1991 Belgium Grand Prix, 1991 Formula One Season, 1991 Italian Grand Prix, Benetton, Benetton B191, Eddie Jordan, Flavio Briatore, John Barnard, Jordan, Michael Schumacher, Nelson Piquet, Rory Byrne, Ross Brawn
“Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives – choice, not chance, determines your destiny.”
Yellow, blue, green and red…the United Colors of Benetton. A well placed sign at the Highlands National Motorsport Museum in Cromwell, New Zealand informed interested onlookers that this was the car in which Michael Schumacher scored his first points in Formula One. An interesting fact…but the statement painted no vivid mental picture for me. A couple of years ago I watched Kimi Raikkonen’s first race at the 2001 Australian Grand Prix. During qualifying the commentators discussed with disbelief that this unknown rookie’s aim was to get into the top ten. During the race that followed Murray Walker waxed lyrical as Kimi managed to finish in 6th place in his inaugural Formula One event. Despite not having enough racing experience to qualify for a super license Raikkonen was giving every indication of what Peter Sauber’s well trained eye had seen – that he had all the makings of a future world champion.
Ten years earlier it had been Eddie Jordan that was fortunate enough to place some raw racing talent behind the wheel of his gorgeous 7-Up sponsored Jordan at the 1991 Belgium Grand Prix. Kimi Raikkonen had signed a four year contract with Sauber, but Peter released him to move on to McLaren after a single season. Jordon believed he had a four year contract with Michael Schumacher…but all he got was a single race…Schumacher somehow managing to slip from his grasp.
John Barnard, Flavio Briatore, Nelson Piquet and last, but certainly not least, Michael Schumacher…four names that everyone who has followed Formula One for the last couple of decades will be well familiar with. Some famous and others infamous…and some of them both! The best in the business. Champions one and all. And in 1991 all of them came together and what eventually resulted became greater than any of them had ever dreamed possible.
John Barnard was the designer every team dreamed of securing…but you also had to be willing to accept his ironclad conditions. Even Ferrari, who would never be dictated to by anyone, were desperate enough for his services to agree to him residing in England where he could beaver away in peace and tranquillity, untouched by the heated environment of politics and passion that either distracted or inspired those ensconced in the hothouse microcosm of Maranello.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that without John Barnard Formula One cars wouldn’t look like they do today. From the creation of the “coke bottle” carbon fibre chassis to the mechanical perseverance that bought about the flappy-paddle gearbox, his influence from decades ago is still seen in every car on the grid. Currently it is aerodynamics that gives the minuscule advantages needed to triumph over your opponents but Barnard’s flashes of genius were much more mechanical…and could give gains of multiple seconds rather than tenths of seconds.
His breakthrough with the Benetton B191 was certainly in that category and is so common today that we don’t even consider the quantum leap forward it must have been – an easily removable nose cone. No more fiddling with recalcitrant screws after a driver has errantly come in contact with an immovable object. No more wasting multiple seconds persuading a crushed nose to detach from the car body. Barnard pioneered a nose cone with special clips that could be undone swiftly and speedily…the driver able to quickly recommence the contest with the down-force required to be competitive.
The “big chief” was Luciano Benetton. He had become frustrated with having to deal with public relations minions to negotiate how he wanted his colourful line of clothing advertised on the side of the fastest moving machinery on the planet. What he desired was complete freedom to configure and create his own mobile billboard. In 1986, the year before Red Bull even existed as a drink, he decided that owning a Formula One team would be the nirvana he was looking for to advertise his wares worldwide. Like all bosses that have profit rather than speed running through their veins, he wanted results and he wanted them now. He wasn’t in Formula One to run around at the back of the grid acting as a mobile chicane. He was a hip and happening company and he wanted his cars mixing with it the heavyweights of Williams, McLaren and Ferrari.
Flavio Briatore is a name that today is synonymous with the scandal of “Crashgate”. Flavio’s run-ins with the law started many years before his arrival in Formula One and for a time he was banished to the Virgin Islands, unable to live in Europe due to various jail sentences hanging over his head. Making his fortune by managing Benetton’s clothing chain in the United States he was on the lookout for other outlets for his organizing talents. His first Formula One race attendance was at the 1988 Australian Grand Prix which was swiftly succeeded by his appointment as team manager of Benetton.
When results didn’t come quickly Benetton had to blame someone…and in 1991 that someone was John Barnard. Four races with no wins and the boss was getting impatient. Benetton may have been based in England but their genetics were without doubt Italian. Barnard, emotionally drained by what he saw as unreasonable expectations, departed for greener pastures. Benetton never lived to regret their hastiness as they still had the multi-talented Rory Byrne along with an up-and-coming Ross Brawn. Everything was starting to fall into place in spite of, rather than because of, “good” team management.
John Barnard was on gardening leave by the Canadian Grand Prix and, as luck would have it, Nelson Piquet won. The Benetton B191 would give him the last win of his career. Unbeknown to anyone Piquet had had problems with depth perception since his accident during practice at the 1987 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola when his tyre failed at the now infamous Tamburello corner. He walked away from the crash and the only reason he didn’t race on Sunday was because Sid Watkins forbade him to do so. Piquet was not admitting to any symptoms at the time…Sid just had that sixth sense that good doctors have that all was not right with his patient.
Piquet later said that, “Every two weeks I was going to the hospital in Milan. And I was improving, improving but in the first months I lost more than 80% of deepness. I have to look at the numberplate to brake. I was very good to drive behind somebody but I could not drive in front! And that was ’87. It finished motor racing for me. I went for the money afterwards.”
And lastly…there was Michael Schumacher…a virtually unknown entity. Schumacher’s manager Willie Weber heard on the grapevine that Jordan was in difficulties. Their driver had been unexpectedly locked behind bars and wasn’t going to be free for the foreseeable future. They needed someone to pilot their car the following weekend. Weber got on the phone but Eddie was sceptical. Why would he want to put a Sportscar driver in his competitive Formula One car? There were much better known pilots who were available and willing. It involved some mis-truths…or partial truths…well, maybe they were complete untruths. The question Jordan asked was, “Has Schumacher driven at Spa before?” In the days before the far-reaching tentacles of the internet this information wasn’t as easy to find out as it is now.
Schumacher had driven a Sauber Mercedes in the 1990 World Sportscar championship…one round of which was at Spa. Weber insinuated that Schumacher had driven there…which he hadn’t! Michael had been racing at Wunstorf that weekend, winning the fifth round of the German Formula 3 championship on his way to a total of five victories and the title. Weber was sure that Schumacher would acquit himself adequately and no-one would care to question the statement later. That was certainly true. Jordan’s difficulty would be in trying to keep Schumacher, not in trying to get rid of him. Weber’s case was helped when Mercedes came on board and sweetened the deal for Eddie Jordan with the offer of 150,000 pounds. Money for a midfield team is always hard to turn down…especially as just that morning their truck had been locked up by the bailiffs because of bills owing to their creditors!
Schumacher began to catch the eye of the experts during qualifying, his car planted on the road, his racing lines perfect. He easily outpaced his more experienced teammate when he qualified in seventh. This was just as well because his race was short, frustratingly and tantalizingly short. Accustomed to rolling starts in Sportscars he overheated his clutch on the start line and at the top of Eau Rouge it failed spectacularly. His race had lasted for less than a minute. He pulled behind the barrier and extricated himself from the car, quickly relegated from being a participant to having to watch the race from the sidelines.
Eddie Jordan waxed lyrical about his rookie driver, and the youngster certainly did not go unnoticed. Unfortunately Eddie was not the only one looking out for new talent and his discovery was about to be stolen from under his nose. Flavio Briatore, team boss of Benetton, had no real reason to be unhappy. At the same race his driver Roberto Moreno had set the fastest lap in a car that at best was the best of the rest after McLaren, Williams and Ferrari. But at the next race Roberto Moreno was gone and Schumacher was in his seat – much to the shock of both Moreno and Jordan.
It was Jordan’s first year in Formula One – a sport than Ron Dennis has described as “a piranha club”. Even though Willi Webber and Schumacher were inexperienced they had obtained expert advice and had managed to wheedle out of signing a full contract. Instead they fobbed Jordan off with a “letter of intent” which stated that they intended to sign “a contract” not “the contract”…soon…but that was never going to work for more than one race. Benetton liked what they saw but it was either act now or Schumacher would belong to Jordan until 1994…and Briatore went for now.
A fortnight later at the Italian Grand Prix two teams had Michael Schumacher entered as their driver…but he couldn’t drive for both of them. Would he end up driving for neither? Bernie Ecclestone sat down with all the protagonists and talked…or bribed…or threatened them all into doing what he wanted. And what he wanted was Schumacher at Benetton. Why Benetton and not Jordan? I have no idea!
The 1991 Italian Grand Prix was Nelson Piquet’s 200th race…and Michael Schumacher’s 2nd. Schumacher qualified his Benetton in seventh, this time ahead of his triple world champion teammate. He maintained his position through the chaotic start and the race proceeded to unfold in front of him. Riccardo Patrese had just snatched the lead from Ayrton Senna when a gear box failure caused him to spin and he was unable to continue. Schumacher was now up to fifth. Senna pitted for fresh rubber after being passed by Mansell and then easily picked off Schumacher, Berger and Prost to get back to second place. He never caught Nigel Mansell again though, who despite his blistered tyres, managed to hold on to the lead until the end. Schumacher maintained fifth place until the end…getting into the points at his second race and finishing one place and over ten seconds ahead of Piquet.
It took seven years to finally resolve the legalities of that fraught fortnight. Ultimately Jordan and Benetton settled out of court with a reported six figure sum being paid to Eddie Jordan – which wouldn’t have come close to making up for the fact that by then Schumacher had taken Benetton to a double world championship that Eddie probably thought that by all rights should have been his. But…and this is a big but…it takes more than a world class driver to win the World Championship and Benetton also had Rory Byrne and Ross Brawn…
As a recent follower of Formula One I am devoid of any strong opinions on the racing or personal qualities of Michael Schumacher, only seeing him live as an antiquated driver in 2012 before he was replaced by Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes. I have watched the 2001 season in entirety merely so I could watch Kimi Raikkonen’s inauguration to the world of Formula One and with each progressive race hoped that someone, anyone, would be able to beat Schumacher, which didn’t happen often enough! I have never been a fan purely because his years of dominance had gone before him and watching dominance is not very exciting…especially in retrospect.
However, after reading about the early years of Michael Schumacher, I now have increased respect for the luck that is essential to break into the dog-eat-dog world of Formula One. It required a driver unexpectedly behind bars, a manager of the small fry being willing to mix it with the piranhas, a team willing to give an almost complete unknown a try…and that was only the beginning. There were a multitude of drivers that on paper, or even on the track, appeared to have equal credentials and potential as Schumacher.
It is easy to blame the Jordan-Benetton debacle on greediness from Schumacher as our views of him are coloured from his time at Ferrari. He was paid a fortune and gave Ferrari what they had been waiting decades for – world championship after world championship – until we were all bored with seeing a constant sea of red on the podium. But it all started with Benetton – a mere midfield team. They had the perfect combination of designers, engineers and driver for the fairy tale to come true and they were able to grab the World Championship trophy from their betters…and there is nothing we like better than the under-dogs beating the top-dogs at their own game. But then the association of Briatore and cheating starts to rear its ugly head…and you begin to wonder what, if anything, Benetton were getting away with…did they have traction control…or didn’t they…
Flavio Briatore endeavoured to extinguish the above insinuations in 2001 when he said, “We had an incredible car, with a very nice engine and a super driver. Our only mistake was that at the time we were too young and people were suspicious. Worldwide sport like this must be clean, with no suspects. The image of cheating is unacceptable. And if everybody has the same thing, at least you stop all the suspicious and the sport has a cleaner image.”