In 1991, a fresh-faced, lanky German suddenly appeared at the Formula One paddock at Spa Francorchamps in Belgium. Multiple world champion Alain Prost asked future champ Nigel Mansell if he was a new mechanic. He wasn't.
20 years on, the grin - and the chin - has hardly changed
"Spa has always been my favorite racetrack," Michael Schumacher said this week of the Spa Francorchamps circuit in Belgium. And with such happy memories there, it's little wonder.
His Formula One debut remains the stuff of legend, even though his race was over in about 20 seconds because of a faulty clutch. But by the time the lights went green on Sunday, Schumacher had already cemented his reputation as the next big thing.
The hand-to-mouth Jordan outfit, which boasted a fairly quick car but precious little else in its debut F1 season, had suddenly found itself short of a racer after Belgian veteran Bertrand Gachot was sent to prison for assaulting a London taxi driver. The team chose a 22-year-old from the Mercedes young driver program, but not for the reasons you might expect.
"We needed somebody to pay for the engine bills, the tire bills, he was about the only one who could do that," team owner Eddie Jordan confessed years later. "He paid, he got in the car. I'd love to claim it was all to do with talent - it's not true, I needed the money."
Thanks to Mercedes and Dekra - a vehicles inspection and appraisals firm that has stuck with Schumacher as sponsor throughout his career - the young German found the cash to secure his drive, but only after his manager Willi Weber told a few fibs to convince Jordan that the youngster was up to the task.
Weber claimed Schumacher knew the Spa Francorchamps circuit, one of the most demanding and deadly in the world, "as if it were his home track". In reality, he had never raced there in his life, but it didn't take long to find a rhythm.
"The first three laps made a really big impression," Schumacher said after his first ever outing at Spa, and his second in an F1 car. "But after that you get used to the new environment very quickly. It's definitely something out of the ordinary, but having said that, it's really not all that special."
A fortnight after his Jordan debut, Schumacher wore the United Colors of Benetton
Schumacher was the eighth fastest qualifier, four places and three-quarters of a second faster than the regular, experienced Jordan lead driver, Andrea de Cesaris.
"That guy's got a special talent. He could become a threat to us," reigning World Champion Ayrton Senna commented after the Qualifying session.
This was to be Schumacher's first and last race for Jordan. Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's commercial supremo and string-puller extraordinaire, had recognized the young German's talent and was already working to secure his move to the higher-profile Benetton team. After some at best questionable back-room deals, the Wunderkind from Kerpen was installed there in time for the next race at Monza.
True to form, Schumacher had needed just one race to create both sensation and scandal in the sport.
The next major milestone followed a year later, back in Belgium. In a wet race, Schumacher claimed his maiden victory at Spa, despite a massively inferior car compared to the all-conquering Williams Renaults of 1992.
More of the same…please
Schumacher won six times at Spa in his "first career" and he'd surely love to roll back the years this weekend after a thus far lackluster comeback with the Mercedes Grand Prix team.
So far, he hasn't added a single pole position, win, or podium finish to his frankly intimidating F1 stats sheet, though that isn't quite as disappointing as it sounds.
Schumacher's not yet tasted the 2010 podium vintage
The present Mercedes "just isn't a race winning car," Autosport editor, Andy van der Burgt told Deutsche Welle. "And I don't think there's a condition out there that's going to make it a race-winning car."
But even if you factor in the substandard machinery, there is another problem; Schumacher has amassed 38 points so far this year, while his young German team mate Nico Rosberg has scored 94, in an identical car.
"If Michael is not at least somewhat competitive at Spa," senior editor at motorsport-total.com, Christian Nimmervoll told Deutsche Welle, "then he's really going to have to explain and defend his decision to come back."
"If he's slower than his team mate Nico Rosberg again at his 'home' track - where he started, where he beat the Williams in '92 in an uncompetitive Benetton - that would be a really symbolic defeat."
Compromised from the start
The only thing Schumacher is likely to be able to show at Spa, however, is speed - that elusive first comeback podium has been all but written off before a wheel's even turned. After the Qualifying session this weekend, Schumacher will be sent ten grid-positions back from wherever he would otherwise have started the race, a punishment carried over from the last Grand Prix in Hungary.
Barrcihello, l., and Schumacher were once team mates, but it wasn't an equal partnership
In the dying laps, scrapping with Rubens Barrichello for 10th position, Schumacher squeezed the Brazilian towards the pit wall at high speed, in a failed bid to stop the Brazilian getting through.
"If Michael wants to go to heaven - in the event that he's going to heaven - then I don't really care. But I don't want to go before him," Barrichello said on German television, still shaking, after the race.
"I'd be amazed if Barrichello was in a forgiving mood after that," Autosport's Andy van der Burgt said of the incident. "I thought it was one of the most outrageously dangerous pieces of driving I have ever seen. There's giving someone a squeeze, and then there's trying to smash someone into the wall at 190 miles per hour."
Ironically, this was one of the few glimpses of "the old Schumacher" visible in 2010, but it was his ruthless competitiveness on display, not his racing genius.
"I think the most amazing fact about this duel in Hungary was not that Michael pushed so hard," said motorsport journalist Christian Nimmervoll, "it was that he eventually lost the battle. For me, that's his biggest problem right now."
Another major problem would be the exorbitant expectations that come with a record like Schumacher's, even when competing after a three year hiatus against drivers like Sebastian Vettel - who celebrated his fourth birthday a few weeks before Michael Schumacher's F1 debut at Spa.
Author: Mark Hallam
Editor: Matt Hermann