28 Years Ago, This Car Secured Michael Schumacher’s First Formula 1 Podium
On 22 March 1992, Williams teammates Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese finished 1st and 2nd for the second race in a row at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez in Mexico. Just over 21 seconds down the road from the race winning Mansell, a young German, just 23 years old and only eight races into what would later become a 306-Grand Prix career, crossed the line in his Benetton B191 to finish 3rd, his best result in Formula 1 to that point. Michael Schumacher.
Not that the future seven-time World Champion made life particularly easy for himself that afternoon in Mexico City. Having qualified an impressive 3rd, his best F1 qualifying result at the time, Schumacher, having completely fluffed the start, found himself 6th heading into the first corner behind Benetton teammate Martin Brundle, McLaren’s Gerhard Berger, and the epochal Ayrton Senna.
At the front, the Williams duo and their superior FW14B, complete with game-changing active suspension, quickly disappeared down the road, leaving Senna to lead Brundle, Berger and Schumacher in the fight for 3rd. Not that the young German stayed put for long, the Benetton diving down the inside of Berger at the turn six hairpin on lap two and dispatching teammate Brundle in similar fashion shortly after. A tantalising battle between Senna and the young up-and-comer seemed on the cards, only for the McLaren’s transmission to fail after on lap 12. Having also injured his leg in a heavy shunt in free practice, it had not been a good afternoon, nor a happy 32nd birthday, for the reigning World Champion.
That left Schumacher in 3rd, and with the Williams’ in a class of their own out front, with teammate Brundle on the sidelines after 47 laps with terminal engine failure, and a fast-charging Gerhard Berger just too far behind to mount a serious attack, Michael Schumacher crossed the line after 69 tours to secure his maiden F1 rostrum appearance. A result even the young German hadn’t anticipated.
“I didn’t expect really, the 3rd place,” Schumacher explained in the post-race press conference. “I really have to [give] the Benetton team a really great thanks, because they have done, or we have done, a really great job this weekend.”
The car that got him there? The Benetton B191B (specifically chassis 06 as pictured above and below), an update of the B191 designed by John Barnard. Having already pioneered Formula 1’s first Carbon-Fibre-Composite monocoque with McLaren for 1981, and the innovative semi-automatic gearbox with which Nigel Mansell won his first race for Ferrari in 1989, Barnard quickly set to work as Benetton’s new Technical Director midway through 1990. Affectively too: an intermittent podium finisher, the team’s B190 claimed victory at the final two races of 1990 in Japan and Australia, both with three-time World Champion Nelson Piquet behind the wheel and with a little help from Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost’s notorious first-corner accident at Suzuka.
The Barnard-driven B191 though was a clean sheet design for 1991. In the back was a naturally-aspirated, 3.5-litre V8 from Ford Cosworth, specifically the ‘Series V’ package with bespoke cam covers and lugs along both the leading edge and the cylinder block base, thus allowing the V8 to be more rigidly mounted to the moulded, 38kg(!) carbon-composite monocoque. Capable of up 730hp at a quite literally spine-jangling 13,800rpm, the V8 was nevertheless, a surprising choice, given that all bar perennial backmarkers Fondmetal and the diminishing Team Lotus were still using V10 and V12 powerplants by the time 1992 rolled around. In lieu of a Maranello-sized chequebook, Benetton also mated said V8 to a conventional six-speed manual gearbox rather than Barnard’s more complex semi-automatic transmission. A decision that, ironically, puts the B191 even further into the record books as one of the last Grand Prix-winning F1 cars fitted with a manual gearbox. More on that in a second.
Upon its debut, however, in April 1991, focus almost unanimously turned to the B191’s raised nose profile, a design first used by the late Dr. Harvey Postlethwaite on Tyrrell’s 019 for 1990…
“When it first came out, everyone was jumping up and down about the nose,” Barnard later explained. “It was similar in concept to that of the Tyrrell 019 – very swept up at the front to improve the aerodynamics. However, I didn’t think it needed the gull-wing arrangement used by Tyrrell, so we built a model and tested in the wind tunnel and it worked well. We had curved mounting pylons, which freed up the middle of the wing and made a more solid mounting point.
“The Benetton team [was] in a state of flux when I started with them, so I didn’t want to do a car that was too way out because we had enough on our plates with everything else.” Barnard would later depart the team over differences, both ‘creative’ and fiscal. “That said, the chassis was interesting; for the most part it was conventionally moulded from the outside, but the front third was moulded from the inside, allowing us to mount things like the pedals directly onto the monocoque without complicated machining. We then bonded a thin aerodynamic skin to the outside.
“The gearbox was transversely mounted and we were going to have a paddle shift. Unfortunately we couldn’t handle the software and electrics for it, so we went back to a normal gearshift. I think it was the last car I designed with a gear lever.”
A tidy package, B191 proved its worth quickly, winning on only its third outing at the now infamous 1991 Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. With victory seemingly in his grasp, runaway leader Nigel Mansell crawled to a halt with less than half a lap to complete, the Renault V10 in his Williams FW14 having dropped into neutral as the Englishman downshifted for the final hairpin. In bittersweet irony, and to the amazement of everyone, Mansell’s old nemesis Nelson Piquet swept past the stricken Williams to claim a shock win aboard the Benetton B191, chassis 02.
Even in spite of the fortuity, and questions regarding Mansell’s conduct on that final lap – was his waving to the crowd a contributory factor? – Canada 1991 still retains a special place in John Barnard’s heart.
“Every car I had designed up to that point had won in its first season, and Piquet maintained that record,” Barnard continues. “I left the team at about that time, so I missed out on Michael Schumacher’s arrival, though he did drive my car in the last five races of ’91 and the first three of ’92.”
Fast forward to that year’s Hungarian Grand Prix, and the debut of the car above, chassis 06. It was not the most auspicious of maiden outings, Piquet qualifying an anonymous 11th before retiring with the gearbox issues, his Canadian win now firmly in the rear view mirror. Back aboard chassis 06 for the final four races of the year, the three-time World Champion finished 5th in Portugal before bowing out of F1 altogether with 4th at the rain-shortened 1991 Australian Grand Prix.
By now of course, Michael Schumacher, fresh from his career-making debut at the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix – at which he’d qualified a superb 7th first time out – was in the other B191, in place of the (briefly) Jordan-bound Robert Moreno. Piloting the sister chassis 05, and with the ink still wet on his Benetton contract, Schumacher’s first time donning the yellow racesuit was a strong one, the German out-qualifying his far more experienced teammate by three-tenths at Monza and going on to finish 5th for his first points finish in F1. In the points again in Portugal, albeit this time behind Piquet, Schumacher made it three on the trot with 6th in Spain. Ironically, only when the young German switched to the Canadian-winning chassis 02 did he fail to finish in Japan (engine problems) and Australia (spun off).
Cue 1992. With Barnard working furiously to develop the B192 before its bow at the European season opener at the ’92 season opener in Spain, and indeed his own departure from the team shortly afterwards, the now updated B191B was back in action for the first three flyaway races in South Africa, Mexico and Brazil. With Schumacher still ensconced aboard chassis 05, chassis 06 was instead bequeathed to new arrival, and 1990 Le Mans winner/1988 World Sportscar Champion, Martin Brundle. Despite his long-held enthusiasm for the single seater – years later, when invited to test the B191 again for ITV, the Englishman compared it “meeting up with an old friend” – Brundle’s time with chassis 06 was not a happy one, clutch failure ending his race in South Africa after just one lap.
Schumacher meanwhile hit 1992 with aplomb, taking 4th place first time out in South Africa behind Mansell, Patrese and Senna. Then came Mexico, and his first podium on his maiden outing with chassis 06. After that came Brazil. Also aboard B191B-06, and also ending with a podium. Switching to the B192 from Spain onwards, Schumacher finished 2nd to Mansell, delivering podium finishes in Canada and at home in Germany before, 12 months after his debut, the future Ferrari icon stood atop an F1 podium for the very first time in Belgium.
A legacy awaited, one built across seven championships, 91 wins, 155 podiums, 68 pole positions and 77 fastest laps. And one heralded in this very car, 28 years ago today.
*Images and John Barnard quotes courtesy of Bonham Auctions. Select images courtesy of F1 Twitter