The British Grand Prix, 20 years ago today, marked the halfway point in the 16-round 1994 world championship season, but even at this early stage the prospect of anyone beating Michael Schumacher to the world championship looked remote.
A gearbox glitch in Spain was all that had kept him from winning the first seven races in a row. He’d still limped home in second place, and so he arrived at Silverstone with 66 points from a potential 70.
His closest rival Damon Hill was now leading the Williams charge following the death of Ayrton Senna, but had less than half Schumacher’s points tally.
Schumacher had won again in France one week earlier, but the race gave his rivals some cause for optimism. Hill had led a Williams lock-out of the front row of the grid, and Ferrari’s revised chassis had performed well on its first outing.
At Silverstone a thrilling qualifying session on Saturday saw all three teams in with a chance of claiming pole position. But in the race a costly mistake by Schumacher had potentially massive consequences for his championship chances.
Hill takes pole in qualifying thriller
Nigel Mansell headed back to IndyCar after his appearance for Williams in France. While Mansell enjoyed his best result of the season so far, finishing second to Al Unser Jnr in Cleveland, David Coulthard picked up where he left off alongside Hill at Williams.
Hill went into his home race weekend in a sour mood, frustrated by press criticism of his inability to beat Schumacher. His demeanour was not improved when the suspension on his Williams collapsed on his first lap out of the pits during practice.
Fortunately Hill, like most of his rivals, had already driven the heavily revised Silverstone circuit during testing. Alterations had been planned at the track following JJ Lehto’s pre-season testing crash, but efforts were stepped up following the fatal crashes at Imola. Since then Pedro Lamy had also suffered a major crash at the track.
Silverstone had been heavily revised just three years earlier, and now went through another extensive programme of changes. Copse, still the first corner, was tightened to reduce the speed of the cars and increase run-off. The same was down at Stowe, though in years to come both these alterations would be relaxed.
At Maggotts and Becketts the kerbs were lowered to prevent a repeat of the kind of crash Rubens Barrichello experienced at Imola. The most drastic change was at Abbey, scene of Lamy’s crash, where a chicane was installed to slow the cars before Bridge.
Priory and Brooklands were also remodelled, as was the pit lane entrance. For the spectators an unfortunate consequence of many of the changes was they found themselves considerably further away from the cars at several points around the circuit. Lap times were also considerably slower – by up to six seconds compared with the year before.
The increased lap times were, to a lesser extent, a consequence of changes to the cars to reduce their performance since Imola. A further change was planned for the next race in Germany where stepped floors would be mandated to raise ride heights and reduce downforce.
The British Grand Prix was the last race for flat-bottomed F1 cars, which produced their distinctive showers of sparks when they kissed the ground. Over 20 years later, the sport is trying to recreate that part of the spectacle via artificial means.
But despite the slower lap times – almost six seconds off the 1993 mark – qualifying proved the highlight of the weekend. Schumacher and Hill swapped fastest times with Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari throughout the final one hour of running on Saturday.
The Ferrari driver led the way until a late effort by Hill pipped him by two-hundredths of a second. But Berger’s next attempt to lower his time was thwarted when he was badly held up by Mika Hakkinen. Fortunately for the McLaren driver there were no penalties for impeding in those days.
Berger had only himself to blame for failing to get the most out of his last run. Accelerating out of the pits he clipped the wall, damaging his front-left wheel and sidepod, and though he tried to return to the Ferrari garage he spun at Priory.
That left only Schumacher able to beat Hill’s time. He hustled the the nimble Benetton through the final sector on his first lap and crossed the line a mere three-thousandths of a second off Hill’s time. With one run left Schumacher was ahead halfway through the lap – but a touch too much oversteer cost him that slender advantage, and pole was Hill’s.
It promised to be a thrilling grand prix – but Schumacher’s failure to capture pole position would have far-reaching ramifications on race day.
1994 British Grand Prix grid
|Row 1||1. Damon Hill 1’24.960
|2. Michael Schumacher 1’24.963
|Row 2||3. Gerhard Berger 1’24.980
|4. Jean Alesi 1’25.541
|Row 3||5. Mika Hakkinen 1’26.268
|6. Rubens Barrichello 1’26.271
|Row 4||7. David Coulthard 1’26.337
|8. Ukyo Katayama 1’26.414
|Row 5||9. Martin Brundle 1’26.768
|10. Jos Verstappen 1’26.841
|Row 6||11. Mark Blundell 1’26.920
|12. Eddie Irvine 1’27.065
|Row 7||13. Heinz-Harald Frentzen 1’27.284
|14. Pierluigi Martini 1’27.522
|Row 8||15. Olivier Panis 1’27.785
|16. Gianni Morbidelli 1’27.886
|Row 9||17. Michele Alboreto 1’28.100
|18. Andrea de Cesaris 1’28.212
|Row 10||19. Alessandro Zanardi 1’28.225
|20. Christian Fittipaldi 1’28.231
|Row 11||21. Johnny Herbert 1’28.340
|22. Erik Comas 1’28.519
|Row 12||23. Eric Bernard 1’28.955
|24. Olivier Beretta 1’29.299
|Row 13||25. David Brabham 1’30.690
|26. Jean-Marc Gounon 1’30.722
After enjoying a support programme which featured Britain’s thriving domestic Formula Three and touring car championships, the crowd anticipated a grand prix with significant British interest. However several of the local drivers hit trouble within moments of the start.
Coulthard stalled his Williams and had to start from the back of the field. This also meant drivers had to complete a second formation lap, during which time Eddie Irvine’s Hart engine failed, putting the Jordan driver out. And within seconds of the race finally getting underway, Martin Brundle’s Peugeot V10 exploded.
But a British driver led away at the head of the field. Hill had been beaten to turn one from pole position by Schumacher in France, but this time he made a clean start and stayed ahead of his rival at the first corner.
This came after an unsubtle attempt at gamesmanship from Schumacher. Pulling away from the grid on the first formation lap he made a point of overtaking Hill and staying there fore several corners. He repeated the tactic further around the lap and did so again during the second formation lap ahead of the final start.
The stewards took a dim view of his behaviour and decided to punish him under the rule requiring drivers to maintain their grid order at the start. The rule also required Schumacher to start from the back of the grid. As the race had started and this was no longer possible, he was instead given a five-second stop-go penalty.
Benetton later claimed they were unaware this meant Schumacher should enter the pits and stop for five seconds. Instead they said they expected he would have five seconds added to his race time.
This proved a crucial distinction, but Benetton did not have good grounds to make this assumption. The rules at the time stated that the option to add time to a driver’s finishing position was only available to stewards in the final 12 laps of a race. There were only a few previous instances of such a penalty being used, and all involved delays of a full minute rather than a mere five seconds.
Stop-go penalties, however, were a recent introduction as Schumacher was well aware. One year earlier in Monaco he had taken the lead of the race thanks to Alain Prost being given such a penalty.
Schumacher’s penalty was announced on lap 13, but when took to the pits four laps later it was only to make a routine refuelling stop. Despite the distraction, Benetton’s pit strategy was as sharp as ever.
The Benetton left the pits ahead of Hill’s Williams, who had pitted one lap before. Within a few laps they had caught Berger, who made a late first pit stop, and the trio briefly ran nose to tail before the Ferrari driver came in on lap 22.
Not all of the television commentary teams were alerted to Schumacher’s predicament. The BBC were – and unlike Benetton understood it to be a “stop-go” penalty – but Eurosport were left in the dark. That changed when, moments before Berger made his pit stop, a message appeared on television screens stating Schumacher was being disqualified.
As he came past the pits the black-flag was duly shown, accompanied by his race number. It remained out for the next two laps, but still Schumacher stayed out.
Furious remonstrations were now underway between FIA race director Roland Bruynseraede and Benetton team members led by Tom Walkinshaw. The black flag was eventually withdrawn, and on lap 27 Schumacher finally appeared in the pits to serve his stop-go penalty while Bruynseraede looked on.
This served to spoil what could have been the most closely-fought battles between Hill and Schumacher so far. The pair were closely matched on performance, but towards the end of the race Schumacher began to struggle with his down-shift.
The race distance was shortened by one tour due to the extra formation lap, so when Hill crossed the finishing line he was initially unaware he’d won. He collected a Union Jack flag after clinching victory in a race his two-times world championship-winning father Graham had never managed to win. Fortunately for Hill, the FIA later cleared him of stopping on the slowing down lap to collect the flag – a potential transgression of the rules.
Berger’s challenge ended when his engine failed on the 32nd lap. That promoted Jean Alesi to third, while behind him a fraught battle for fourth was decided at the final corner.
Rubens Barrichello optimistically lunged his Jordan down the inside of Hakkinen at the second part of Luffield, succeeding only in spinning the McLaren into the gravel. Barrichello continued but, having also failed to realise it was the final lap, he pulled into the pits. Meanwhile Hakkinen was sent on his way by the marshals and crossed the finishing line to stay ahead of Barrichello.
Following his hydraulic failure on the initial start, Coulthard impressively worked his way back into the points. This was despite a distraction from his radio which picked up interference from a local taxi firm, which asked him to make a collection from the nearby village of Towcester.
But they were all set to move up a place once the FIA called Schumacher and Benetton to account.
1994 British Grand Prix result
|Pos.||#||Driver||Team||Laps||Time / gap / reason|
|5||2||David Coulthard||Williams-Renault||59||1 lap|
|6||3||Ukyo Katayama||Tyrrell-Yamaha||59||1 lap|
|7||30||Heinz-Harald Frentzen||Sauber-Mercedes||59||1 lap|
|8||6||Jos Verstappen||Benetton-Ford||59||1 lap|
|9||9||Christian Fittipaldi||Footwork-Ford||58||2 laps|
|10||23||Pierluigi Martini||Minardi-Ford||58||2 laps|
|11||12||Johnny Herbert||Lotus-Mugen-Honda||58||2 laps|
|12||26||Olivier Panis||Ligier-Renault||58||2 laps|
|13||25||Eric Bernard||Ligier-Renault||58||2 laps|
|14||19||Olivier Beretta||Larrousse-Ford||58||2 laps|
|15||31||David Brabham||Simtek-Ford||57||3 laps|
|16||32||Jean-Marc Gounon||Simtek-Ford||57||3 laps|
|29||Andrea de Cesaris||Sauber-Mercedes||11||Engine|
|15||Eddie Irvine||Jordan-Hart||0||Did not start|
Although he had committed a serious infraction by not responding to the black flag – which instructs a driver to pull into the pits and cease racing – the Silverstone stewards allowed his second place to stand, but levied a $25,000 fine.
That changed when Benetton were called before the FIA’s World Motor Sport Council, which took a dim view both of their behaviour and of how Schumacher’s penalty had been handled. Clerk of the Course Pierre Aumonier had his superlicence suspended for the rest of the year, an indication of the FIA’s displeasure at how the stewards handled the incident.
Schumacher’s plea that he hadn’t seen the black flag cut no ice with the council, which was no surprise. Mansell had used the same line five years earlier when he was accused of ignoring a black flag during the Portuguese Grand Prix. The Ferrari driver was excluded from the next race.
Failing to obey the instructions of the stewards was just one of the charges Benetton faced when they attended the WMSC hearing on July 26th. But it was the one which hit them hardest.
FIA president Max Mosley told Schumacher and team principal Flavio Briatore they were being fined $500,000 – and excluded from the next two races. “And we’re taking away the six points for Silverstone,” he added.
As with Irvine’s three-race ban earlier in the year, this was another example of tough justice from Mosley. Yet it also smacked of vengeance for Briatore’s public letter denouncing Mosley’s safety initiatives in the wake of Imola. It also promised to rebalance the situation in a very one-sided drivers’ championship.
“My impression at the time was that it was a set-up and I was the scapegoat,” said Schumacher years later, but admitted “the way Flavio Briatore dealt with it didn’t really help either”. It left him facing a ban from the next round of the championship: his home grand prix at Hockenheim.
Grand Prix flashback
- Last-lap heartbreak for Hill and Arrows
- Berger takes final win in ‘a race I shouldn’t have done’
- Villeneuve lucks out then lucks in for second Silverstone win
- Inspired Schumacher takes ’11-point win’ at Magny-Cours
- Villeneuve slip-up hands title lead back to Schumacher after Panis crash
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