If there is one race track that is inextricably linked with Michael’s two decades in the top flight of motor racing, then it must surely be Spa-Francorchamps. There can be few fans who don’t know that his F1 career began at the Belgian Grand Prix on 25th August 1991. Over the past twenty years, Michael has come to regard Spa like a second home.
“I’ve had a lot of great times in Spa,” he recalls. “It’s been the place where virtually every highlight of my career took place – my first race, my first win, my seventh world title... That’s what Spa means to me, and that’s why I often call it my ‘living room’.”
An additional factor is the many challenges that this legendary track presents for a racing driver. “Eau Rouge, Blanchimont – the circuit arouses a lot of emotions. It is and always has been the ultimate statement to drive a car at the absolute limit there.”
Michael’s first Formula One race at Spa-Francorchamps in 1991
The relationship between Michael and Spa began in the week leading up to his Formula One debut. As he spent a sleepless night in a youth hostel bed on the Thursday before the race weekend, it gradually dawned on him that he would be competing in his first ever Formula One race in just a couple of days.
“As a Mercedes sports car driver, Mercedes-Benz helped me to launch my career,” he recalls. Michael was drafted in as a replacement in Eddie Jordan’s team for regular driver Bertrand Gachot who had been forced to vacate his cockpit after being involved in an altercation with a London taxicab driver.
This was despite the fact that Michael was unfamiliar with the then almost 7km-long long track – though he completed a few laps on a bicycle before the race weekend. Even so, it was love at first sight: in his first qualifying session, Michael recorded an impressive P7. In the race itself, however, he had to retire prematurely when his clutch failed after just a few hundred metres.
Michael’s first Formula One win: Spa-Francorchamps 1992
The date was 30th August 1992, and F1 was back in the Ardennes where the weather was typically cold and wet. One year had passed since Michael’s Formula One debut at the same venue. This time, he got further than 500 metres. On lap 30, he was running in third place, hot on the heels of the two Williams driven by Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese, with Benetton team-mate Martin Brundle in close pursuit.
Then came a huge upset as Michael failed to make it round the turn at Stavelot, skidded into the gravel and Brundle sailed past. But Michael’s great moment was now to come. As he mounted a comeback, he saw that Brundle’s tyres were shot. So he pitted, changed his tyres and took the lead.
After 44 laps and a race lasting one hour, 36 minutes and 10.721 seconds, Michael took the chequered flag for the first time as a Grand Prix winner. “It’s a slightly incongruous story, because my victory came because of a mistake,” he recalls. “It was a great feeling up there on the podium; it took some time for it to sink in.”
Michael’s seventh world title: Spa-Francorchamps 2004
There is something special about Spa-Francorchamps. A challenge for man and machine, one of the last true road circuits with corners such as Eau Rouge and Blanchimont that are a test of a driver’s courage. But for Michael, it represents a lot more. It is the venue where he made his Grand Prix debut, the site of his first GP victory, the place where he repeatedly made motor racing history on 29th August 2004, the day he claimed his seventh world championship title.
This nerve-wracking Grand Prix was interrupted three times by the intervention of the safety car. Michael spent much of the race pursuing the McLaren of Kimi Räikkönen but was unable to find any way past. Even so, second place on the podium was still enough to secure him his fifth title win in a row.
“You can’t always win the race, but I still feel like I’ve taken the victory on the day by wrapping up the championship,” he said afterwards. “It really means a lot to secure my seventh title win, and at Spa-Francorchamps of all places. That’s a very special feeling.”