Michael Schumacher's Greatest Race

When Schumacher conquered the rain and a garbage car to win by an eternity.

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Road & Track Archive

Sodden spectators at the 1996 Spanish Grand Prix would have been excused for thinking that Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari F310 was the only car on track. The visual metaphor embedded in this photo is so obvious, it hardly needs to be stated explicitly—Schumacher in a class of his own, his brilliance rendering the opposition almost invisible. The epic win in the rain in Barcelona, Schumacher’s first in a Ferrari, was immediately enshrined in the pantheon of magical wet-weather drives. But more than that, this race marked the point at which Schumacher went from being the second coming of Ayrton Senna to a legend in his own right.

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It had seemed only fitting that Schumacher won his first Formula 1 world championship in 1994, after deliberately spearing Damon Hill at Adelaide to secure the title at the end of a season that began with Senna being killed at Imola. After earning his second consecutive title with Benetton, Schumacher broke with flamboyant team principal Flavio Briatore to join Ferrari. The Scuderia has always been F1’s most prestigious team but also its most dysfunctional family, and it was mired in one of its periodic patches of depression, with only two wins over the previous five seasons. What’s more, the new F310 was what Ferrari’s number-two driver Eddie Irvine called “a piece of junk”—ill-handling, unreliable, and hideously ugly.

Although Schumacher managed three podiums in the first six races of the season, his Ferrari never looked like a match for the Adrian Newey–designed Williams FW18s driven by second-generation stars Hill and Jacques Villeneuve. At the Circuit de Catalunya, Schumacher qualified third under sunny skies, almost a second off the pole. Then came the rain in Spain. Conditions were so treacherous that there was talk about starting the race behind the safety car for the first time ever, and Schumacher—confident in his wet-weather setup and hopeful that the slick track would minimize Williams’s advantage—was beaming as he waited under an umbrella to climb into his cockpit.

But it all went wrong at the start. When the lights went out, Schumacher nearly stalled his V-10, and he was swarmed by the cars behind him. By the time the Ferrari was up to speed, he’d dropped to ninth on a day when passing promised to be problematic. Grip was negligible, visibility virtually nonexistent. Hill, who’d qualified on pole and would go on to win that year’s championship, had an off, then spun and finally crashed into the pit wall on lap 12. “I’m almost pleased to be out of it, to be honest,” Hill admitted later.

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At the front, Villeneuve led acknowledged wet-weather virtuoso Jean Alesi. Schumacher, trapped midpack, lost 8.5 seconds over the first four laps. But he was the first driver to realize that by taking unconventional lines on customarily unused portions of the track, he could find grip where others couldn’t. On lap nine, he effortlessly outbraked Alesi into the slow left-hander known as Seat. Then, after hounding Villeneuve for three laps, Schumacher elbowed the Canadian out of the way at the same spot. The race was effectively over. But the spectacle was just beginning.

On Schumacher’s first lap in the lead, he pulled out a 3.7-second advantage. The next lap, it was 6.6 seconds. Then 10.5 seconds. Fifteen. Twenty. Twenty-five. Thirty. More than 37 seconds by the time he pitted on lap 23. Schumacher was routinely clicking off laps between three and four seconds faster than anybody else. Not because he had the best car. And not merely because he was the best driver. But because even when he was light-years ahead of the competition, he was still the most committed driver on the track. On every corner, his Ferrari twitched and slithered like a cross between a rally car on Pikes Peak and a sprint car at DuQuoin. Near the end of the race, there was a powerslide onto the front straight almost lurid enough to put hair back on the head of excitable commentator Murray Walker.

Schumacher stretched his lead to more than a minute before the engine note of his V-10 soured. Despite being down on power, he won by 45 seconds and lapped the field up to third place. Nobody got within 2.2 seconds of his best lap. Was this a more spectacular wet-weather performance than Jim Clark’s at Spa in 1963, Jackie Stewart’s at the Nordschleife in 1968, or Senna’s at Donington in 1993? Impossible to say. After all, you can’t transcend transcendence.

The win didn’t transform the F310 into a world-beater, and Ferrari was a bridesmaid for the next few years. But starting in 2000, Schumacher reeled off five consecutive championships. By the time he retired, he’d scored 91 F1 victories, making him the greatest driver, statistically speaking, in the sport’s history. And he was never better than on that dreary June afternoon in 1996, when he made the best drivers in the world look second-rate.

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