Driving the F1 icon that launched Schumacher's career

Michael Schumacher’s 1991 Belgian GP appearance was his only outing in the Jordan 191, but Formula 1 had seen enough to be convinced that here lay a star in the making. Time for a Sky Sports pundit and racer to take a step back three decades and try the famous green machine for size

Driving the F1 icon that launched Schumacher's career

Thirty years ago, the great Michael Schumacher arrived in Formula 1 and created waves on his debut at the Belgian Grand Prix that very few drivers have done before or since. It was an extraordinarily impactful weekend, especially when you consider that he only competed in two corners of the race before parking up on the side of the track, but the headlines had been made over the previous two days.

In his first F1 qualifying session, in a midfield car in which he had done half a day of testing, at a track he had never raced at, Schumacher ended up seventh fastest. Just pause to think about that for a second in comparison to the variety of race debuts we’ve seen over the years, full of caveats of ‘give them time to learn’ about F1 or a different team or car.

To commemorate the anniversary of Schumacher’s explosion onto the F1 scene, I went on the hunt for a Jordan 191 that was a runner. Over the years, several cars have popped up at exhibitions and museums, but it took a bit of digging to find one that actually had a running engine in it.

Thanks to the ever-resourceful James Hanson at Speedmaster, the Sky Sports F1 team and I managed to get our hands on what seems to be the only running Jordan 191 currently on the planet. This particular chassis had been driven by Michael in free practice at Spa before being raced by Andrea de Cesaris, who famously nearly passed Ayrton Senna for the lead before the engine went pop.

The next step was to see if Mick Schumacher would like to share the experience with me, which frankly was an easy sell. To complete the story, I thought it would be nice to dig out the black book and find some of the key people who were at the South circuit at Silverstone when Michael drove an F1 car for the first time, and who also worked with him over that infamous Spa weekend.

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Fortunately, Gary Anderson, the team’s technical director, Trevor Foster who was Michael’s race engineer, Ian Phillips who was their chief commercial guru and also Eddie Jordan’s right-hand man, as well as Andy Stevenson who was the mechanic on Michael’s car, were all kind enough to agree to join our reunion at Silverstone.

Jordan old boys Ian Phillips, Trevor Foster, Andy Stevenson and Gary Anderson joined Schumacher Jr for the reunion

Jordan old boys Ian Phillips, Trevor Foster, Andy Stevenson and Gary Anderson joined Schumacher Jr for the reunion

Photo by: JEP

It was a glorious sunny day as we walked into the garage to see that iconic 7Up livery across the beautiful 191. I’ve always said that in terms of aesthetics, on average the 1991 season featured the best-looking F1 cars of all time, and the Jordan was certainly one of the most attractive on the grid.

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Mick seemed quite emotional as we walked around the car, taking in just how small it seemed compared to the 2021 beast parked next door. The simple flowing lines are a far cry from the modern cars full of aero flick-ups and bargeboards made up of 50 different little appendages. The blown diffuser actually looks similar to the concepts shown for the 2022 car and the straightforward mono-shock front suspension is another reminder of how much suspension design has changed in the complex modern world of interconnected suspensions.

In the cockpit, the first two things that strike home are the lack of buttons on the steering wheel and the H-pattern gearbox. Fortunately, with the range of F1 cars I’ve driven over the years, I’m pretty familiar with H-pattern gearboxes and was also the last generation to race it in Formula 3. Mick, on the other hand, had never driven a race car with such a ’box, so this was going to be a bit of an adventure for him!

The engine’s driveability was superb, with the torque being delivered from quite low down in the rev range and with no real dips in the power curve

Before we got down to the business of driving, we spent some time with the former Jordan guys reliving the remarkable week that Michael spent as a Jordan driver. The guys recounted stories of just how unfazed and fast Michael was from his very first lap in an F1 car, how methodical his thought process was, how quickly he integrated with the team, and how inquisitive he was about what he needed to do to go quicker. I was hanging on every word and got goosebumps just listening to the guys speak, so I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for Mick to hear these tales about his father.

As we got the car ready to go with Mick in it, Sebastian Vettel popped down to have a look at his hero’s first F1 car. Seb’s a proper racing fan who is building a nice collection of iconic F1 cars himself. It was nice to just spend some time chatting about the cars from the 1990s, which was the era in which people of the age of Seb and I fell in love with F1. He was also quite amused to hear that Mick had never driven an H-pattern car before, which reminded us how much younger than us he is!

Mick really enjoyed the driving experience once he started to get some temperature into the brakes and tyres and also got his head around the gearbox. He’s now driven a few of Michael’s cars, but I got the impression that it was still quite an emotional experience for him to be there in the same cockpit and holding the same steering wheel and gear lever as his father did for the very first time in F1 and at the very same venue.

Schumacher had to get his head around the H-pattern gearbox on the 191

Schumacher had to get his head around the H-pattern gearbox on the 191

Photo by: JEP

My personal treat for pulling this day together was, of course, my chance to drive the car. I have a model of the 191 in my office and it’s always been a car on my bucket list. The cockpit itself is typical of cars from that era – narrow and just about comfortable enough to drive for a two-hour grand prix. I do wonder if those cars were made just a couple of inches wider, whether the performance loss in aero would be offset by the gains the drivers could make by being more comfortable.

As I headed out on track, the first thing that impressed me was the engine. Jordan had the Ford HB engine, which was similar to what the works Benettons had in 1991, and was more powerful than most of the other customer teams’ units. I have driven the benchmark Renault V10s from that era pretty extensively and, while the Ford had relatively less power than the mighty French motor, in absolute terms, 625bhp in a car that weighs only 505kg (without the driver) meant it had plenty of grunt.

The engine’s driveability was superb, with the torque being delivered from quite low down in the rev range and with no real dips in the power curve. I remember with the Renaults, the power band was actually quite small and you did have to keep it reasonably high up in the revs, whereas with the Ford, even from low rpm accelerating out of the slow hairpins at the Loop or Club, the torque delivery was impressive. The engine note at just under 11,000rpm when you have to change gear is a wonderful raspy growl that sounds just as good inside the car as it does when you’re watching at the side of the track.

The chassis was beautifully balanced and, once I built up some speed and got the temperature into the brakes and tyres, I really started to enjoy driving the car. The monoshock stiff front end made the turn-in response very positive but, because of the way the rear floor and diffuser worked, the rear of the car always felt very stable at high speed.

Through corners like Copse and the Becketts complex, while it of course lacked the ultimate performance of the active suspension-aided Williams FW14B that I drove through these corners a couple of years ago, the car was very confidence-inspiring and had an elasticity that allowed you to catch a slide even if it did get slightly out of line.

The stability under braking and traction was excellent, something that you would expect from a car with a stiff front end. We have to remember that as much as cars have evolved over the past three decades, so have race tracks. The drivers back in 1991 had bumpier circuits with bigger kerbs, so having a car that was stable under braking or when they got on the throttle would have been very useful for their overall lap time. Somehow, despite the monoshock front end, the way the suspension is designed still meant that it had pretty decent compliance over the kerbs, which surprised me.

Karun debriefs with Schumacher - both were impressed with its responsiveness and braking capability

Karun debriefs with Schumacher - both were impressed with its responsiveness and braking capability

Photo by: JEP

I was massively impressed with the braking performance and it was one of the main things that Mick commented on as well. It took a couple of laps to generate the right temperature in the brakes but, once they were in the window, the deceleration was very good. I suspect that trying to stop a car that weighs 170kg less than a current 2021 car probably plays a significant factor in this.

Compared with the Williams FW13B, which was the last manual-gearbox Williams from 1990, the actual gate was much wider and easier to use in the Jordan. With the 13B, the amount the actual gear lever moves from left to right across the gate is very narrow and, until you get fully used to it, like Thierry Boutsen or Riccardo Patrese would have done back in the day, you’re always a little bit nervous of going from fourth to third gear by mistake when looking for fifth.

In the Jordan, the lever moves around more, which actually helps. Going from fifth to sixth gear is a little bit tricky with the lack of elbow room – you have to remember to twist your arm the other way and pull down, much like a backhand grip on a tennis racket. As always, getting some good blips done on the downshifts definitely helps to stabilise the rear axle but it’s all very user-friendly.

The main thing that Mick and I really enjoyed from the day was that it felt like a very pure driving experience. Every input you make as a driver creates a very direct reaction from the car

More than anything else, driving cars such as the Jordan 191 reminds me why this is my favourite era of F1. The cars were very quick and powerful and also had a good amount of downforce and grip. Crucially they were light, which made them reactive and agile in a way that the championship has somehow forgotten with all the rule changes in the hybrid era. The cars for 2022 are getting heavier again and it’s just a topic that the rulemakers seem to largely ignore these days under the guise of ‘it’s the same for everyone’. Colin Chapman would not be impressed.

The main thing that Mick and I really enjoyed from the day was that it felt like a very pure driving experience. Every input you make as a driver creates a very direct reaction from the car. In the modern cars with power steering, fly-by-wire throttle, electronic brake-balancing, complex hybrid power units with energy management systems, everything you do with your hands and feet is filtered by the computers before actually translating to what the car is asked to do on the asphalt.

In the Jordan, with the lack of power steering and electronic braking, a simple throttle cable and a manual gearbox, you really feel like you are driving the car in the purest sense and that was incredibly satisfying. It’s the same reason why I have much more fun driving my 22-year-old Mini Cooper than my modern car fitted with all the latest and greatest gizmos.

A wonderful day in a wonderful car, celebrating one of the great legends of our sport.

For more on Chandhok’s day in the Jordan 191, look out for Sky Sports F1’s special feature during its 2021 Belgian GP coverage.

Karun and Mick both enjoyed their time in the 191

Karun and Mick both enjoyed their time in the 191

Photo by: JEP

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