It was 1991... picture the scene: a dark Bierkeller in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps and barman Schumacher is serving a rather dishevelled Irishman pints of Guinness, whilst they watch a replay of the German Grand Prix. "We got 5th and 6th, we did" the man said, "we're impressive we are, hic!". Schumacher had heard this sort of chat before. It was only the previous summer that a woman had been in the bar claiming to be Steffi Graf, and he still wasn't convinced that the fella who turned up at the Karaoke each week and sang "Rock me Amadeus" was ACTUALLY Falco.
With that the news came on, and the Irishman sighed. "We've got a problem, we sure have. Yes we have."
"What is it?" asked the curious barman.
"Well, as you can see from that report my Number 1 driver is about to go to prison, straight after Hungary in a couple of weeks... why is life so complicated?"
"What did he do?" asked Schumacher
"Oh, nothing serious - he sprayed some CS gas in the face of a London taxi driver. Happens in Dublin every Saturday night, but they're funny about that sort of thing in England. Give me the Emerald Isle any day. Oh damn, get me another Guinness."
After about half an hour, the customer (slightly the worse for wear) suddenly jumped up.
"I'VE GOT IT!! EUREKA!!!!" he exclaimed, "you can be my new driver."
"Me?" asked the bemused barman, "but I've never driven a..."
"Doesn't matter! You look a crafty sort, I am sure you'll do fine. Do you drive?"
"Well, I've got my Trabant that Uncle Wolfgang from Dresden bought me for my 18th birthday. But it doesn't go very fast...."
"No problem, our cars don't either - I'll be in touch! The name's Jordan, Eddie Jordan."
And, with that, "Jordan" got up and proceeded to walk into a cupboard. On the second attempt he found the door and disappeared into the night.
"Me in Formula 1, hahaha!" Schumacher thought to himself, as he turned the key later that evening for the drive home. Along the Autobahn he decided to let the Trabant go.... 60km/h... 70km/h.... 80km/h... "this is fun," he thought, "it's a shame that man was probably only a drunk and it won't happen".
The bar was packed for the Hungarian Grand Prix. Ayrton Senna was on Pole, but local favourite Ricardo Patrese had qualified second and there was an air of expectation that he might win. Patrese was a Venetian and Venice, despite being in Italy, was only a few hours away on the train. It was rare that Ricardo would visit Bavaria without nipping in for a pint of Schumacher's best Weissbier and would occasionally come and buy a round for all the regulars if he had had a particularly fine race. As he served a stein of lager to a customer, however, Schumacher couldn't help but notice the green cars that the Irishman had mentioned to him - there was one driver called De Chezimiss or something and another called Gastrot, he wondered which was the one (if either) who was going to shortly be incarcerated at Her Majesty's Pleasure. I mean, the man was a drunk wasn't he? Probably didn't know anything at all about the internal goings on at this Formula 1 team. But at the back of his mind, Schumacher did rather hope that he wasn't and the invitation to race in Belgium would be forthcoming, though there was no sign of it yet, and there was only 2 weeks.
The race was uneventful. After the podium celebrations the TV was turned off. "Never drive for a British team, never!" muttered somebody at the bar, "look at what they did to Ricardo. Team orders, it's a travesty. Would never happen with Ferrari, never!" - Michael pondered this comment as he drove along the Autobahn. He'd been practising and was now getting almost 100km/h out of his trusty trabant, having discovered that a few litres of Heineken in the fuel mix added at least 100bhp. Always a dreamer Schumacher decided he'd better get the weekend of 23rd-25th August off, just in case. It was hard: Saturday 24th was the start of the Augustfest, a practice run for the more famous Oktoberfest, when Germans from all over the area flocked to the bar to sing songs and drink beer and staff had to be found, but the owner of the bar, Helga, liked young Michael and agreed to let him "live his dream" should the opportunity come. She knew she was safe, after all the call was never going to come.
But it did. Late the next night, as Michael was serving the last few customers.
"7th and 9th, 7th and 9th - Jordan's on his way to Wembley... hic!" came an Irish voice "how yer Martin?"
"Michael, the name's Michael. And who is this??"
"Ah, Michael - Michael, what a beautiful name, hic!! So where are you? Yer man said ye'd be here."
"Yer man, that fella from McLaren, oh for sure what is hees... Bugger, that's it... Gert Bugger..."
"Gerhard Berger?? What's he got to do with me????"
"Yer German aren't you? Oh by the blessed virgin, begad... why aren't you here, man?? WHY AREN'T YOU HERE???"
Michael sighed. Drunk again, what was it with this Irish?? Granted, Berger came from just over the border in Austria but he wasn't aware he'd ever met him so was confused about the association. But, nothing ventured...
"I finish my shift at 2am, perhaps we'll talk after that?"
That'd do it, he thought. Call the man's bluff. The phone went dead, ah well - so much for that.
An hour later there was a knock on the door. "Did somebody call a taxi?"
After asking the customers Michael drew a blank, so - as he had done many times before - he went to give the taxi driver the bad news. Crank calls were rife this time of night.
"Do you have a name for the client, friend" asked the barman and was taken aback when the answer came "Schumacher. Got to take him to Munich to catch a plane to somewhere called Silverstone."
He knew what it was, of course. His brother Ralf was a huge joker, had been since their early childhood. This was some sort of prank set up to make him look silly but - hey - he might as well go along with it. "I'll be 30 minutes," said the German, "as I just have to clear the bar. Then I'll be there."
It'd be fun to see what silliness Ralf had in store for him, but it'd had been a quiet night so why not???
A short taxi ride later Michael was getting on a plane at Munich Airport, continually trying to figure out which friend of Ralf's had blagged the plane. They didn't, after all, come cheap. He hoped it was legal - the last thing he wanted was to get arrested for stealing a plane. He recognised the pilot from somewhere, bearded and jovial, but couldn't place him.
"You must be Michael, I'm Richard - Eddie speaks very highly of you."
It was the first time that Michael had sat in the co-pilot seat of a plane, quite an experience. He could hear the air traffic controllers and, as the flight progressed, the accents changed. He did actually appear to be going to England... this was definitely Ralf's best one yet, he wondered how he'd managed to afford it but decided he might as well "go along for the ride". "Richard", if that was indeed his name, apparently ran some company in the UK and had been in Munich on business. He'd got a call from "Eddie" and, as he was due to fly back anyway, had offered to transport the German. He didn't say what business he was in, but Schumacher thought he recognised the surname from an English store in his home town - pickles, Branston Pickle, that seemed to be it. The man was a preserves importer, that must be it.
"So what do you do, Richard," he asked, "is it Branston Pickle? I've heard of that one... is it your company?"
The man laughed.
"No, not pickles... I have companies doing most things, but not pickles I'm afraid, though I might consider it if you think there's a market. Hahaha. Anyway, we should prepare for landing. Silverstone in 5 minutes."
Upon landing a taxi was waiting and before he knew it he'd waved goodbye to "Richard" and was checked into a hotel called the Saracens Head in some place called Towcester. It was very oldey-worldey, not F1 at all, and he was a bit confused by it all because en-route to this place the taxi driver had continually tried to persuade him he needed a toaster. His English was not that great, but he knew what a toaster was and couldn't really work out what use it would be to him. He wondered if this was all part of his brother's game, but in this "Toe-chester" place there didn't seem to be any toasters in evidence.
Having found the bar he was extremely unimpressed with the beer range. Not a weissbier in sight, just something particularly hideous looking called "Abbot Ale". It didn't taste too bad, though, so he opted for a half pint and was sipping it when an Irish voice echoed across the bar.
"So what do you think of toaster then?"
"I haven't been given one. Anyway, I don't like toast."
The man was clearly confused, and Michael didn't really have the time or inclination to labour the point.
"Right," said the Irishman, "Bertrand was getting rather bored in his cell so I asked him to write a few notes to get you up to speed. Read it in bed and we'll go down the circuit tomorrow for some testing."
This Gachot fella appeared to know what he was talking about. As well as details on how to drive the car it had some info on the drivers and both the Silverstone and Spa circuits. It appeared that the latter had a bus stop on it and Schumacher pictured buses and F1 cars taking turns on that bit of road. What would happen if a bus broke down, would they delay the race? If he fancied a beer between practice and qualifying could he, perhaps, get a bus into the centre of town from there? He would, perhaps, find this out in a week's time but first he would experience Silverstone, a circuit that didn't appear to have any bus stops at all, though it did appear to have an Abbey. "Must be noisy for the monks," he thought.
Morning arrived before he knew it. Entering the circuit the realisation dawned that this was clearly not some joke played by his brother and he did, indeed, appear to be about to drive a Formula 1 car. And, sure enough, there was the car. He recognised it from the TV, though it seemed a lot smaller in real life. There was a bar at the circuit and, a pleasant surprise, it appeared to serve Heinekken. If the car wasn't performing, he thought, perhaps he could try the same trick as with his trabant - an extra 100bhp would be useful to have under his sleeve, though the engineers didn't seem convinced. As it happened this didn't appear to be necessary as the car seemed to go significantly faster than his trabant from the off, and its handling around corners seemed somewhat better too. This will be fun, he thought, and he was right. It was. "Even if I don't make it past today," he thought, "this has been quite an experience. "
Before he knew it, it was the eve of the race and Michael found himself in a bar in downtown Francorchamps with fellow driver Andrea De Cesaris. Since that first day at Silverstone he had known he was destined to be a Formula 1 driver. The car had felt so natural and by day two he was regularly outperforming his team mate, much to the Italian's annoyance. He had made one mistake which almost got him sacked, but that was now in the distant past. How was he to know that the Ford engine would not take kindly to beer in the fuel tank? It had worked, after all, in the Trabant. But work it did not, and he chuckled as he recalled Gary Anderson's face on that wet night in Northamptonshire and the way that Eddie Jordan had to calm him down. The British, he thought, were far too highly strung. He much preferred his countrymen, clinical and business like in all ways.
Clinical and business-like was not how he would have described his team mate that evening. De Cesaris had been in secret talks with Flavio Briatore, Team Principal of the Italian Benetton team, to move to that team. "An Italian," Andrea had said to Michael on Thursday, "belongs in an Italian team."
Benetton's Technical Director, recently-recruited, was a fellow by the name of Ross Brawn, an Anglo-German whose aunt, Eva, had been Hitler's mistress. The Brawn family had a great love for Bavaria and the mountains and Ross had spent much of his childhood clad in lederhosen eating Knö and noodles. Unbeknown to Schumacher, Brawn had also been an occasional visitor to his bar, and when the two had bumped into one another in the paddock on Friday they had immediately hit it off.
On Friday night, over a trappist ale, Brawn had confided in Michael that he'd like to work with him and Saturday's qualifying performance (where Schumacher lapped significantly faster than his more experienced team mate) appeared to have worked against the Italian as Briatore had just told De Cesaris the deal was off. "To be honest," Flavio had said, "if you can't qualify within 4 places of a Bavarian barman who hadn't even driven an F1 car until last week then why should I want to have you as a driver?"
The question was fair, but it had clearly upset the Italian. Schumacher felt for his team mate, but recognised "life can be hard". After all, it was a competitive sport - De Cesaris would bounce back. "There may be a seat at Ferrari next year, you never know!" muttered the German across the table, "and I doubt they've actually signed anybody yet. Race well tomorrow and you never know, there may be a seat at Benetton for you after all!"
The following morning the warm-up session went well and Michael found himself on the grid sandwiched between the two Benettons of Piquet and Moreno. "You know," he thought to himself, "they're not that much better than the Jordans. And Andrea does seem to want to move there, I have done enough this weekend, let's let him have some glory". He'd burned out clutches before, without meaning to, it surely would not be hard.
A lap later the Jordan of Schumacher retired with a broken clutch and, as the race progressed, he smiled as he watched De Cesaris move up the field. By Lap 31 the Italian was in second position and looking good for a podium. "That'll please Flavio," the German thought. But then disaster struck. An engine blow-up and there were no Jordans running.
"Damn bad luck, old chap!" said a friendly voice later in the bar. It was Ross Brawn. "You threw it, didn't you? I've been watching your clutch control all weekend, it was impeccible. Jolly nice thing to do for a team mate, but you should not have done it - you could have won the race."
Schumacher tried to come up with an alternative explanation.
"No, we had a clutch problem in the warm-up. It was unfortunate, but these things happen. I thought it'd last, but..."
"Bullsh#t!! I'm a technician, I know a faulty clutch when I see one, and that wasn't. Anyway, you're young - you'll learn. Listen... I'd like to offer you a deal," he said, "just got to get Flavio to agree but that won't be hard. He was hoping to sign your team mate, but look at him now... I mean, do we REALLY want that???"
Schumacher looked across the bar. De Cesaris was sitting alone on a stool with an empty bottle of Sambuca beside him.
"He isn't dealing with it well, is he?" commented the German, "but it's been a bad weekend for him. He had so many hopes."
"No, we can't be dealing with two temperamental drivers in our team - we already have Nelson Piquet, could you imagine him and Andrea together?? It would be a disaster... come and join us"
"But surely an Italian in an Italian team?"
"We already have enough Italians, watch your mail. You might get a pleasant surprise."
Back in Germany 3 days later Schumacher was wondering if it had all been a dream when the phone rang. It was Eddie Jordan but, unlike the previous times, he sounded stone cold sober and in no mood for informal chat.
"You b####rd, I'm getting my lawyers onto you now. If you think you can double-cross me you've another thing coming."
"Oh dear," he thought, "this doesn't sound good."
©Sean Miller - 3rd March 2010.