The beginning of a great adventure

25 years ago: Michael’s debut season with the Scuderia Ferrari

The beginning of a great adventure

The heart of Ferrari, as we imagine it, beats red, of course. Sometimes lighter, sometimes darker, but always red. Well, probably the colour needs to be corrected by a few shades. At least when we are dealing with the place where, a quarter of a century ago, one of the greatest, most beautiful and most honest love affairs ever to have existed in Formula 1 began. The heart of Ferrari, as Michael Schumacher came to know it as a newcomer to the Scuderia for the 1996 season, is grey. More precisely: asphalt grey.

The record-breaking career in red begins in Fiorano, Ferrari’s private race track, very close to the Maranello factory. Here, the famous Gestione Sportiva, the brand’s sports department, can test racing cars to their heart’s content. And this is how the job is to be understood, which the then already two-time F1 world champion must first take on after his sensational change from the radiant Benetton racing team to the stumbling traditional team: he not only has to test the car, he also has to permanently put everything else to the test at the behest of team boss Jean Todt, who had moved to Italy a year earlier – the team, the tools, the strategy.

The first thing Michael did was to tackle the Fiorano track. At least that’s how Mattia Binotto, the current boss of the Scuderia, who was still a young engineer at the time, tells it. Michael prepared meticulously for the start of the season, worked persistently on the adjustment of the seat and steering wheel, moved the start of work an hour earlier, but in the following always struggled with the first corner of Fiorano. The sharp bend just after the pit exit didn’t let him get into the right rhythm for a lap. He pushed for a change in the track characteristics. How would his thoroughly proud employer react? Well, the construction workers and tar machines arrived. Binotto admits: “Michael was right, this curve really no longer corresponded to those that had to be driven on the race tracks.”

The quick turnaround that followed can be seen in retrospect as a sign of how the Schumi era will go at Ferrari: first of all, to really get momentum so that things can move upwards.

Since then, not only has Fiorano had a different layout, Ferrari is a different racing team than before. Mattia Binotto remembers with admiration: “Michael is a hard worker and leader. A strong, fast driver. And he taught us how to approach the task.” Ferrari calls what began in mid-February 1996 the “start of a great adventure”; chroniclers call it the beginning of a “golden era”. Michael quickly finds his way around the new environment – by helping to shape it accordingly.

The first joint race appearance in the 1996 season immediately puts the German-Italian relationship to the test. Together with his team-mate Eddie Irvine, Michael started the premiere race at Albert Park in Melbourne from the second row of the grid. But in the 33rd of 58 laps at the Australian Grand Prix, Michael, who is already in third place in the meantime, is stopped by a brake defect. Three weeks later, the frustration seems to have been successfully dealt with: Michael is on the podium for the first time in red, finishing third at the race in Interlagos. May brought a second place at the home race in Imola, followed by the celebrated first victory at the legendary rain race in Barcelona in June. It was also the first success for a German in a Ferrari since Graf Berghe von Trips in 1961 at the British Grand Prix.

In Spa and Monza, Michael followed up with an unexpected double strike, which more than compensated all the tifosi for a few retirements before and the F 310, which was still too slow overall. At the end of the year Michael was third in the world championship behind Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve. A promising new beginning – the start of something really big, the work of a conspiratorial community that was to leave its mark on the Formula 1 world.