The Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps this weekend marks the 20th anniversary of Michael’s Formula One debut. In this interview, he looks back on his career and his abiding relationship with the Belgian circuit.
25th August 1991, Belgian Grand Prix, Spa-Francorchamps: your first Formula One race. How did that come about?
At the time, it was a combination of circumstances. Jordan driver Bertrand Gachot was sent to prison, which left his cockpit vacant in the run-up to the Belgian GP. There was some discussion about me possibly racing, but it was by no means a done deal that I would actually get to drive. It was only on the Thursday evening before the weekend that I was told I would be taking part in the next day’s practice session and making my Formula One debut. That was my entry ticket into F1, which even back then was organised for me by Mercedes-Benz. From today’s perspective, I can say that I have now returned to the family who gave me the opportunity to launch my career.
You had already driven for Mercedes-Benz in sports car racing and in DTM. How important were these racing series and the experience you gained in them for your career?
It was extremely important for my further development, for me as a person and for finding out how to make cars go faster. Because that’s what really counts: most racing drivers can drive fast, but the crucial factor is getting 100 percent out of the car and adapting it to your strengths. That’s what competing in these series for Mercedes taught me, almost to Formula One level. So I came into Formula One extremely well prepared and very quickly discovered everything I needed to know about getting the setup right.
What was it like to drive out of the pit lane for the first time in a Formula One car?
It was a wonderful and fascinating moment. I can still remember it well. It was during a test at Silverstone on the Tuesday before the Belgian GP. On the first lap, I had to warm everything up. I came back into the pits to have the car checked and then went back out on my first proper lap. When I was allowed to use full throttle for the first time, I was completely startled. Despite my sports car experience, I had never been so fast in my life. Driving a racing car had never felt so unusual. So I did think about what I should do. I thought to myself: “Maybe you’ve bitten off more than you can chew.” But on the second lap, I was more relaxed. By the third, I had forgotten my doubts and felt comfortable in the car. At the end of the day, I was perhaps a second faster than the guys who had sat in the car before me.
Your debut race at Spa was a relatively brief appearance...
Sadly, it was very short. In retrospect, I’m quite annoyed about it. I had to retire after 500 metres due to a clutch defect that could have been avoided, as my clutch was already broken in the warm-up session. So unfortunately, I had to watch the race from trackside. My team-mate Andrea de Cesaris also had to retire three laps from the end – lying in second place. At the time, I was a full second faster than him, so you can work out for yourself what I might have achieved in my first race...
When did you realise that, for you, Formula One is like ‘winning the lottery’?
It was not about me ‘winning the lottery’. Rather, I realised fairly quickly that we are all human beings – even Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell. Up to that point, those drivers were so far away from me, I couldn’t even imagine comparing myself to them. Over that weekend, I realised that it was perfectly possible, and that I could compete with the very best of them and hold my own.
You’ve frequently referred to Spa-Francorchamps as your ‘living room’. What makes the track so special for you?
I’ve experienced many wonderful and interesting things at Spa. It’s a place where virtually everything has happened to me that could happen – my first race, my first win, my seventh world championship title… That’s what makes Spa so special for me, and that’s why I now call Spa my ‘living room’. And then there are the huge challenges that the track gives the driver: Eau Rouge, Blanchimont – the track brings very special emotions and feelings. It is and always has been the ultimate statement to drive a car at the absolute limit there. At the time, it was the highlight of the season to drive through Eau Rouge in a Formula One car. The cars were bunched up close together and the next moment they were almost taking off on the crest – coping with that situation at the car’s limit is like juggling on a tightrope. If you get it right, it’s the best feeling that a racing driver can experience in a car.
30th August 1992 – your first win, and once again in Spa, of course…
That was the icing on the cake, because at the time we were not expecting to win with our car. Sure, we had a bit of luck and the weather played its part, and this combination meant that I was suddenly in the lead and crossed the finish line as the winner. For me, this was more than just a dream come true.
In 1998, we experienced a very emotional Michael Schumacher after the collision with David Coulthard in the rain at Spa...
I remember that race as if it were yesterday. I was driving on the straight in David’s spray and had no way of judging the distance – suddenly he lifted off in front of me. That’s just like doing an emergency stop in a road car, but I couldn’t see it at all because of the spray. All of a sudden, I was into the back David’s car and I found myself driving a three-wheeler.
Let’s fast-forward to the year 2000 – to the famous overtaking manoeuvre with Mika Häkkinen and Ricardo Zonta as piggy-in-the-middle. What was it like for you in the cockpit?
Well, it was a pity really, because up to then I had been able to defend my position – but once Zonta came into the mix, I had no chance of keeping Mika behind. It looked very spectacular and earned him the victory. Moments like that turn motor racing into something very special for the fans.
Your seventh world championship title was decided early in Spa. How emotional was this experience for you?
It was one of those Spa experiences that make this circuit so special for me. In my career, all roads seem to lead to Spa, over and over again. In 2004, I finished as runner-up at Spa, but that was enough to win my seventh title. So for me, it was like returning to my roots.
Who were your greatest team-mates?
Without a doubt, Felipe Massa and now Nico Rosberg. Nico may only be 26 years old, but he has already contested 100 Grands Prix – so he has enough experience, is very fast and has the same approach as I do. This is very helpful for the team in moving forward together.
How do you feel after eighteen months of your Formula One comeback?
I am physically fit, mentally ready and I like the challenge. After such a long break, you have to work your way back in again. That took some time. But I notice that things are coming together and keep getting better. I’m very confident that we will achieve our goal – perhaps a little later than planned, but that’s the way life is sometimes. A world championship title with Mercedes is worth the wait.