Friday 22 March 2019

Paul Tracy's Benetton Test, September 1994 - by Ibrar Malik

Many believe Schumacher ran illegal driver aids during 1994 because one of Benetton's former drivers, Jos Verstappen, once claimed so during an interview in 2011. This along with all the other arguments are analysed extensively in the book however, what is not commonly appreciated is five other drivers stepped inside the B194 that year also. Michael Schumacher, JJ Lehto, Johnny Herbert and Allan McNish all drove the 1994 Benetton and their views on it will become clear either in the book or in upcoming blogs. However it is often forgotten that rising IndyCar star, Paul Tracy, also tested the car. So what were his thoughts?

Paul Tracy in the Penske. Although the cars looked similar, IndyCar drivers have not always adapted to F1. Most notably Michael Andretti in 1993.

Bernie Ecclestone organised the Paul Tracy/Benetton test because IndyCar racing was growing in popularity at the time and becoming a serious rival for F1. Nigel Mansell, Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi all raced in the US series and even Ayrton Senna investigated a move Stateside at the end of 1992. It is believed that Ecclestone wanted to steal IndyCar stars (like Paul Tracy) to weaken the American series but also to widen grand prix racing's appeal. F1's commercial supremo had been instrumental in moving the 1991 and 1995 IndyCar champions (Michael Andretti and Jacques Villeneuve) across the pond during the mid-1990s.

Prior to 1994 F1 had been in a nosedive in terms of rising costs and declining public interest. But the powers-that-be in F1 proactively took measures to turn this tide.

Ecclestone was so keen that Tracy made the switch to F1 he even helped him overcome some legal wrangling as the Penske star later explained. "Flavio Briatore calls me into his bus and says, 'Before you can test the car, you have to sign this contract.' It was all in legalese, but I could see that if I signed Flavio would become my manager. It would bind me to him for the rest of my career. No way. Flavio flies home, so Monday morning I call him and tell him I can't sign his management deal. He says, 'Then you're not getting in the car.' I don't know what to do, so I call Bernie. Bernie says, 'Hold on a moment', and I hear him get Flavio on the other phone and bark: 'Put him in the car.' Twenty minutes later I was in the car."

Two days after the 1994 Portuguese Grand Prix, the circuit hosted a major F1 testing session involving most of the teams. It was also Schumacher's first time back in the Benetton for several weeks following his ban from the Italian and Portuguese Grands Prix for a previous rule infringement. There were many interested observers to see how Schumacher fared because during his absence the B194 looked distinctly average prompting questions over whether Lehto and Verstappen were really that bad? Or was the car's performance adversely affected by a recent rule change demanding no traces of driver aids (redundant or otherwise) be left within teams engine control units?

Only weeks earlier, Benetton had been found with apparently redundant and concealed launch control, hence questions over its legality. 

The book explains how Schumacher and Verstappen fared at this test in comparison to earlier performances and how this might answer the above. However, after his two day test Tracy, driving a Formula 1 car for the first time, posted a lap that would have put him fourth on the grid for the Portuguese GP. It's worth noting Verstappen qualified 10th for that race while JJ Lehto (who'd stood in for the suspended Schumacher) qualified 14th. Tracy later described the car as being on a "knife-edge" compared to IndyCars. “Having confidence in what the car will do is the tough thing. Schumacher is killing me on speed through turn 2 and Verstappen is quicker too, although there's not much in it. The car didn't feel too comfortable through there, and I know there is a lot more to come.”

Paul Tracy (pictured in 2007) a man known to call a spade a spade. So it's unlikely he would have kept quiet if he thought the Benetton were running illegal devices in 1994

Turn 2 in Portugal is an extremely fast corner and Tracy's comments about confidence echo those made by others when referring to the Benetton. All of which is telling in understanding why Schumacher was so much faster than his team-mates in 1994 something the book explains with telemetry traces. But it also gives us clues as to what Senna potentially heard on Schumacher's Benetton at Aida 1994, which led him to believe there was illegal traction control. Tracy later recalled; "Benetton came up with a three-year F1 contract, but it was the old story: testing, no guarantee I'd be racing, and no proper money. Meanwhile, Paul Newman and Carl Haas offered an Indycar ride that paid $1.5 million – when Penske had been paying me $100,000. So I went for that.”

1994 – The Untold Story of a Tragic and Controversial F1 Season is a new book which among other things explains this and the various other controversies from that year. The book is now available from Performance Publishing's website where you can also read a free sample of the book. Alternatively, sign up at to receive exclusive information on the follow up book and have new blogs emailed to you.

Images courtesy; of Ford, Stuart Seeger, Bryan Lipovetsky and Ryan Bayona via & Antony John Dennis

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