Michael Schumacher’s superb Spa moments

Magisterial Spa circuit has an undoubted master in Schumacher. With Motorsport Images’ stunning photography, we look at the great man’s finest Spa moments

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Michael Schumacher: the master of modern F1’s grandest challenge

There’s little wonder that when you ask someone from the Formula 1 fraternity for their favourite modern venue, Spa-Francorchamps – host of this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix – is the most overwhelmingly popular answer.

It brings many associations: speed; mighty turns; undulations; picture-postcard Ardennes scenery; heritage that stretches to the very beginnings of road-circuit motor racing. You can add that its races come with a virtual guarantee of drama, including that it’s located in a notorious microclimate wherein rain – of the sudden and intense sort – is a common feature.

And the track, at least since it was shortened to its current version in the early 1980s, has an undoubted master: Michael Schumacher, who won here six times. Thanks to Motorsport Images, AutoClassics has taken a look at the great man’s finest Spa moments.

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1991: Emerging from thin air

When Michael Schumacher made his Formula 1 debut in the beautiful Jordan 191, at Spa in 1991, within a day he’d beaten the time of his experienced and fast (albeit wild) team-mate Andrea de Cesaris by nearly a second.

He qualified seventh, some four places and seven-tenths better than the guy across the garage. But that’s not the most remarkable bit – nor even is that the vacancy opened up only as incumbent Bertrand Gachot was sent to jail for spraying CS gas into the face of a taxi driver.

On top of it all, Formula 1 had almost no idea about Schumacher in advance; his talent had somehow slipped under its radar and he got the drive mainly thanks to a $200,000 sweetener to the team and a white lie from his manager that he was familiar with the circuit.

Schumacher’s race lasted only a few corners due to clutch failure, but in the broadest sense it mattered not. Everyone now knew who he was.

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1992: The first of 91

Benetton immediately snapped up Schumacher, who continued to impress at his new abode. Things reached their logical conclusion in their logical place 12 months on – as back at Spa Michael took his first Grand Prix win. In so doing, he used two of many characteristics that would become familiar – an almost other-worldly ability to think on his feet, as well as to somehow turn almost any situation, even ostensibly disadvantageous ones, to his advantage.

In a typical dry-to-wet-to-dry-again Spa race, the Williams FW14B pair – habitually dominant that year – led, but the Benetton duo, Schumacher ahead of Martin Brundle, kept them in range in greasy conditions. But at two-thirds’ distance, Michael had a grassy excursion at Stavelot, letting Brundle by. Yet Schumacher noted the state of Martin’s rear tyres and elected to pit for slicks that lap (ironically Brundle had intended to pit himself, but his team-mate’s off deflected his thinking). It was precisely the right moment, as Michael vaulted into the lead, where he stayed until the end.

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1995: Sweet sixteen

Schumacher won his first world title in 1994 – although he lost the Spa win that year post hoc on a technicality. And by now in the 1995 campaign he was beginning to perfect his art in dramatic legend, rarely better seen than back in Belgium that season.

He started just 16th after gearbox problems meant he missed the best of qualifying’s changeable conditions. Yet in the race he rose through the pack in double-quick time, then got the lead when he soldiered on with slicks in a mid-race rain shower as chief rival Williams’ Damon Hill pitted for wets.

Hill quickly got with him, but Schumacher resisted with some astonishing slicks-in-the-wet car control and pace, aided by robust occupation of the racing line (some, including Hill, thought it a little too robust; the stewards indeed gave Schumacher a suspended one-race ban afterwards). Hill’s goose was later cooked when he got a penalty for pitlane speeding, allowing Schumacher to cruise home.

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1996: Smash and grab

Schumacher started his fabled Ferrari relationship in 1996 – and a case can be made that what he achieved in the recalcitrant machine that year was the most impressive accomplishment of his career. And, again typically, it was hardly bettered than at Spa.

It looked like the Williams pair would have the place to themselves, particularly after Schumacher had a big off in Friday practice – he qualified behind them in third, 1.2 seconds off the pole. Damon Hill had a poor start, and Schumacher against all expectations stayed with leader Jacques Villeneuve early on. Things pivoted his way when Jos Verstappen had a big accident, heralding the safety car.

Villeneuve misinterpreted a radio message and didn’t pit first time by under caution; this in turn impacted upon Hill, who had to inopportunely abandon his own pitting. Schumacher, of course, was serviced successfully at the earliest opportunity. The upshot was that Villeneuve dropped behind the Ferrari, and Hill was down in 13th. And Schumacher held off Villeneuve for the remainder, imperturbably charging through Eau Rouge and the rest despite deranged suspension.

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1997: Getting the job done early

Come 1997 Michael Schumacher had enough underneath him to mount a title challenge, but at Spa 12 months on the story hadn’t moved on much. Jacques Villeneuve’s Williams took pole and looked unstoppable, while Schumacher was a distant third on the grid. But on race day Spa’s volatile weather changed everything.

It rained hard for a short period just before the start, and Schumacher, unlike his rivals, waited until the last moment to decide his set-up and tyres. He switched to his spare car prepared specifically for this eventuality, and started on intermediate tyres rather than full wets.

Crucially the race started behind the safety car, something for which Ferrari had a heads-up from listening to race control’s discussions (not illegal and indeed something the officialdom didn’t mind teams doing). A lap after green-flag racing commenced, Schumacher slipped up the inside of Jean Alesi’s Benetton at La Source for second, then performed a similar move on Jacques Villeneuve’s Williams half a lap later to lead. He was never seen again.

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2001: If you can keep your head…

Even with his six wins, Schumacher’s Spa record could have been even more towering. We’ve mentioned 1994, while in teeming rain in 1998 he lost a commanding lead in a controversial collision lapping David Coulthard’s McLaren. In 1999 he was convalescing after a leg break; in 2000 Mika Hakkinen passed him late on, in a memorable race-winning move.

In 2001 Schumacher returned to his winning ways. It was a race that was sedate by his own standards; well, sedate for him at least, as plenty kicked off around him. Again Schumacher started third, again behind the Williams pair, but Juan Pablo Montoya stalled on the dummy grid and Michael cleared brother Ralf on lap one who then – after a large crash involving Luciano Burti and Eddie Irvine brought out the red flag – was left stranded on jacks at the restart as his team hadn’t finished changing his rear wing. While all this was going on, Schumacher cleared off to win with minimum fuss.

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2002: You’re not having this one

2002 was the very height of the crushing Michael Schumacher-Ferrari supremacy. Conversely, though, the season was its depths if looking for drama. The two Ferraris toured around at the front that year, seemingly at half throttle. Schumacher claimed the championship early, by the French race in mid-July, and then focus switched to ensuring second in the table for team-mate Rubens Barrichello. But at Spa Schumacher provided a jewel.

In the previous round in Hungary he had been content to allow Barrichello victory, sitting dutifully on his gearbox throughout. However, in Schumacher’s mind Spa, the next race, was something else – there was no way he was going to cede this one. He simply went for it and lapped often a second or more faster than Barrichello in a fashion that left everyone, not least his team-mate, stunned. It was all with a purpose, to underline even more markedly that Spa was very much his fiefdom.

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2011: Just like old times

It is very easy to forget about Schumacher’s F1 ‘second coming’ in a Mercedes, where he returned between 2010 and 2012 after his initial retirement in 2006. He struggled to reclaim his previous pomp but, again in an appropriate place, in the 2011 Spa round he provided a strong hint of his majesty. And he had to do it starting from the back, after – during his warm-up lap of his opening qualifying run – a cross-threaded nut meant his right rear wheel worked loose and left him stranded.

But come race day, the great man got on with it. Employing a contrary strategy starting on the harder tyres, he made 12 places within three laps, and by the end he had climbed from 24th at the start to finish fifth, even clearing his team-mate and opening-lap leader Nico Rosberg late on. Aptly he sported a golden helmet to mark the 20th anniversary of his 1991 F1 debut.

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Images courtesy of Motorsport Images

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