One leading sportscar journalist in 1991 bet his F1 colleagues that Schumacher would qualify in the top 10 for his first race at Spa, when he was signed by Eddie Jordan to replace the jailed Bertrand Gachot.
Had there been any takers, Quentin Spurring would have won his bet. From that day onwards, observers began to realize that a new star had arrived. Back then Michael had to contend with Senna, Prost and Mansell as he learned his trade, but almost immediately he dealt with Benetton team-mate Nelson Piquet. True, Nelson was near the end of an illustrious career, but it was a telling indication of Schumacher’s potential that he was right on the Brazilian’s pace straight away and only missed outqualifying him in all of their races together when he missed a shift in Adelaide.
Perhaps the most telling indication of all came at Suzuka that season, when Schumacher crashed very heavily in practice after trying – and failing – to take the notorious 130R corner flat out. Later, in the medical center, Professor Sid Watkins examined him.
“I told him that he had an excellent physique, and that he would make a very pretty corpse if he didn’t slow down a little,” Watkins later admitted. Asked some months later about the Prof’s comment, Schumacher simply shrugged his shoulders as if he didn’t know what the older man was talking about. But at the time his reaction had been even more decisive. He had gone back out, in Piquet’s spare car, and gone faster than the Brazilian.
By the time that Schumacher and Ayrton Senna were in cars of equal capability, in 1993, the Brazilian still had the upper hand, but by the start of 1994 the boot was on the other foot. The Williams FW16 was initially a difficult machine, spoiled by aerodynamic shortcomings. But though he was beaten by the German in the first race, and then taken out of the second, Senna mistrusted Schumacher. He remained privately convinced that he was running some kind of traction control on the Benetton. The truth of that may never be known, but what is certain is that Senna’s death at Imola denied everyone the chance of seeing what Michael Schumacher was really like as an upcoming racing driver pitched against the very best. We will never know if he would have been able to do to Senna what Senna had done to Prost, what Prost had done to Niki Lauda. Without question Schumacher is now the best driver of his era, but we will never know how he would have compared against another established great. There will always be that question: was he really racing against drivers who were just below his own gifted level? And would he have been fallible had he been under sustained pressure from somebody possessed of Senna’s great gifts?
There is no question that Schumacher respected Senna, and Senna had a measure of respect for Schumacher. But the two never truly got on.
Senna was the first driver to praise the German’s performance at Spa in 1991, and he made a mental note there and then that this young newcomer would eventually be trouble. But Schumacher himself lost no time in being openly critical of the maestro. It happened at Interlagos in 1992 when Senna beat him into third place while racing in front of his adoring fans. Afterwards, pressmen listened open-mouthed as Schumacher launched into a stinging public criticism of the tactics that Senna had used to keep him behind. Senna was not amused.
A few months later, at Magny-Cours, Schumacher pushed Senna off the track on the opening lap of the French GP. The race was red flagged, giving both men another chance. But on the grid before the restart, Senna gave Schumacher a serious talking to about his tactics. “Good,” Senna laughed later to his friend Jo Ramirez at McLaren. “I’ve got him so rattled that he’s going to do everything for me by taking himself off.” Sure enough, when the race was restarted Schumacher fell off on the first lap, again at the Adelaide hairpin.
There was another incident later that year, during a test session at Hockenheim. This time Senna felt that Schumacher had deliberately pushed him off the track at very high speed, and lost no time going down to the Benetton pit afterwards. There, he grabbed the German by the throat and screamed at him until they were separated. Though they were both very quick, the two had completely different characters. Some saw Senna as the emotional Latin; Schumacher as the cold Germanic computer who never showed any emotion. Senna’s girlfriend Adrianne Galisteu wrote in her book how Ayrton would sit and watch Tina Turner at Adelaide in 1993, bouncing around in his seat in time to the music before joining the rock star on stage as she sang her song ‘Simply The Best’ in his honor. At the same time, she wrote, Michael simply sat rigidly the whole way through, merely clapping politely.
For all that, each recognized and acknowledged the other’s talent. Senna knew that Schumacher was his biggest rival once Prost had retired; Schumacher knew that if he beat Senna, he would be recognized as the best. Some, such as Lauda, believed the batten had already been passed by Imola, but Ramirez is scornful of that view.
“For sure, Ayrton was driving a very bad car at the beginning of 1994. But he would have beaten Michael, I’m sure. Michael was, and still is, fallible under pressure, whereas Ayrton was not. He had no worries that he would beat Michael.” And at the end of the season, after scoring his controversial first World Championship, Schumacher himself admitted: “If Ayrton had still been with us, I would not be the one wearing this crown.”