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.”
“As a rookie, Michael had already tasted substantial success and he’d been a fully-fledged Sauber-Mercedes driver in sports car racing, and therefore, he wasn’t exactly a newcomer to big events, or to grown-up racing. He’d not only raced in Junior Formula, so he was confident,” says Mark.
“I dealt with him on a one-to-one basis for all the media stuff, all the basic things you have to do when a new driver joins the team, but I found him to be very very business-like; not arrogant, but there was certainly a very clear focus. That’s not to say he was difficult to deal with, but his priorities were very clear; to get into that car and do as good a job as he possibly could.”
That trademark Michael Schumacher focus was on display very early on, but Michael knew that he had an opportunity to shine that weekend as the Jordan car was much better than some people gave it credit for.
“Everyone knew that the Jordan 191 was a quick car and we’d had a number of really good results already by the time of Spa; we’d had a double points finish in Canada where we finished fourth and fifth and everyone knew we were two engine configurations less than the Benetton works engine, and yet, we were quite often embarrassing them. The car was mechanically and aerodynamically fantastic and Michael knew it was a good car.”
Michael’s teammate in the second Jordan car that weekend was Andrea de Cesaris, making his 160th Grand Prix start. As Mark explains, Andrea was surprised to find himself behind Michael on the grid.
“Andrea had driven in a lot of Grands Prix for a lot of teams, and he’d been through a lot of highs and lows in Formula One. By that stage in his career, he knew several things; he knew the car was very good and he knew there was potential to get very good results towards the end of that season because we’d made good progress.” says Mark.
“He wasn’t best pleased by being out-qualified by Michael, I do remember that, but he wasn’t upset, I would say he was more puzzled. I recall doing the press release after qualifying and he gave a fairly non-specific excuse as to why he hadn’t matched Michael’s pace.”
Reflecting on Michael’s performance, Mark was keen to add that no one in the team thought that they had a multiple future world champion on their hands, and neither did Benetton.
“I feel though it is important to remember that no one, including Flavio or the late Tom Walkinshaw, could say that just because of what Michael was doing that weekend, or because of what he’d done in Formula 3 or with Mercedes, there was no one who thought this was a multiple world champion. He was regarded as a very good talent and someone who had it in him to be extremely competitive, but no could say it was obvious from the get-go that this guy was something on a completely different level.” Mark explains.
“I’m not putting down Michael’s achievement, but the fact that a quick driver was able to put that car seventh on the grid wasn’t a complete shock to us. I think with the passage of time, maybe there’s been a little bit of a myth that has built up around Michael’s performance that day. Especially given what he went on to achieve.”
“Post Spa, the things that were on our mind first and foremost were the strenuous efforts to try and get Bertrand out of prison.” Mark recalls. “Bertrand brought sponsorship to the team and it was important to Eddie that we kept that sponsorship – the best way to keep that sponsorship coming was to get Bertrand back in the car. The other thing after that weekend was that we realised if we couldn’t get Bertrand back in the car, the thing we would want to do was to continue with Michael.”
As Mark explains, no one expected the fall-out that followed and the timing of Michael’s exit caught them by surprise.
“I remember feeling quite shocked when I realised back at base that there was a question mark over Michael not being in the car for Monza. I assumed that Bertrand would either be released from prison and we would have him back, or Michael would be in the car. I remember speaking to Eddie when he told me ‘there’s a problem’ and I was really quite surprised.
“Of course, we were gobsmacked then to realise that he was heading towards Benetton, and that Benetton were trying to nick him from under Jordan’s nose, but that’s exactly what happened.”
After the disappointment of Andrea de Cesaris’ engine failure at Spa, the team’s attention had already switch to the next race; due to be held at Monza in Italy.
“The mood in the factory straight after the race was that Michael had done a great job, and we were excited to see what he could do in a full race. Going to Monza in low downforce configuration, we felt the car would probably be fantastic going around the Parabolica and through the chicanes because of that mechanical grip and the diffuser we had. There was a lot of excitement about the potential of the car at Monza.”
The team’s excitement at the prospect of seeing Schumacher drive at Monza was short lived. Within the space of a few days, Benetton had swooped and stolen Schumacher from under their nose. Mark admits that he often wonders what would have happened had he stayed with the team.
“I think if Michael had finished the season with us, he still would have gone to a top team. I suspect the chance of going to an even better team than Benetton might have come his way because I do believe over the course of that season he would have scored some pretty outstanding results.”
Despite Andrea de Cesaris having almost won the Belgian Grand Prix, Jordan’s season kind of petered out after that weekend and the team failed to score another point all season. Mark explains the effect that the dispute with Benetton and eventual parting of ways with Michael had on Eddie and team.
“I think the parting of ways in 1991 really hurt Eddie, and it hurt the team.” says Mark. “We were less than euphoric at having lesser drivers offered to us like Roberto Moreno – and the reality is that the whole thing went from looking very promising after we got back from Spa to becoming a real piecemeal end to the year.”
“I’m not saying they had a difficult relationship but that period was certainly a bit of a downer on their relationship. There was also another downer of sorts when Ralf drove for us in 1998 because he was upset about the team orders in Spa when Damon won the race. Michael wasn’t happy about that and he came to see Eddie about it. There were a few words spoken, and Michael felt that Ralf had been compromised by the team. Quite frankly, Eddie was right to say it was none of Michael Schumacher’s business!”
In more recent times, Michael and Eddie have enjoyed a much closer relationship as Mark explains.
“I think with the passage of time they managed to achieve a much better rapport, and I can vouch for the fact that Michael presented Eddie with a very personal gift some many, many years later in the mid-2000s.” Mark adds, “I know that had a huge impact on Eddie because it made him realise that Michael had never forgotten where he started from in Formula One.”
Many thanks to Mark for his time.