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’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.
The young German rookie looked immediately comfortable behind the wheel of the 191
“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!’