Michael Schumacher may be celebrating the 20th anniversary of his F1 debut when he rocks up at Spa-Francorchamps this weekend, but he will always have mixed memories of his first grand prix, even if the circuit continued to provide milestones in his storied career.
The German, who turned 42 earlier this year, got a late call from the Jordan team to replace local favourite Bertrand Gachot - who had been incarcerated in a UK jail for attacking a taxi driver - and immediately impressed the F1 fraternity by pushing the pretty 191 chassis to hitherto rare heights in both practice and qualifying. Incredibly, Schumacher, who had been released - and funded - for the drive by sportscar employer Peter Sauber, produced his attention-grabbing performance without prior experience of the full Spa layout, although he denies that either he or then manager Willi Weber had lied to Jordan about the extent of his knowledge.
"I have to clarify the story," Schumacher told Germany's Auto Motor und Sport
magazine, "Eddie [Jordan] had asked Willi if I had raced there before and Willi said yes, simply because he could not imagine that I had never been there."
Jordan had apparently wanted to run experienced F1 veteran Stefan Johansson in Gachot's absence, but the offer of funding from Sauber - at that time purely a Group C sportscar entrant with an F1 debut still several seasons away - both turned him in favour of Schumacher and underlined the parlous nature of his eponymous team's existence.
"That was a pretty penny for a single grand prix," Sauber told Germany's SID
news agency recently, "[Schumacher was] a hard worker, very ambitious, mentally strong and also so well prepared physically. It soon became apparent that he was a very special talent. You also need talent and technical knowledge and, if you get all these factors close to 100 per cent, you get Michael Schumacher who wins seven titles. He was under contract to us and it was quite normal that we allowed him to have his first [F1] race."
Many stories have been written about how Jordan's tiny team was run on the thinnest of shoestrings and had to wheal and deal to survive its debut season, but Schumacher's retirement from the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix only serves to underline the point.
The German, having run eighth in practice before qualifying a season-high seventh on a circuit he only learned during pre-event laps on a pushbike, made it only as far as the first few corners before his clutch expired. Official reports suspect that, unused to the higher fuel loads demanded of a race start, the youngster had simply cooked the clutch as the lights went green but, having moving up to fifth by La Source, Schumacher insists that it was the result of watching the pennies that eventually led to his retirement.
"The story is that we had problems in the warm-up," Schumacher explained, "I pointed it out at the de-briefing and we talked about whether we should change the clutch or not, but Eddie said that would cost too much money. Then it broke!"
Schumacher's Jordan career ended with the Belgian race, as he was snatched from under the Silverstone team's nose by Flavio Briatore's Benetton operation, which eventually led him to his first two world titles. Jordan, meanwhile, has swapped the pit-wall for punditry - and has been among the most outspoken critics of Schumacher's return from retirement with Mercedes, frequently calling on the German to stand down for good before he 'damages his legacy'.