Even the country’s thriving domestic Formula 3000 championship had not appeared at the short, tight and narrow circuit which opened in 1990. So it was to the surprise of some that it appeared on the F1 calendar for 1994, assuming the title of Pacific Grand Prix as Japan hosted two rounds of the world championship for the first time.
Unsurprisingly the motivating factor was the money Hajime Tanaka put up to host a race at his eponymous circuit. Before the race he and Bernie Ecclestone smiled and embraced for the cameras, and talked about the three-year deal with an option for two further races.
The logistics of getting to the circuit proved daunting for teams, media and fans alike. A fleet of buses was laid on to bring spectators to the remote track.
But there was an added incentive for the locals to show up. Eddie Irvine’s one-race ban for causing a collision in Brazil had been sensationally increased to three events, and Aguri Suzuki showed up at Jordan with a reported quarter of a million dollars in backing to take his seat for this race.
As this was F1’s first race at TI Aida, an extra day of practice was arranged for the drivers to acclimatise to the 3.7km (2.3-mile) track. During the build-up to the race, the FIA’s Charlie Whiting took time to listen to the noises made by the cars as they pulled out of the endless slow corners and hairpins which comprised grand prix racing’s newest track.
Whiting’s ear was tuned to the distinctive popping sound of engine cylinders being cut, which might indicate the presence of the recently-banned traction control. And one car in particular captured his attention as he looked and listened.
Suzuki wasn’t the only substitute driver who had been pressed into action as early as round two. Ferrari’s Jean Alesi had injured his neck in a testing crash at Mugello and Nicola Larini performed his role as stand-in once more, returning to the fray for Ferrari for the first time in two years.
But Larini did not endear himself to his team when, speaking to Italian media ahead of the race, he spectacularly spilled the beans on the very technical trickery Whiting was looking out for. After Larini let it slip Ferrari were running a form of the banned traction control his team quickly issued a denial.
After the ban on driver aids had been announced at the end of 1993 several team bosses had claimed the FIA was incapable of policing it, and here was proof of their claims. Ferrari team principal Jean Todt insisted they had obtained permission from Whiting to run a ‘variable rev limiter’, but once the FIA interjected Ferrari were required to remove the device.
“It came to the notice of the FIA technical delegate that during the free practice sessions on Saturday car numbers 27 and 28 were fitted with a device which in certain circumstances limited the power of the engine,” said the FIA in a statement ahead of the race.
“As the FIA technical delegate was not satisfied that the decide complied in all respects with the regulations, Ferrari were advised not to use it. This advice was complied with.” But Mosley’s pre-season promise of “Draconian penalties” for anyone caught breaking the driver aids ban now rang hollow.
1994 Pacific Grand Prix qualifying
Brazil had left Williams in no doubt they had work to do with their FW16. The car was clearly quick, but with a sweet spot so razor-thin it was almost non-existent. Ayrton Senna had put the car on pole position but couldn’t live with its wayward handling during the race and spun off while chasing Michael Schumacher.
The team tested at Jerez ahead of the Pacific race but once in Japan the drivers found the car had improved little. Both Senna and Damon Hill spun during qualifying, but Senna was able to conjure up a quick lap once again to claim his 64th pole position.
Hill, who had recovered from his Brazilian Grand Prix illness, was pleased to trim the gap to Senna to half a second, the pair separated by Schumacher on the grid. However Hill was concerned about the lack of run-off in places around the track, especially turn two.
It wasn’t the only cause for concern from a safety point of view. A tight chicane was installed at the pit lane entrance to slow the cars as they arrived for their still-novel refuelling stops. Schumacher had made the case for imposing a speed limit in the pits on safety grounds but other drivers had disagreed.
The Williams drivers weren’t the only ones to be caught out by the low-grip surface of the TI Aida track. Olivier Beretta spun his Larrousse during qualifying – their cars now painted in the red-and-white colours of Kronenbourg instead of the green they appeared in at round one.
If Larini thought his troubles were over when he accelerated out of the pits and left the media men behind, he was mistaken. Ukyo Katayama’s Tyrrell spun into him on a fast lap, damaging the rear of his Ferrari. But he qualified within sight of team mate Gerhard Berger.
The only driver on the grid with prior experience of the obscure circuit was another Austrian, Roland Ratzenberger, who had competed in a Japanese Touring Car Championship race there two years previously.
The Simtek driver had failed to qualify in Brazil but took on testing duties for the team at Silverstone while David Brabham recovered from a virus. This time both drivers made it onto the grid, despite Brabham spinning at the last corner. As he got up to speed part of front wing separated from the Simtek, but he returned to the pits without incident.
With both of Nick Wirth’s cars on the grid, that meant the Pacific Grand Prix grid did not feature either of the cars from the Pacific Grand Prix team.
1994 Pacific Grand Prix grid
|1. Ayrton Senna 1’10.218
|2. Michael Schumacher 1’10.440
|3. Damon Hill 1’10.771
|4. Mika Hakkinen 1’11.683
|5. Gerhard Berger 1’11.744
|6. Martin Brundle 1’12.351
|7. Nicola Larini 1’12.372
|8. Rubens Barrichello 1’12.409
|9. Christian Fittipaldi 1’12.444
|10. Jos Verstappen 1’12.554
|11. Heinz-Harald Frentzen 1’12.686
|12. Mark Blundell 1’12.751
|13. Gianni Morbidelli 1’12.866
|14. Ukyo Katayama 1’13.013
|15. Michele Alboreto 1’13.016
|16. Erik Comas 1’13.111
|17. Pierluigi Martini 1’13.529
|18. Eric Bernard 1’13.613
|19. Karl Wendlinger 1’13.855
|20. Aguri Suzuki 1’13.932
|21. Olivier Beretta 1’14.101
|22. Olivier Panis 1’14.106
|23. Johnny Herbert 1’14.424
|24. Pedro Lamy 1’14.657
|25. David Brabham 1’14.748
|26. Roland Ratzenberger 1’16.536
Did not qualify:
Bertrand Gachot, Pacific-Ilmor – 1’16.927
Paul Belmondo, Pacific-Ilmor – 1’17.450
1994 Pacific Grand Prix
In an innovation, the formation lap took place behind the Safety Car, a Porsche 911 with lurid F1 branding. Once it peeled off into the pits Senna gunned his engine, trying to inject some extra heat into his tyres after a slower than usual tour of the circuit.
Four years earlier Senna had been on pole position for a race in Japan and tried to get his starting position moved onto the racing line, which he expected to be favourable. He wasn’t successful, and the eventual first-corner collision with Alain Prost at Suzuka was one of the most notorious episodes in his career.
Now Senna was on pole again and was due to start on the racing line – but this time he wanted pole to be moved to the opposite side. A dragster had had been in action on that side of the grid ahead of the start of the race and Senna believed the rubber it had left behind would improve traction.
It seemed he was right. When the green light came on Schmacher got alongside him from second place and beat him to turn one. Senna tucked in behind him – and in an instant his race was over.
Mika Hakkinen, who had made a similarly good start from fourth on the grid, tapped the back of his car as they reached the first corner. The Williams went off backwards into a gravel trap and was hit by Larini, who had run wide in the first turn. Mark Blundell’s Tyrrell was also eliminated in the melee.
An angry Senna laid the blame at Hakkinen’s feet. Meanwhile the McLaren driver was making trouble for the other Williams of Hill, who was trying to make up ground after getting too much wheelspin at the start.
On lap four Hill tried to go around the outside of the McLaren at the likeliest overtaking spot on the track, but was forced onto the kerbs and spun. That left him down in eighth.
Hill made his way forward again, passing Jos Verstappen, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Christian Fittipaldi, Martin Brundle and Rubens Barrichello. He pitted on lap 18, intending to make his first of three stops, and that helped him jump Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari to briefly hold second.
Another second place was starting to look like a reasonable result from a frustrating day. But on the 50th lap the Williams lost all drive and Hill coasted to a stop.
Up front Schumacher had little to do besides pick off the backmarkers at his leisure and take care of his two refuelling stops. Berger took second place back and Barrichello went one better than Brazil by claiming the first podium finish for himself and Jordan in their 50th grand prix.
Team mate Suzuki’s return lasted until just after half distance when he skidded into a barrier while struggling with his steering. Moments earlier Ukyo Katayama’s Tyrrell came to a stop, his Yamaha engine having failed as it also had during the warm-up.
Hydraulic failure ended Hakkinen’s race after 19 laps. His car’s nose still bore a black mark from the first-lap contact with Senna. Brundle in the other McLaren was running in a podium position when he suffered an increasingly familiar Peugeot engine failure 15 laps from home.
That promoted from Christian Fittipaldi, who also benefitted from Verstappen spinning off at the first corner immediately after leaving the pits following his second pit stop on lap 54. Heinz-Harald Frenzten took fifth for Sauber and was fortunate to avoid a sanction from the stewards after accidentally completing another lap during the warm up.
The final point went to Erik Comas, whose Larrousse was lapped three times. The two Lotuses and Ligiers also made it to the flag, and Ratzenberger achieved his first finish, albeit five laps down.
1994 Pacific Grand Prix result
|1||5||Michael Schumacher||Benetton-Ford||83||1hr 46’01.693|
|3||14||Rubens Barrichello||Jordan-Hart||82||1 Lap|
|4||9||Christian Fittipaldi||Footwork-Ford||82||1 Lap|
|5||30||Heinz-Harald Frentzen||Sauber-Mercedes||82||1 Lap|
|6||20||Erik Comas||Larrousse-Ford||80||3 Laps|
|7||12||Johnny Herbert||Lotus-Mugen-Honda||80||3 Laps|
|8||11||Pedro Lamy||Lotus-Mugen-Honda||79||4 Laps|
|9||26||Olivier Panis||Ligier-Renault||78||5 Laps|
|10||25||Eric Bernard||Ligier-Renault||78||5 Laps|
|11||32||Roland Ratzenberger||Simtek-Ford||78||5 Laps|
Senna, the pre-season title favourite, was now 20 points behind Schumacher after two races. Benetton were making hay while Williams struggled, and a fascinating championship battle promised to develop once Williams got their car sorted.
But while the furore over Ferrari’s traction control raged on, they were not the only team to come under suspicion of breaking the rules.
After his enforced early retirement Senna had spent some time watching the race and like Whiting believed he spotted someone running traction control. But he had a different suspect in mind: Michael Schumacher’s Benetton.
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
Images © Ford, Williams/LAT