Bernie Ecclestone was eager to change that in the interest of promoting the series. And the French Grand Prix provided him with an opportunity to do it.
Having lost their star driver, Williams’ engine supplier Renault was eager to bolster the team’s line-up with another top talent. But Alain Prost, who won the championship for them in 1993, had decided against a return to F1 racing after Senna’s death
Nigel Mansell had taken the title with Williams the year before. He was still racing, and having won the IndyCar title in 1993 his championship defence with Newman/Haas was being crushed by the might of their Penske rivals. After his last race at Portland Mansell had mustered barely more than half the points of series leader Al Unser Jnr.
Despite the acrimonious nature of his departure from Williams two years earlier, Mansell was open to the idea of returning to F1 again in one of the top cars. But his contractual obligations in America meant he would not be available to race until after the IndyCar season had ended, three races before the F1 championship’s conclusion.
However such was Renault’s urge to get him in one of their cars for the round at Magny-Cours that terms were agreed for Mansell to do the race as a one-off, along with the other three, for a total fee of £4 million. In order to avoid conflicts with his backing from Ford and Texaco in IndyCar, Mansell’s overalls would not feature the logos of Renault or Elf, though his car would. Red five, which had become red one in America, would return as red two.
Williams’ championship rivals Benetton had also changed their driver line-up. JJ Lehto’s wildly varying performances since returning to the car had convinced team principal Flavio Briatore all was not well with his driver, and Jos Verstappen was recalled to partner Michael Schumacher.
“I wanted to come back as soon as I could,” Lehto reflected, “but I probably made a mistake to return that quickly. Then, when I had the accident at Imola, it was difficult to pick up mentally.”
Jean-Marc Gounon’s arrival alongside David Brabham at Simtek in time for his home race had been planned since the beginning of the season. He made his return to F1 having started twice for Minardi at the end of the previous season.
1994 French Grand Prix grid
Magny-Cours had been renovated as recently as 1991, so while other circuits were told to slow down their fastest corners in the wake of Imola, the French Grand Prix venue was largely unchanged. However more run-off was added in several places.
But during the second qualifying session a heavy crash for Verstappen highlighted another area for improvement. The Benetton driver got too greedy with the kerb at the final corner and pitched his Benetton hard into the pit wall. With no fence to contain the accident, debris from Verstappen’s crash demolished several of McLaren’s monitors but fortunately no one was hurt.
Schumacher had led the times on Friday with Damon Hill third and Mansell, predictably the centre of attention, seventh. But the Williams pair were flying on Saturday and Mansell headed the times until the final minutes of the session.
Hill, who had received a shock when Verstappen crashed just metres away from him earlier in the session, took to the track for a final effort. He hurled the Williams at the final corner, kept it together and crossed the line to pip Mansell to pole position by a scant seven-hundredths of a second.
Just as importantly as far as Williams were concerned, Schumacher had been dislodged from the front row of the grid for the first time all season.
For their home race Peugeot brought updated version of their A6 V10 engines for McLaren, but it wasn’t enough for either Mika Hakkinen or Martin Brundle to out-qualify either of the Jordans with their Hart V10s.
Briatore chose the Friday of the race weekend to announce he had taken over the Ligier team which, given their Renault engine supply, was a significant move. Former Ferrari team principal Cesare Fiorio was hired to lead them. As usual they put their local track knowledge to good use – Olivier Panis and Eric Bernard claimed their best qualifying positions of the year so far with 13th and 15th respectively.
But the return of the second Simtek spelled bad news for Pacific. Neither driver made it onto the grid – a pattern which continued for the rest of the season.
|Row 1||1. Damon Hill 1’16.282
|2. Nigel Mansell 1’16.359
|Row 2||3. Michael Schumacher 1’16.707
|4. Jean Alesi 1’16.954
|Row 3||5. Gerhard Berger 1’16.959
|6. Eddie Irvine 1’17.441
|Row 4||7. Rubens Barrichello 1’17.482
|8. Jos Verstappen 1’17.645
|Row 5||9. Mika Hakkinen 1’17.768
|10. Heinz-Harald Frentzen 1’17.830
|Row 6||11. Andrea de Cesaris 1’17.866
|12. Martin Brundle 1’18.031
|Row 7||13. Olivier Panis 1’18.044
|14. Ukyo Katayama 1’18.192
|Row 8||15. Eric Bernard 1’18.236
|16. Pierluigi Martini 1’18.248
|Row 9||17. Mark Blundell 1’18.381
|18. Christian Fittipaldi 1’18.568
|Row 10||19. Johnny Herbert 1’18.715
|20. Erik Comas 1’18.811
|Row 11||21. Michele Alboreto 1’18.890
|22. Gianni Morbidelli 1’18.936
|Row 12||23. Alessandro Zanardi 1’19.066
|24. David Brabham 1’19.771
|Row 13||25. Olivier Beretta 1’19.863
|26. Jean-Marc Gounon 1’21.829
Did not qualify
Bertrand Gachot, Pacific-Ilmor – 1’21.952
Paul Belmondo, Pacific-Ilmor – 1’23.004
Schumacher’s rapid start
Suspicions over the quality of the starts Schumacher was making in his Benetton had been raised earlier in the season. Williams had filmed Schumacher’s car at the start of races, and though the events of Imola had overshadowed the row, the FIA had begun investigating several teams including Benetton over allegations they were getting around the ban on traction and launch control.
Schumacher’s start in France gave fresh impetus to those claims. From third on the grid, and despite Magny-Cours having a very short run to the corner and Hill making what he called his second-best start of the year, the Benetton immediately shot past both Williams drivers.
It was all down to the development work the team had done in the lead-up to the race, said Schumacher afterwards. “I catched the right moment to go, just when the red disappeared I was going,” he said. “I couldn’t have done any better.”
“We have done a lot of development to our clutch which hasn’t been very good in the beginning of the season,” he added. “Since we raced this new clutch it’s giving us a lot better performance in the start and that’s what you see since then, we’re doing always good starts.”
Whether because of Mansell’s input or the advances made in recent races, the Williams cars were clearly more competitive than they had been – even if Mansell had undone some of his good work by making a late change to his rear suspension which had backfired. Hill gave pursuit of Schumacher, and set the race’s fastest lap as early as lap four, before a series of incidents deposited oil and gravel on the course.
But Mansell’s experience of refuelling strategy in IndyCar racing seemed not to have rubbed off on the team. Once again they were outfoxed by Benetton. Hill made two pit stops during the race but Ross Brawn brought Schumacher’s car in three times. As the pair also demonstrated ten years later, Magny-Cours’ short pit lane meant little time was lost making pit stops, rewarding more aggressive fuel strategies.
Schumacher’s second pit stop on lap 38 handed the lead to Hill. But within six laps the Benetton was back on the tail of the Williams, and as both had to pit again Schumacher held the whip hand. Hill made his final pit stop that time by and was badly held up on his out-lap by the Sauber of Andrea de Cesaris. That completely finished his chances, and Schumacher easily held his lead after his third and final pit stop.
Mansell had made an early first pit stop to change his tyres pressures and adjust his front wing in an attempt to compensate for his set-up mistake. The swung the balance of his car from oversteer to understeer and forced a second pit stop on lap 29 – this time without even taking on any fuel – to correct the correction.
Transmission failure on lap 45 ended his disappointing comeback race – he rolled to a halt at the hairpin where he was immediately besieged by photographers. After a stop-off in the pits for a chat with Frank Williams, Mansell dashed off before the chequered flag to return to America.
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His fellow F1 returnee Verstappen fared little better, exploring the Magny-Cours circuit’s expanded gravel traps to their fullest. He knocked the front wing off his car in one, then after having it replaced spun into retirement in another.
The Footwork cars showed little of their former pace: Gianni Morbidelli qualified 22nd and was running 13th when an over-ambitious Olivier Panis took him out at the hairpin. Christian Fittipaldi finished two laps down in eighth.
However Jean Alesi was fortunate to escape sanction after a careless mistake took him and Rubens Barrichello out of the race. The Ferrari driver had been running fourth when he went of at Lycee and bounced through the gravel trap, leaving his car facing the wrong direction.
He executed a quick spin-turn just as fifth-placed Barrichello arrived in his Jordan. Facing a screen of Alesi’s tyre smoke, Barrichello was powerless to avoid the Ferrari and the collision eliminated the pair of them.
Following the collision and Mansell’s retirement Hakkinen was briefly promoted to fourth, before a Peugeot engine failure meant he joined his team mate on the sidelines. Heinz-Harald Frentzen therefore took fourth, with team mate de Cesaris in sixth making it a double points finish for Sauber. They sandwiched the Minardi of Pierluigi Martini.
Schumacher clinched his sixth win from seven starts but his reduced victory margin over Hill suggested the rest of the season was not going to be as one-sided. And a stronger showing from Gerhard Berger thanks to an uprated Ferrari engine showed Benetton had more than one rival to worry about.
1994 French Grand Prix result
|Pos.||#||Driver||Car||Laps||Time / gap / reason|
|4||30||Heinz-Harald Frentzen||Sauber-Mercedes||71||1 lap|
|5||23||Pierluigi Martini||Minardi-Ford||70||2 laps|
|6||29||Andrea de Cesaris||Sauber-Mercedes||70||2 laps|
|7||12||Johnny Herbert||Lotus-Mugen-Honda||70||2 laps|
|8||9||Christian Fittipaldi||Footwork-Ford||70||2 laps|
|9||32||Jean-Marc Gounon||Simtek-Ford||68||4 laps|
|10||4||Mark Blundell||Tyrrell-Yamaha||67||5 laps|
1994 drivers’ championship after France
With seven of the sixteen rounds completed, Schumacher held a 37-point lead over Hill (a win was worth ten). This was the largest margin he enjoyed all season.
|Grand Prix||Brazil||Pacific||San Marino||Monaco||Spain||Canada||France|
|Andrea de Cesaris||0||0||0||3||3||3||4|
The ‘option 13’ row
Mansell’s return failed to inject a longed-for element of drama into the French Grand Prix. But the opening seconds of the race yielded its biggest talking point. Schumacher’s incredible start, performed after the cars had been held stationary for an unusually long time, aroused widespread suspicion.
The results of the FIA’s investigation into electronic systems used by Benetton, McLaren and Ferrari were announced ahead of the German Grand Prix. Ferrari, who had already come under suspicion of using traction control at the second round of the season, were cleared after giving the FIA the access it required to its source code.
Benetton and McLaren did not do so initially. Once Benetton had, the FIA found evidence of the presence of launch control systems, but stopped short of claiming they had been used.
When Benetton attempted to explain away its presence by saying it was only used during testing, and that in order to activate it the source code would have to be re-compiled, the FIA discovered it was in fact ready to run. But only if the driver and engineer knew where to find it.
“In order to enable ‘launch control’, a particular menu with ten options has to be selected on the PC screen,” read the FIA’s assessment. “‘Launch control’ is not visibly listed as an option. The menu was so arranged that, after ten items, nothing further appeared.”
“If, however, the operator scrolled down the menu beyond the tenth listed option, to option 13, launch control can be enabled, even though this is not visible on the screen. No satisfactory explanation was offered for this apparent attempt to conceal the feature.”
The FIA also discovered that as well as activating the hidden menu option, the driver had to perform a sequence of presses on the gear shift levers and clutch and throttle pedals to activate the system.
Schumacher strenuously denied having used it. Brawn insisted the team had obscured access to the system in order to ensure it wasn’t triggered accidentally and said the data proved it hadn’t been used. But FIA president Max Mosley remained suspicious, and six years later admitted the FIA had “slipped up” when investigating Benetton.
“We seized the [control] boxes but we didn’t hold on to them which would have shown conclusively whether they did cheat or did not,” he said, adding that those findings could have changed the eventual verdict, which was limited to a $100,000 fine for Benetton for failing to provide its source code in time.
It served to underline the point made by several teams before the season began that the FIA had over-reached in its efforts to ban driver aids such as launch control and traction control.
Further weight was given to that claim later in the year when McLaren were discovered to have been running a fully automated system for changing up through the gears. This was only revealed when Philippe Alliot, who drove for McLaren in Hungary, joined Larrousse at the Belgian Grand Prix and remarked that his new car lacked the same facility.
Whether or not Benetton had used ‘option 13’ in a race may never be known. But at the time it was only the beginning of their troubles with the FIA.
Grand Prix flashback
- Damon Hill follows his father to F1 title
- Mansell retirement revives Prost’s title chances
- Mansell wins in Piquet’s car
- Lauda begins title defence with victory as Hunt shunts
- Alboreto wins – but Ferrari decline begins
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 © Williams/LAT, Ford