With Michael Schumacher having announced his retirement last weekend at the Japanese Grand Prix, ending speculation of a possible move to Sauber, I thought it prudent to look back at the German’s secret 1997 test with the Swiss outfit at Fiorano. It featured a Sauber C16 stripped of all sponsors, and saw Schumacher complete 84 laps.
At the time, the test was top secret, with little knowledge of why such a test was carried out. Only a small amount of secret photographs were taken, clearly showing Michael Schumacher driving a Sauber in their then wonderful colors of different shades of blue and yellow. At the time, Sauber were enjoying a tremendously close partnership with Ferrari, using their Petronas gearboxes and engines which were nearly identical to Ferrari’s. Throughout the season, Johnny Herbert, Nicola Larini, Gianni Morbidelli and Norberto Fontana drove for the Hinwil-based outfit.
The test day occurred in September, several days after the Italian Grand Prix which was won by the McLaren of David Coulthard. Michael Schumacher finished 6th in the race, and was at the time leading the Drivers’ Championship with 67 points, 10 points ahead of Championship contender Jacques Villeneuve.
Although the full reason behind Schumacher testing the Sauber C16 remains bleak, rumors at the time indicated that the Swiss outfit were struggling with balance issues. To try and sort out these issues, Sauber asked whether Michael Schumacher if he could test the car on low fuel runs so as to give the team his opinion on how best to conquer these recurring issues.
At the time, this test day meant nothing in relation to the driver market, with Michael Schumacher locked in a grueling Championship battle which ultimately ended his disaster with the German driver being excluded from the Championship after a collision with Jacques Villeneuve at the season finale at Jerez. However, the German remained at Ferrari until 2006, before retiring and then returning to the sport with Mercedes in 2010. Once Lewis Hamilton was announced at Mercedes for 2013, rumors began to emerge on Schumacher potentially rejoining Sauber, a team the German raced for in Sportscars back before his illustrious Formula 1 career.
Upon completing the test day at Ferrari’s Fiorano track, Michael Schumacher was reportedly seen looking rather pleased upon exiting the cockpit, and discussing the handling of the car to the Sauber and Petronas mechanics. Although the Ferrari driver’s laps weren’t officially timed, reports at the time indicated that Schumacher’s fastest lap was a 01:00.10s. This was the last time Schumacher drove a Sauber car, after driving for the outfit in Sportscars at the beginning of his career in motorsport.