20 years removed from the events of the season in some ways the 1994 Formula One season is one with two sides, both encapsulated in moments at either end of the season. However, these two faces to the year – tragedy and controversy – pervaded across much of the season and for a few seconds came close to converging.
After championships in 1992 and 1993 Williams started the ’94 season with a dream line-up. Reigning champion Alain Prost had departed leaving the ‘his’ car to Ayrton Senna, joining from McLaren having finished as runner-up the previous season to partner Damon Hill, who had finished third in the points the previous season.
For many the 1994 season is defined by the events at Imola.
From the moment when a front wing failure on his Simtek began the chain of events that would end with Roland Ratzenburger’s fatal accident introduced a new generation of racing fans (this writer included) to the awful potential of F1 the season was always destined to be remembered for the wrong reasons. When, just 24 hours later, a three-time champion died after crashing out of the lead at Tamborello it was assured the San Marino Grand Prix would live on in infamy.
Though it was the moment when racing became a secondary concern for the weekend – just look at the lack of podium celebrations for evidence of that – the accident continued a torrid start to the season for Williams.
Though they may have had the dream team for the start of the year Williams had been quickly woken from any thoughts of a dream start to the season as it was 25-year old Michael Schumacher, who had finished fourth in ’93 who won both of the first two races of the season for Benetton. In the same two events Senna and Hill combined for only a single second place – for Hill at the Interlagos season opener which Senna had led early before spinning into retirement while trying retake the lead from Schumacher.
Senna again proved the pace of the Williams-Renault in taking pole for the Pacific GP – hosted at the Japanese TI Aida circuit. There too, however, it was to come to nothing. Beaten by Schumacher off the line the Brazilian was nerfed into retirement by Mika Hakkinen at turn one.
Then came Imola.
Though – understandably – the horrid consequences of two accidents have come to dominate the memories of the GP they were only part of a terrible weekend at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari. Rubens Barrichello had – remarkably given the events to follow – escaped serious injury in a bone jarring crash in qualifying and when several mechanics were hurt after the right-rear tyre came off Michele Alboreto’s Minardi as he accelerated in a pitlane not governed by a speed limit it was assured that F1 would never be the same again.
The dark cloud failed to lift at the Monaco Grand Prix.
Reminders of the tragedy of Imola were everywhere.
Both Simtek and Williams teams only entered a single car for the weekend and the front row of the grid was to be left empty, save for the Brazilian and Austrian flags emblazoned onto the track.
However, the paddock would be rocked by another accident in qualifying. Karl Wendlinger crashed on entry to the Nouvelle Chicane, hitting the wall that waits at the bottom of the hill exiting the tunnel.
The accident put Wendlinger in a coma, his Sauber team responding by withdrawing their other car – driven by Heinz-Harold Frentzen – from the race, but plans for safety improvements were already in motion.
Some were made immediately, though the reduction in the amount of downforce produced by the cars failed to prevent another serious accident in practice for the Spanish Grand Prix. Andrea Montermini – the first of four drivers who would attempt to replace Ratzenburger at Simtek – hit the wall heavily exiting the final corner of the Barcelona track. Though sight of his feet exposed at the front of the shattered car threatened more serious injury he suffered ‘only’ a broken ankle and chipped heel bone.
The race was also the first of the year in which a makeshift chicane – the Barcelona example located at the top of the hill shortly after Campsa corner, guarding what was then a quick right-left flick approaching the La Caixa hairpin.
At Montreal another chicane sprung up at the start of the back straight. The Canadian race was also where another batch of the rule changes to improve safety first came into effect. There were further efforts to slow the cars, restricting the air flow into the engines, but there were also changes intended to protect drivers. Additional protection as added around an enlarged opening sought to prevent repeats of the injuries that had sidelined Wendlinger while reinforcement added to the front suspension in an effort to prevent the front wheels reaching the cockpit in the result of an accident.
There were further regulation changes to come. For the German Grand Prix a wooden plank fixed to the bottom of the chassis was mandated, designed to limit the effect of any ground effect generated by the cars.
When measured at the end of a race a certain level of wear was allowed on the plank. However, having crossed the line first at the Belgian Grand Prix (where probably the most infamous of temporary chicanes appeared at the bottom of Eau Rouge) the plank on Schumacher’s Benetton was over-worn.
Spa was a turning point in the championship fight between Schumacher and Hill that would culminate in controversy at season’s end.
A few days after the Belgian GP Benetton’s appeal against a hefty fine and a two race ban for Schumacher as punishment for ignoring a black flag at the British Grand Prix after the German had passed pole sitter Hill on the formation lap.
Controversy had dogged Benetton for much of the season. The team had spent much of the summer being investigated for the use of Launch Control, one of a number driver aids banned before the start of the season. They were under suspicion again following the German GP at Hockenheim. During a routine pitstop Jos Verstappen’s car had become engulfed in flames after fuel splashed from the refuelling nozzle onto the hot engine cover.
Miraculously, as the pit crew battled the flames on and around the car as well as on each other Verstappen was able to get out of the car himself, his only injuries burns around his eyes due to having his visor open. Safety checks after the event found a filter from the fuel rig missing, speeding up the delivery of the fuel. If found to be deliberate it would have been the team’s last act on the championship that season, but Benetton explained that it was due to an innocent oversight, the FIA finding in their favour.
They would not be so lucky at Spa. The explanation that the excessive wear on the skid block was due to a mid-race spin across the curbs was dismissed and Schumacher was excluded from first place, the ten points for victory going to Hill, for whom Schumacher’s two race ban was a championship lifeline.
One the Hill grabbed with both hands. The points lost from Silverstone and Spa had knocked Schumacher’s points lead back to 21 and with victories at both Monza and Estoril by the time his rival returned at Jerez for the European GP what should have been a comfortable first championship win was transformed into an almost literal knock-down-drag-out fight for the title.
Schumacher beat Hill on his return and after Hill beat Schumacher at Suzuka the championship rivals were separated by a single point as the season reached its denouement in Adelaide.
Despite a crash in the first qualifying session Schumacher out-qualified his rival, taking second behind Nigel Mansell, in one of his four races in the second Williams. Both Schumacher and Hill (starting in third) got ahead of Mansell at the start, Schumacher starting to pull away into the lead.
However, when Schumacher ran wide through one of the track’s 90° left handers and slapped the wall he hauled the slow – and almost certainly damaged – Benetton back onto the track right in front of Hill. Seizing the opportunity that presented itself Hill went for the inside for the following right hander. Schumacher, however, aggressively closed the door, driving to the apex of the corner leaving no room for Hill.
The contact flicked the Benetton up on two wheels before it finished in the tyre barriers. Hill, now in the lead, continued but only as far as the pits, suspension bent in the accident ending his race.
As the reality of the situation – his title rival also out of the race giving him the championship – a smile rippled across Schumacher’s face. Immediately there were doubts as to whether the clash was a deliberate move by a man in a wounded car losing his grip on the championship he had led since the first race. It was a moment that turned many British F1 fans against the German, the early forging of a reputation to be reinforced in championship battles to come.
In a season blighted by series accidents the championship had been decided by a crash.
In a season in which controversy had been ever present it was a fitting, if unwanted ending.
With Hill and Schumacher – whose collective victories had accounted for 14 of the season’s prior 15 races (Gerhard Berger’s Hockenheim win for Ferrari the exception) – it was Mansell in the #2 Williams, earmarked for Senna at the start of the year that won the race.