Reuters: Michael Schumacher celebrates a major milestone at Spa-Francorchamps this weekend, even if the glory years of the seven times world champion form part of Formula One’s history rather than its present.
It is 20 years since the sport’s most successful driver, with 91 wins and 68 pole positions, made his grand prix debut at the daunting Belgian circuit which he calls his “living room”.
The German did not complete a race lap with the struggling Jordan team that Aug. 25 afternoon in 1991, retiring with a clutch problem, but by qualifying seventh he revealed a talent that would enable him to dominate Formula One.
He swiftly moved to Benetton and was on his way to greatness, taking his first win in Belgium in 1992 and going on to enjoy five more victories at Spa. Although no other F1 driver can boast a career spanning two full decades – Argentine great Juan Manuel Fangio crammed his five titles into just eight years – Schumacher’s former Ferrari team mate Rubens Barrichello has started more races since his own debut in 1993.
Once the ‘Rainmaster’ in the capricious local conditions, Schumacher will have to fight for whatever meagre points he can grab on Sunday. Compatriot and champion Sebastian Vettel, dominant this season for Red Bull, will be the man to beat at Spa in a title battle that is all but over.
Vettel, the 24-year-old ‘Baby Schumi’, has an 85-point advantage over team mate Mark Webber with eight races, or 200 points, still to be won. Schumacher is 202 points off the lead.
The former ‘Red Baron’ is not even the number two German now, with Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg and Renault’s Nick Heidfeld ahead of him in the standings, and he has not appeared on the podium since 2006 – the year he retired from Ferrari before launching his comeback last year.
It will still be a standout weekend for the 42-year-old and his army of fans in the penultimate race in Europe before the long-haul stretch across Asia to the Middle East and South America. “The race in Spa will certainly have a special touch to it this time,” Schumacher said in a team preview for what promises to be a wet weekend.
“A lot has changed in those 20 years, but one thing has not: the track is still sensational… To me, Spa remains my ‘living room,’ because it has been the stage for so many things which have been remarkable for my sporting career.”
Spa marks Formula One’s return from the long summer break, with Vettel and the rest raring to go at a classic high-speed track that is a drivers’ favourite as well as an enduring link to the sport’s golden age. Vettel has won six of the 11 races this season and started eight on pole position, but he has never triumphed at Spa.
Australian Webber, on pole last year before losing out to McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, is raring to go after his break. “It’s such a great circuit to come back to after having some time away from the cockpit,” said Webber, who expected a tight fight with resurgent Ferrari and McLaren.
“Three weeks (away) is plenty. You certainly miss driving the car after that length of time,” added the Australian, who will celebrate his 35th birthday on Saturday.
McLaren’s Jenson Button won the Hungarian race before the break, after Hamilton in Germany, but has a dismal Belgian record and retired from his last two appearances at Spa.
The Briton, whose team have won three of the last five races, was dumped out by Vettel last year. “I love racing at Spa but unfortunately haven’t done too much of it recently as I’ve been taken out of the last two Belgian Grand Prix through no fault of my own,” said Button. “This year I’ll be hoping for more luck.”
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso will also be fancying his chances, at a track that has favoured his team in recent years, after finishing the last four races on the podium.