There won’t be too many races in this section of our site that feature a win by someone driving anything other than a Williams, but on this occasion we’ll make an exception, it being the 50th birthday of Formula 1’s most successful driver Michael Schumacher.
Michael Schumacher is a divisive character, as many of F1’s greatest drivers are. For some he was a genius, with a deftness of touch and a will to win unparalleled in the history of the sport.
For others he pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable on a racetrack, beyond an unwillingness to accept defeat, to just plain cheating, whether it be pre-meditated or instinctive (sadly he demonstrated both).
What is beyond doubt however, is that he was one of the greatest talents that Formula 1 fans have ever witnessed.
And with 91 Grand Prix wins, and seven Formula 1 World Championships, he remains statistically the greatest F1 driver of all time.
So I thought I’d go back and revisit the first of these 91 wins: The Belgian Grand Prix of 1992.
The 1992 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa Francorchamps was the 12th round of the 1992 Formula 1 World Championship.
It was part of Williams’ most dominant season, with Nigel Mansell in the Adrian Newey designed FW14 having won the first five Grands Prix, and followed that up with three wins and two second places in the next six races sealing his sole World Championship in record time.
So when the teams arrived in Belgium, Mansell and Williams were on the first leg of their victory tour. Defeat would mean little.
The then 23 year old Michael Schumacher was in his first full season of Formula 1.
Spa was a little over an hour’s drive from Schumacher’s home in Kerpen, Germany, and so it was serendipitous that the track at which he first tasted victory was also the scene of his F1 debut 12 months earlier.
He’d been called up by Eddie Jordan as a replacement for Belgian Bertrand Gachot who’d found himself unexpectedly spending time in Brixton courtesy of Her Majesty, after assaulting a taxi driver in central London.
It was an explosive debut, despite Schumacher failing to register a single lap of the race. He’d outpaced his team-mate Andrea De Cesaris by half a second on his way to qualifying seventh, and the world of F1 sat up and took note.
Amongst those taking note was Benetton’s Flavio Briatore, who snaffled him from Jordan for the very next Grand Prix.
Not content with outpacing journeyman De Cesaris at Jordan, in the very next Grand Prix, his Benetton debut, he proceeded to outpace three times World Champion Nelson Piquet by three tenths a lap, finishing the race in fifth place, eleven seconds ahead of his illustrious team-mate.
Five podiums followed for ‘Schumi’, before the teams arrived at Spa-Francorchamps.
The weekend started badly, when Ligier driver Erik Comas crashed heavily at the super-quick Blanchimont section. Ayrton Senna, first on the scene, parked his McLaren and spotting Comas unconscious with his throttle still wide open he sprinted over to the stricken car, reached into the cockpit and killed the engine – an act Comas would later acknowledge had saved his life.
Mansell would qualify in pole (two seconds quicker than the rest of the field), Senna alongside him and Schumacher in third.
Senna’s getaway was better than Nigel’s and he led the early stages of the race before Mansell, and then team-mate Riccardo Patrese muscled their way past the McLaren for a Williams 1-2.
With rain beginning to fall, all the leaders bar Senna, pitted for wet tyres.
Senna’d gambled he could manage the short rain spell on slick tyres, giving him an advantage of the time it’d take to stop twice over his rivals. But it was not to be. The track was too wet and he too had to pit which would leave him way down the field.
With the track drying, Schumacher ran onto the grass and damaged his tyres leaving him with no option but to pit.
In a move that’d eventually win him the race, he opted for dry tyres – the first of the drivers to do so – when wets seemed to be a safer bet, and it proved to be a masterstroke.
By the time Mansell and the others pitted, it was too late – Schumacher was too far up the road to catch.
Despite slowly reeling in the Benetton towards the end of the Grand Prix, Mansell’s Renault engine began to stutter and so, with second place in the bag he decided to manage his Williams to the finish rather than throw everything at getting the win.
And so Schumacher became the first German to win a Grand Prix for 17 years, and a new era in Formula 1 – the Schumacher era – was born.
*Image courtesy of George De Coster – Autosport.be