1994 F1 season

1994: Remembering the year everything changed

1994 F1 seasonPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

The 1994 championship would forever be remembered chiefly for the harrowing events of its third round – that dark weekend at Imola which claimed the lives of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger.

The tragic events of the San Marino Grand Prix cast a shadow over the championship and began an intense period of soul-searching over how to better protect drivers in the sport.

These were the most grievous events of the most traumatic season in recent memory. A Monaco crash left Karl Wendlinger in a coma which ruined a promising Formula One career. In the early part of the season injuries became almost commonplace as a succession of drivers were wounded in major accidents.

The death of the most famous racing driver the world has ever known thrust worldwide media attention on the sport. Under fierce scrutiny, the imperative to understand what went wrong and respond accordingly forced all involved in the sport to react.

In the chaos that followed circuits and cars were hastily altered. Bereft of a star driver, another champion made a sudden return. The season took an increasingly bitter turn with a series of controversial disqualifications and allegations over technical infringements. And it ended with a notorious collision in Adelaide.

But before the season began few could have imagined what lay ahead. The major preoccupations in the build-up to the new season were familiar ones: disputes over the technical rules and how to inject more action into the racing.

Formula One at the beginning of 1994

“Improving the show” is not a phrase that only gained currency in F1 in the last few years. Pick up a magazine or read a newspaper report from the end of the 1993 season and you’ll find it was already in vogue two decades ago.

The 1992 and 1993 championships had been largely dominated by one team – Williams – whose cars had taken pole position for 30 of the preceding 32 races. Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost won the 1992 and 1993 titles respectively at a canter.

Neither stayed to defend their crowns – although in January 1994 Prost’s future was far from certain. Mansell, meanwhile, had made history by switching to IndyCars and winning that title at his first attempt.

Ayrton Senna, Williams, 1994In the mid-nineties Formula One kept a jealous eye on its North American rival. While Senna remained the only world champion left in grand prix racing 20 years ago, IndyCar’s driver roster featured Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi as well as Mansell.

The 1992 champion’s defection had won IndyCar many new viewers and the quality of its racing drew praise. Formula One responded by adopting some of IndyCar’s innovations, beginning with time penalties served in the pits and the Safety Car, which had appeared during 1993.

Another feature of IndyCar racing was adopted in 1994 – one which proved highly controversial. But as in-race refuelling ultimately remained part of grand prix racing for over a decade and a half, it’s easy to forget how contentious its return to F1 was at the time.

Refuelling was added to the rule books in mid-1993. It was slipped in at the 11th hour following months of wrangling between the teams and the FIA on a different subject: president Max Mosley’s desire to outlaw active suspension and other driver aids.

Faced with the threat of having their active cars banned mid-season in 1993 – forcing them to redesign their cars at huge cost – the teams agreed to a ban for 1994. Bernie Ecclestone seized the opportunity to add his rider: in-race refuelling, banned on safety grounds ten years earlier, would be legalised.

True support for the refuelling plan was almost non-existent, and following the meeting the teams swiftly united to try to expunge it from the rules. Even Benetton team principal Flavio Briatore, who argued in favour of such gimmicks as reverse grids at the time, turned against the refuelling plan when he calculated the huge sums involved in purchasing and shipping the necessary equipment.

The one team which continued to push for refuelling, preventing its rivals from achieving the necessary unanimity to get rid of it, was Ferrari. As they used the thirstiest engine in the pit lane they stood to gain the most from being able to refuel. Team principal Jean Todt even avoided a pre-season meeting of the teams where he expected to face fierce pressure to drop a plan which had raised serious concerns over safety as well as costs.

The teams and drivers of 1994

Ferrari were flexing their political muscles because they were enduring their longest-ever winless streak in the world championship. Over three years had passed since their last win, courtesy of Prost in the 1990 Spanish Grand Prix.

During that time they had struggled with a succession of attractive but uncompetitive designs, and never got to grips with active suspension and other driver aids that were essential by 1993. The banning of such devices for 1994, along with the return of designer John Barnard from Benetton, promised to restore Ferrari to competitiveness.

But at the dawn of the new season few expected any challenge to Senna and Williams. Even though Benetton got their new car on-track several weeks before Williams and set competitive times throughout testing, the conventional wisdom was that Williams couldn’t possibly have got it wrong.

Benetton, however, had won at least one race per season since 1989 and Briatore had set his sights high. “If I don’t win the world championship between now and 1996 then I need a change of job,” he said before the season began.

Prost’s decision not to take up his option to continue at Williams for a second season opened the door for Senna, whom Prost had blocked from joining him as team mate in 1993. But after Senna took his place alongside Damon Hill, Prost began seriously thinking of continuing in Formula One, and he looked into making a return to McLaren.

Those who were hoping the Senna-versus-Prost show would resume were to be disappointed. After driving the team’s new MP4-9 behind closed doors at Estoril in early March, Prost decided to remain in retirement.

“You could tell Prost wasn’t keen,” Martin Brundle reflected in a recent book, “the Peugeot engine wasn’t really very strong at that point”. Brundle’s brave gambit of waiting on Prost’s decision was rewarded: he landed the second McLaren seat alongside Mika Hakkinen days before the championship was due to start.

Rubens Barrichello, Jordan, Imola, 1994With the exception of Scuderia Italia, who failed to complete the 1993 season and were effectively taken over by Minardi, the same roster of teams remained. But the clock was ticking for venerable names like Lotus, who produced a mildly developed version of their 1992 chassis; Tyrrell, point-less in 1993; and Ligier, whose owner Cyril de Rouvre was arrested in December and who were soon to be purchased by Briatore.

Better times seemed to lie ahead for two of F1’s newest teams: Jordan, who impressed on their 1991 debut, entered their second year with Brian Hart’s customer V10 engines. And Sauber, entering their sophomore season having taken a fine seventh on their debut, retained the backing of Mercedes and their Ilmor-developed V10s.

Footwork went back to being called Arrows as the Japanese recession led Wataru Ohashi to pull his backing. Having been snubbed by McLaren in favour of Peugeot, Lamborghini scrapped their F1 engine programme, leaving Larrousse to join Arrows in switching to Ford engines.

The arrival of new teams Simtek and Pacific boosted the grid to 28 cars – and meant two per weekend would be eliminated after qualifying.

Mosley and the FIA

The move to outlaw driver aids for 1994 had inevitably drawn the strongest opposition from the teams who had benefitted most from it – Williams initially, and also McLaren, who won the final two races of 1993 with their highly advanced MP4-8. Not that their drivers necessarily felt the same way – Senna famously used his 1992 Christmas card to Mosley to lobby for a ban on driver aids.

But as the reality of the rules change sunk in during the off-season, concerns became fixed on whether it was possible to ban innovations such as launch control, which could be hidden within thousands of lines of proprietary computer source code. “I don’t think you should ban something that you can’t police,” said McLaren team principal Ron Dennis.

Days before the cars arrived in Brazil for the first race, Mosley warned that if someone “deliberately cheated – not that they interpreted the rule differently to you or there was some debatable point which they may be wrong about – then I think Draconian penalties are completely correct”.

But aside from worries over refuelling, safety was not a major talking point ahead of the new season. “Touch wood we haven’t killed anybody at a grand prix for 11 years now,” Mosley remarked in a pre-season interview, referring to the death of Ricardo Paletti in 1982.

Those intervening years had seen other serious crashes, including the death of Elio de Angelis during testing in 1986. But some of the more alarming incidents prior to 1994, such as Alessandro Zanardi’s fearful shunt at Eau Rouge the year before, had been caused by active suspension failures. There was good reason to believe that if banning it was going to have any effect on safety it would be a positive one.

But the coming months were to reveal in the most shocking way just how vulnerable drivers had become in their cars.

Remembering the 1994 season on F1 Fanatic

F1 Fanatic will run a series of articles during the coming year looking back on the how the 1994 season changed the world championship. More details on how the season unfolded will appear in many of the On This Day segments in the daily round-up.

Did you go to any of the races during the 1994 season? If so please share your experiences here:

1994 F1 season

Browse all 1994 F1 season articles

70 comments on “1994: Remembering the year everything changed”

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  1. I’ll be looking forward to this series too. I was 16 and this was probably the time at the peak of my interest in F1. The season held so much promise – rules changes that would shake the (stale!) order up, a new generation of drivers coming to the fore in Schumacher, Hill, Hakkinen & Alesi, even JJ Lehto, a guy who I’d admired since his F3 days had a decent seat. Benetton starting to mix it with the big two, and new teams and circuits in the series. I couldn’t stand Senna as a driver – an early Schumacher win, followed by hoots of joy that woke my parents up when he was booted off in Aida. Things were off to a thrilling start.

    And then.

    It was one horrific thing after the next that weekend, and for several races after. There was a feeling throughout the rest of the season of not ever being sure if we were out of some very cold, dark woods.

    Keith is right – it changed everything.

  2. I watched that race live on TV here in the US, and I could scarcely believe what I had witnessed. It always brings a tear to my eye when I think about that tragic weekend at Imola, and finding out later that Senna was carrying an Austrian flag with him in his cockpit to display in Ratzenberger’s honor after the race was so heart rendering. Such a sad weekend.

  3. I turned 4 in 1994, and have been a fanatic follower all of my life since young. My first ever watching the race memory is Martin Brundle’s crash in Melbourne 1996. My first genuinely acute memory of following a season is 1997.

    I kind of feel thankful that I have what, to my perspective, is the best experience and perspective of 1994 and the years following. What I mean by that, is that I ultimately didn’t experience it, I didn’t have to go through the trauma myself, for me it’s always been history. But it’s very recent history I don’t feel distant from. I never knew a time where Senna was alive or remember him being killed. But he was always ‘that modern and recently killed great’ as I was raised through my father and uncle on the sport and his legacy. I remember making Dad buy me the special Top 100 Drivers F1 Racing edition in 1997, (which I read so much then and have so treasured ever since that I could list you the 100 off by heart right here :P) and seeing Senna as No.1, and the quote referring to ‘that day at Imola three years ago’ and being taken aback, as someone who at the time considered themselves an established follower of F1 (as much as a 7 year old can be) that it was so recent. I don’t think the maths had quite felt that acute to me.

    As such, my fascination and research since then always centred on 1994, partly also for the crazy controversial season it became and also because I was a Schumacher fan, watching him in 97,98 and 99 knowing he was a previous champion but having not gotten to see it, so researching back to his glory days.

    1994 is definitely the turning point year for all the obvious reasons, but for me its always been more than that, it’s just kind of been the start of modern F1 for me. Obviously that is in large part contributed to by what happened and the changes, and up until 1994 the cars look so unsafe and ‘old and weird’ to me. But as someone who just intimately studies and immerses myself in everything about modern seasons and knows most that there is to know about every season in my generational lifetime, 1994 is the starting point to that. I’ve obviously over the years slowly wound back my study period. But 1992 and 1993 are comparatively ancient to me. They’re like any season back to 1950. I know who won the championship, I can (for most years) name the order of race wins. I know the basic stories. But 1994, 95, 96 etc , in terms of statistical vividness for me, and then obviously every year since 1997 in terms of ‘physical memory’, could just as well be 2013 for all the intimacy I have with them.

    (Actually in hindsight they’ll be far MORE clear years to me than 2013 which like 2011 has already kind of faded a bit. :P)

    But yeah, it’s just a weird thing for me. 1994 for most people is defined almost entirely by tragedy but for me and what I admit is my heartlessly cold statistical brain, 1994 is actually absolute fodder, I kind of remember it fondly purely for its ‘iconicness’ of events. You cannot deny the sheer history attached.

    But my awareness and study of the year is so complete that I of course have a full appreciation for the tragedy of everything.

    So that’s what I mean about my perspective. I really do feel humble and grateful coz in many ways 1994 is responsible for so much that has attached me to F1, like the coming of Schumacher and just the coming of late 90s modern era I loved. It is also the FIA’s work of 1994 and beyond that make me so privileged as to have never experienced death in F1, and until that day in Las Vegas more than two years ago now, to have never witnessed a live death in racing.

    But I get to have all this without having experienced the horror of physically been there, I can’t imagine what it would have been like for everyone.

    Most importantly, all well before the Senna movie but which only reinforced it more, I have a strong appreciation for Senna’s legacy and ultimately hold him with an appropriate reverence. I only regret not having actually got to experience him at the time.

  4. 1994 was the third season I’d ever watched of F1 and it is burned into my memory. It is no understatement to say it changed everything. We lost Aytron and Roland and very nearly lost Rubens and Karl Wendlinger, politics reached new highs, the rumours of teams cheating and the season ending incident between MSC and Damon Hill. It had highs from a sporting side, which for me happened on that dark and rainy day at Suzuka when Hill held of MSC for a tense aggregate win but it will forever be remembered for those we lost and for the political controversies.

  5. 1994 was the season I first remember watching on TV so I’m very much looking forward to this series of articles. First one made for a great read Keith :)

  6. What a terrible season. I was 18 years old, already a huge huge huge fan.

    Even if I was disappointed to see Prost leaving (since I’m french ;-) … and by the way sorry for the mistakes I cou… will make) ), I was so happy to see traction control and other assistances banned. The championship was open, especially after brazilian GP where Schumacher proved he would be a tough rival for Senna.

    Everything was settled for a great championship, and a great race in Imola. Beautiful track, beautiful weather… and in the end a nightmare for everybody. I remembered waking up several times during the night after the race; everytime I had the hope that all of this was not real. “Senna, the great Senna”: I had these words in my head and couldn’t get rid of them.

    There is a before 1994 and an after, as we say in french. F1 is not the same anymore since these terrible days.

  7. I’ve been a regular visitor to this site for some time now, but have only just got around to registering and it was this article that finally made me do so, so thank you to @keithcollantine for starting this series.

    I was 9 in 1994 and it was my second full season of watching Formula One. Despite being young then, I still have very vivid memories of the season, whilst there was great tragedy and in many ways it was a terrible time for Formula 1, when I am asked about “memorable” times or seasons in Formula 1, I find myself uncontrollably coming back to 1994.

    I think that this is because, as previous commenters have said, 1994 was when everything changed and for me, certainly, 1994 was when everything became “real”. The seasons I’d watched prior were (to the young me anyway) about watching “cool” fast cars racing and I still remember being in awe the first time I properly watched a race. Then 1994 came along.

    From the very beginning I became interested in the history of the sport and tried to learn (and in time watch) as much as I could, so I became aware of the tragedy that was prevalent throughout the sport’s history but this was different because I was seeing it unfold in front of me. From Zanardi’s crash at Spa in 1993, to the crashes in testing in Early 1994 (as mentioned in the article), suddenly the sport I had now become fanatical about was showing it’s dangerous side again. This was no more evident than in the first race of the year with the four car crash at the Brazilian GP, which at that point was probably the biggest (multi-car) crash I’d seen.

    By the time Imola came along, I was already feeling differently about F1 and when the report about Roland Ratzenberger came on the evening news (knowing already that Rubens was in hospital), I remember asking my parents about what would happen and whether the race would be cancelled or postponed. Even they said, they weren’t sure what would happen because it had been so long since anything like this had happened at a race weekend.

    As I’m sure any one who watched the race at Imola live on TV that would say, the atmosphere before the race felt strange and different. Obviously, we all know what happened next. In the days following Imola and Ayrton Senna’s death, as I look back on it now, this was when I went from being a big F1 fan to being a true emotional F1 fanatic (which has lasted right through to today) and I clearly remember feeling sad during the Monaco weekend, not least because of Karl Wendlinger’s crash but also because of the gathering of everyone at the front of the grid for the tribute to Ratzenberger & Senna. I remember thinking how sad they all looked and how I felt the same way.

    Then the drivers somehow all managed to get back into their cars and get back to the business of driving. Seeing them do that somehow gave me the strength and passion to keep watching, if they could carry on then so could I. Carry on, but never forget and always respect.

    I suppose in many ways, this is why the rest of 1994 will always stick out to me as well when I’m asked about my most memorable seasons, because going through this is what turned me into the passionate fanatic I am today and that could never have been more raw than in 1994.

    I’ll stop now because I’m sure that this must be one of the longest ever first posts in F1 Fanatic history, but I will eagerly await the rest of the articles in this series. I’m off to comment on other things now, but rest assured they’ll be much shorter!

  8. I feel so damn young compared to all of you. I was born a bit over a year after the accident and started watching F1 in 2002 and since 2003 I’ve been a diehard fan. Despite looking at tons of footage, Senna documentary and the Top Gear segment about him I have never really considered him the best I’d say it would be Fangio or Jim Clark instead.

    1. Senna had A LOT of charisma, and a deep, complex personnality. In 94, since Prost left, he was the only giant on track (remember Schumacher was still very young and considered as a rookie): the whole F1 world was looking at him as the natural leader of the field, sportily of course, but also spiritually.
      Senna’s aura was gigantic: maybe that’s something hard to feel through documentaries/videos when you have not known this era (one of the greatest of F1 history).

  9. Am I the only one here to think that Jordan from 1994 was ABSOLUTELY STUNNING? This is mere perfection in terms of beauty.

    I enjoyed F1 since about 1991/92, but it was Senna’s death that made me watch it diligently. I was 11 back then and still remember the very moment in which I found about the accident as I couldn’t watch the race on that day.
    We went with my parents to my dad’s friend and the 17:00 news on TV was on and their son – who was my age – shouted “Did you hear it already?!? Ayrton Senna died in a crash!!”.

    In the years 1994-1999 I watched F1, IndyCar, MotoGP and BTCC religiously missing only 1 F1 race: Monaco 1995, which I’ve always regreted (I was only able to see the first start with the mass crash).

    That year changed everything. And Mansell’s win at the last race in Adelaide always felt like the last race of the real F1.

    1. @damon The 1994 Jordan was a great looking car and most importantly went really well too… If memory serves, Rubens was 2nd in the championship after the first two races. They were also one of the first teams (if not the very first) to demonstrate refueling… I remember the images of one very large guy hauling the refueling equipment into the side of a Jordan at a very cold looking Silverstone!

      I know what you mean about Adelaide too, in many ways that was what brought a whole era to a close. Especially given how different many of the cars were for 1995/6.

      I remember Mansell, Berger & Brundle celebrating in parc ferme, I doubt they expected they’d be sharing the podium that day and they all looked like they’d had a very enjoyable race. One F1 magazine I read at the time jokingly called it the “Pensioners Podium” as it was the 10th Australian GP and they were 3 of the only 4 drivers that had competed in the first one (the other being Michele Alboreto, for whom it was his last GP). loved Murray’s enthusiasm as Mansell crossed the line too!

  10. Hope Keith posts the Dale Earnhardt condolences video after Senna’s death. I never knew about that until recently and I’m american…

  11. Great article, you just jogged some memories.
    I was 20, and I never felt so much sadness for a hero like for Senna’s death.
    Those were unique times, and I’m happy to remember the racer and the idol most of us lost that day.

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