Tuesday 11 September 2018

Q&A with '1994 - the Untold Story' author Ibrar Malik

You will have noticed that in recent months Talking about F1 has featured regular guest blog posts kindly provided by Ibrar Malik, previewing his forthcoming book 1994 – The Untold Story of a Tragic and Controversial F1 Season.

Ibrar has also been kind enough to take part in a Q&A with me on his forthcoming book and about the 1994 F1 year more generally. It is all outlined below and I'm sure you'll agree that his answers are fascinating and whet the appetite for the book that is to come! 

And you can find much more detail on his book on his website at: www.1994f1.com

What was it about the 1994 season that attracted you to examine it so closely?

So much happened that year and it's unlike any other F1 season. There were driver tragedies, infighting within a sport in crisis, and accusations of cheating. All wrapped up by one of the most controversial title deciders in F1 history. I think it's fair to say even today, most F1 fans are still dumbfounded by certain mysteries from that year. Like why Benetton received no serious punishments after the Hockenheim fire, despite pleading guilty to tampering with the refuelling equipment without written authorisation. Or did Michael Schumacher use the concealed launch control that WAS found within his Benetton?

I've found whenever these issues are discussed things usually turn into a heated debate, often filled with rumours rather than facts. Also some people tend to dismiss certain information based on whether they support Ayrton Senna or Schumacher. So, perhaps the best way to unravel the various accusations is by analysing them as the 1994 season unfolded, in the kind of detail only a book allows. It will give readers all the arguments and information to sort fact from fiction themselves and unlike an internet forum, there is no chance of them getting involved in an argument in the process.

Whatever your stance regarding the 1994 events, I think everyone can agree the politics at play that year were complicated. Hence why for the last few years, I've been determined to find out the dark secrets from that fateful season, which has ultimately led to this book.

Schumacher's 1994 driver's championship would forever be perceived with suspicion. 
Photo: Willem Toet

To what extent has what you've found in researching your book met your advance expectations about 1994?

Less that I would have first thought. I started this project a few years ago having read all the material I could regarding the 1994 controversies and if I did have any advance expectations then…I've certainly forgotten them now! When you interview key contributors you realise there is so much more about that season that has yet to be published. Quite often a contributor's insider knowledge will completely blow away any pre-conceived ideas you may have had. So it's important to keep an open mind on the subject, because they'll often tell you something which forces you to investigate it, which then takes book in a different direction to that intended.   

For instance, within the upcoming book there is a new previously un-discussed theory on what Senna may or may not have heard on Schumacher's car at Aida 1994 (which Ayrton considered was illegal traction control). The book's theory is supported by Willem Toet, telemetry traces and in the words of Mark Blundell "that all makes a lot of sense." This theory wasn't spawned from my preconceived ideas, instead it was arrived at after speaking with contributors, reading the transcript of Paul Tracy's Post 94 Portuguese GP test session. Seeing some telemetry traces and listening to an ex F1 driver's commentary during 1994 races. This example is typical within the book.

What's been surprising about what you've found?

All of the book's exclusives have surprised like Simon Morley's account of the Hockenhiem fire and subsequent investigation afterwards. Simon was Benetton's refueller in 1994 and the junior employee blamed for the fire afterwards. Within the book Simon gives a detailed account of his version of the events. Remember he literally had his life put at risk by the Hockenheim fire and apart from a few select quotes in Motorsport magazine in 2004 he has generally kept quiet over the whole affair. So it is important his story is told which this book gives him that opportunity. What Simon reveals about the Hockenheim fire investigation is staggering, as are the never seen publically internal Benetton documents/images.

This is only a one of the book's exclusives but there will be so much more. Also surprising was how some key and important information has since been forgotten. For instance we know the black boxes of the top three finishers at the tragic Imola race was forensically examined, but do you know another race in 1994 where they did the same?

Do you know how many times Schumacher's Benetton was checked after races in 1994 and for what in particular, and the results of those investigations?
Photo: Martin Lee 

A final surprise has been how a correlation emerges within the book between two seemly separate events which only becomes apparent when going through things chronologically. For instance after the FIA seized the ECUs of the top three at Imola (Benetton, Ferrari and McLaren) due to the allegations some were circumventing the driver aids ban, the FIA published its findings into Benetton's black box which is fully dissected within the book. We know from that report that the FIA was conducting tests on Benetton's ECU's three days after the French Grand Prix, just as the rumours about Schumacher's having used launch control during his Magny-Cours start were at their height. Interestingly before that point the investigation had been progressing slowly, however afterwards there seemed to be a bit more urgency. Read into that what you will. Within the book you'll see far more significant correlations between that FIA report and other events, which I feel speaks volumes.

Do you have a view on why there was so many accidents early in the 1994 season? Was it just bad luck or were there reasons?

Before the FIA introduced their post Imola safety changes, few realise the 1994 F1 cars were actually faster than their 1993 predecessors. Add refuelling into that mix, and this resulted in cars lapping several seconds quicker during races, which added additional strain to drivers and the cars components. The increases in horse power for 1994 were not just from engine improvements, but also from new fuels specifically designed to take advantage of refuelling by disregarding economy in favour of performance. Thus, power and, consequently, aerodynamic downforce had increased, whilst suspensions - and, therefore, the car's stability - had taken a retrograde step (because of the active suspension ban).

It was Senna's early experiences in the 1994 spec Williams which prompted him to claim "it's going to be a season with lots of accidents…" Senna's prophecy was supported by the statistics. By the end of May 1994, F1 suffered nine serious accidents resulting two fatalities and five major injuries and two very lucky escapes. Compared to 1993 and 1995 where there were five and three major accidents by June in those respective years. Fortunately, none of those accidents in 1993 and 1995 resulted in serious injuries or fatalities.

Undoubtedly F1's luck ran out during that dark period in 1994 and whilst the above statistics tell a story, one must remember accidents can happen at any time. Likewise there was no direct connection between those nine accidents in early 1994, however, in the majority of cases drivers had been pushing too hard in unfamiliar cars - as they tried learning their handling characteristics. The book explores whether enough attention was paid to F1 safety for 1994? Willem Toet gives great insight within the book into how significant the safety changes were after the 1994 fatalities. The timeframe imposed upset teams which started a civil war within F1 as Briatore and others openly criticised [FIA president Max] Mosley. Shortly afterwards the relationship between Benetton and the FIA was about to get very interesting in 1994 indeed…

Walkinshaw (left) and Briatore were Benetton's directors in 1994. Their colourful history, raises questions about 1994. 
Photo: Martin Lee

Has anything you've found about how F1 was in 1994 seemed very different to how F1 is today?

Yes, several book contributors mentioned how much less professional F1 was in 1994 in comparison to today. For instance in today's rules things are clarified to the nth degree to avoid confusion among teams, however things weren't done like that in 1994. Remember there was a massive rule change that year, as electronic driver aids were banned, but confusingly there was no clear definition over what driver aids actually were? This led to confusion & loopholes as teams and the FIA interpreting things differently. For example semi-automatic gearboxes were not considered driver aids, whereas an anti-roll bar adjuster inside the cockpit was.

Perhaps this partly explains the various controversies later on, because at the start of 1994, it seems teams just ran a 'questionable' device whenever they felt it was legal. Two classic examples of this was the Ferrari 'rev-limiter' device from Aida 1994 or McLaren's automatic downshifting gearbox. Whereas in today's F1 teams would need to check with the FIA first about the legality of their devices before ever running it during a GP weekend. Therefore F1 learnt important lessons from 1994, about checking the legality of a system away from the public domain whenever question marks are raised over the legality or otherwise of a device.

Ferrari were found with outlawed software within their blackbox (circled in blue) at Aida. Their infringement added to the paranoia that cheating was rife in 1994 because electronics were difficult to police.  
Photo: Norbert Neutron

What about the other side of the coin - is the influence of 1994 still felt in F1 today and if so how?

F1 certainly learnt important lessons from 1994 about improving its professionalism. Another example of this, was after Benetton had claimed they weren't told by race officials at Silverstone 1994 that Schumacher's penalty was a stop and go. The FIA ensured teams signed the paperwork to signify their acknowledgement to a stop and go penalties in future. Also in the wake of that Silverstone 1994 debacle there was clarification over what happened if notification of a stop and go penalty was given after 20 minutes of the incident occurring. Had that been clarified before Silverstone '94 it was have saved F1 a lot of public embarrassment. So the sport learnt it is damaging to everyone to air its dirty linen in public whenever cheating accusations crop up. So it has since taken steps to investigate things outside of the public glare.

This was demonstrated after the 1999 season when it emerged at least one team had done something they shouldn't have in regards to their software. Mosley wouldn't publicly name the team/s, however, insisted the infringement occurred in 1999 and those involved were not in contention for the world championship, which therefore ruled out McLaren and Ferrari. As a result, new regulations were hurriedly introduced for the 2000 British Grand Prix (explained in the book) in the hope that future problems would be eliminated. But because unlike 1994 the public at large didn't know who the culprits were and the whole investigation findings weren't released to the public, this case was largely forgotten. 

Ferrari was accused of having illegal driver aids in 1998, after Schumacher and key ex-Benetton staff joined. What does this tell us about the 1994 Benetton allegations?
Photo: Brian Snelson 

But perhaps the most important lesson F1 took away from 1994 was how to make F1 safer. And not just getting F1 safety to a point where no deaths had occurred for years, but continuing that safety crusade even when others opposed it. I think the halo was a classic example of this, because before it's introduction many people said it had no place in F1. However the halo probably saved Leclerc's life off the start at Spa 2018. Mosley said he faced similar opposition prior to Imola 94 where the argument he faced at the time was F1 was safe enough because the last death at a race weekend prior to Imola was 1982.

1994 – The Untold Story of a Tragic and Controversial F1 Season is a new book which amongst other things explores why the Williams FW16 was initially difficult. Leading Senna to search for a reason why Schumacher's Benetton had much better traction than his car. What did Senna hear on Schumacher's car which troubled him and were his suspicions justified? Keep checking www.1994f1.com for more F1 blogs and the release date for the book.

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