Autosport 70: The first story of Schumacher at Ferrari

Michael Schumacher had just become a double world champion when he joined Ferrari and immediately made his mark in his first proper test. And, as this piece from the 30 November 1995 issue of Autosport magazine shows, the team impressed him too

Autosport 70: The first story of Schumacher at Ferrari

The man upon whose shoulders rest the hopes and dreams of an entire nation had a smile on his face at the end of last week. Double world champion Michael Schumacher left the Estoril circuit in Portugal, the scene of his first real test for Ferrari, enormously encouraged by what he had found.

Ultimately, he had not been as quick as Jacques Villeneuve's Williams-Renault FW17, but Schumacher was "very happy" with the progress the team and he had made. The Ferrari engineers were rather more than that. "Incredible", "amazing" and "brilliant" were the words they chose to describe their new driver.

But if everything ended in sweetness and light, and guarded optimism for the 1996 season, it had not started that way. After his first few laps in the car last Tuesday, Schumacher was beginning to wonder what he had done in leaving Benetton.

"I thought, 'Woops'," sharp exhalation, accompanied by lop-sided grin, "I have a lot of work in front of me."

By the end of the day he was much more content. Already pleasantly surprised by the steps taken to adapt the car to his idiosyncratic preferences on set-up, satisfaction was turned to sheer delight at the end of the day when it rained and Schumacher was able to enjoy a few laps on a wet track.

It was, he said, "the best racing car I have ever driven in the wet", and light years ahead in terms of grip and balance than the Benetton, which was always on a knife-edge when it rained.

Schumacher was less enthusiastic about the car's potential in the dry, but still said it was "very, very good". And he was upbeat about the work he and the team were doing getting used to each other.

Each evening, after the sun had gone down, and with the paddock lit only by the pits and transporters, he would emerge from the Ferrari garage to announce they were making progress quicker than he had anticipated.

"The objective is not to find out which car is better because next year we will use the V10. But it is important to have the V12 as a target for what we want to achieve" Michael Schumacher

Schumacher was announcing this less-than-stunning news to a smaller media contingent than one might have imagined. A bus-load of Germans had flown over by Ferrari's sponsor Marlboro, there was a handful of Italians and French.

But Colin McRae's drive to World Rally Championship glory on the RAC Rally meant, incredibly, Autosport was the only representative of the British press.

Autosport Podcast: WRC special on 1995 champion Colin McRae

The Portuguese fans were more enthusiastic, several hundred turned up each day to sit in the autumn sunshine and watch what must have been for them the fairly tedious process of new drivers getting used to one another. But they enthusiastically waved banners, not all of them in support of Schumacher's ousting of Jean Alesi from Ferrari (below), and shielded their ears as the cars blasted past down the pitstraight.

Schumacher's gleaming Ferrari was chased not by the shrieking wail of its customary V12, but the muscular grunt of the new V10. In many ways this is a great loss: while the distinctive sound of the old engine meant that you could tell it was a Ferrari coming with your eyes closed several miles away, the sound of the new engine, which suffered a number of problems, is almost indistinguishable from the Renault.

Ferrari brought two cars for Schumacher - Eddie Irvine, who turned up on Thursday to watch, will have to wait before he finally gets his hands on a 412T2 for the first time - one fitted with the V10 and one the V12, and an incredible four trucks, one more than Benetton, which had both Alesi and Gerhard Berger on hand, and two more than Williams had for Villeneuve.

"The objective is not to find out which car is better," Schumacher said, "because next year we will use the V10. But it is important to have the V12 as a target for what we want to achieve.

"The 12-cylinder engine is completely different to the Renault V10 I used this year, but the V12 is a very good engine as well. It's very powerful, driveable, and has a wide powerband, which I didn't expect."

If this last remark could be construed as gamesmanship, with Alesi and Berger, two ex-Ferrari drivers trying out his Benetton in the garage next door, he nevertheless appeared to be genuinely surprised by how good the Ferrari V12 was.

Ferrari brought three V10s to the test, and had problems with all of them. The first one was retired hurt on Tuesday, with the proviso that it could be repaired if the team ran out of the others; the second blew a hole in itself when the crankshaft broke with 190km on the engine on Wednesday, and the third suffered an oil leak the same day, which could not be solved until Thursday, when testing was curtailed early because of a lack of oil pressure, which, Schumacher said, they knew how to fix.

Schumacher was undaunted: "I'm very impressed with the V10. It's not at the level of the Renault yet. It's a bit early for that, and sure we had some problems. But it is a new engine, and you expect that."

It was on Wednesday after the problem with the V10 that Schumacher set what was a highly impressive time. His 1m21.2s may have been 0.3s off Villeneuve's pace, but was [more than] 0.7s quicker than Berger managed for the best Ferrari in qualifying for September's Portuguese Grand Prix, and 0.1s quicker than he had managed in the Benetton.

By the end of the test, though, its characteristics were still not to his liking. Schumacher likes his car set up in a different way, it seems, to almost any other racing driver on the planet

While it is true to say that winter testing, with its lower temperatures, always produces quicker times than during the season, when qualifying is held at the hottest part of the day, Schumacher's lap was far from a low-fuel, six o'clock special.

He set it just before lunchtime, with 60 litres of fuel on board, and as such it is indicative not only of the amount of progress the team has made in a day and a half, but also of how quick the Ferrari already is.

As Schumacher himself put it: "I cannot speculate on how many races I might have won if I had been at Ferrari this year, that is not the point. But this car is very, very good."

By the end of the test, though, its characteristics were still not to his liking. Schumacher likes his car set up in a different way, it seems, to almost any other racing driver on the planet. Every driver's preferences are unique, but Schumacher's desire for a very sharp turn-in seems to go beyond that.

Herein lies the root of Johnny Herbert's problems at Benetton, and a contributing factor to Berger's test-ending crash with Benetton. It was also an eye-opener for Luigi Mazzola, the chief engineer of the Ferrari test team, and the man who worked closest with Schumacher at Estoril. Mazzola said he had never seen anything like the way Schumacher used his car.

But ask Schumacher to explain why he needs his car set up so differently to other drivers and he refuses to share the secret. "It is different to everybody else," he shrugs. "I certainly seem to have a different driving style. But, you know, Damon Hill reads Autosport, so I'm not going to go through my style and what I require for the car!"

He seemed, I suggested, to like a car a lot more nervous than other drivers, who seem to have trouble with the set-up.

"I dunno. I don't think it is nervous. I like the car on the limit in a neutral situation, which sometimes can be nervous, which I appear not to have a problem with."

What did he think of the relative performance of the Benetton and Ferrari?

"The Ferrari is very good in high-speed corners, where I would say it is quicker, and I don't think we could improve it a lot. In the slow corners I'm not sure what it is like compared to the Benetton, because I'm sure we have other things available to improve the car."

Has he been pleasantly surprised by what he had found at Ferrari?

"In certain directions, yes, but not in every way. Sure there are good things at Benetton that they do not have at Ferrari. They are going to get them, but they are a bit behind. But they are in front in other things."

Did he think he would be comfortable within the team by the start of next season?

"I'm going to be comfortable, but I'm not sure that everything is going to be 100% together in terms of relationship between engineers and drivers, and [technical director] John Barnard. They will not know by the beginning of the season what could be the maximum, what we could achieve.

"The car is built already, we cannot change that, so you have to live next year with what we have, although I know we can adapt to it. But I'm sure in 1997 we can do an even better job.

"I'm really very happy with the progress we have made. I didn't expect things to be progressing so fast. It's all up to Ferrari how quickly they have a reliable V10, but the car I think will be no problem. Even this car is very, very good. This test has gone above my expectations."

All encouraging stuff, for Ferrari if not for the rest of the paddock, who will be praying that, once again the team - especially with Schumacher on board - does not fulfil its enormous potential, and shoots itself in the foot again.

But perhaps the last word should go to Osamu Goto, the man behind the V10 engine on which so much rests in 1996. Before the test, the diminutive Japanese had spent some time discussing with people who had previously worked with Schumacher what to expect.

And, after the test, he observed with habitual realism that while he had heard Schumacher's footwork on the throttle was usually superbly smooth, this time, "because Michael is not happy with the set-up", he has been a little jerky.

Everyone else, it was suggested to him, was raving about your new driver. "When you first get married," he replied, "everything is wonderful, so I'm sure that's how everyone is feeling. But I think we still haven't seen the best of Michael."

Of that, at least, Ferrari can be sure.

PLUS: Michael Schumacher's top 10 F1 victories

Test engineer Luigi Mazzola Q&A

Autosport: What are your first impressions of Michael Schumacher?

Luigi Mazzola: Ah, brilliant, really. Two cars, with Michael as well, is a heavy job but interesting, and I'm very glad to do it. I like him. I like to work the way he is working. He is a good professional driver, very concentrated, very consistent, and interesting because his style of driving is something curious for me, something for me to study, and to try to understand it 100% to engineer the car as he wants it.

ASP: What makes Schumacher's driving style so different from that of other drivers?

LM: He uses the throttle much more than usual. He uses the car in different ways in corners - especially the slow ones, but also in the quick ones - which is difficult to explain because you have to go into too much detail. It is something that until now I have never seen.

He goes into the corner very sharply. He needs a car like that, but you also have to be careful that you don't have too much reaction from the car. It is such a compromise that it makes my life difficult.

ASP: What is his technical feedback on the car like?

LM: Incredibly detailed, 100%, very good. Sometimes it is difficult for me to write down 100% of what he is saying, but I try to do my best to follow him!

ASP: Is it difficult working with two different cars, which have different engines, and therefore different technical needs?

LM: It seems as though it is more difficult for me than it is for him! He can jump from one car to the other, and I don't see any problems with him.

When we planned to do this test I was worried that it might be asking too much of him, with not one but two new cars. But we can operate it like this, so we try to do as much as possible to have the two cars running all the time. Then we can learn even more.

ASP: Has anything about Schumacher particularly surprised you?

LM: Yes, his calmness. His concentration and consistency on the job. That's very nice to work with.

2020 vision

Schumacher's time at Ferrari is now legendary, but things didn't initially run smoothly after that promising test.

The 1996 V10-engined F310 was arguably no better than the previous year's V12 412T2, though Schumacher dragged it to four poles and three victories. The most famous was his first, in appalling conditions at the Spanish GP, where he beat Alesi by over 45s, but Ferrari was not yet ready to take on Williams for championship honours.

PLUS: Ranking F1's greatest wet-weather drives

Rory Byrne and Ross Brawn joined from Benetton for 1997 and Schumacher drove one of his greatest seasons to go into the Jerez season finale one point ahead of Williams driver Villeneuve. But an apparent attempt to remove his rival resulted in Schumacher retiring in the gravel - and being stripped of his second place in the drivers' table.

Schumacher was the only driver to consistently challenge the McLarens in 1998, but this time lost out to Mika Hakkinen in the Japanese GP finale, following a stall from pole and a puncture. A leg-breaking crash at Silverstone put Schumacher out of championship contention in 1999, though he did make an impressive return to aid team-mate Irvine's ultimately unsuccessful bid to defeat Hakkinen, and Ferrari won the constructors' title.

Finally, in 2000, Schumacher ended Ferrari's 21-year wait for the drivers' crown by beating Hakkinen at Suzuka in what he later described as the race of his life.

Race of my life: Michael Schumacher on the 2000 Japanese GP

That was the start of a remarkable run of success, with Schumacher, Rubens Barrichello and Ferrari adding four more title doubles.

Rule changes and the rise of Fernando Alonso at Renault finally ended the run in 2005, but Schumacher only narrowly lost out to the Spaniard the following year, which was his last at Ferrari before his first retirement from F1.

Schumacher's final tallies for Ferrari were 72 wins, 58 poles, 116 podium finishes and 53 fastest laps. All remain records for the famous Italian squad, with only Lewis Hamilton's recent run of success with Mercedes being at a similar level.

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