My personal recollections of bygone seasons has reached 1994, not one I look back on with particular fondness. There was tragedy, alleged cheating, disqualifications, bans and a championship decided by some questionable driving.
Ayrton Senna had finally got his hands on the Williams-Renault causing Alain Prost to leave and go into retirement again, this time for good. So Damon Hill retained his seat still racing as number ‘0’ because for the second season in a row there would be no reigning champion on the grid. Mikka Hakkinen became number one at McLaren, joined by Martin Brundle, whilst Benetton used various drivers to replace the retired Riccardo Patrese and fill in for Michael Schumacher during his bans.
New regulations banned much of the electronic wizardry on the cars including traction control. And if this was done to curb the dominance of the Williams it appeared to work as Senna spun, or crashed out in the opening two races whilst Schumacher won both. But in Brazil, whilst watching the race from trackside after his retirement, Senna was convinced Schumacher’s Benetton was still equipped with traction control thus gaining an unfair advantage.
And then came Imola. I arrived home from playing football on Saturday evening to the news that Roland Ratzenburger who I had met a few years earlier when a friend was involved in running him in Formula Ford, had been killed in qualifying. Although Senna had yet to finish a race, including Imola he had qualified on pole for all three races so far.
The next day, probably like every other race fan who was not there, I watched his very public death on television. The only thing I will add to the subject, and this is not with the benefit of hindsight as I had been saying it for a few years, is that I was convinced someone would get killed at Tamburello one day. I had witnessed first hand Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari slam into the wall and catch fire in 1989 and two years before that Nelson Piquet’s Williams. There are only so many times you can hurl a Formula One car into a concrete wall at 131 mph (Senna’s impact speed) before someone’s luck runs out. It is a pity that it took the death of Ayrton Senna for the reprofiling of the bend that should have been done years before.
I also think that Damon Hill never really got the appreciation he deserved at Williams. But when his team needed him most, much the same as his father had done for Lotus after the death of Jim Clark, he delivered by winning the Spanish Grand Prix two races later.
My first race was the British Grand Prix by which time Schumacher was walking away with the Championship having won five of the six races so far. One thing that struck me at Silverstone was that for the best part of a decade the intense rivalry between Prost and Senna had dominated the sport. Now they were both gone and it seemed a little strange.
I squeezed in on the outside of Copse Corner for the start looking back to the distant grid. As the lights turned green there was a huge fireball which turned out to be the Peugeot engine of Brundle’s McLaren blowing up in spectacular fashion. Damon Hill won again but not before some Benetton controversy. During the parade lap Schumacher had passed Damon Hill for which he received a five-second stop-go penalty during the race. On the advice of his team he stayed out so was shown the black flag which again the team told him to ignore. The result was Schumacher was disqualified from his second place finish and banned for two races, appeal pending.
My next visit was the Belgian Grand Prix. In the meantime Benetton were under investigation again over the removal of a filter in their refuelling rig that had resulted in Jos Verstappen’s car becoming engulfed in flames during his pit stop, The consequences could have been expulsion from the Championship, but they were acquitted.
There were two things that particularly caught my eye at Spa. Firstly, there was a ridiculous white painted ‘S’ bend in the miidle of the track at Eau Rouge which was a hurriedly inserted chicane in the fall-out of the Ratzenburger and Senna tragedies. Also the Lotus team, now on its last legs, used six different drivers that season and in Belgium gave an F1 debut to countryman Philippe Adams. When I saw him and regular driver, Johnny Herbert, together I thought I was seeing double. they looked like twins.
Michael Schumacher won again with Damon Hill second, or so we thought. By the time I got to Calais for the ferry home came the news that he had been disqualified as the underfloor plank of his car had worn below the permitted amount.
Soon after the Belgian Grand Prix, Schumacher’s ban for ignoring the Silverstone black flag was upheld so he missed the next two races. Of the two races he had been disqualified from and the two from which he was banned, Damon Hill benefitted by winning, or being promoted to winner of them all. Suddenly. the Championship was taking on a different perspective.
And so to round sixteen, the final race of the season, the Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide. It was all to play for between Michael Schumacher on 92 points and Damon Hill on 91 and hopefully it would not be settled by the pair driving into each other, Prost and Senna style. So much for that.
Just before half distance with Schumacher first and Hill second, the Benetton ran wide hitting a wall hard enough to slow the car and present Damon Hill an opportunity to pass. Whether intentionally, by accident or a case of ‘I didn’t see he was there’, the TV footage clearly shows the Benetton drive diagonally across the track and into the passing Williams. Schumacher retired immediately as World Champion as Hill limped around to the pits to retire with broken suspension. The race brought the final victory for Nigel Mansell who had shared the second Williams drive with David Coulthard and Williams retained the Constructors Championship.
It can be argued that Michael Schumacher did well to win his first World Championship with effectively four races less than Damon Hill. But there will always be some question marks over the way in which it was done.
Note: Many of these images are taken from original prints, negatives and slides that are nearly 40 years old and are therefore not reproduced to the same standard as current day digital images. All reasonable attempts have been made to ensure these images are reproduced to the best possible standard, however, in some instances colour casts and blemishes may be present.