Friday 21 February 2014

Looking back: 20 years ago - the calm before the storm

1994. In F1 terms it even twenty years on is a campaign considered barely to have a redeeming feature; a rancid low point. It is viewed as a season of rancour, bitterness, tragedy.

It was a year of persistent and acidic controversy, both technical and sporting; race bans were frequent and the success of the champion Benetton team - the target of much of the contention - even today from many perspectives still festers rather like an uncleansed old wound. It was a year of sickening violence. Most traumatically two drivers, Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger, did not survive the campaign, others had their careers at the top in effect ended by injury, and there were plenty of near misses besides in which widespread injury and death was avoided only by chance. It was also a season lacking in competitiveness, featuring several soporific races in which the cars at the back, indeed in the midfield, barely belonged in the same formula as the cars at the front. And, almost appropriately in the perverse sense, in the final round the destination of the drivers' title was resolved in the most unsatisfactory manner, with Michael Schumacher's stricken Benetton via whatever explanation coming into contact with the Williams of title rival Damon Hill, thus ending both of their races and settling the championship in the German's favour. In many ways, in comparison with the 1994 season start by the climax of the harrowing campaign the sport appeared rather more than a year older.

But less well-remembered is that, fleetingly, the season promised rather different. Roughly twenty years ago at that very campaign start, the opening round in Interlagos in Brazil, it appeared that just maybe 1994 was instead to be the scene of the sport's renaissance, however laughable that concept seems to hindsight.

Ayrton Senna was expected to dominate the year
Credit: Instituto Ayrton Senna / CC
It appeared so unexpectedly too, as in advance not many looked forward to the season with a great deal of relish. For one thing the world championship looked bought and paid for before anyone had turned a wheel. The Williams cars had been insultingly dominant for the previous two years and now for 1994 it had triangulated much of the opposition that remained by seizing as its own its main, perhaps its only, irritant in this time. Ayrton Senna despite battling against much superior Williams machinery throughout 1992 and 1993 had won eight races (one in four) in that time somehow, and a few of these drives were of sufficient quality so to go into folklore. Now for 1994 Williams had Senna signed up all for itself and the logic seemed irrefutable: best driver, best car, best engine should equal sweeping all before them. Most foresaw a year of demonstration runs.

There also was a mix of bitterness and trepidation in the air at the new rules introduced for the year: most acutely those of the banning of electronic 'driver aids' such as traction control and active suspension as well as the return after an 11-year absence of in-race refuelling. While many sympathised with FIA President Max Mosley's argument that the electronic 'gizmos' were 'de-humanising' F1 by taking away from driver skill, his techniques and timetable in getting rid caused resentment, particularly among those teams that had spent millions on their systems. Mosley had declared mid-1993 pretty much overnight that the gizmos didn't conform with current rules let alone any new ones, but as part of some horse trading he gave the devices a stay of execution until the season's end. It also was a technique that Mosley was to deploy again in the future.

Many doubted too that the FIA was capable of policing such a ban effectively (it didn't help that there was confusion at this stage as to whether drive-by-wire throttles were to be allowed; Mosley said not though the rule book said they were. In the eventuality the rule book prevailed) and this was to prove to be a matter that wouldn't go away. And not just for the 1994 season as demonstrated by the fact that some years later, from early 2001, the gizmos were declared kosher again for a time on the explicit grounds of the powers-that-be throwing its hands into the air and admitting defeat on its battle against the nominally forbidden technology.

As for refuelling, the teams had in the flux of Hockenheim 1993 - wherein Mosley had dropped the bombshell of declaring gizmos illegal - agreed to its return for 1994 in a desperate quid pro quo to allow them to continue using their devices for the remainder of the '93 season. A few rounds further on having acted in haste the teams sought to repent at leisure, but found that the unanimity required to overturn the decision was denied to them by...Ferrari. The Scuderia's V12 engine was more thirsty than most; others muttered that the FIA was seeking to spoon feed the struggling red cars back to a state of championship-contenting health (plus ca change you might say...). Whatever was the case many were highly wary of the re-introduction of a conspicuous and not entirely necessary safety hazard; the potential for a holocaust in the pit lane.

Yet amid the expectation of a Senna-dominated year, the consensus was broken almost alone by the unlikely source of Williams' own Technical Director Patrick Head. 'My feeling' he stated just as everyone headed out to Brazil's Interlagos for the opening round, 'is that this season will be the closest World Championship for a very long time'.

And it turned out that his words did not reflect merely healthy paranoia. Williams, to everyone's astonishment, turned up to Interlagos under-cooked. The FW16 had appeared late, and the car was not good out of the box, prone to snap oversteer; the characteristics exacerbated over bumps of which there are plenty at Interlagos.

While the banning of electronic gizmos was anticipated to make only the most minor of ripples in Williams' preponderance, their passing actually impeded the champion team much more than expected as well as more than just about any other team. 'To be honest' said its designer Adrian Newey some time later, 'we made a bloody awful cock-up. The rear end grip problem was purely a set-up problem. We were learning about springs and dampers all over again after concentrating on active suspension for two years, whereas most people had been away for only one. We also had a rather silly aerodynamic problem - basically the front wing was too low.' Head added that: 'If you were in a corner, and went over a bump, the car would pick up a lot more front downforce than rear - so if you were balanced at that point, with the car neutral, you'd lose the rear very quickly.' Senna did stick the thing on pole at Interlagos, but his engineer David Brown insisted that 'Williams wasn't on pole....Ayrton was'.

The Benetton flew from the very off
Credit: Flominator / CC
All of this might not have mattered so much had such a formidable foe to the champion squad not stepped forward. The prodigious Michael Schumacher had already served notice that he was to be the sport's next big thing, and it appeared this year that his Benetton team would provide him with a car performing at a pitch worthy of his driving talents. Unlike the Williams, the new Benetton appeared early, and also unlike the Williams it flew immediately. Its progress appeared at least in some part attributable to the new Ford HB engine, that retained all of the benefits of its predecessor in compactness and fuel efficiency but had added considerably to its power output, now shoving out 14,000 revs.

But while with this most reckoned in advance that Schumi would be Senna's closest challenger, that remained a strictly relative assessment. Schumi did indeed top the times in Imola at the last big test before everyone decamped to Brazil, but rumours abounded that Senna had set a time a second faster when timed by the Williams team between two timing markers out on the circuit. Once everyone was in Interlagos while Schumi was indeed by far the closest to Senna in practice as well as in both qualifying sessions (in the days in which there was a session counting towards the grid on the Friday as well as on the Saturday), occasionally pipping him even, Senna always seemed capable of reacting and tended to have two or three tenths on his rival in each final shakeout.

And for all of the resentment at how Mosley had effected it, the ban on electronic gizmos had appeared to have the desired effect. This included that their passing had tightened up the competitive order clearly. At Interlagos all appreciated the pleasant surprise of a much-diminished distance between the haves and have-nots compared with what one had become accustomed; of the little guy in many guises getting into unusual places.

One such little guy was Footwork, née Arrows, which in recent times - indeed for much of its history - had been viewed as midfield plodders and little else. And after a pre-season beset by reliability problems that wasn't expected to change. But in Brazil it was clear that its new chassis was a neat one, much improved on its predecessor in downforce and weight distribution, as well as that its Ford HB engine on the back while underpowered also didn't have the weight and bulk of the about as underpowered Mugen-Honda that the team had been lumbered with in 1993. Gianni Morbidelli made good on it all by claiming a career-best sixth on the grid. His team mate Christian Fittipaldi might have been in the vicinity too had the skies not opened before his second run in Saturday qualifying.

Morbidelli in the starting order was one place shy of the amazing Heinz-Harald Frentzen, making his F1 debut in the Mercedes-powered Sauber. Frentzen had arrived via the Mercedes Group C programme with a reputation of one fast if a little wild. And after his prodigious qualifying effort here some noted that alongside a certain Michael Schumacher as team mates back then in their sportscars days Frentzen was often the quicker, on a single lap at least. The other Sauber, piloted by Karl Wendlinger, was two places back on the grid and the Austrian reckoned he would have been the one ahead but for an engine failure on Saturday morning losing him track time. It all also led Autosport to speculate about Sauber - itself a famous and successful name from sportscars - possibly replacing McLaren in F1's 'big four' teams.

Many hearts were cheered also by the resurgent form of the hardy Tyrrells. With Yamaha V10 power and Ukyo Katayama at the wheel - both common sources of mirth – Tyrrell's was another upturn not anticipated in advance, but Ken Tyrrell never ceased to remind all of his view that both the maligned driver and engine were in fact significantly better than the 1993 Tyrrell chassis had made them look. And with Harvey Posthlethwaite along with Jean-Claude Migeot back on board, who as a pair had designed the cars of Tyrrell's previous renaissance in 1989-1990, that particular wrong was righted for 1994, the 022 proving a much-improved offering. The thing flew around Interlagos, and Katayama started tenth and did even better on race day by storming to fifth place by the end. Mark Blundell in the other Tyrrell might have been even higher but for his Sunday’s effort being ended early when his right-front wheel broke and sent him into a violent accident.

The pace of Michele Alboreto
and the Minardi surprised many
Credit: pher38 / CC
And perhaps the most unlikely interloper of all was that most famous band of triers of Minardi. Even though the Faenza machine for the 1994 season was essentially a souped-up version of the underwhelming 1993 contender veteran Michele Alboerto around Interlagos was making a sweet tune out of it, evidenced by him setting fourth-fastest time in Saturday morning practice, and all the while turning back the clock by reminding observers of his talent that made him a Grand Prix winner and championship contender in the mid-eighties. A few present in Brazil even wondered out loud why he hadn't been considered for the McLaren seat that had laid vacant for much of the off-season. Lucklessly though it wasn't to convert into a suitable grid slot for the Italian, as his machine required an engine change prior to the final qualifying session and by the time he could run rain had soaked the track and no one could improve their mark. Starting 22nd was his hardly suitable reward, and to compound the insult his electrics failed early in the race. Alboreto nevertheless in between times again showed what might have been by setting third-quickest time in the warm up.

Jordan too despite by designer Gary Anderson's admission having 'screwed up' qualifying, had recompense on race day with Rubens Barrichello - who lived 200 yards from the Interlagos gate - climbing to finish fourth in a rapid drive.

And while in the Interlagos weekend it was clear from the off that Senna and Schumacher were on another level behind the cars could have had a towel thrown over them: but a single second separated the qualifying best of Jean Alesi's Ferrari lining up in P3 on the grid (the Scuderia led by Jean Todt was here showing its first signs of picking its way from the rubble of three disastrous seasons) and that of Eric Comas in the Larousse in P13. More likely suspects of Gerhard Berger's Ferrari in P17 (admittedly hampered by technical problems) and Martin Brundle's McLaren in P18 were even further back. The damp-but-drying warm up continued the theme with eight different teams in the final top ten, and unlikely figures in haughty places such as Karl Wendlinger second and Mark Blundell fourth. For the F1 fraternity, long used to meagre rations of an unchanging order and a field strung out increasingly by encroaching electronic wizardry, this all was especially appetising.

A satisfied Nigel Roebuck watching on noted that 'one of the FIA's aims, in banning many of the electronic systems, appears to be bearing fruit. Undeniably, the overall competitiveness of the field has been tightened'. John Watson too commentating for Eurosport expressed similar sentiments: '(It's) something we're crying out for, regulation changes seem to be playing some part in bringing the field together...(It's) very very competitive indeed, auguring for a great season in 1994'.

Roebuck noted too an auxiliary benefit: 'At Interlagos, many felt that Mosley's actions had been vindicated. The cars, devoid of gizmos, were undoubtedly more entertaining to watch, and, according to the the folk in the cockpit, to drive.'

Sadly though most of these unlikely challengers before long had their legs cut from underneath them by a series of mid-year rule changes that followed the harrowing events of Imola in 1994's round three, the first batch of which arrived with a grand total of two weeks' notice prior to their introduction in the Spanish round in Barcelona. The likes of Footwork and Minardi - without the resources to test and otherwise research and develop revised parts to any great extent (indeed Footwork was reckoned to be the solitary team not to test its revised car prior to Barcelona) - were reconsigned to the back almost overnight. The field more generally was blown apart once more.

But back to Interlagos and round one. At the race's green light Senna blasted into the lead from pole, while Schuamcher found himself beaten off the line by a fast-starting Alesi. Senna did as expected and cleared off into a sizeable lead, while Schumi sought desperately to unplug his Alesi-shaped blockage. Alesi as usual was selling his hide dearly, and towards the end of lap one Schumi sent his Benetton up the inside of the Ferrari at Juncao only to slightly overdo it allowing Alesi to sneak smartly back up the inside at the exit. The next time around Schumi did the same again and didn't repeat his mistake of the previous tour, holding the Ferrari off down the following straight. The trouble was that even by this time Senna was four seconds up the road, and most assumed that would pretty much be that.

The gap between the two hovered at around that point for a few laps, but then very much against expectation - as well as for the first time that anyone could remember in a good while - the race lead of a Williams started to be chipped away at by a rival.

And before anyone knew it come lap 18, around about the time they were expected to pit for the first time, Schumi was right with Senna. By this time the eagerly-anticipated, nay feared, first pit visits of the new fuel stop era had come and gone - first Brundle, then Alesi - and had passed without incident. By this time too Senna and Schumacher in their breakneck progress had rather disappeared into a race of the own, and furthermore did so to an astonishing degree: after just 13 laps Alesi in third place was some 20 seconds adrift; come lap 28 of 71 the leading pair was lapping those in the top six.

But then we had our first pitstop incident, and a positive one in the sense of racing drama. On lap 21 Senna and Schumacher together peeled in for their first stops nose to tail almost, just 0.2 seconds between them now, and astoundingly Benetton got their car turned around much the faster, Schumi emerging from his pit a good second or more before Senna did. It became a chief theme of much of 1994 as well as of 1995, that the pit drill of the Benetton squad was much the superior to that of Williams.

No one, least of all Senna’s home public in the packed grandstands, was entirely sure what to make of it all, and they were discombobulated further by Schumi now in the lead really cutting loose. Before anyone knew it Schumacher was four seconds clear, and while the gap did fluctuated as he and Senna negotiated traffic, the overall trend was clearly, perhaps inexorably, upward.

The pair then stopped for their second and final planned time, Senna coming in first this time on lap 44, Schumi a lap later and once again his halt was the more rapid, by a second. Now, stops done, the young German’s advantage was a formidable 9.2 seconds. John Watson spoke for a few when we admitted to being ‘staggered’.

But if anyone thought that this was the end of things they reckoned without Senna; in particular Senna inspired by his adoring home public. Despite spending most of the afternoon hauling a difficult car much quicker than it cared to go, and at this one of the most physically demanding tracks on the calendar (one on which three years earlier Senna had to be carried from his car) and in a refuelling formula which turned races into a series of unrelenting sprints, Senna somehow summoned further reserves. He now started to chip away at Schumacher's advantage, just as Schumi had done to his earlier. Underlining the pace of the duo compared with the rest, they even, amazingly, now lined up to lap Damon Hill - Senna's Williams team mate never in the same stratosphere on pace as his stable mate this weekend - who was by now in third place in a rather hollow best of the rest slot, proceeding with a steady-as-she-goes one-stopper.

Hill, perhaps minded by team tactics, stayed in front of Schumi for half a lap, which aided Senna a little, but even with him out of the way the gap between the top two shrunk bit by bit: 6.2 seconds; 6.0, 5.0…

All sat poised for a grandstand finish, but no sooner could anyone comprehend this than they had to comprehend the 1994 Brazilian Grand Prix's most unlikely outcome of all: suddenly no one was on Schumi's tail; Senna, scarcely credibly, had spun on the exit of Juncao, and then stalled on the steep hill in trying to restart. He was out, and Schumi was set fair, with more than a lap's advantage on the nearest challenger.

And sure enough Schumi won as he liked, and then celebrated in his uninhibited style that was to become his trademark, in front of a rather stunned (and slightly depleted given a few had left shortly after Senna did) gallery. Senna meanwhile was gracious, admitting that a driving error had been his downfall: 'There was nothing wrong with the car. It was my fault - I just pushed too hard'.

Some of the more excitable in the aftermath started to talk in terms of this race representing the changing of the guard, of Schumi now being the sport's standard-bearer. Such talk however was likely a little simplistic, when based on Interlagos alone at any stretch. Sight should not be lost of the miracles that Senna had been performing with a struggling, evil-handling car that day, as Eddie Irvine, having been lapped by the pair in the race, illustrated vividly with his words on the flight home: 'I tell you, when the Benetton passed me, it was as if it was stuck to the track. Absolutely nailed. And Jesus did it have some grunt' said Irvine. 'When I saw Senna behind I moved off line to let him through in the long left-hander, and watched as he went by. His car was absolutely all over the place by comparison. How that bloke was where he was I just don't know. In a race he's just something else. I mean, look where Hill was.'

Patrick Head too admitted that the snap oversteer over bumps, described earlier, was most likely what had caught Senna out. Senna said after his Interlagos spin that there was nothing wrong with the car, but as Nigel Roebuck noted Ayrton was being generous - there was plenty wrong with it.

Many left Interlagos in high spirits
Credit: Marlon Hammes / CC
In among all of the cheer and optimism of the new there was however even here in Interlagos the odd portent of what 1994 was in time to become notorious for, that Motorsport magazine rather hauntingly and prophetically referred to at the time as 'clouds over the new dawn'. For one thing the race also featured an accident of considerable brutality (which in itself followed on from Benetton's JJ Lehto injuring his neck in a testing smash at Silverstone which meant that he sat out the Interlagos round). By lap 34 of the race Martin Brundle had risen from his gentleman's grid slot to run seventh, but then slowed rapidly having developed a rear shock absorber problem that he intended to return to the pits with to have checked out. As he progressed down Reta Oposta at sub-optimum speed the lapped Eric Bernard's Ligier bore down on him at this one of the track's quickest points. As, at roughly the same moment, Eddie Irvine's Jordan and Jos Verstappen's Benetton, battling over eighth, bore down on both of them. The four cars converged almost at the same piece of tarmac, and while Bernard lifted slightly before pulling out so to pass Brundle, Irvine behind with his loud pedal on full at roughly the same moment sought to pull out to pass both of them. The trouble was that Verstappen, seeking to pass Irvine, already was alongside the Jordan! Verstappen was forced off the track, as well as into contact with Irvine. Before anyone knew it the Benetton was spearing and somersaulting through the air back across the track into the path of its rival cars, and it left carnage as he went including striking a blow on Brundle's helmet, a head knock that Brundle says still affects him today. That no one was injured more seriously was a matter of sheer mercy.

And this gave rise to another portent of 1994: intervention of the stewards on the matter of driver discipline. After the race the stewards decided that Irv was at fault for the smash (a decision that divided opinion - some thought that the crash was a racing incident, simply reflecting an unfortunate convergence of cars at different speeds and with different priorities; others pointed out that Irvine could have avoided the uproar by lifting once it was clear that he was boxed in...), fined him $10,000 as well as required him to sit out the following round in Aida, Japan, in so doing making him the first driver to be banned from an F1 race since Nigel Mansell in 1989. The Jordan team appealed the decision to the FIA Court of Appeal, but while the four-man review board rescinded the $10,000 fine it was little mercy as they also decided to multiply Irvine's race ban by three. Don't bother us with specious objections seemed to be the message. Irvine also was just the first of three drivers eventually to be forced to sit out races in 1994. As if to underline the extent of 1994’s status as an outlier, following it we'd have to wait close to 20 years for the next driver ban...

The Jordan squad was also at the very centre of the other controversy in Brazil, and yet another portent for the season, with just the first technical spat of many of the 1994 F1 campaign.

In this case the bone of contention was the perhaps unlikely source of the existence of the apparently non-contentious bargeboards. They now of course are de rigueur on F1 cars as a means of influencing airflow around the front of the sidepods, but at the start of 1994 they were fairly new territory, having sprouted sporadically on various cars in 1993, and they indeed featured on the Benettons here in Interlagos. However, ever since the ground effect was clamped down on for the start of the 1983 campaign the regs said that all parts of the car between the lines of the front and rear wheels visible from underneath had to be uniformly flat and impervious. As a consequence teams often included 'shadow plates' sticking out from the sides of the floor so that things like the mirrors could not be seen from such an underneath view. But the Benettons running in Interlagos had no such features covering its bargeboards, which the Jordan team reckoned constituted a breach of the regulations. Thus it protested Schumacher's winning machine shortly after the chequered flag fell in Brazil.

Jordan probably had a point at some level, but not only did the protest seem a little churlish also both their method and their timing miffed a few: they'd after all had an opportunity to say something earlier in the weekend when Charlie Whiting invited all teams to raise any concerns they had at scrutineering, plus of course they had a lot of the previous season in which to raise their heckles too. There furthermore seemed little suggestion that Benetton was benefitting in lap time any from this omission. Some reckoned that Jordan simply was motivated by a desire to move Barrichello into a podium place for his home round, though both Eddie Jordan and Gary Anderson insisted instead that this was a lingering matter that they wanted to sort out one way or another, and that there's never a good time to protest a rival.

Whatever was the case the stewards threw out Jordan's contention, and perhaps to make a point they didn't return the team's protest deposit fee. And just about all outside of Jordan were relieved that the frenetic alteration of the race result post hoc on a technicality had been avoided, indeed a cheer went up in the press room at the announcement that what they had witnessed on track would indeed remain untouched. Little though did the assembled hacks know that they'd have to get used to such things in the 1994 campaign, of the race end seeming barely the start of the rancour and the place changes. Particularly when it came to the pariah Benetton squad.

But all that lay in the future. As things were, after an off-season of relative gloom all of a sudden in the actual event it appeared that there was plenty to look forward to in the 1994 F1 season. Senna had a major battle before him, facing a formidable driver-team combination as foe, and ceding a 10-point head start as he did so. For the rest of us, it looked to be just the start of F1's latest new boy challenges the established star face-off, just as Senna had in a boot-on-the-other-foot role in his extended battle with Prost. And this would be in front of a packed, unpredictable pack in which the underdog would have plenty of opportunities to have its day, as well as that all would be racing in cars that to watch would be scintillating. Even the return of refuelling didn't appear nearly as problematic as many had feared.

So all left Brazil in good heart, encouraged that they might after all and against all expectations in advance be served up with a season to remember. In the course of eventuality however 1994 was to be a season that no one could forget readily, however much they wanted to.


  1. I've always been amazed by the premonition in this Saward article:

    It looks like the writing was in the wall even though almost no one wanted to see it.

    1. Thanks very much for providing the link to that article, I'd never seen it before; it was very interesting. Indeed, there was a lot of complacency on safety around in early 1994 (I can remember it myself, though I wasn't very old at the time), and it had been that way for years. Sadly it took tragedy at Imola to snap everyone out of it.

      I sometimes worry too that we're getting similarly complacent on safety now, but that's another story...