Wednesday 31 October 2018

The Day Schumacher Drove a Ligier, by Ibrar Malik

The upcoming book details what is learnt about the Benetton controversies when Michael Schumacher tested a Ligier for one day in December 1994. For instance was the German as impressive when not driving a Benetton?

Before we answer this let us remember the background surrounding this test. In early 1994 the Ligier team was in financial trouble following its team owner, Cyril de Rouvre, having been jailed on fraud charges. Benetton directors, Flavio Briatore and Tom Walkinshaw, bought the struggling French outfit in May 1994 following months of conveyancing. Within this transaction, they were partly acting for the Benetton family - their paymasters - who wanted Ligier's prized supply of Renault engines having failed to acquire them via more conventional means during 1993. This was because their rivals, Williams, had stopped Benetton advances towards the French engine supplier by giving Ligier assistance with gearboxes etc throughout 1993. Williams' strategy was to keep Ligier competitive enough to maintain Renault's interest in it rather than Benetton. Following the 1994 acquisition, Walkinshaw owned a minor stake in Ligier but dreamt of owning the whole team and bringing it Grand Prix success with Ross Brawn. While Briatore, another stakeholder, was simply happy to be a sleeping partner and saw the Liger purchase as just another of his investments.

Walkinshaw (left) and Briatore of Benetton. Neither were strangers to controversies, therefore many people consider Benetton guilty of the 1994 accusations simply because of their association.

Upcoming book contributor and Benetton's Head of Aerodynamics in 1994, Willem Toet, explained the relationship between Benetton and Ligier following the acquisition. "In order to help Ligier out, track performance wise, without spending a fortune, an agreement was reached to provide 'technical assistance'. We (Benetton) were asked to provide certain pieces of design related information. I was not happy to give the info but, as an employee, you don't always have many choices. One can leave the team of course and that's what I did a little while later when there was a 'last straw' moment - this was one of my reasons for being unhappy with how things were going."

"Anyway, the resulting help that was given led to Ligier people coming and working at Benetton to make parts - from our moulds! Strictly not correct and really upset a 'few' people (inside the company). They arrived in full team clothing which is what created a stir inside the company. So to hide where they came from internally (totally unsuccessful) they were given some Benetton clothing. That pissed the workforce off even more as this was not a privilege given to the guys in the composite workshop they worked beside... The team really didn't want the closeness of the working relationship to come out in full! That would have been another day in Paris to see the headmaster- and would not have ended well for either team!"

"What justification was there? I recall being told at the time that Ligier was in trouble and that our help would only bring them towards competitiveness, not more. This was certainly perceived as a lower cost way for whoever had put money into buying the team to provide an improvement than funding independent research, but regrettably, it was almost certainly outside the law. Intellectually I understood the motives but emotionally I was (very) upset by what the team did. When I got a phone call offering me a dream job elsewhere I said yes where normally I would not have been interested. Having finished the roll-out car design for the following year I resigned (with other reasons as well of course)."

The 1995 Ligiers looked suspiciously like Benettons. "It would, wouldn't it," explained Ligier's Technical Director at the time, and upcoming book contributor, Frank Dernie. "Williams and McLaren (in 1995) have copied the Benetton, and I was at Benetton. It would be very silly if I'd copied the Pacific."

During pre-season 1995 Mosley visited the Ligier factory presumably to investigate their car's striking resemblance to the Benetton B195? Walkinshaw stated afterwards "Mechanically, it (the Ligier) is totally different (from the Benetton) and structurally it is quite different as well. Aerodynamically, it's as close as we can make it to being the same. I don't know how you would end up with anything else if you take a core of engineers who have been working on the Benetton. Of course, the damn thing looks the same. But if you go into the detail of the car, there is nothing interchangeable." Transferring the much-sought-after Renault engines from Ligier to Benetton for 1995, left the former needing a power plant. At the last-minute Briatore somehow convinced the Mugen Honda concern to supply Ligier instead of Minardi. The decision left the latter team in a disastrous state, with a car designed for the V10 and parts already made. Giancarlo Minardi, the team's owner, threatened legal action over the affair but the matter was eventually settled out of court when Briatore paid $1 million to Minardi as compensation.

Renault was considered the engine to have in F1 during the mid-1990s, hence why Benetton and Briatore when to such lengths to acquire them for 1995. Indeed Martin Brundle had famously said at the time "if Schumacher ever gets hold of a Renault, we might as well go home," and he was proved right! Using Renault power for the only year during his F1 career, Schumacher cruised to an easy 1995 title - even equalling Nigel Mansell's 1992 record of winning the most races in one season. Before all of that, however, was his December 1994 Ligier test. Renault wanted the German to try out engine maps in preparation for 1995 which involved evaluating changes over two hot laps then coming into the pits to try another setup. It was too complicated to install the Renault into the 1994 Benetton, hence why Schumacher drove the Ligier instead.

In 1994 Ligier usually qualified no better than midfield, this was despite enjoying the same electronics and Renault engine as reigning champions, Williams.

During the test, held at Estoril, Schumacher immediately lapped one second quicker than regular Ligier driver Olivier Panis's laptime during the only day they both ran. The laptimes are below:

1. Hill | Williams | 1:19.57
2. Collard | Williams | 1:20.84
3. Schumacher | Ligier | 1:20.84
4. Panis | Ligier | 1:21.80
5. Barrichello | Jordan (3.0l) | 1:22.17
6. Blundell | Tyrrell (3.0l) | 1:22.53
7. Katayama | Tyrrell(3.0l) | 1:22.55

Ligier was amazed by this especially because Panis, having won the F3000 title in 1993 and finishing all but one race during 1994, was considered F1's rising star at the time. Panis later lapped within 0.13 seconds of Schumacher's time on subsequent days when the German wasn't driving. Vincent Gaillardot of Renault noticed something within the telemetry data which illustrated why Michael was able to go so much quicker than Panis. Upcoming book contributor Frank Dernie, Ligier's Technical Director at the time but having worked with Schumacher earlier in 1994 exclusively confirmed "Panis saw several things Schumacher did which helped including…"

What was Schumacher's secret to being much quicker than his team-mates in 1994?

What Dernie and Gaillardot of Renault refers to above is mind blowing and fully revealed in 1994 – The Untold Story of a Tragic and Controversial F1 Season, a new book due for release in January 2019. Telemetry data is used to illustrate not only what is referred to above, but also what Senna might have heard on Schumacher's car during the Aida 1994 race. 

The upcoming book can now be pre-ordered by clicking here. Alternatively sign up here to receive more book updates & new blogs automatically.

Also keep checking for more details and F1 blogs.

Images courtesy; of  Martin Lee, Fox 1 via and Ford Motor Company

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