Schumacher and Ferrari: A dream partnership that began in Spain
Over their eleven seasons together, the pair systematically took apart the established order and raised the standard of competition as they went about rewriting the record books.
Michael Schumacher and Ferrari – the most successful driver-team combination in the history of Formula One. Over their eleven seasons together, the pair systematically took apart the established order and raised the standard of competition as they went about rewriting the record books.
But it all began on a soggy summer’s afternoon eighteen years ago as Schumacher literally walked on water at a soaking wet Circuit de Catalunya to win his first race as a Ferrari driver.
That year was Schumacher’s first with the legendary Italian marque. Having won the world championship for the second year in a row with the Benetton team, Schumacher had been seeking a new challenge and made the switch to Ferrari for the 1996 season.
But the Maranello-based outfit at the time was far from the tour de force it would eventually become at the turn of the century, and the two Ferraris were no match for the Williams cars, driven by Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, which were the class of the field.
“We were in the shit in 1996,” Schumacher’s then team-mate Eddie Irvine is quoted as saying by journalist James Allen in his book Michael Schumacher: The Edge of Greatness.
“How Michael drove that car, I’ll never know, it really impressed me. I was scared to turn the steering wheel because you didn’t know if it was going to turn immediately, in half a second or in a second, you had no idea what it would do.
“He drove it on every millimetre of the road. I couldn’t stand getting into it,” Irvine, who drove alongside Schumacher for four seasons, said.
In the six races so far leading up to the Spanish Grand Prix, Schumacher had retired thrice due to a number of reasons: brake failure put him out of the race in Australia, debris damaged his rear wing in Argentina and a rare driver error saw him crash out of the previous race in Monaco on the very first lap.
The German had, however, also hauled his recalcitrant Ferrari to three podiums: in Brazil, albeit a lap down on Hill’s victorious Williams; in San Marino, where he literally dragged the car across the line watched by legions of Ferrari’s Tifosi, trailing smoke from his right front wheel after it inexplicably locked up; and at the Nurburgring in front of his home fans.
But arriving in Spain, the seventh race of the season, third and a long way behind championship leader Hill in the overall standings, Schumacher wasn’t expecting to be able to take the fight to Williams.
Monaco, where he had crashed, had up to that point represented Schumacher’s best chance of claiming that first Ferrari win, but the Circuit de Catalunya, with its fast, sweeping corners was expected to favour the Williams cars which were aerodynamically superior to the Ferraris.
Practice and qualifying bore that out: he ended Friday practice in fifth followed by third in Saturday morning’s final practice session.
In qualifying, he again set the third fastest time but it was a nearly a whole second down on Damon Hill’s pole position time and Schumacher and Ferrari seemed resigned to watching the two blue and white Williams cars disappear into the distance.
But then, on Sunday morning the heavens opened, drenching the Circuit de Catalunya in torrential rain.
A wet track generally tends to act as a leveller of performance and brings driving ability rather than car performance to the fore.
Surely, this was just what Schumacher – already recognised as one of the best drivers in the wet – needed.
He wasn’t so sure: “After qualifying, we were nowhere in comparison to Williams...
“...And even in the rain – in Brazil and Monaco – the car didn’t feel good so I wasn’t expecting anything in these weather conditions,” he said in the press conference after the race.
But when he went out in the warm-up session prior to the race, Schumacher surprisingly found the handling of his Ferrari to his liking.
Yes, he could take the fight to Williams now.
But Schumacher made a terrible start in the atrocious conditions. His Ferrari bogged down as he dropped the clutch and the scarlet car was within seconds enveloped in a ball of mist and spray as the field went streaming past.
Schumacher had dropped to ninth.
At the end of the first lap, Villeneuve, who had started second, led from Jean Alesi’s Benetton-Renault and team-mate Damon Hill, with the second Benetton of Gerhard Berger fourth.
Eddie Irvine’s Ferrari was fifth while Schumacher had already begun his recovery and had clawed his way up to sixth.
The conditions were extremely treacherous, however, and Irvine spun out of the race on the second lap handing fifth to Schumacher.
He gained another place when Hill went off the track. He was now fourth.
The focus at this point in the race was very much on Villeneuve and Alesi as a battle for the lead seemed to be brewing between the pair.
But unnoticed in the rain and mist, Schumacher had found his way past Berger for third and had set the fastest lap in the process, a full two seconds quicker than the leading pair.
Within a lap or so the Ferrari could be seen, looming up out of the spray, behind Alesi and Villeneuve, the scarlet car with the number 1 emblazoned on its nose steadily reeling the leading cars in.
Another fastest lap followed, Schumacher lowering his earlier benchmark by a massive 1.5 seconds to bring him right up onto the tail of Alesi’s Benetton.
He overtook Alesi on lap 9, diving down the inside of the Frenchman before beginning his assault on the lead car of Villeneuve.
It took him three laps to overcome the Williams as he experimented with different lines into the corners, seeking out that part of the track that offered him the most grip.
In the end he took the lead on lap 12 with a move identical to the one he had pulled on Alesi and proceeded to deliver a master class in wet weather driving.
Now lapping in free air, Schumacher lowered his fastest lap benchmark by a further two seconds, and then a second more, until on the fourteenth lap he banged in a lap that was a full four seconds quicker than Villeneuve’s.
He kept the pace up and in just three laps had built a massive 15 second advantage over his Canadian rival.
With the rain increasing in intensity, Schumacher’s genius was starting to shine.
Unchallenged and out at the front, he was clearly revelling in the conditions, dancing a deadly dance with his Ferrari as it squirmed underneath him on the edge of adhesion, even as the best his rivals could do was tip-toe through the race, looking decidedly second-rate, thoroughly eclipsed by Schumacher’s brilliance.
He consistently lapped multiple seconds quicker than the opposition, who were all driving at more or less the same pace as each other, and at one point led the pack by over a minute before backing off near the end after his exhaust cracked and two of the cylinders on his V10 engine cut out.
In the end, he crossed the line 45 seconds ahead of Alesi who had managed to get past Villeneuve who finished third. Only six cars out of the twenty that took the start crossed the line and only the top three were on the lead lap, such was Schumacher’s dominance on that day.
As he made his way up on to the top step of the podium, performing the now-familiar Schumacher victory leap and punching the air in delight, the German and Italian national anthems rang out together for the first time.
“It’s amazing,” Schumacher said after the race. “If anyone asked me how much I’d bet on it, I wouldn’t have even put a penny on it.”
Little did he or Ferrari know then that this was just the first step in their march together into the record books.
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