The German Grand Prix, held 20 years ago today, was another torrid chapter in the controversial 1994 season.
In the days leading up to the race fans heading to the Hockenheimring were shocked to learn the participation of home hero and championship leader Michael Schumacher in doubt as he and his Benetton team came out on the wrong side of an FIA appeal.
Although Schumacher did ultimately race, his team came away from the meeting with no points and counting the cost of a horrendous fire during Jos Verstappen’s pit stop.
And with a massive crash eliminating ten cars on the first lap, it almost escaped notice that, when the chequered flag fell, Ferrari had ended their longest-ever victory drought.
Bonfires and death threats
But three days before practice was due to start at the Hockenheimring came a shock verdict from the FIA’s World Motor Sport Council. For ignoring black flags during the British Grand Prix, Schumacher was to be banned from the next two races – beginning with his home race.
Some of those attending the race took the news very badly. Wood piles began to appear near the circuit, and fire departments were deployed to dismantle them out of fear that outraged fans were planning to set bonfires in the thick woodland the circuit passed through. Fearing a threat to public safety, the mayor of Hockenheim even made a direct appeal to those in charge to let Schumacher race.
The crisis could be averted if Benetton chose to appeal the decision. But they had incentives not to do so. Missing a race at the Hockenheimring, where their Ford V8-powered car would likely be out-gunned by the V12 Ferraris and V10 Williams-Renaults, would be preferable to missing a race later in the season at a track which suited them better if the outcome of their appeal was the postponement of Schumacher’s ban.
And there was the chance that appealing the ban could invite an even stronger sanction. Eddie Irvine’s one-race ban following the Brazilian Grand Prix was tripled on appeal.
Nonetheless, on the day before practice began Benetton announced they would appeal the decision. As a hearing could not be scheduled for several weeks, it therefore confirmed he would race at home, and the frenzy among the crowd subsided somewhat.
But not completely. On the day after the race Schumacher’s closest championship rival Damon Hill revealed he had been sent a death threat which he was told would be carried out if he qualified in front of Schumacher.
“A number of people seemed to think that I somehow should be blamed for his plight,” said Hill. “It could have been a crank, of course, but these days you never know and we took every precaution,” he added, mindful of the stabbing of tennis player Monica Seles the previous year by a fan of German player Steffi Graf.
Additional security was laid on for Hill, and later Gerhard Berger too when the Ferrari driver took pole position. “I used a back entrance to the circuit each day and had a police escort everywhere I went when outside the track,” said Hill. “There was even someone on duty outside my bedroom door each night.”
Ferrari front row
Schumacher was in the race, but Benetton’s problems were far from over. On the day before practice began the FIA released further details from the World Motor Sports Council hearing, including an explanation of how Schumacher might have used an illegal launch control system on his car.
The FIA had enlisted software analysts Liverpool Data Research Associates to inspect Benetton’s source code, and ruled that “according to LDRA the best evidence is that Benetton was not using ‘launch control’ (an automatic start system) at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix”. Nonetheless, Benetton’s engine supplier Ford wisely pulled an unfortunately-phrased print advert which read: “Revealed at last: the secret of the black magic box… This year Michael Schumacher had a distinct advantage.”
The details turned up by the FIA investigation provoked widespread discussion, and Benetton found themselves besieged by media enquiries about what they had or hadn’t been doing. This was an unwelcome distraction for the team at a time when they were trying to get to grips with the latest FIA-mandated changes to car design.
As on previous occasions these were being made with the intention of reducing the speed of the cars for safety reasons. The main focus of the alterations was the addition of a 10mm stepped plank underneath the car which forced teams to raise their ride heights, reducing downforce and therefore cornering speeds, a change which had originally been planned for 1995.
Among the front-running teams Benetton seemed to be the most affected by the changes, which also included smaller rear wing dimensions. Out-gunned on Hockenheim’s long straights, Schumacher took his lowest grid position of the entire season – fourth – one place behind Hill.
The pair were relegated to the second row by the Ferraris, whose V12 engines powered them to their first front row lock-out since the 1990 Portuguese Grand Prix. This was despite another FIA rules change which gave a tighter definition for where teams should add holes to their cars’ airboxes to reduce the pressure inside and therefore cut engine power, which meant Ferrari finally had to relocate the side vents which had caused so much controversy when added in Canada.
It seemed Ferrari had not got the new design of their engine cover quite right when Jean Alesi’s was ripped from his car as he blasted towards the Ostkurve chicane. He was therefore beaten to pole position by team mate Gerhard Berger.
Once again it wasn’t just the cars which were being tweaked for safety reasons. Hockenheim’s first and third chicanes were redesigned and also renamed – in honour of Jim Clark, killed near the site of the first chicane in 1968, and Ayrton Senna.
But the high-speed character of the circuit remained, which rewarded those with aerodynamic efficiency and a strong engine. Both the Tyrrell-Yamahas qualified well, with Ukyo Katayama beating David Coulthard’s Williams to claim his best-ever starting position of fifth.
The Ligier drivers also enjoyed their best qualifying performance so far, with rookie Olivier Panis 12th, two places in front of Eric Bernard. But Pacific’s draggy car and gutless Ilmor engine left their drivers two seconds slower than the last qualifier, and extended their run of failures to qualify.
1994 German Grand Prix
|Row 1||1. Gerhard Berger 1’43.582
|2. Jean Alesi 1’44.012
|Row 2||3. Damon Hill 1’44.026
|4. Michael Schumacher 1’44.268
|Row 3||5. Ukyo Katayama 1’44.718
|6. David Coulthard 1’45.146
|Row 4||7. Mark Blundell 1’45.474
|8. Mika Hakkinen 1’45.487
|Row 5||9. Heinz-Harald Frentzen 1’45.893
|10. Eddie Irvine 1’45.911
|Row 6||11. Rubens Barrichello 1’45.939
|12. Olivier Panis 1’46.185
|Row 7||13. Martin Brundle 1’46.218
|14. Eric Bernard 1’46.290
|Row 8||15. Johnny Herbert 1’46.630
|16. Gianni Morbidelli 1’46.817
|Row 9||17. Christian Fittipaldi 1’47.102
|18. Andrea de Cesaris 1’47.235
|Row 10||19. Jos Verstappen 1’47.316
|20. Pierluigi Martini 1’47.402
|Row 11||21. Allesandro Zanardi 1’47.425
|22. Erik Comas 1’48.229
|Row 12||23. Michele Alboreto 1’48.295
|24. Olivier Beretta 1’48.681
|Row 13||25. David Brabham 1’48.870
|26. Jean-Marc Gounon 1’49.204
Paul Belmondo – Pacific-Ilmor, 1’51.122
Bertrand Gachot – Pacific-Ilmor, 1’51.292
Carnage at the first corner
Race day dawned full of opportunities for Schumacher’s rivals. Ferrari had their best chance yet to claim their first victory in almost four years. And Hill, armed with Williams’ revised FW16B, knew he had to capitalise on his starting advantage over his title rival.
But owing to his shock earlier in the weekend Hill had other things on his mind during the pre-race rituals. “I followed the usual obligatory procedure of taking part in the drivers’ parade and, as I sat on the back of an open-topped car with my team mate David Coulthard, the constant firing of rockets and firecrackers in the banked grandstands – something of a tradition inside the massive arena at Hockenheim – did little for my peace of mind.”
For half of the field, Hill included, the outcome of the race was decided in the first lap. Indeed for most of them it was decided within the first few metres. The chaos was triggered seconds after the lights changed: Andrea de Cesaris tangled with Michele Alboreto, sending the Sauber left onto the grass and the Minardi into the pit wall, against which it pinned Alessandro Zanardi’s Lotus.
As the rest of the field approached the first corner Mika Hakkinen, who was almost ahead of David Coulthad on the inside, squeezed the Williams driver too far and the pair collided. Hakkinen’s McLaren skidded in front of the field, and several of his rivals were taken out as they braked to avoid him, including Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Pierluigi Martini, Mark Blundell and the Jordans of Eddie Irvine and Rubens Barrichello.
The decimation of the field didn’t end there. Jean Alesi’s new Ferrari 043 engine cried enough as the remaining cars headed into the forest for the first time.
That briefly promoted Ukyo Katayama into second place. The Tyrrell driver had started brilliantly, squeezing past Schumacher and Hill, who were now trying to find a way past. Schumacher made it through halfway around the first lap, and Hill went down the inside as they then approached the Senna Kurve. But the pair tangled and Hill dropped back with a bent steering arm.
As he limped on he was overtaken by the rest of the field including Coulthard, whose front wing had been damaged in the contact with Hakkinen. Both headed for the pits, where many were surprised to see the race continue.
As Berger led Schumacher onto the start/finish line yellow flags were flying from every vantage point and several course cars were parked on and next to the track while battered machinery was still being recovered. After the race some drivers criticised the decision not to stop the race and allow the marshals to clear the track of debris. In ordinary circumstances the Safety Car might have been deployed, but questions remained over whether its use had contributed to the crash which had killed Senna, and it hadn’t been deployed in a race since then.
It took several laps to clear the start/finish line. During that time Hill rejoined the race, albeit a lap down. Meanwhile Schumacher had caught Berger and was forcing defensive moves from the Ferrari, the Benetton making up for its lack of straight-line speed thanks to a tiny rear wing element.
Fire at Benetton
Schumacher was also running light on fuel, and on the 13th lap of 45 he headed to the Benetton garage for his first pit stop. He rejoined the track behind team mate Jos Verstappen, who let him past as they entered the stadium section. Two laps later the Benetton pit crew readied themselves for Verstappen’s pit stop.
It was the ninth race of the season and the teams were by now well used to the standard-issue Intertechnique refuelling rigs which had been introduced at the start of the year. But Simon Morley, the team’s sub-assembly mechanic who’d taken on the job of handling the fuel hose, found he couldn’t get the nozzle to engage properly. As he tried again to attach it, fuel sprayed from the end of the hose.
The shock of what happened had only a second or two to sink in until the heat of the car’s exhaust and front-right brake disc caused an explosion. A firestorm engulfed the B194, its driver and most of the mechanics.
Quick-thinking crewmen discharged their fire extinguishers on the blaze, which had been fed by up to six litres of fuel, and within seconds the worst of it was out. Some mechanics had jumped clear of the car, their uniforms ablaze, and were aided by members of other teams. The worst injuries were to Morley and Verstappen, as burning petrol had seeped inside their protective headgear, but the consequences could easily have been worse.
Most drivers became aware of the incident as they headed towards the grandstands and saw a column of black smoke rising from the pit lane. Among them was Schumacher, who still had one pit stop to make, but with six members of Benetton’s pit crew receiving treatment for injuries his car could not be serviced. That became irrelevant on lap 21 when his engine died, and he came to a stop at his team’s devastated pit box.
This left the field even further depleted, and Berger took an untroubled win with the two Ligier drivers promoted to second and third places. The remaining points were taken by Footwork duo Christian Fittipaldi and Gianni Morbidelli, followed by Erik Comas’s Larrousse. His team mate Olivier Beretta and Hill were the only others still running at the end.
Berger’s victory was Ferrari’s first since Alain Prost’s triumph at Jerez almost four years earlier. It jad been a long and painful barren spell for F1’s most famous team. This, their 104th win, put them level once more with McLaren who had overtaken them as F1’s most successful team in terms of race wins the previous year.
It was a relief for Berger too, though his last win had been more recent, at the end of 1992. He had been hit hard by the loss of his countryman Roland Ratzenberger and his friend Senna, and another tough day for the sport had at least produced a popular winner.
1994 German Grand Prix result
|7||19||Olivier Beretta||Larrousse-Ford||44||1 lap|
|8||0||Damon Hill||Williams-Renault||44||1 lap|
|29||Andrea de Cesaris||Sauber-Mercedes||0||Accident|
The FIA’s gaze had scarcely lifted from Benetton when the pit lane fire focused attention on them once again. Further recriminations would follow.
But they weren’t the only ones to feel the FIA’s wrath in the coming races. Hakkinen had arrived in Germany with a suspended ban hanging over him following his last-lap collision with Rubens Barrichello at Silverstone, now he was handed a one-race ban for his role in the carnage at the start.
It was a formative moment in the career of the future two-times champion. “People decided I needed a slap on the wrist,” he later reflected. Some felt the slap should have been harder – notably Irvine, who had already served a lengthier ban and had been among those wiped out on the first lap.
Schumacher would eventually join them as the third driver to suffer a race ban during this contentious season, after his British Grand Prix appeal was rejected. Until then he would continue to race at the next two races in Hungary and Belgium.
Grand Prix flashback
- Ill Villeneuve withstands Irvine attack to win again
- Villeneuve avenges Australia defeat as Panis takes shock podium
- McLaren end win drought after first lap crash
- Damon Hill follows his father to F1 title
- Mansell retirement revives Prost’s title chances
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
Image © Ford.com