out,” he comments. “But to be fair it wasn’t entirely his fault. Cosworth insisted we ran a twin plate carbon clutch due to a certain characteristic of the engine, whereas the standard clutch was a three plate punch in Formula 1.

Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna, on McLaren-Honda (L) leads the pack at the

Schumacher shot to fifth at the start of the race

AFP via Getty Images

“In those days you were allowed to do dummy starts on your formation lap, so he tried a couple. Then he came to the grid of course, and did a third one off the grid.”

Schumacher rocketed into fifth place, it seeming like his dream debut weekend could only get better and better, but then…

“What then slightly showed his inexperience was that he tried to do it again, he dipped the clutch at the hairpin, let it roll around the inside of the corner trying to get a good run down the hill, virtually doing another start, because it gave him full revs, and the clutch completely disintegrated.

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“That was only time his inexperience counted against him – but it could have happened to anybody, to be honest with you.”

After that disappointment, De Cesaris then became the new star of the show in Belgium, almost pushing Ayrton Senna for the win. As mentioned above, the Italian was a Spa specialist, but Foster thinks the effervescent Schumacher played his part in this too.

“I think Michael’s performance in qualifying really pushed Andrea to dig deep to really dig deep,” he comments. “The way Michael drove his car with left-foot braking techniques in certain areas of the track, Andrea learned from it and then used it himself, because he was not doing it beforehand. But Michael was just doing what he felt came naturally to him.”

De Cesaris might have used the young pretender’s braking technique to good effect, but ultimately had been left seriously ruffled after being comprehensively shown up by a complete rookie.

“He found it quite difficult to understand,” Foster recalls. “There was a conversation after Spa in his office, where he wanted to take the car that Michael had raced for the rest of the season – he wanted us to switch them around. Andrea was convinced there was something different about that chassis which allowed Michael to perform.

“He kept using the words ‘It’s just not possible, it’s just not possible! Spa is my strongest track, there’s no way a young guy can come in and perform like that.’

Andrea de Cesaris, Grand Prix of Brazil, Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace, Interlagos, Sao Paolo, 24 March 1991. (Photo by Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images)

De Cesaris was perplexed by his new team-mate’s searing pace

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

“In the end we didn’t change them, because I said to Eddie ‘Should we go down that road, it’s a slippery slope. It never ends.’

“To be fair to Andrea, he was big enough to have a conversation about it with me several years later, and he said, ‘Yeah, I got that one wrong, didn’t I?!’

But De Cesaris wouldn’t have to worry about the direct Schumacher comparison any longer, as the sensational Spa performance quickly took the young star elsewhere. With the help of Bernie Ecclestone, very keen to have a strong German driver to promote the Hockenheim race, Flavio Briatore poached Schumacher for Benetton – his tenure with the green team lasting just one race weekend.

“It would’ve been very difficult for a small team like us to hold a driver of his ability into the following season,” says Foster. “But also to be honest, it would have been really nice to work with him for the remaining five rounds of the season. Everyone was waking up to just how good he was.”

Whilst Foster also recalls obvious disappointment with how an ultimately supreme debut ended, his overall feeling is quite the opposite.

Formel 1, Grand Prix Belgien 1991, Spa-Francorchamps, 25.08.1991 Jordan-LKW Eddie Jordan Michael Schumacher www.hoch-zwei.net , copyright: HOCH ZWEI / Ronco (Photo by Hoch Zwei/Corbis via Getty Images)

Jordan brought Schumacher into his F1 team, but then was helpless to stop him leaving after just one race

Hoch Zwei/Corbis via Getty Images

“When you relive conversations you had with a young driver at the time, of all the cautions you were giving them, you look back at what they’ve achieved over the years, and realise it really wasn’t necessary. He was just so calm, so collected.

“I always believed with Michael, and this is endemic of all very special drivers, he only needed 5% of his mental capacity to drive the car because he had so much natural ability. The other 95% he’s using to work out how to get the best out of the car, and all the little circuit niggles: where best apexes were, the best exit, which kerbs to use, which kerbs to avoid.

“The whole weekend for him for me was was super impressive – it was a privilege. It wasn’t a surprise what he went on to do afterwards.”