Whatever may or may not happen to Mick Schumacher during his first F1 drive this week, it will not be a patch on the extraordinary events surrounding his father’s debut in August 1991.
Mick Schumacher, son of Ferrari legend Michael, will test for the Italian team at one of the two days of testing taking place after this weekend’s Bahrain GP.
Michael is remembered for qualifying his Jordan-Ford seventh for the Belgian Grand Prix, despite never having raced at Spa-Francorchamps before. But that does not tell half the story, either before or after such a remarkable introduction to F1.
To say no one was prepared for this would be an understatement, beginning with the reason why the drive had suddenly become available in the first place. Six months before, Bertrand Gachot had been driving to a Jordan sponsorship event in London to mark the beginning of his first full F1 season. An altercation in traffic led to Gachot unwisely using a can of CS Gas to spray a taxi driver when debate over the incident became heated. A plea by the Frenchman that such action was self-defence did not sit well with a judge, who jailed Gachot for nine months.
This had come to court a week before Spa and not long after Bertrand had set fastest lap in the Canadian Grand Prix. If Gachot was stunned, Eddie Jordan didn’t know which way to turn. Not only was he without one of his drivers, he was also short on the sponsorship Gachot would have been bringing to what was viewed as his home Grand Prix. With the greatest respect to poor Bertrand, that tended to focus Jordan’s mind more than the shock of his driver’s heavy-handed incarceration.
Jordan recalled a discussion with Willi Weber, who was managing Schumacher and had shown interest in buying Eddie’s championship-winning F3000 team. That deal had come to nothing, as had Jordan’s view on Schumacher when he learned that Willi had placed Michael in sportscar racing with Mercedes rather than on the more acceptable F3000 rung to F1. But Eddie’s attitude changed somewhat when Mercedes offered to pay £150,000 to have Michael race in F1 for the first time.
With just a few days to go and Jordan committed to flying to Japan to secure an engine deal with Yamaha for 1992, team manager Trevor Foster was urgently instructed to get Schumacher into a car on Silverstone’s South Circuit. There would be no need for Michael to prove himself; the drive was his. This was purely for acclimatisation. When Foster duly reported on the test, Jordan could not believe what he was hearing.
‘In five laps, he was within a second of our best time there and he was faster than [Stefano] Modena could manage all day in the Tyrrell-Honda,’ Foster would later recall. ‘We brought him in immediately and told him to slow down; not do anything stupid. He looked a bit perplexed at that. Out he went and straight away he was back to the same sort of speed. I thought: “This is ridiculous”, and brought him in again for another lecture. He didn’t really understand what I was talking about because he said he found it quite easy. It was obvious he was a complete natural.’
Such a quietly sanguine approach would continue at Spa as Michael asked pertinent questions, absorbed all he was told – and qualified on the fourth row, four places and half a second ahead of Andrea de Cesaris in the other green car. It would matter little that the clutch failed at the first corner. Schumacher had more than made his mark. And a delighted Eddie Jordan had him under contract. Or so he thought.
A week later, two days before the Italian Grand Prix, Michael sent a one-line fax saying he was sorry, but he would not be able to drive for Jordan. Eddie was stunned.
It soon transpired this was due to a deft change of wording on a letter of intent that had been signed at Spa. Jordan’s lawyer, with the best will in the world, had agreed to Schumacher’s advisors changing “we will sign ‘the’ contract in seven days” to “we will sign ‘a’ contract in seven days”. Which they duly did. Unfortunately it was with Camel Benetton Ford; not Team 7UP Jordan.
Eddie could only smile through gritted teeth when the driving force behind Michael’s change of direction became clear. Bernie Ecclestone, keen to have a good German driver in F1, had advised Schumacher and Weber against signing with Jordan. Ecclestone confided that Jordan would have the Yamaha V12 engine, which was likely to be less competitive than Benetton’s Ford V8. And the reason Ecclestone knew of Eddie’s secret plan? Bernie had set it up in the first place.
As ever, Ecclestone’s judgement would be on the money – in every sense.