Spa-Francorchamps: There was a rare flash of humility when Michael Schumacher was interviewed for his first job in Formula One.
Mark Gallagher, one of the executives running Eddie Jordan’s threadbare team, asked the fresh-faced German if he was fast around the Spa-Francorchamps circuit.
Schumacher said he was quick, but not as quick as his younger brother, Ralf. Master of understatement is probably the only title that Schumacher has not won over the next 21 years.
It all started here on this extraordinary, magical circuit that weaves through the forest of the Ardennes. In August, 1991, he clambered into a Jordan car gaudily decorated in the sponsor colours of 7UP and proved his comment about his brother something of a fib.
Perhaps the 7UP was a mystical symbol of what was to come: a year later, Schumacher won the Belgian Grand Prix and Sunday the seven-time world champion will bookend his career in Belgium by driving in his 300th Grand Prix looking for his seventh career victory at Spa.
The burghers of Spa awarded Schumacher freedom of the town to honour his place in their history, but the man who was brought up 50 miles away across the German border, thinks he owns the place anyway: he calls this majestic circuit his “living room”.
The living room sprung a leak Friday, though. The wind blew, the rain hit the track like spears and the fans huddled under swaying umbrellas as they scuttled for shelter under dark skies. It takes something special to make Britain, enduring one of its wettest summers on record, look like a desert, but Belgium managed it.
And for Schumacher, too, there was the damp squib on his return to the circuit of a fine of euros 2,500 for cutting the pit entry corner on his brief foray into the rain, which fell in buckets.
The hope for Sunday is that the sun is somewhere behind the trees, waiting to allow some classic racing in Schumacher’s living room.
[He will be starting 13th on the grid.]
Schumi, known as the Rain Man in his pomp will not worry either way because he has won here, rain and shine. But the old man of Formula One is going through something he has never experienced before — a losing streak.
The last time he tasted victory champagne was in 2006, a mighty 51 races ago, and the only sight of the podium since he returned from restless retirement almost three years ago came in Valencia when he took a hard-fought third place. It was a moment that jogged an old memory.
“Remembering Valencia, it was a beautiful feeling,” Schumacher said. But did it feel any different to that first podium finish 20 years ago in Mexico where he was also third? “No matter what, up there it is always special,” he said.
There are plenty who believe that Schumacher’s return from retirement was a massive mistake and that his reputation has been severely tarnished by his winless spell with Mercedes — and time is running out. At the age of 43, Schumacher has nine races left this season to get back on the top step, unless Mercedes decide to give him another chance next season.
Neither Schumacher nor Norbert Haug, the Mercedes director of motor sport, are saying whether there is a new contract for the 2013 season, but the betting is that the most successful driver in the history of Formula One will be back for another shot.
After a shaky start to his comeback, there is little doubt that there have been flashes of the old Schumi this season.
There is still the occasional uncharacteristic misjudgment but the greatest failing has been his Mercedes car, underlined by six retirements in the first 11 races and there is nothing to suggest that his team will give him enough to work with here to get a seventh victory on his favourite piece of Formula One tarmac.