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And Sgt Schumacher's Club Band plays on

Last updated on: August 27, 2011 18:17 IST

And Sgt Schumacher's Club Band plays on

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Raja Sen

It began because of tear gas.

Twenty years ago, the French-Belgian Bertrand Gachot was all set to drive for the Jordan team at his home grand prix, the iconic Spa-Francorchamps circuit, but handcuffs got in the way.

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Following a traffic altercation the quick-tempered Gachot sprayed tear gas in the eyes of a London cabbie, an offense that saw him thrown behind bars for two months, effective days before the Belgian race.

The Tuesday before the race weekend, a surprised and thrilled German driver sat in Gachot's car, his first time in Formula One machinery.

The twenty-two year old rookie raised eyebrows on Saturday itself, qualifying an astonishing seventh place on the grid, debuting in a dog of a car that hardly ever made it to the top ten.

His teammate Andrea De Cessaris was eleventh, and stunned. The young German leapfrogged three cars at the very start of the race, but a faulty clutch saw him retire on the first lap, right after flying through Eau Rouge, a steep uphill left-handed corner that is one of motorsport's most legendary.


Image: Michael Schumacher

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Best driver in the history

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Twelve months later, he won his first race there. Thirteen years later, he won his seventh world championship there. This Sunday, the best driver in the history of the sport celebrates twenty years of Formula One at Spa-Francorchamps. And everyone's invited.

Over the years, the track gave him a lot, and gave us even more to marvel at. The way he tackled Blanchimont, that terrifyingly fast left handed turn, even in the rain earned him the sobriquet Regenmeister, Rain Master.

The miraculous way he kept Damon Hill behind him during a wet 1995 race, him on worn dry slicks and Hill on brand new wet-weather tyres. The way he rushed out of his car in 1998 and grabbed David Coulthard by the collar for deliberately causing a potentially lethal accident, claiming the Scot was trying to kill him.

Coulthard later admitted it was his mistake, but said he was inexperienced this after four years in Formula One, the same as the German.


Image: Michael Schumacher

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Twenty years and counting

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But then nobody quite had the experiences the Regenmeister did. He dueled swashbucklingly with Mika Hakkinen, and immensely memorably, was once outfoxed at Spa by a startling piece of racecraft from the Finn in an overtaking maneouvre.

Later that year, Hakkinen gripped his shoulder tightly when he wept after equaling the late great Ayrton Senna's 41 race wins. The very next time at his beloved Spa, he won his 52nd race, the most by any driver in the fifty-year history of the sport.

He wasn't anywhere near done, of course, going on to win 39 more. And, it must be said as we see him race this Sunday, counting.

Tomorrow, presumably after the grid order has been decided in the Qualifying shootout, the German driver, now 42, has invited the entire paddock over for a celebration.

It is well near impossible that the driver, stuck in another dog of a car, will pick up another bay leaf for his insanely crowded wreath, but as he drives around the track he calls his living room, wearing a unique golden helmet to mark his twentieth, he will give us something very very special to toast, just by showing up.

Prosit, Michael Schumacher. And thank you, Spa.


Image: Michael Schumacher

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