By Abhishek Takle
Spa-Francorchamps -- a name that has gone down in motor-racing folklore; a track that is truly one of Formula One’s classics, one of the few that still lingers on from another age, an era when it was commonplace to see cars thundering around treacherous circuits like the Nordschleife; a place where the roar of engines long fallen silent can still be heard echoing among the trees that line the track as it cuts through the forests of the Ardennes mountains.
Having first hosted a Grand Prix in 1925, the circuit to this day remains one of the most daunting on the calendar, its layout largely unchanged since it underwent a major revamp after 1978, one which rewards skill and commitment and around which only the best succeed, its legacy enshrined in corners like Eau Rouge, Pouhon and Blanchimont which to this day inspire fear and awe among drivers.
"It is like nothing on this earth," Mark Blundell, who raced in Formula One between 1991 and 1995, has been quoted as saying of Eau Rouge.
"It is incredibly daunting and you have to drag up a hell of a lot of commitment as you come out of La Source and head down the hill. On the way into Eau Rouge you are really studying the size of your balls."
Given its place in motor-racing legend, it is perhaps fitting then that Spa-Francorchamps should be the scene of one of the most significant events in Formula One history, the emergence of a driver who would go on to rewrite the record books -- a certain Michael Schumacher.
The year was 1991. The Jordan Formula One team were in their debut year in the sport when, ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix, one of their drivers, Bertrand Gachot, was jailed for spraying CS gas at a London taxi driver. As a result, team founder Eddie Jordan was scouting for drivers to slot into Gachot’s seat.
At that time a young German by the name of Michael Schumacher, who had always been very pessimistic of his chances of making it to Formula One let alone going on to dominate the sport, was racing sportscars for Mercedes. His manager the wily Willi Weber heard of the vacant seat at Jordan and immediately went to work.
"Jordan didn’t have a driver, so I acted immediately, I had to ring Eddie straight away, to see if there was a chance Michael could get into the car," Weber is quoted as saying by journalist James Allen in his book Michael Schumacher: The Edge of Greatness.
"Easier said than done… Eddie was on holiday in Spain at that time. I think I spent about five hundred pounds on phone calls from my hotel at the Nurburgring. I searched for Eddie and then the negotiations began."
"I said, ‘Eddie, please give him a chance.’ Eddie said, ‘But who is Michael Schumacher?’ I had a very good rapport with Eddie at the time. We had been in F3 for many years and I was at that time in the process of buying his Formula 3000 team, which didn’t work out – in hindsight, thank God, because I was only buying it for Michael to move him up a level."
Eventually, a deal was negotiated with Mercedes paying Jordan a certain amount of money to put the 22-year-old in the car.
A test session was arranged at Silverstone and despite impressing observers in his first outing in a Formula One car and despite the Mercedes backing Schumacher brought with him—which was the main reason Jordan agreed to give him the drive in the first place—a cleverly-told lie by Weber is what finally clinched Schumacher the seat.
“I’d asked him – had he been to Spa before? And he said yes, which for me was a big fib. Because what I really meant to say was, ‘Have you raced at Spa before?’ And the answer would have been no,” Eddie Jordan told the BBC in a feature marking Schumacher’s 20 years in the sport, telecast ahead of the 2011 Belgian Grand Prix.
"Had he answered that question the way I felt he should have, he wouldn’t have got the drive."
In actual fact, Schumacher had never been to Spa let alone driven around it. His first laps of the circuit that he would go on to describe as his ‘living room’ came on a bicycle and he was initially surprised at how steeply the track rose and fell, particularly through Eau Rouge.
“I didn’t know the track. I thought, well, on TV it all looked different because when you see the cars going through Eau Rouge you don’t think it is that steep,” Schumacher is quoted as saying in the BBC feature.
"Going on a bicycle up there you think, ‘Oh! What’s that?’ It was tricky, it was very difficult. But it was so much joy and fascination to do this, to feel the car, you’re just on the edge and you’re balancing on a rope or on a knife-edge and you go through it."
In the end, Schumacher had no trouble whatsoever getting to grips with the high-speed, demanding layout and qualified an impressive seventh, nearly a second quicker than his more experienced team-mate Andrea de Cesaris, on his debut.
However, it was a different story in the race as a burnt clutch meant Schumacher didn’t even manage to complete the first lap, pulling over at the side of the track just after Eau Rouge.
But Schumacher had made his mark and sealed his place in Formula One and over the next two decades Schumacher and Spa seemed to become intrinsically linked, the track running like a thread, like a constant theme, throughout the German’s career, inspiring some of his greatest drives and bearing witness to some of the landmark ‘Schumacher moments.’
His first win, that superlative drive he put in to win the race in 1995, his record-breaking 52nd Grand Prix win that made him the ‘winningest’ driver in Formula One history, that collision with David Coulthard in 1998 that cost him the race and the altercation that followed, that memorable dice with Mika Hakkinen in 2000 when the Finn pulled one of the best overtaking moves ever on Schumacher to win the race, Schumacher’s 300th Grand Prix, his seventh world title, Spa was the constant through all of these moments.
"It all happened to me here in Spa. First race, first victory, some beautiful victories and interesting races, and 2004, the seventh title, last year the 20th anniversary and now number 300 and being honoured. So it’s a full package. Spa has always meant a lot to me."