Today is Michael Schumacher's 46th birthday. It has to be a better birthday than last year for the seven-time Formula One world champion and his family; he spent that one still in a coma in the wake of his terrible winter skiing accident. As he recovers, let's pause to remember one of the greatest moments of his career.
The year is 1996. Ferrari has just snatched up Schumacher from the Benetton team where he had won the past two driver's championships. Now his task was to help revive the Ferrari team, which had spent the last decade in an unfortunate slump. Ferrari's car at the time was widely considered inferior to the front-runners like the Williams car, though in testing Schumacher said it would be "good enough to win a world championship."
Maybe he was just being polite. Ferrari and Schumacher definitely didn't win a championship in 1996, but his season was notable for one incredible display of racing skill that is still widely remembered today and further cemented the young German as one of the greats.
That race would be the Spanish Grand Prix the first weekend of June at the Catalunya circuit. To say it was raining that weekend would be the understatement of the century — F1Fanatic called it "near-flooded," and that's definitely more accurate.
Rain changes everything in racing. It affects traction, braking, visibility and confidence, just to name a few things. It forces drivers to choose different lines than they would take in the dry. Many people can't handle driving in the rain — it separates the truly great drivers from the rest of the pack. And some drivers — Ayrton Senna, Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio and as we saw in Spain that day, Schumacher — use it as an opportunity to show what masters they truly are.
The rain-soaked race began with Damon Hill on pole, Jacques Villeneuve in second and Schumacher in third, though he was a full second off pace. Schumacher had a poor start thanks to the downpour, and the rest of the race was marred with spinouts and wrecks. Pedro Lamy, Ricardo Rosset and David Coulthard were all taken out in the first lap.
As Motorsport recounts the story, Schumacher dropped to seventh place in the rainy mess "while those in the midfield were lost in a sea of spray and several drivers retired as a result of contact."
But somehow, as nearly every other driver on the field struggled, Schumacher reached inside himself and pulled out some magic.
He worked his way up through the flailing pack as his Ferrari teammate Eddie Irvine ended the race in gravel. Hill found himself there too, though when he got back on track he was behind an advancing Schumacher. On the fourth lap he passed Gerhard Berger's Benetton and set his sights on the two lead cars, Villeneuve and Jean Alesi. F1's official site has a nice recap of what happened next, and what it previewed for the rest of Schmacher's career:
By lap nine, Schumacher was right on Alesi's tail and chasing hard. Into Seat corner Alesi considered the conditions too treacherous to try and outbrake Schumacher, and the charging Ferrari was up to second. As always seemed to be the case in the mid nineties, Schumacher was in a class of his own and driving a very different race to anyone else.
By lap 12 Hill had spun out again and Schumacher managed to zoom by Villeneuve in an effortless-seeming inside pass. (You can see it about four minutes into that video above.) After that he was at least three seconds faster than anyone else on the field.
At the end of the race only six cars remained, but Schumacher remained in a class all his own. He won the race a staggering 45.302 seconds ahead of second-place finisher Alesi and 48 seconds ahead of Villeneuve. It was Schumacher's first win for Scuderia Ferrari, and by no means his last.
Schumacher finished third in the drivers' championship in 1996 and Ferrari took second place in the constructors' championship. He wouldn't win a title until the 2000 season, but the race in Spain previewed the dominant force he would become.
Later in his career, some critics would say Schumacher was one of those drivers who dominated simply because he had the best car. I think this race in Spain proved that that wasn't the case, that he legitimately had the kind of skill that made him one of the all-time great F1 drivers. He remains the sport's winningest driver of all time. That doesn't just happen because your car is good.
What's your favorite Schumacher moment?