The Bizarre Story Behind Michael Schumacher's F1 Debut
Buckle yourselves in, this is a weird one...
Formula 1 has been ladened with controversy with the infamous cases of Crashgate in 2009 and Spygate of 2007. However, one of the more peculiar cases of breaking the law came in 1991 involving a certain Bertrand Gachot and a London taxi driver. Few realised at the time that it would pave the way for Michael Schumacher to make his Formula 1 debut and go on to win 91 races, 7 championships aswell as 68 pole positions. He also inspired a generation of drivers to compete today such as Sebastian Vettel and Esteban Ocon as well as taking Ferrari out of the doldrums and reinvigorating the iconic Tifosi along with it by winning 5 consecutive championships in the early 2000s. And all because of a black cabbie…
Michael Schumacher was born in the town of Hurth in what was West Germany at the time. He began karting at the age of 4 thanks to his father Rolf and continued karting until 1988 at the age of 19 when he moved into single seater racing. He competed in German Formula Ford and the Formula Konig series, winning the latter. Thanks to a promotion to German Formula 3 for the 1989 season, Schumacher began to appear on people’s radar. At the same time, a young promising French driver by the name of Bertrand Gachot was making his Formula 1 debut at the Brazilian Grand Prix for the Onyx Formula One Team. In 1990, Schumacher won the German Formula 3 series beating the likes of Mika Hakkinen and Heinz Harald Frentzen. In an unusual turn of events, Schumacher then signed for the Mercedes Junior Programme in the Worlds Sports Prototype Championship for the 1991 campaign. The young German was very excited to have a long and successful career in sports cars and Mercedes was his best hope.
Meanwhile, after two pretty dismal seasons for Gachot driving for three uncompetitive teams, he was signed by the Jordan F1 Team for the 1991 season. This was another shot in the dark for Gachot seeing as Jordan was a new team and had not yet competed in Formula 1. Partnered alongside the experienced Andrea de Cesaris, Gachot knew that if he beat his teammate, he may have a shot at a better team later on. Gachot achieved impressive points finishes at the Canadian, British and German Grand Prix, it seemed like his shot in the dark would turn out to be a career-making one as he impressed consistently for the Silverstone based team. However, his fortunes would soon turn for the worst.
During Gachot’s time at Jordan he competed in the 24 hours of Le Mans driving for the Mazdaspeed team alongside Volker Weidler and Johnny Herbert. Funnily enough Michael Schumacher was competing in the race aswell for Team Sauber Mercedes. Once race day came, the Peugeot cars managed by Jean Todt proved the dominant force. However engine troubles cursed the naturally-aspirated Peugeots, swinging the fortunes towards the Mercedes cars who led until dawn, sadly technical issues then meant they dropped to 7th place. This gave way to the Mazda 787B driven by Gachot to take the lead heading into the morning. The Mazda managed to hold out for the final hours of the race to take a historic win for the team. Not only did this give Gachot the much-needed confidence boost but it also gave him an incredible amount of credibility when it came to his motorsport portfolio. In the space of six months Gachot went from a nobody failing to qualify for races to a Le Mans winner and P11 in the 1991 F1 Championship. This would soon mean nothing as he fell the wrong side of the law, ruining his chances of success.
Let us fast forward to ten days before the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix. Gachot found himself in a pretty significant spot of bother. On the 10th December 1990, Gachot was driving to the Jordan car presentation for the upcoming season and while on the way there collided with a London taxi. The taxi driver got out of the car and grabbed Gachot by the tie, in self defence Gachot sprayed the taxi driver with CS gas or tear gas. Gachot was unaware that CS gas was banned in the UK and pleaded in self-defence. Court hearings then proceeded in the following months and on the 15th August 1991, Gachot was sentenced to 18 months in Brixton prison – 12 months for aggression on a public thoroughfare and 6 months for the possession of an illegal spray. This meant Gachot was unable to race at the Belgian Grand Prix in just under two weeks and Jordan needed to find a replacement quickly.
Jordan initially weighed up their options between Stefan Johansson and Derek Warwick but decided to opt for the inexperienced but promising Michael Schumacher after Mercedes offered $150,000 to have him in the race. Recognise the name? Jordan organised a test at Silverstone for Schumacher to grow some familiarity with the stunning Jordan 191 car, and it was immediately clear he was like no other driver any of the Jordan Mechanics had seen or worked with before. Schumacher’s data engineer at the time - Andrew Green – stated:
“We were completely gobsmacked. We had never witnessed someone get in the car for the very first time and be able to tell us exactly what the car was doing and how we should set it up and that was within about 5 or 6 laps.”
Schumacher then arrived at Spa Franchorchamps and was welcomed to an onslaught of cameras and reporters asking about Gachot and himself. By the time qualifying came along, it was clear that Schumacher was comfortable in the car and he lit up the timing sheets by qualifying 7th, almost a second faster than his more experienced teammate de Cesaris who lined up 11th. Race day came along, and Schumacher made a blistering start, gaining a position and running in 6th. However only a few corners later he pulled over with a clutch failure, his race was over. Although Schumacher had barely managed to complete a lap, that was all he needed to do to prove his talents behind the wheel.
Understandably, Jordan were interested in keeping him as their driver for more than just the Belgian Grand Prix however proven race winners Benetton – led by the infamous Flavio Briatore - were interested in signing the German effective immediately. Obviously, Eddie Jordan would not entertain this proposition and what ensued was a legal battle between Jordan, Benetton, and Schumacher. When Schumacher arrived in Spa for the race weekend, he was initially interested in signing a longer term deal with the Jordan team and began to write a letter which said, “I confirm that if you enter me in the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix, I will sign the driver agreement prior to Monza regarding my services in 1991, 1992 and 1993.” Upon realising that Schumacher was in demand by more competitive teams, Schumacher’s management changed the phrasing of ‘the driver agreement’ to ‘a driver agreement.’ This meant when Benetton approached Jordan to sign Schumacher, he was allowed to break free from Jordan and join Benetton for the next race in Monza. Eddie Jordan was outraged stating “I do not recall anything that blew me away so much.” However, he did manage to find a talented replacement in Alex Zanardi.
Regarding what happened to Bertrand Gachot, he was booted out of Jordan for good and he luckily only managed to serve three more months in Brixton prison before being let out. He then joined the Lola-Ford team for the final race of the season, but he failed to qualify. He then raced in F1 for another three seasons driving for Larousse F1 and Pacific Grand Prix but only achieved one point. He also returned to Le Mans four more times but only managed a best finish of 4th one year later in 1992. As for Schumacher, he took his first podium in Mexico in 1992 and his first race win ten races later at the 1992 Belgian Grand Prix on the anniversary of his debut. He then won consecutive championships with Benetton in 1994 and 1995 before moving to Ferrari in 1996. The rest is history.