It’s 30 years to the day since Michael Schumacher took F1 by storm on his debut. Could any young driver grasp a similar opportunity today?
There has inevitably been much interest in the 30th anniversary of Michael Schumacher’s amazing debut weekend for Jordan in the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps. Beyond the significance of the anniversary itself, this weekend, of course, will be son Mick’s first Formula 1 start at the demanding Ardennes circuit – and he’s even been driving his father’s Jordan 191 (pictured) to mark the occasion.
Schumacher senior was famously called up by Jordan at short notice in the aftermath of regular driver Bertrand Gachot’s incarceration in a British jail following an altercation with a London cabbie.
From today’s perspective, the decision to give the drive to Schumacher seems like an inspired judgement, cementing Eddie Jordan’s reputation as a talent-spotter in the junior single-seater ranks. In truth, Schumacher was effectively a pay-driver for the weekend and Jordan’s decision was driven by financial more than sporting considerations. Jordan himself has subsequently admitted to having little idea about Schumacher or his record up to that point.
However, as the reigning German F3 champion and winner of both legs of the 1990 F3 Euro-Macau-Fuji Challenge, Schumacher was one of the top names in the junior single-seater ranks at the end of that year. By the time of Spa, his F3 rival Mika Hakkinen was already established within F1 with Lotus. Schumacher’s only single-seater appearance so far that season had been second place in a Japanese F3000 round at Sugo.
As a member of the Mercedes Junior Team, Schumacher had been gaining experience and attention with the marque’s Group C sportscars over the previous two seasons. Mercedes were keen to give him his Grand Prix debut and provided the financial support to place their man in the cockpit of the highly-competitive Jordan 191 for Spa.
Schumacher’s performance has been well-documented; eighth fastest in qualifying, beating experienced team-mate Andrea de Cesaris’s time by almost 0.8 seconds. Despite, or maybe because of the Jordan’s clutch failing within a few hundred metres of the start, a legend had been created.
In 2021, it is COVID-19 self-isolation rather than enforced imprisonment that is more likely to rule a driver out of action and necessitate a one-off replacement. During 2020, Sergio Perez, Lance Stroll and Lewis Hamilton were all forced to sit out races for that reason. Racing Point called up Nico Hulkenberg on both occasions whereas Hamilton’s absence opened the door indirectly for Jack Aitken (pictured above) to make his debut with Williams. In addition, Pietro Fittipaldi started the final two grands prix of the year following Romain Grosjean’s horrific accident in Bahrain.
In modern F1, teams’ choice of a potential emergency replacement would, in practice, be motivated by existing reserve driver arrangements, academy affiliations, availability and, most significantly, eligibility for a superlicence.
The current points-based system for a driver to qualify for a superlicence makes it close to impossible for an up-and-coming star to jump straight from F3 to F1 in the way that Schumacher himself did (and, of course, more recently, Max Verstappen). Indeed, under the current rules, Schumacher’s results in F3 and sportscars would not have qualified him for a superlicence, although it should be noted that a national F3 championship in 1990 had a very different status than such a series does in 2021.
But if a hypothetical scenario arose in 2021, with a team needing to fill a vacant seat for this weekend’s Belgian GP and no automatic reserve driver available, who from the junior single-seater ranks might a team-owner with a point-scoring and potentially race-winning car turn to?
For the purposes of this “what-if” scenario let’s assume that the team owner has decided to give a chance to a driver with no previous F1 race experience…
Nyck de Vries
Having just clinched the Formula E world championship title, Nyck de Vries is currently on a high. In some respects, he is in a similar position to Schumacher 30 years ago – a works Mercedes driver competing in a series outside F1.
Before first practice at Spa, Schumacher had no experience of driving at Spa. De Vries, on the other hand, brings a strong record from his F2 days: pole position and a dominant feature race win in 2018 (ahead of two of the stars of the 2021 F1 season, Lando Norris and George Russell) followed by another pole in the tragic F2 weekend in 2019.
Of course, de Vries has not necessarily been groomed by Mercedes for a F1 berth and at 26 is four years older than Schumacher was in 1991. But rumours persist linking de Vries to a Williams seat for 2022 and it’s not difficult to see Mercedes chief Toto Wolff using his clout to push for a well-deserved chance in F1. At the same time, de Vries’ FE team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne – a veteran of 41 F1 starts – might be preferred for any one-off outing at his home circuit.
Mercedes does have a further junior on its books with the necessary superlicence: Frederik Vesti. Vesti is currently in his second season of FIA F3, having won the inaugural Formula Regional European Championship in 2019. However, the step up from F3 is a demanding one and Spa 2021 may simply be too early without any previous taste of F1 machinery.
Any team looking to maximise chances of a strong points finish by taking a top 10 result in qualifying would do well to consider Ferrari Academy driver Callum Ilott. Ilott’s ultimate speed was never in doubt in F2, taking more poles than any other driver in 2020, but mistakes and bad luck allowed Mick Schumacher to take the title.
As the reserve driver for Alfa Romeo he has experience of the current generation of F1 machinery during a GP weekend. He also has a parallel with Michael Schumacher in that he’s now racing sportscars – albeit GT cars rather than prototypes – and last weekend claimed a class podium at the Le Mans 24 Hours.
Another driver with recent mileage for Alfa Romeo is Theo Pourchaire, but the F2 rookie star is a few points short of his superlicence.
Current F2 championship leader Oscar Piastri has made a stellar rise through the junior categories and, if he goes on to win the 2021 F2 title, faces some difficult career choices. As a member of the Alpine Academy, Piastri is strongly supported although opportunities with that team appear limited in the next couple of seasons.
As such, Alpine may be keen to play the Mercedes role of 1991 and secure the drive for one of their next generation of stars. He has shown himself to be a quick learner and brings sim experience of the current generation of F1 cars, as well as recent tests with older cars.
Juri Vips or Liam Lawson
Red Bull junior drivers, Juri Vips and Liam Lawson, have both scored wins in the 2021 F2 championship. Indeed, Lawson took victory in the first round of the season, admittedly from a reversed grid, and was unlucky to lose a win in the second round at Monaco due to a technical infringement. Juri Vips took two wins in Baku after a more difficult start to the season.
Helmut Marko has never been afraid to throw a rookie into a mid-season F1 debut, even if it’s with another team, and is unlikely to pass up the opportunity to evaluate either Vips or Lawson as he works out where their futures lie.
In the light of his later achievements, Schumacher’s incredible performance seems almost inevitable. Undoubtedly, the Jordan was an ideal chassis to make his debut, and was perfectly suited to Spa. By all accounts at the time, Schumacher was not overawed by his surroundings. The rest, of course is history…
Given a competitive car, is it fanciful to believe that any of those named above would be able to qualify strongly, even reaching Q3, and to score points on their debut?