1994 – Tragedy and Controversy

From every perspective, 1994 was a dramatic turning point in the history of Formula One. One of the most tragic and turbulent seasons ever seen was played out in the full glare of intense media scrutiny.

Ayrton Senna had left McLaren after six years to join Williams, who had dominated the last two seasons with their formidable Renault-engined package. Michael Schumacher remained at Benetton but Riccardo Patrese had opted to cut short his two-year contract with the team and retire, so Flavio Briatore announced JJ Lehto as his replacement.

Ferrari kept Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger, and hoped to fare better in 1994 as the controversial legalisation of refuelling would mitigate the weight penalty of their powerful but fuel-thirsty V12 engines. Williams would not benefit so well from the new rules, as the active suspension systems that had helped them to four championships in two years were outlawed.

A weekend from hell

Michael Schumacher surprised by winning the first two rounds, capitalising on his familiarity with refuelling from his days as a Mercedes sports car driver. Senna spun off at home and was pushed out at the first corner of the new Pacific Grand Prix at Tanaka International Aida, a tight and unexciting venue.

The horrors of Imola, round three, defined the season. Rubens Barrichello was badly injured in a violent crash at Variante Bassa in practice. Then in Saturday qualifying Roland Ratzenberger speared into the barriers at the Villeneuve kink, dying instantly. A shaken Senna visited the crash scene and was urged not to race by Professor Sid Watkins. On race day Pedro Lamy’s Lotus struck Lehto’s stalled Benetton on the starting grid, showering a spectator enclosure with debris and injuring nine. When the race restarted from behind the safety car Senna crashed to his death at Tamburello on lap seven. Later on, several mechanics were injured when Michele Alboreto’s Minardi shed a wheel in the pit lane.

The F1 community was shaken to its core. Brazil went into national mourning and while the international media howled at the loss of life FIA scrabbled to react. President Max Mosley demanded a raft of changes to slow the cars, but team bosses urged caution as they feared sudden alterations without due consideration could make the cars yet more dangerous.

Two weeks later, at Monaco, Karl Wendlinger braked too late for the harbour chicane and slammed sideways into a barrier, the impact sending him into coma from which he emerged weeks later. Now the drivers too leant their voices to the demands for greater safety and re-formed the Grand Prix Driver’s Association to demand safer circuits.

Benetton court controversy

They made their first such demand at Barcelona, installing the Beirut tyre chicane before the fast La Caixa corner to cut speeds. Here Damon Hill finally won for Williams after Schumacher’s car jammed in fifth gear, though the German still took an amazing second. Schumacher won in Canada, where another temporary chicane was installed, and in Magny-Cours, where Nigel Mansell returned for a one-off race.

The Silverstone circuit had been revised following the Imola crashes and had tightened corners at Copse and Abbey. Hill won after Schumacher was belatedly disqualified for ignoring a black flag that he was given after passing Hill on the formation lap. He would also be banned for two rounds which sent his German fans into apoplexy as Hockenheim was next on the calendar. Fortunately for Schumacher, and the safety of drivers such as Damon Hill who received death threats, he was allowed to race under appeal.

Schumacher failed to win though after his engine failed while running second. It is doubtful he could have finished anyway as his pit crew were unble to refuel him after a fire had injured six of them during team-mate Jos Verstappen (standing in for Lehto) was being refuelled. Gerhard Berger gave Ferrari their first win since 1990.

Benetton were accused of causing the fire by removing a filter to accelerate the fuel flow rate, a charge which, added to earlier claims that they had illegal traction control systems hidden on their car’s electronics under an invisible ‘option 13’ menu, created in many minds the impression that they were striving to win by dishonourable means. Another disqualification for Schumacher in Belgium, for excessive under-body plank wear (the Jabroc ‘plank’ having been introduced to forcibly raise ride heights and so reduce cornering speeds), did nothing to alleviate the dark rumours circulating the team.

Hill closes in

With Schumacher banned from the Portuguese and Italian Grands Prix, Hill fought off the resurgent Ferraris to claim two vital wins and close to within one point of Schumacher. For the European Grand Prix at Jerez, Hill’s new team mate David Coulthard would once again have to make way for Mansell, although the Scotsman had impressed Frank Williams enough to guarantee himself a full-time drive in 1995.

At Jerez Schumacher was back to winning ways, but in the penultimate round at Suzuka in the pouring rain Hill beat him in a straight fight when Benetton made an unusual bad call on strategy. The race was run in two parts with many drivers crashing out in the first part including Schumacher’s latest team mate Johnny Herbert. Martin Brundle’s torrid year with McLaren continued when he spun off and struck a marshal, breaking the poor man’s leg.

Acrimony in Adelaide

An intense media frenzy surrounded the showdown in Adelaide, and Schumacher chose the build-up to publicly deride Hill, claiming Senna would have had the beating of Hill, were he still alive. Mansell took pole for the race but Schumacher and Hill scampered ahead at the start, holding position through the first fuel stops.

On lap 36 Schumacher slid off the circuit and thumped a wall, surely ruining his right-rear suspension. As Hill moved to sweep past him at the following corner Schumacher chopped across, running his wheel across the front-right of Hill’s car, nearly flipping his B194 into the air. Schumacher harpooned a tyre wall and was out on the spot. Hill limped to the pits but a dented front suspension wishbone indicated that he, too, was finished, and Schumacher was World Champion.

Two drivers had died in the pursuit of a title that was decided in the most unsavoury and unsporting of circumstances. With Prost and Senna having won titles in similar circumstances in earlier years and gone unpunished, there were no legitimate grounds on which the FIA could act against Schumacher. But the man who would go on to win more championships than anyone before him had put an indelible stain on his reputation.