Memories that matter: Motorsport greats on the best race of their lives
7-time Formula 1 World Champion
2000 Japanese Grand Prix
Is it possible to think of Michael Schumacher's time in Formula 1 without at once hearing the German and Italian national anthems starting to play in one's mind? Or without seeing Schumacher, clad in scarlet, high in the air, performing one of those gravity-defying victory leaps that he had become so skilled at? Well, if we're listing out iconic Schumacher moments, there are plenty to choose from. Think of the 1994 Spanish Grand Prix, where his Benetton B194 was stuck in fifth gear for most of the race. Or that absolutely historic fightback from the back of the grid to fourth overall during the very last race of his Ferrari career at Sao Paulo in 2006. Or that masterful demonstration of just how magical the Schumacher-Ferrari combination could be on a good day - complete with Ross Brawn's genius three-stop strategy - at Hungary in 1998. Schumacher needed to make sure he was driving "qualifying style" if he was to have any hope of keeping Mika Hakkinen behind him. And he did exactly that, posting fastest-lap after fastest-lap on his way to victory. Whatever you might think of Schumacher, it's safe to say that his moments of sheer brilliance far outweigh his missteps in the Formula 1 world.
It was back in 2011, at the Indian Grand Prix, that I got to sit down with Schumacher and ask him what he thought was his greatest race ever was. I almost expected him to say that it was the rain-soaked 1996 Spanish Grand Prix where he took his first ever win for Ferrari. A race about which the late Sir Stirling Moss said, "It was not a race. It was a demonstration of brilliance." But Schumacher was almost dismissive about that victory. "It wasn't anything special really," he'd said. "It was just a difficult condition for everybody and I just managed to do better. I had given it 100 per cent then, as I do now, and sometimes 100 per cent makes a bigger difference than at other times," he laughed.
Instead, he recounted another day in his career. A day that finally came after five full years of hard work, and three consecutive near-misses when it came to the championship title. It's impossible to forget Schumacher crossing the line ahead of Hakkinen at Suzuka in 2000. It had been the penultimate round of the 2000 championship, and though it was Schumi who was on pole, Hakkinen had shot straight into the lead in his McLaren at the start of the race. The Ferrari driver had to wait till around Lap 31, when he eventually closed the gap to the two-time defending champion, and finally managed to get ahead of Hakkinen after the second round of pitstops. When he crossed the chequered flag first, it was a very emotional Schumacher who then proceeded to pump his fists in the air nearly endlessly, complete with yelps of delight over the team radio. "You are great, Ross! You are great, Ross!" he'd shouted to Ross Brawn. "All of you guys. No I can't Yeeeeppp We did it! We did it!" he'd continued. And around the world the loyal Tifosi were cheering and crying all at once. It should come as no surprise, then, that it's this win that Schumacher believed was the single most significant race win of his career.
"It's the most important victory and achievement in my career," he'd said to me, smiling. Seeing him sitting there in Mercedes AMG F1 team gear, almost seemed wrong at that point. Like he was in a costume of some sort, instead of that scarlet uniform. And though Schumacher was measured with his words, careful how he framed each sentence, the memory evoked clear emotion in the man. It was his third F1 world championship, and the first of five that he would win for the Ferrari team. "After such a long time Ferrari not winning the championship, that they have been able to build up something together. With Jean Todt, Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne, at the time, and hundreds of very important people in the background [who] achieved this. And finally doing it, was a dream coming true," he'd continued.
It was also especially significant because Schumacher had galvanised an ailing team, without championship title since 1979, when Jody Scheckter had won for the Scuderia. And to reap the rewards of the hard work they'd put in, to finally be the driver who could transform Ferrari back into a title-winning team, was overwhelmingly satisfying. "It was certainly a very important part of my life and my racing career," Schumacher had said of his 14-year association with the Scuderia. "Ferrari is unique, very different to any other team, because in Ferrari, you have not a fan club, you have a whole nation behind you," he'd concluded.
So, if you're wondering what the answer is to the question, "Which of Michael Schumacher's 91 Formula 1 victories mattered the most to him?" Well, it's win No.43.
Five-time Le Mans winner
1983 Le Mans
By the time he got to the Le Mans 24 in 1983, Derek Bell had already won the race three times. First in 1975 in a Gulf-Mirage GR8, then in 1981 in a Porsche 936/81, and right after that in 1982 in a Porsche 956. On all three occasions, he was partnered by Jacky Ickx, and it was generally acknowledged that the Bell-Ickx combination were pretty solid contenders for the win in 1983 as well. And it's this race that Bell once told me stood out in his memory as truly memorable - a battle waged valiantly and fought for determinedly. The result? That almost seems secondary.
"Ickx and I had won 1981 and 1982, and we were going for a hat-trick with the Porsche. We were on pole position, and it looked really good," he'd begun the story. This was at the 2016 Goodwood Festival of Speed, a full 33 years after that particular edition of Le Mans. As it turned out, despite how good things might have looked for Ickx and Bell, on the very first lap of the race, Ickx got hit. "Banged straight into!" Bell had exclaimed. "After that he had to come into the pits on the first lap. So 50 cars go by. That was it," he'd continued. By the time they'd checked all the body work, and repaired the slight damage, and managed to go back out on track, they were a lap down.
"In those days there was always the fuel consumption issue. Of course, we have it now, but in those days it was the beginning, and nobody had quite figured it out. And so it was a real battle. You couldn't go so far. I mean you were going flat out, but you weren't allowed to use the power. So you had the boost down, because you had to go so quick in the corners, but you had to save fuel. It wasn't an easy thing to do," Bell recalled of that race in 1983. The race had started at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and after considerable work behind the wheel, as the sun was coming up at six in the morning, they were finally back on the lead lap.
"You might say, 'That stuff took a long time!' But it's eight miles per lap, and we had the fuel consumption [to worry about]," he continued. Not only did they have to catch and pass all the other cars, but they needed to focus on catching, and hopefully getting near enough to pass, the lead car. All without going so fast that they ended up consuming too much fuel. Finally, as Bell tells the story, he spotted the race leader. "I'm going down Mulsanne Straight, and I see the car in front, and at the bottom of the straight I go around under braking. We're in the lead now! Fantastic!" And then everything came undone. "As soon as I did it, the engine stopped. I turned into Mulsanne corner, and the engine stopped," he says.
This meant that Bell, who in his own words is "not very mechanically minded" needed to figure out how to fix the car. He began by doing the things the team manager had told him that he ought to, if the car broke down - lifting up the body cover and placing it on the wheels, so he could change the sensor on the flywheel; changing the coil; fiddling around with the distributor, and then finally changing the ECU. He then leapt back in the car, started it up again, and to his relief heard the reassuring roar of the 2.6-litre turbo engine. And, once he managed to get the body back on the car, he drove to the pits without even strapping himself back into the seat! By the time he'd handed the car back to Ickx, they were two laps down again.
At 11 o'clock in the morning, a full five hours later, they were back on the lead lap with the other cars. "We weren't leading, but we were on the lead lap. There were only two of us in the car, the other car had three drivers, but Ickx and I were very good together, you know," Bell says. But soon the third bit of bad luck struck, with a broken oil cooler pipe, which meant they were back in the pits again, in order to change it. After that, it was, as Bell described it "go, go, go!" for four hours. Usually, it was Bell who would drive the last stint of the race, because Ickx would always start the race. But this time, with fatigue setting in, Bell had hoped he was done for the day. It wasn't to be, though, and he was jolted out of his nap when the Porsche team told him Ickx was coming back into the pits, and it was time for him to get back into the car. At that time, Norbert Singer, the head of Porsche's race team also told Bell that they were going to need a long shot, because they'd need to change the brake discs, which according to Ickx were cracked. Given that they'd have lost plenty of valuable minutes doing that, which would have cost them a whole lap, Bell, against the wishes of Ickx, went out on track with the broken discs. "So I went out of the pitlane anyway, and I thought I'd have to go slowly, but drivers don't drive slowly," he says. He quickly clarifies though, "It wasn't like a mental thing, I just couldn't take it - I had to drive fast!" And then, after taking it easy for one lap, he says the "Derek Bell Brain Box" kicked in. And he decided that if he heated up the disc brakes, they'd expand and sort of fit together because of the heat. Which is exactly what he did. "And I kept going, and I kept going, and I kept going, and I was going quicker laps. In fact, in the last hour I broke the lap record twice. But you know, you're driving on adrenaline or something," he said.
By that time, the lead No.3 Porsche of Vern Schuppan, Hurley Haywood and Al Holbert was having trouble with the engine overheating. And Bell, who was in the No.1 Porsche and rapidly closing in on the car ahead of him, was hoping the team would call the leaders in for repairs. But the No.3 car remained out. "On the last lap we finished 26 seconds behind. We didn't win, but that was the toughest race." Bell had said.
And even though it's this race that stands out in his memory, a race where he didn't win, it certainly wasn't the end of his glory days at Le Mans. Bell went on to win Le Mans twice more - 1986 and 1987 - in the Porsche 962C.
23-time Isle of Man TT winner
2015 Isle of Man TT - Senior TT
John McGuinness is an absolute motorsport legend. Of that there is no doubt. As a young lad, McGuinness would sneak his BMX bicycle onto the ferry to the Isle of Man, where, in 1986, he even managed to get an autograph from his hero Joey Dunlop. Eleven years later, in 1997, after finishing third in the Lightweight TT, McGuinness stood on the podium alongside his childhood hero Dunlop, who had won the race. It was only the start of things for the man who we know today as the Morecambe Missile. He soon took his first victory - the Lightweight TT in 1999. And after that, he added a few more TT wins to his tally, which, in fact, totals a whopping 23 wins in all! Just three short of Joey Dunlop's record of 26 Tourist Trophy wins.
How does one pick from 23 glorious race wins at the IOMTT? I asked McGuinness exactly this back in 2016, and it didn't take him too long to come up with an answer. "I suppose last year's Senior TT was probably the race of my life. Probably 'cause everybody had written me off, really. They all thought I was finished, too old. I wouldn't be able to win again," he chuckled thinking back to the 2015 Isle of Man TT races. And, given that different racers had done well to win several races over the course of TT week, it seemed like McGuinness had been all but forgotten.
"And then the Senior came along and I beat 'em all by, sort of, 14 seconds," McGuinness had said, looking and sounding pleased with himself. Now, there's a good reason for this too. After all, McGuinness had managed to shatter the outright lap record at the TT, and had also managed to equal Mike Hailwood's record of seven Senior TT wins! "I brought down that record, and it was a little bit like totting two fingers up to everybody, you know?" he'd said.
McGuinness even went so far as to say that the Senior TT victory that year was the finest moment of his entire career. The reason for this is because of just how tenacious and doggedly determined he was in his pursuit of that win. And it was a win that came to him when it looked least likely! "It's sometimes, when your back's against the wall, you come out fighting. And it was probably my finest hour, on two wheels for sure," McGuinness had continued. And, almost pensively, he added again, "It was 2015 Senior TT, I would say."
Of course, this isn't to say that there haven't been several other races that matter to McGuinness, although nearly all of the truly memorable ones have taken place at the Isle of Man. "A lot of other races have been really special as well. Most of them have been TTs though," he'd said before rattling on, "You know, my first win on small bikes, the superbike win in 2007, the first 130-mile lap, you know. There's been so many special memories. But I suppose that one sticks out a lot, the 2015 Senior. I know it's pretty recent, but it does really stick out in my mind, yeah. It's good," he'd finished.
Back then, McGuinness was 44 years old, and convinced that he was soon going to retire. In fact, he'd said something similar to me back in 2013 - that retirement was around the corner, and that he felt Joey Dunlop's 26 TT wins was unassailable. Well, since that time, he managed to notch three TT wins, taking his tally to 23. "Well, I thought I'd be well retired by now. I thought at 44-years old I'd be retired. But in me own head I'm still 21. And the passion's still there, and I don't know where the end is really. At the moment I'm still feeling sharp, still feel like I want to do it. Eyesight's good. I look pretty crap. I look old and spotty, and growing grey and that, but I don't know. I don't know where it's going to end," he'd laughed. "I really don't. I hope it's not too far away. I can't carry on racing forever. It's difficult when you're still going faster and still performing to hang your boots up, so I don't know. Maybe another year or two?"
Well, it's four years later, and there's no sign of McGuinness heading off to retirement anytime soon. Plenty more memories being created, we reckon!
World Rally Champion - 1981, 4-time Dakar winner
1993 Rally Finland
Ari Vatanen has won the World Rally Championship, claimed four wins at the Dakar (which could well have been five, had it not been for the fact that his Peugeot was stolen during the 1988 edition of the event), and is also the protagonist of that most beautiful of all motorsport films - Climb Dance. It was sometime last year when I managed to speak to Vatanen about the highlights of his motorsport career, and discovered that to him, it wasn't rallies that stood out in his memory, as much as individual rally stages. "The point is that one single stage where it all goes like a flow, like music," he'd explained to me back then. Vatanen clarified that he'd himself possibly only experienced five such rally stages over the course of his entire career, but when stages like this come by, "You are watching what is happening. You are not consciously driving any more. It just goes like a flow," he'd said.
Of these stages, one came during the 1985 Monte Carlo Rally, where he had that famous duel with Walter Rohrl. If you want a blow-by-blow account of what transpired, I recommend reading Vatanen: Every Second Counts by Vesa Väisänen. It's a beautiful and honest account of Vatanen's time in rallying, but it's a hard book to find. So here's a brief summary: after the initial stages of the rally, it seemed that Rohrl was well on his way to a fifth Monte Carlo victory. Then Michelin gave Vatanen new tyres for his Peugeot 205 T16. "They gave me fantastic grip, just suddenly! They also uplifted me psychologically to another level. I got wings! I got wings! I flew! I got wings!" he exclaimed all those years later. On a stage that was approximately 22km long, he beat Rohrl by "Over 20 seconds!" It wasn't all smooth sailing from then on though. Later on in the rally, when co-driver Terry Harryman made an error, the duo lost eight minutes and seemingly lost their chances of victory. But eventually Vatanen's decision to go with studded tyres would prove to be smarter than Rohrl's decision to run on smooth tyres. That, and some fabulous driving, would allow him a glorious, hard-fought, Rally Monte Carlo win.
Another one of those stages, one far more significant to Vatanen, was in Jyväskylä at the 1993 Rally Finland. This time Vatanen had to hunt down Juha Kankkunen who had a 16-second lead over him. On the Saturday of the rally, over a 20km stage, Vatanen managed to beat Kankkunen by four seconds. Then over a 40km stage, he beat him by another four seconds. And on the subsequent stage, held over a distance of 20km, he beat Kankkunen by an astounding "11 seconds!". If not for a missed gear that lost him time, he might have beaten him by 13 seconds. Vatanen might not have won that particular rally, but that stage win was very, very special, and his eyes lit up just talking about it. "When I saw Juha's time, because I was second on the road, I hit the roof so hard out of joy that I nearly sprained my wrist. Of course, on the following stage we had a technical issue and I fell back, but that single stage stands out in my life," he laughed. But how did he manage such a phenomenal time? His answer brings to light his spiritual side. He tells me that I might find it hard to believe or understand it, but it has to do with a young Finnish girl named Daisy whom he had met at the stage start. Vatanen had first met her grandparents in 1977 when as a fledgling rally driver he went to Kenya to compete in a rally there. The Finnish family ran a care home for differently-abled African children - a noble cause, and one that clearly still means a lot to Vatanen. "Suddenly in my mind I thought of my first visit to Africa. Meeting her at the beginning of the start line seemed to give me some sort of spiritual strength," he had said back then.
There is, however, another aspect to finding those seconds he tells me. And it's just as mysterious. According to Vatanen, these seamless performances only show up when you find the elusive "key". "But you don't know where the key is. It's not like a loaf of bread that you can go to a shop and buy. Or a cup of coffee that comes when you order it. I suppose you can do some mental training to find the key, but it's not linear. It's not like you do this, this and this, and it happens," he said.
Five-time Le Mans winner
Season finale of the 1979 Italian Karting Championship
Only two men have done better at Le Mans than Italian racer Emanuele Pirro. Tom Kristensen, who has nine Le Mans victories to his name. And Jacky Ickx, who has six. Pirro, along with Derek Bell, and Frank Biela, has five Le Mans titles. But, when I met him at the Goodwood FOS in 2016, and asked him what the race of his life was, the answer had nothing to do with sportscar racing.
"Of course, there are a lot of great satisfactions, a lot of good achievements, it's really hard to pick one," he'd said. "But I always feel that what you can do with little equipment and little possibilities is what is the most rewarding." And so, he told me a story not of Le Mans, but of his days in the Italian National Karting Championship.
"Well, the race of my life if I really think about it, it goes back to 1979," Pirro had said.
He had already won the championship in 1976 and was hoping to add a second title to his kitty. It was meant to be the last year before he switched from karting to cars, but coming up to the final race of the season, things were proving to be tricky. "The race before, we had an argument with the engine supplier. I'm not going to tell you the whole story, but we were really, really disappointed. So, my Dad said, let us quit, this is not a fair sport. Let us stop, no more racing [in karts] and let us go race cars," Pirro narrated.
But like any racer, who simply wanted to go racing, and like anyone who was on the brink of championship success, walking away was not easy. Instead, he took his mother's car, and enlisted the help of someone who knew nothing about racing, convincing them to drive him to the go-kart race, since he himself had no driver's licence. "I took my practice kart, which was not a works kart, just because I wanted to do this race. We drove up and I did everything by myself. Pushing, servicing, very low budget, everything. And the thing ended up so well that I became national champion. And this was really an incredible achievement for me," he said.
For him, the achievement lay in the fact that he had done it all on his own - "All by myself" Pirro emphasized. "You know, normally you're used to racing a works kart, with proper mechanics and the proper equipment, and that was just " his voice trailed off. "I was stubborn. I didn't want to accept that we had to quit like this," Pirro continued. It was a race defined by his tenacity, resilience, and absolute unwillingness to give up. He also remembered it as the race where, "I had the most energy, and the most will. And probably, nobody could beat me. So it ended up in a wonderful way!"
There's another reason Pirro believes this race was so significant, because it brought with it a moment of learning. "This was also a great life lesson never give up, because with will you can achieve nearly everything," he said. "You know, normally the kart that you use for training is nowhere near as good as the one that you use for racing. And it was a wonderful moment." There was also the fact that "When the expectations are so low, when the disappointment is very big, and the result comes, it really makes your day. So I probably can say this is the race of my life," Pirro had ended.
But there's another memory that he shares with me, of another race that served as a turning point in his career. "I also remember my first year in Euro Formula 3, we were a very, very low budget team with two mechanics, and tried to do a lot with very, very little. Zero experience, and I grew throughout the season and managed to be on pole and win the last race which eventually earned me a works contract. So from then on I didn't have to bring any money, or look for money. This was my second year of racing," he mused. "I believe a lot in meritocracy in motorsport. Working hard, training hard, and being good, can make you win races. Regardless how big your wallet is and how many people are pushing you. So I think this is a lesson, an important lesson you can have in life. If you're good, you make it. If you're not good or you haven't been working hard enough, you don't make it. And this is a good lesson," he'd concluded.
Of course, no one can accuse Pirro of not having worked hard, or not being good. After all, he has had a storied career, and his record of nine consecutive Le Mans podiums remains unbeaten to this day.