Perusing the career of Michael Schumacher, it is easy to become enamored with all of the records and years of dominance in Formula One. However, it would be good to remember that his path to the pinnacle motorsport series would not be a conventional one. A throwback to those of the grand prix legend that not only took part in Formula One, but also, sports cars, Schumacher would have a career in sports car before he would come to shine as a star in Formula One. One of those sports car races in which the talent and ability of Schumacher would be clearly evident would be the final race of the 1990 World Sportscar Championship season.
When Schumacher unretired from Formula One he would come back racing for Mercedes GP. This would be a fulfillment, of sorts, of a lost opportunity back in the early 1990s. In fact, it would be a reuniting of Schumacher and Mercedes, although most only ever really remember him in a Benetton or a Ferrari.
Schumacher had started the 1990 motor racing season driving in the German Formula 3 series for Willi Weber and his WTS team. He would be in strong form throughout the season and was certain for a career in single-seaters. However, Weber would advise Michael to head a different direction first.
One of the biggest differences between the Formula 3 series and the Formula One series was the obvious power advantage the Formula One cars had. This would take some getting used to and would not be easy going straight from Formula 3 into Formula One. Therefore, by suggesting and pointing Michael toward sports cars, Schumacher would gain experience with machines with engines as powerful as Formula One cars. In addition, Michael would gain experience with speeds even greater than that which Formula One cars would ever touch. And, as a final bonus to the whole thing, Michael would gain experience speaking to the press, doing press conferences and other such things that were all part of life in the higher formulas of racing.
After having signed up with the Mercedes junior racing programme, Schumacher would find a ride with Peter Sauber and the Sauber-Mercedes Sportscar team. Michael would come to the team having been driving a Reynard Formula 3 car that developed 200 horsepower. He would now find himself behind the wheel of the Sauber-Mercedes C11 which had a 5.0-liter Turbocharged V8 engine capable of pumping out much, much more power. The car certainly wouldn't race with the engine unrestricted, especially given the fuel limit imposed on the races. But if it had, nearly 950 horsepower would have been capable from the throaty V8. Nonetheless, the power available for the races would give the car the capability of reaching speeds of 250 mph, certainly a whole lot more than what Michael had been used to at that point in his career.
The Sauber-Mercedes team had won the 24 Hours of Le Mans the year before. However, in 1990, the team would forego the French classic because the race would not be part of the World Sportscar Championship, which is what the major focus of the team for that season would be. Therefore, Michael would not have the opportunity to take part in the most famous endurance race in the world, but he would still gain some very valuable experience with the team. And all of that experience would culminate and lead up to the 1990 480km of Mexico City in October of 1990.
Michael would make his first appearance for the Sauber-Mercedes sportscar team at the 480km of Silverstone. While the C11 would be fast, it would not be a race to remember as Schumacher and his co-driver Jochan Mass would be listed as 'did not qualify'. What had happened is that mechanics had been illegally working on the car while it had been stranded out on the circuit during practice, therefore, the car would be prohibited from running in the race.
Schumacher's second race in the World Sportscar Championship would take place on the 22nd of July in Dijon-Prenois. The 480km of Dijon would see Schumacher paired with Jochen Mass once again. This time Michael would actually start his first World Sportscar Championship race and would look impressive throughout going on to finish the race in 2nd place just about four seconds behind the Sauber-Mercedes sister-car of Jean-Louis Schlesser and Mauro Baldi.
After another 2nd place result in the 480km of Nurburgring on the 19th of August, it would be a while again before Michael would be back behind the wheel of a C11. Heinz-Harald Frentzen would occupy the seat for the race at Donington while Karl Wendlinger would co-drive the car at the bizarre 480km of Montreal.
By now, Michael would be the German Formula 3 champion. Riding high from that achievement, he would be back with the Sauber-Mercedes team for its final race of its season. On the 7th of October Michael would be at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, situated within the public park of the Magdalena Mixhuca Sports City in the northeast part of Mexico City. He would be busy preparing to take part in the 480km of Mexico.
Partnered again with Jochen Mass, Schumacher and the whole of the Sauber-Mercedes team would be quick all weekend long around the 2.77 mile circuit that featured the famous banked Peraltada where Nigel Mansell had pulled off a surprising pass on Gerhard Berger on the last lap of the Grand Prix of Mexico just a few months earlier. Although Sauber-Mercedes would be fast throughout the weekend, they would not be as fast as Martin Brundle and Jan Lammers in the number 3 Jaguar XJR-11.
Brundle and Lammers would take the pole with a time of 1:20.626. This time would beat out Jean-Louis Schlesser and Mauro Baldi's time in the number 1 C11 by just three-tenths of a second. Schumacher and Mass would end up starting the race from 3rd position after being just a half a second slower.
The race itself would see Schumacher come of age. The pairing of Brundle and Lammers would be quick. So too would the Mercedes sister-car of Schlesser and Baldi. However, Schumacher and Mass would be able to steer clear of trouble and would be in a better position coming down to the final moments of the race.
The Jaguar XJR-11 would be quick in the hands of Lammers and Brundle. However, their race would come to an end after 46 laps due to alternator problems. And while the number 1 C11 would make it to the end of the race, it would end up being disqualified for using more than its allotted amount of fuel.
These mistakes and incidents would give Schumacher and Mass the opportunity of taking the victory. But it wasn't as if the two men, especially Schumacher, hadn't already earned the right. Showing off his skills and talents for which the world would become very much familiar in coming years, Michael would take the C11 beast and would wrestle the fastest lap of the race out of the car. His time in the heavy car during the race would end up being just a little over five seconds slower than the fastest lap set in the Formula One race earlier on in the year by Alain Prost.
It what had truly been only his third race with Sauber-Mercedes, and in sportscar racing, Schumacher would come through a victor. He and Mass would enjoy a two lap advantage over Julian Bailey and Mark Blundell in the Nissan Motorsports International R90CK. Following along behind Bailey and Blundell would be the Silk Cut Jaguar XJR-11 driven by Andy Wallace and Davy Jones.
On that day, the 7th of October, the 40,000, or more, spectators that would be present to watch the race would end up witnessing the rise of a star that would come to shine in Formula One the very next year. However, sportscar fans had the opportunity to see and witness the star first.
In many ways, the victory in the 480km of Mexico set the stage. The race would be the culmination of the very reasoning why Weber encouraged Schumacher to head to sportscars. He had taken a hugely-powerful car and had wrangled and wrestled with it until he broke it and was able to get on its back and ride it all the way to victory. Breaking the C11 beast and being able to ride it all the way to victory certainly gave Michael the confidence to arrive at Spa, one year later, with practically no knowledge of the circuit, and climb into a Jordan 191 and begin his ride into the annals of grand prix history books.