Cast your mind back to August 23rd, 1991. It’s Friday practice at Spa for the Belgian Grand Prix. All the usual names are in attendance; Senna, Mansell, Prost and Piquet – but there’s also a new name on the entry sheet that weekend – a young German driver by the name of Michael Schumacher.
The story behind Michael’s Grand Prix debut is a truly remarkable one, and there are few people better able to recall the events of that weekend than Mark Gallagher; Jordan Grand Prix’s Press Officer during the 1991 season.
“It came about as a result of the media circus that developed when Bertrand was sentenced to prison because that in itself was a huge story” Mark recalls.
“In just a few hours everyone knew that this had happened, and it meant that every driver and manager who was interested in getting into Formula One, knew that we might have to find a driver at pretty short notice. Although there was an initial discussion about an appeal, it became very clear that Bertrand was not likely to get out of jail quickly and in the interim, people began to contact Eddie Jordan.”
As it happens, Jordan driver Bertrand Gachot had been arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for an altercation with a London taxi driver. With the season in full progress, Jordan could not wait for Bertrand and had to find a replacement quickly.
“We had drivers associated with the team from other categories of racing, including Andrew Gilbert-Scott who’d done some promotional work with the team that year but he didn’t have any funding and that was a significant issue for anyone who was talking to us.” said Mark.
“Eddie realised that if Bertrand wasn’t available, not only would we have to find a replacement but it was an opportunity to get some funding also.”
It’s difficult to imagine that Michael Schumacher was once considered a ‘pay driver’ of sorts, but in reality, that’s what he was that weekend – and Jordan Grand Prix were badly in need of the money.
“We were heavily indebted at that point in the season, and there’s no point in messing around and saying anything else; we needed a pay driver and that was the criteria by which anyone was going to be measured.”
As soon as it became clear that a replacement would be found, Michael Schumacher’s name was mentioned, and his manager Willi Weber had already been on the phone.
“Eddie knew Willi Weber very well because Eddie himself had only recently stopped racing in Formula 3 and Formula 3000 and we had raced against him (Willi) in Macau. Therefore, a phone call with Willi was a pretty natural thing to happen.” Mark explains.
“Both Eddie and Willi knew that Mercedes were anxious to help Michael, Heinz-Harald Frentzen or Karl Wendlinger progress to Formula One if the right opportunity came their way, so frankly, all the bits of the jigsaw were there ready to fall into place.”
There were several factors behind the team’s decision to place Michael in the car that weekend but the timing of Bertrand’s incarceration left them short on time.
“The reality is that we didn’t have much time,” Mark admits. “We actually had Michael over to the factory on the Monday before Spa for a seat fitting and then he tested the car on Tuesday. Within a few days of Bertrand’s sentencing, the Schumacher deal was in place and any other drivers being considered had fallen by the wayside.”
In just a few days, Michael had had a seat fitting, tested the car, and an agreement had been put in place for the Belgian Grand Prix. But as Eddie Jordan was to find out, the details of that contract were soon to be placed under scrutiny.
“Essentially, Eddie wanted to suck it and see. He wanted to put Michael in the car and Mercedes were willing to pay money for that. The contract situation going into that weekend was initially just for Spa, but an option had been drafted which would give the team the opportunity to continue running Michael, but that option was not binding.” Mark explains.
“That became the fundamental point after that weekend because as soon as Benetton decided to bring Michael into their team, they were able to get the option that Eddie had drafted thrown out. Going into the weekend, there was the potential that if it worked out he would continue with the team for the rest of the season, but as the weekend unfolded, Willie Weber received contact from Benetton, which I must add was unexpected.”
In part two, Mark recalls Michael’s demeanour that weekend and how the team reacted to his performance.