In 1990 Michael Schumacher was a young up-and-coming driver. He was competing in the World Sportscar Championship with Team Sauber-Mercedes and on his way to winning the German Formula Three title. While he was a quick and talented racer, no one was talking about him as the next big Formula 1 superstar.
There are rare occasions in life when bizarre incidents lead to incredible opportunities. The story of how Schumacher got his shot at Formula 1 is one of those moments. This is how a French racing driver’s encounter with a London taxi cab driver led to an Irishman giving a German a shot at Formula 1.
The Irishman, the Frenchman, and the London cabbie
In December 1990, Irish businessman and Jordan Formula 1 Team owner Eddie Jordan was in London on his way to meet with one of his team’s drivers, Frenchman Bertrand Gachot. They had planned to meet at the Carlton Towers, and Gachot was a few cars ahead of Jordan as they entered Hyde Park in the city.
As Gachot maneuvered his girlfriend’s car through London traffic, a London cabbie tried to muscle his black cab in front of the Frenchman. Speaking to the Beyond the Grid podcast, Gachot explained the incident that followed:
“December 1990, I was in London, and I was driving my girlfriend’s car. It was a French car, and basically, I had tear gas because in France tear gas is considered the perfect means of defense. It doesn’t escalate. You just spray tear gas. Everyone has got tear gas in their eyes and walks away because you don’t want to fight.
“When I got into Hyde Park Corner, I was going to a meeting at the Carlton Towers with Eddie [Jordan]. Eddie was a few cars behind me, and we were on the phone.
“We [Gachot and the taxi driver] had a dispute. He wanted to cut the line in, and I didn’t want to let him in because I was stupid. Eventually, he came in, and I pushed him because he tried to brake test me. I said brake test me one more time, and I push the guy.
“I pushed him with my car to say I wasn’t happy. There was no damage. It was bumper to bumper when I parked the car because we were stopped in traffic. I just gave him a nudge, and the guy came out of the car and opened my door and said he wanted to kill me and all this.
“I didn’t have a worse idea than to use the tear gas and spray him with that and say go away. I didn’t know it was considered a weapon in the UK.”
Gochot’s actions caused a near riot on the streets, with other taxi drivers stopping to intervene before police descended on the scene. Panicked, Gachot hid the CS gas bottle in a toilet cistern of a nearby building before the police took him away.
The police charged him with actual bodily harm and possession of a prohibited weapon.
A trial, an unexpected result, and the signing of a future legend
After his arrest, Gachot was to stand trial in nine months’ time. This inconveniently put his day in court one week before the 1991 Belgium Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps.
During the trial, Gachot famously showed up in the courtroom with his luggage packed, expecting to receive a small fine and be on his way. He was to be at the Monza Circuit in Italy for a test ahead of the next Grand Prix. Gachot, the press, and his team were shocked when the judgment came in that he would have to serve 18 months in prison.
Gachot described how he felt at that moment: “I really did not expect that. I took the advice of three different lawyers, and they said to me, ‘Look, you’ll get a slap on the wrist. The worst you could get is a suspended sentence.’
“It was really an incredible event. I was absolutely not ready for it. Two years of jail was the biggest sentence ever given to anyone using tear gas, even to attack someone.”
With Gachot locked up in prison, Eddie Jordan was without a driver for the second car on his team. With one week until the Belgium Grand Prix, the only drivers available commanded a large salary — something the small Jordan F1 Team could not afford.
Putting all of his business acumens to good use in a clever move that would become a hallmark of his time in Formula 1, Jordan negotiated with the Sauber-Mercedes World Sportscar Team to have a young Michael Schumacher drive the race. Mercedes-Benz, who owned Schumacher’s contract, agreed to pay Jordan $150,000 to put the young German in the seat. For a small team desperate for money, this was a huge win.
There was, however, a small problem. Schumacher had never driven at the Spa circuit before, which Jordan and the Jordan F1 Team did not know.
A folding bicycle, a youth hostel, and a brilliant qualifying lap
Michael Schumacher now had his shot at a career in Formula 1. Most drivers who get the chance to drive in the series spend months — and sometimes years — preparing for their first race. Schumacher had seven days to learn a track he had never been to and a car he had never driven.
The Jordan F1 Team organized a test day at the Silverstone Circuit in England. Schumacher would have 20 laps to get to grips with the Jordan 191 F1 car. By the end of his run, Schumacher had set a better time than the team’s previous best lap at the circuit.
With driving the car sorted, Schumacher set about learning the Spa-Francorchamps Circuit. Spa is known as one of the greatest road racing circuits in the world. The circuit is renowned for its elevation changes, high-speed corners, and daunting Eau Rouge corner.
Schumacher’s teammate for the race would be Andrea de Cesaris. He was to take the German rookie out for a few laps in a road car to learn the track. The ride-along never happened, and Schumacher had to find another way to see the circuit. In the trunk of his company Mercedes was a fold-out bicycle. He quickly unpacked it and set out on a 4.3-mile bike ride to get a glimpse of the challenge ahead.
As unglamorous as riding a folding bicycle on a Formula 1 track may have been, it was about to get worse for Schumacher. No one had booked a hotel for the future Formula 1 legend. With all available rooms booked ahead of the Grand Prix weekend, a basic youth hostel was the only place to stay.
Michael Schumacher, speaking to Autosport, as quoted by Formula1.com, said about his room, “There were two small beds, and in the middle was the toilet and the basin. But I think we would have slept under the truck, you know. I didn’t really mind. For me it didn’t matter too much.”
Sleeping beside a toilet is not the best way to start your Formula 1 career, but you have to make the best of what you have when there are no other options.
None of that would matter come qualifying day. Schumacher started the session just half a second slower than his much more experienced teammate. This rattled De Cesaris and would prove to be the only time that Schumacher would be slower than the experienced Italian during the weekend.
When qualifying finished, Schumacher sat in a spectacular seventh position on the grid. De Cesaris could only manage 11th. Schumacher’s pace had been established and made the entire Formula 1 paddock sit up and take notice of his talent.
Schumacher’s race would only last a few hundred feet, as a burned-out clutch would leave him stranded on the track just after Eau Rouge. He had more than impressed the other teams despite the mechanical failure, and the Benetton F1 Team signed him for the remainder of the year. This would be the same team he would win back-to-back world championships with in 1994 and 1995.
The view from behind bars
While a 22-year-old Michael Schumacher was busy becoming a legend, Bertrand Gachot was sitting uncomfortably behind bars in a British prison. The prospect of serving 18 months seemed daunting to the Frenchman, but an appeal saw that sentence reduced to two months.
Gachot recalled his experience in prison, saying, “I was angry to be in the jail. When they take your freedom away you realize that life is not about money, is not about many things that you think are important to you right now.
“In fact, when you’re in jail, freedom is what matters — only freedom and health. I swore myself when I was in jail I would be happy every day after that as long as I was free and my loved one and myself healthy, that I would not complain. And I really have followed that.”
Gachot had no idea that Michael Schumacher had stepped into his car for the Belgium Grand Prix. He remembers the first time he heard the news about the German: “The first time somebody spoke to me about Michael Schumacher, I won’t forget, was one of the guards in jail.
“They said, ‘The new guy they have hired is so good, they don’t need you anymore so you can stay here.’ The guard would come to me, every time he would open the door he would make the noise of a Formula 1 car. I swear.”
Gachot would return to Formula 1 after his stint in prison, but not with the Jordan F1 Team. He would race with Larrousse and Pacific before moving into sportscars.
Schumacher would become the most successful Formula 1 racer of all time, being surpassed only recently by Lewis Hamilton. His career would be known for his work ethic, attention to detail, and blinding speed. But none of that may have materialized had it not been for a London cabbie’s impatience in city traffic.