24th August 1991, Belgium. It was the first time we saw a driver who is recognized by Formula One’s own website as “statistically the greatest driver the sport has ever seen” qualify for an F1 race. Michael Schumacher or Schumi as he is called by a majority of his fans started the race from the 4th row, but the story of how he got inside an F1 car is a story of chance and luck, two things on which Schumi rarely relied upon in his career.
Bertrand Gachot, the Belgium driver for Jordon-Ford, was convicted for an incident in London and was imprisoned which would result in him missing the remainder of the season. Team owner Eddie Jordon wanted to sign an experienced driver, but after a test at Silverstone, the team manager and the lead designer insisted on signing the then 22 year Schumacher, who at that time was delivering stellar performances in Formula 3. And oh, a lie from Schumi’s manager about his extensive experience at the concerned track did the trick! (In reality, Schumi had only been to Spa-Francorchamps as a spectator).
Schumacher actually learned about race track on a two-fold bicycle after his team mate Andrea de Cesaris didn’t find time to take him around the track. However, few laps into the first practice session on Friday and there was already some talks in the paddock about how the debutant was showing great promise at the hilly track which was renowned for being one of the toughest on the circuit-owning to its twisty fast nature and blind corners. He ended his first practice session 11th on the timesheets – a respectable feat indeed.
It got better the next day when Schumi qualified 8th for the race (he later got promoted to 7th as the driver who qualified 2nd had his time disallowed). The result matched Jordon-Ford’s best qualifying result of the season till then. The feat was even more impressive given the fact that Schumi started the race a couple of rows ahead of his seasoned teammate De Cesaris.
Michael’s race did not last even a complete lap due to a clutch failure, but by that time he had already completed a couple of overtakes and was in 5th. Nonetheless, his performance on Saturday literally marked him as the hottest new property in the racing world and what followed was a battle between Jordon-Ford and another Ford-powered team Benetton to decide whom would the young German represent for the remainder of the season. The battle was eventually conquered by the latter and Schumi would go on to finish 5th for his new team in the next race.
Many of those who saw Michael race live that weekend in Belgium claim till date that they were aware of witnessing the rise of the next big sensation, but hardly anyone can claim they knew that they had seen the debut of one of the, if not the absolute, greatest of all time.