Twenty years ago Formula One embarked on a season that would change the sport forever.
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.
In 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.
With 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
- Schumacher’s first title tainted by clash with Hill
- How Brundle’s 1994 Suzuka crash mirrored Bianchi’s
- Schumacher edges clear as fuel rig thwarts Hill
- Hill cuts Schumacher’s lead to one point in Portugal
- Hill wins as crash crushes Lotus’s recovery hopes
Browse all 1994 F1 season articles
Image ?é?® Williams/LAT