MICHAEL SCHUMACHER’S son will mark the 25th anniversary of his father’s first Formula 1 win by driving at Spa before Sunday’s Belgian Grand Prix. Mick Schumacher, 18, will drive demonstration laps in a 1994 Benetton car. His father took his first victory at the circuit in 1992 before going on to win seven world titles. Schumacher, 48, suffered serious head injuries in a skiing accident in 2013 and has not been seen in public since. PETER COSTER recalls the day Aussie Mark Webber defied the odds – and death – at the famous Spa circuit:
The Belgian Grand Prix sees the return of the Formula One circus at the Spa Francorchamps circuit after the summer break, but it is so much more than that. It is a time to remember with a rush of emotion and a heightened sense of being alive the bravest pass in motor racing.
Eau Rouge is a corner, a rush to possible oblivion and a soaring climb away that brings the heart to the mouth.
It was longer than a split second on the edge, but a swoop towards Eau Rouge that saw Mark Webber accept the unacceptable and pass Fernando Alonso at 300 kph at full and screaming throttle.
Eau Rouge translates to “red water”. A red-coloured stream rich in iron oxide ran underneath. The name might better translate to the “red mist” that many said must have descended over Webber’s eyes as he made a commitment to go beyond the line that separates brave from crazy brave, to take a risk that had too high a price.
Webber won nine Grands Prix before retiring from the Red Bull F1 team and then winning the world sports car endurance championship for Porsche.
No better title could have been chosen for his autobiography than Aussie Grit.
As Michael Schumacher said approaching Eau Rouge is like “flying downhill and seeing a big mountain in front of you.”
The swerve to the left at the top – where the relief at still being in control after the most demanding and terrifying corner in Grand Prix racing can lead to a momentary lapse in concentration – can still spell disaster.
Ayrton Senna said of a corner that might one day have to be reconfigured as a chicane that it would “take away the reason why I do this”.
Lewis Hamilton said that when you “attack it flat out, when you get to the bottom of it, your insides drop and then when you get to the top, they come back up and it feels like everything will come out of your mouth, which is quite exciting when you are going 200mph.”
Fernando Alonso, the double world champion in his Ferrari, emerged from the pits as Webber approached at full speed. The Spaniard, to use his native tongue, would have said the Australian driver’s move required “big cojones” as they were side by side down the sweep to Eau Rouge.
Webber and Alonso are friends. Each knew that if the other made a mistake of centimetres and their wheels touched it would have caused one of Grand Prix racing’s most appalling accidents and fireball that none would want to see as they became passengers in cars controlled by the laws of physics.
The Formula One circus is anything but the entertainment that its owners, formerly Bernie Ecclestone and now Liberty Media, might attempt to make it.
The formula started in 1959 and was won by the Italian driver Giuseppe Farina before there were multiple champions such as the Argentinian Juan Manuel Fangio with five championships. Schumacher sits on top with seven titles and 90 race wins. Fellow German Sebastian Vettel and Frenchman Alain Prost have won four titles, although Vettel could make it five if he is to win this year and Britain’s Lewis Hamilton would join Prost on four if he wins.
Scot Jackie Stewart won three as did Australia’s Sir Jack Brabham and while Webber retired after leading the world drivers’ championship in 2010, it does nothing to diminish him as a driver who was prepared to go beyond what seemed possible.
Webber has had some of the most spectacular accidents ever seen in motor racing and not necessarily through his own miscalculation. When racing for the Mercedes sports car team at Le Mans he became airborne and crashed twice. The first time, he was blamed. The second time, Mercedes realised there was something inherently wrong with the aerodynamics of their cars and withdrew from the 24-hour race.
The first crash was in pre-qualifying for the 1999 race when the front right suspension suddenly collapsed on the Mulsanne Straight where the cars were reaching speeds of 350kph.
In the race, there was an even more terrifying moment when the car became light at the front end and Webber realised it was “just taking off…. I was going straight up. I could see the sky and then the ground and then the sky again. I could almost see the headlights clipping the trees. I was a passenger in this 1000-kilo racing car 10 metres in the air doing 300 kilometres per hour.
“Everything was silent, that was the spookiest part, there was no noise and it’s all in slow motion. Some witnesses said I had gone over three times in mid-air and landed.”
The car was rebuilt and Webber again got behind the wheel but not everyone accepted that the car had simply got light in the front end and taken off like a climbing jet aircraft. Until it happened again.
In his book, Aussie Grit, Webber describes the sequence of events: “This time I got to the top of the crest probably doing 280kph and the car didn’t come down the other side. I was even higher this time and this one seemed a bit more violent.”
Track marshals pulled Webber out of the wreck. Back in the pits, Webber was blamed for the crash, until another Mercedes sports car took flight and was demolished.
How elite drivers recover from incidents that would shatter the confidence of any driver is a question even they may not be able to answer.
Martin Brundle, the voice of Formula One and a former Grand Prix driver, was at Spa for that glorious and breathtaking pass by Webber at Eau Rouge.
“What would have happened if they had touched?” Brundle asked himself as he left the Spa Francorchamps circuit that day: “Is there any point in my career where I would have done that? Would Webber have done it without modern safety cells and large run-off areas at the top of the hill?
“Whichever way you look at it, that pass was spectacularly impressive, skilful and brave. Webber won my eternal respect for that one.”
Less than a minute into the Melbourne Grand Prix in 1996 after the race moved from Adelaide, Brundle’s bright yellow Jordan was reduced to a pile of twisted wreckage after it flipped and barrel rolled through the air to finish upside down.
Perhaps the British driver comes close to answering the question of why elite drivers do what they do.
Brundle stepped from the smoking wreck to run past me where I was standing in the pits.
Mechanics watched, stunned, as he started the race again in the team’s spare car after the field had been brought in under a red flag.
Brundle had hit two cars colliding in front of him and, like Webber three years later at Le Mans, He said later that his immediate thought was, “Don’t go in the trees because I know from Le Mans, if you fly, you die.”
Brundle was to retire from the restarted race at Albert Park, but he likely explained what drivers like himself and Webber think even during and after a momentous crash.
“I just thought, I can get back in the spare car. That’s what you’re hardwired to do, really. It was a no brainer.”
That’s what other people watching might say, a no brainer. It’s also part of what gives those who watch an adrenaline rush. The Formula One circus is more than a show.
Author: Peter Coster
PETER COSTER is a former editor and foreign correspondent who has covered a range of international sports, including world championship fights and the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.