Michael Schumacher’s reputation as someone who practically drove out of his skin during the rains had suffered a minor blip when crashed out at the Monaco Grand Prix of 1996 trying to push too hard. He made up with a stunning victory in the same weather in Spain later that year, but in the Monaco Grand Prix of 1997, Michael outdid even the high standards he had set for himself in the rain.
On Saturday he qualified second on the grid behind the Williams of Heinz-Harald Frentzen. While his championship challenger for the year – Jacques Villeneuve – was third in the other Williams.
On Raceday, about half hour before the start it started to rain. Not much, but enough to force the drivers to make a choice. To start on intermediates/wets assuming that it would rain harder, or to start on dry’s assuming that the rain would go away before the start/few laps into the race leaving the track dry. The Williams went with the slick (dry) tires.
Michael tried two different cars during the warm up laps, one with intermediate tires and the other with slicks. He went by his then famous philosophy of taking risks when not in the strongest car and started on intermediates.
When the race started, the Williams did not have a good start and Schumi immediately went ahead. From then on it was pure genius. He had a 6+ second lead up front by the end of the lap one itself! It was 11.5 seconds by the end of lap 2 and over 22 seconds by the end of the fifth lap. It was as if Michael was driving on a different race track compared to others. Strategic gains due to the tire choices could not explain this difference as there were other drivers on the same tires too. It was simply Michael being far- far superior to everyone else in the wet.
He did slow down a bit after his lead was over 30 seconds. When he finally pitted, he had a big enough advantage to rejoin the race in the same position with a comfortable gap. He made a mistake on lap 53 which cost him 10 seconds but that was the only blot on an otherwise perfect race. He furthered slowed down at the end to avoid having an extra lap within the 2 hour time limit of the race. When the time limit expired in lap 62 out of 78, Schumi was 53 seconds ahead of second place Barrichello.
As all major F1 critics say, the real level of a car racer is really displayed in the rain when the car becomes so much more difficult to handle. Here’s where all-time greats like Schumi and Senna shone. And in Monaco 1996, Michael shone bright and in the process secured Ferrari’s first race win at the track since 1981.