For the first time since he started his comeback at the beginning of last season, Michael Schumacher was the centre of attention as the Formula 1 circus rolled into the spectacular Spa-Francorchamps circuit ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix.
Twenty years ago this weekend, the man who would go on to become the most successful racing driver of all time made his debut here for the Jordan team, which was also in its first season in the sport.
It did not take long for him to catch the eye – a stunning qualifying performance put him seventh on the grid, several places ahead of his vastly experienced team-mate Andrea de Cesaris. And although he retired after a few hundred yards with a broken driveshaft, Schumacher had made his mark.
By the time of the next race, Benetton had stolen him from under Eddie Jordan’s nose – and the legend that culminated in seven world titles and 91 race victories began.
Although it is – as Red Bull’s Mark Webber pointed out – only Schumacher’s 17th season in F1, on account of the three he missed during his ‘retirement’, this weekend has partly been set aside to honour his achievements.
His Mercedes team are planning an event on Saturday, while Ferrari, with whom he won five of his seven titles, have promised “a little something to mark the occasion”.
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However you count the years, Schumacher’s achievement came into sharp perspective when his rivals were asked whether they remembered his debut.
Most of them were too young to have any recollection of it at all, picking a later point in his career as the time they first became aware of him.
Most, though, were more than happy to pay tribute to his remarkable achievements, with the most glowing reference coming from Fernando Alonso, the man who ended Schumacher’s run of five consecutive titles in 2005 and then won a memorable mano-a-mano duel between them the following season.
“Michael, I have great respect for him,” Alonso said. “He is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, in the history of our sport. There are numbers there it will be impossible to repeat for any one of us.
“It has been a great pleasure to drive with him all these years. I will always remember all the battles with him and for me it was a privilege to drive against Michael Schumacher. It will be something I always remember. Then he decided to stop and come back.
“I’m sure he missed the adrenaline and the F1 show. Now he is in the second part of his career, the car is not competitive, but he is still enjoying [it].
“There are some criticisms about his return and results now, but I don’t agree with those.Michael three years ago was watching F1 at home. Now he is doing seventh or ninth but I’m sure he is happy every morning because he is doing what he wants to do.”
When Alonso was racing Schumacher before his comeback, the German was the benchmark, so beating him gave the Spaniard’s titles the ultimate stamp of credibility.
There are no questions about Alonso’s greatness now, standing as he does alongside Lewis Hamilton as the new benchmark against which all drivers are measured.
For Schumacher, though, these are very different times, and the last 18 months or so have been punctuated by ongoing questions about the merit and wisdom of his return.
Last year, he was by and large pasted by team-mate Nico Rosberg – a man who for all his undoubted potential has yet to win a race. This season there have been signs of progress – while the younger German still comfortably has Schumacher’s measure in qualifying, the veteran has looked more competitive in the races
It is clear, though, that Schumacher is not the driver he was.
Where once he appeared to dance at will on a limit beyond almost all his rivals, he now appears too often to be searching for that rarefied high wire, usually without success.
But the man who was famous for his willingness to do almost anything to win says he is satisfied with his current lot, scraping around for lower-ranking points as Mercedes battle to catch the top teams, while still insisting he wants to repay the German manufacturer for funding his debut and “return race wins and championships back to them”.
His anniversary has given him a chance to reflect on a career that is still remembered for its many controversies as much as it is for his great success.
And in an interview with BBC F1 pit-lane reporter Lee McKenzie, which will be broadcast as part of the race build-up on BBC One on Sunday, he went as far as to admit he had regrets about some of the incidents that in so many minds went beyond the boundaries of respectability.
“Certainly I would do things differently,” he said. “After 20 years in F1, you have a few regrets but, quite honestly, if I think it was 20 years, the few spots I have, you have to make mistakes to learn from them – and I think I do learn.”
Asked if any of his mistakes stood out, he picked this race in 1998, when he lost a certain victory in the wet after crashing into the back of David Coulthard’s McLaren. Once he had made it back to the pits, convinced the Scot had slowed deliberately to take him out, Schumacher charged off to the McLaren garage and had to be restrained from physically assaulting him.
“Maybe I should regret to go for an attack to David after he spoiled my race in 1998,” he says. “We had this mysterious misunderstanding, I had a certain reaction, I think it was the first and only time I have been like this, I am normally a very balanced person.”
It is perhaps revealing that of all the many incidents in his career, he should choose one for which he was not at fault, rather than his two title-deciding collisions with Williams drivers Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve in 1994 and 1997, or his decision to ‘park’ his car in Monaco qualifying to prevent Alonso beating him to pole position.
He still refuses to answer questions about the last incident and is resigned to the fact he will always – at least outside Germany – be a man who is more admired than loved.
“Everybody forms his own opinion about any person,” he says. “I think I just want to be treated fair, that’s the only think I look for. Who likes me or loves me, I’m happy about. Who doesn’t, I understand, because you can’t be loved by everyone.”