Whilst Michael Schumacher had many incredible races, this is one of my favourites showing his incredible skill in changing conditions.
It was 1997 and it was the 12th race in the season which was taking place at Spa Francorchamps, Belgium.
Qualifying for the race had been dominated by Jacques Villeneuve (Williams-Renault) who secured pole position followed by Jean Alesi (Benetton Renault) in 2nd and Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) 3rd on the grid.
In the morning warm-up the weather conditions were hot and dry and Schumacher only managed 15th place.
However, about 30 minutes before the start of the race, an unexpected twenty minute heavy downpour changed the race conditions dramatically.
During the time the cars were assembling on the grid, Schumacher took the opportunity of making some exploratory laps of the track by returning to the pits rather than the grid in both his race car and the spare car, which had been set up for intermediate weather conditions. Schumacher chose to race in the spare car.
Whilst going to take his place on the grid, Schumacher’s brother, Ralf, who had qualified 6th on the grid, spun and crashed his Jordan at Stavelot, resulting in him starting from the pit lane in the spare car.
For the first time in Formula 1 history, the race was started behind the safety car.
Of the front running cars, both the Williams drivers and Alesi started the race on full wet tyres whilst the others were on intermediates. The pack remained behind the safety car for the first three laps and the proper racing began on lap four. Villeneuve was still in front followed by Alesi and Schumacher.
At the start of lap five, Schumacher made a brave move past Alesi on the inside of the La Source hairpin and then overtook Villeneuve at the Rivage loop to take the lead. By the end of lap five Schumacher had built a lead of 5.8 seconds over Villeneuve. Bear in mind, in real terms it was only the second lap of actual racing. He then continued at a truly unbelievable pace, increasing this to 16.9 seconds by the end of lap six, which in real terms was only lap three. He was truly in a class of his own.
Fisichella, who was driving for Jordan and had also started on intermediate tyres, was now in 2nd place after Villeneuve made an unexpected pit stop.
Schumacher was in control of the race and continued to pull away, and by the end of lap 12 his lead had stretched to a full minute. Following a second pit stop, Villeneuve had dropped to 16th.
The track was drying by this stage in the race and pit stops were taking place for slicks to be fitted to the cars. Schumacher pitted on lap 14 for his slicks and after re-joining the race, he eased his pace and controlled the race. He eventually crossed the finish line some 27 seconds ahead of the 2nd place car of Fisichella, followed by Heinz-Harald Frentzen in his Williams-Renault.
If Schumacher had continued at his original pace, who knows how far ahead of everybody he would have been.
Having started from pole, Villeneuve finished his race in 5th, which meant that Schumacher extended his lead over Villeneuve in the Drivers’ Championship to 11 points with 5 races left in the season. Ferrari led Williams by 6 points in the Constructors’ Championship.
I truly believe that this was one of Michael Schumacher’s best drives and it was at this race that he gained the title ‘the Rainmaster’, which was to stay with him for the remainder of his racing career.
Image courtesy of Mercedes Benz AMG F1 Team.