When the chequered flag fell on the 1994 Belgian Grand Prix 20 years ago today Michael Schumacher believed he had extended his point leads far enough that his position seemed secure even with his impending two-race ban.
But a few hours later the stewards ruled his car broke a recently-introduced new rule and threw him out of the race. Damon Hill was declared the new winner – which was the worst possible outcome for Schumacher’s title hopes.
Almost four months had passed since the events of Imola when the F1 field arrived at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit for the 11th round of the 16-race 1994 season. But its consequences were still being felt, and one of the most striking examples of that was the emasculation of one of Formula One’s most famous corners.
Eau Rouge had long been one of the quickest, steepest and most challenging corners on the calendar. But Imola had cast new light on the dangers of inadequate run-off at high speed corners.
Larger gravel traps had been installed at some of Spa’s quickest corners – Pouhon and Blanchimont. But there was insufficient time to complete the work at Eau Rouge, so an alternative but deeply unsatisfying alternative was arranged.
A slow chicane was built to force the drivers to pass through the sequence at much slower speeds. All of the challenge of the corner had been lost, and perhaps only some of the danger – several drivers pointed out that the new line through the corner meant they approached it pointing towards a barrier at speed. During a touring car support race one driver suffered a huge crash at that very spot.
The dangers of the old Eau Rouge had been vividly illustrated the previous year, when Alessandro Zanardi hit the wall at almost unabated speed. But not only was the corner now gone, Zanardi was not around to hit it.
Struggling Lotus hand Adams debut
The Lotus driver had been told at the Hungarian Grand Prix he would not be in the car at the next race. A court had given Lotus 60 days to pay at least £400,000 of the £2.1 million it owed to Cosworth for its supply of engines in the previous two seasons. The team’s management decided they had no choice but to sell Zanardi’s seat.
A deal was arranged with Belgian touring car driver Philippe Adams. Following an inauspicious Formula Three career he had won the British Formula Two championship the year before, which was in fact contested with Formula 3000 machinery, and had attracted grids of fewer than ten cars on occasions.
Exactly how Adams was paying for a seat was a matter of some debate, particularly when representatives of several companies he claimed were sponsoring him turned up to demand he stop using their logos. He later revealed he had taken out an insurance policy out against his result in the Belgian touring car championship to pay for his F1 seat.
In this at least he was successful, winning Saturday’s support race in the category, but he proved one of the least qualified drivers to take the wheel of an F1 car. Adams crashed his Lotus within minutes of practice starting at the kink by the pit wall, and had several more spins and scrapes during the build-up to the race. Disappointed fans hung up a banner near the pits which read “bring back Zanardi”.
Another driver missing from the action was Olivier Beretta, who like Zanardi had been supplanted at Larrousse because the team needed to bring money in. Philippe Alliot, who had substituted for Mika Hakkinen at McLaren in Hungary, therefore returned to the team he had driven for the previous year.
He caused a stir when he remarked to journalists that he wished the car’s Benetton-sourced gearbox had the same automatic up-shift facility as the McLaren had. This set alarm bells ringing, as such a device would constitute an illegal driver aid, and the FIA were soon making enquiries.
Barrichello claims youngest-ever pole position
It seldom stopped raining during practice. The rain continued into the first of the two qualifying sessions on Friday, but as the hour came to an end the track was beginning to dry.
For drivers and teams the question was whether to gamble on making a switch from wet weather tyres to slicks – there being no intermediate option available. Michael Schumacher stayed on wet weather tyres, but had to settle for second after a spin. Damon Hill went the same route as his championship rival and lined up third having been delayed by Schumacher’s team mate Jos Verstappen.
One Ferrari had been sidelined with a blown engine but the other was driven by Jean Alesi, who could usually be relied on to take a chance on slicks on a damp track. He proved true to form, but Alesi lost time behind Martin Brundle, who was also on a flying lap. Alesi vented his frustration at Brundle afterwards, claiming he had only got a seat at McLaren “because Ron Dennis couldn’t find someone else”.
Rubens Barrichello had to be persuaded by his Jordan team to take a gamble on slick tyres but it proved an inspired move – he pipped Schumacher to a provisional pole position by three-tenths of a second.
But half an hour before the second qualifying session began on Saturday the track was dry. Jordan and Barrichello were beginning to accept the inevitability of losing their first pole position when the skies darkened and doused the circuit with fresh rainfall. That began a nerve-wracking hour for the team as they waited to see if conditions would improve sufficiently for anyone to beat Barrichello’s time.
What was good news for one Brazilian driver threatened to be very bad news for another. Christian Fittipaldi had failed to set a time on Friday due to an engine failure, and was now at risk of failing to qualify his Arrows. But the conditions improved enough for him to claim 15th on the grid.
This was bad news for Pacific, as it meant once again they had failed to get either driver on the grid. Bertrand Gachot was just 0.7 seconds shy of Adams’ Lotus, who in turn was over six second slower than his team mate Johnny Herbert. Lotus were anxiously awaiting the race debut of the significantly lighter and more competitive Mugen-Honda ZA5D engine, which had set tongues wagging with its performance in testing but wasn’t ready for its race debut.
The tension finally broke in the Jordan pits when the chequered flag fell and no one had been able to beat Barrichello’s time. At 22 years old, he had become F1’s youngest ever pole sitter.
1994 Belgian Grand Prix grid
|Row 1||1. Rubens Barrichello 2’21.163
|2. Michael Schumacher 2’21.494
|Row 2||3. Damon Hill 2’21.681
|4. Eddie Irvine 2’22.074
|Row 3||5. Jean Alesi 2’22.202
|6. Jos Verstappen 2’22.218
|Row 4||7. David Coulthard 2’22.359
|8. Mika Hakkinen 2’22.441
|Row 5||9. Heinz-Harald Frentzen 2’22.634
|10. Pierluigi Martini 2’23.326
|Row 6||11. Gerhard Berger 2’23.895
|12. Mark Blundell 2’24.048
|Row 7||13. Martin Brundle 2’24.117
|14. Gianni Morbidelli 2’25.114
|Row 8||15. Andrea de Cesaris 2’25.695
|16. Eric Bernard 2’26.044
|Row 9||17. Olivier Panis 2’26.079
|18. Michele Alboreto 2’26.738
|Row 10||19. Philippe Alliot 2’26.901
|20. Johnny Herbert 2’27.155
|Row 11||21. David Brabham 2’27.212
|22. Erik Comas 2’28.156
|Row 12||23. Ukyo Katayama 2’28.979
|24. Christian Fittipaldi 2’30.931
|Row 13||25. Jean-Marc Gounon 2’31.755
|26. Philippe Adams 2’33.885
Did not qualify
Bertrand Gachot, Pacific-Ilmor – 2’34.582
Paul Belmondo, Pacific-Ilmor – 2’35.729
Ride height concerns
The rain persisted on Sunday morning, when Schumacher headed a soggy warm-up by three seconds. But as the race start time approach the track was drying out, and this presented teams with some difficult questions.
Two races earlier in Germany a rules change had required them to fix planks to the underside of their cars to ensure they weren’t running too close to the ground. Conformity with the rules was checked by measuring the thickness of the planks after the race, and if too much was worn away the car would be disqualified.
Wet weather conditions require higher ride heights, but to be competitive in the dry teams needed to lower their cars. The problem was, having had no dry running the teams could not judge exactly how far to go. Those such as Williams and Benetton who had used active suspension the previous year did not have relevant data from the previous season to fall back on.
during his reconnaissance lap while driving to the grid, Hill decided his car was touching the ground too much and asked for his ride height to be raised. Schumacher also increased his car’s ride heighy, by half a millimetre. But no one could be sure they had got it right.
Schumacher slips ahead
“Either you stop going on about the first corner, or I’m going to give you a slap,” Hill told his surprised team mate David Coulthard during the pre-race briefing at Williams.
The stress of the championship battle was having an impression on Hill. He didn’t react well to Coulthard’s warnings about pole sitter Barrichello’s start-line performance, which he had gleaned from racing against the Jordan driver in junior categories.
For his part Barrichello made it clear he would avoid interfering in the battle between the championship contenders. Although he held his lead at the start, Schumacher easily passed him on the Kemmel straight and by the end of lap Alesi had demoted the Jordan as well.
Barrichello swiftly regained second place, as the unfortunate Alesi suffered another engine failure at the beginning of lap two, but the next time by Hill also demoted the Jordan. By now, however, Schumacher was already ten seconds up the road.
In Hungary Olivier Panis had jumped the start and once again several drivers in the midfield, including Alliot, were clearly already moving when the lights changed. But again there was no response from the stewards and this time there were no incidents on the first lap.
With Hill now second, the rate at which Schumacher was pulling away fell to 0.7 seconds per lap, while behind them Barrichello continued to lose places. Coulthard took up third ahead of Hakkinen, but on lap 11 Heinz-Harald Frentzen spun at the Eau Rouge chicane while trying to pas the Jordan for fifth.
On the next lap Hill came in for his first of two pit stops, followed by Coulthard on the next lap. The pair had been separated by six seconds, but the benefit of a lap which much less fuel on board helped Coulthard emerged from his pit stop ahead of Hill. Schumacher was also two-stopping, and made his first visit to the pits on the lap after Coulthard.
The Benetton driver kept up the pace when he returned to the track, but on lap 19 he got off-line at the exit of Fagnes and spun, losing six second to the chasing Williams pair. “Sorry about that,” he told his team on the radio, adding “I think the tyres are OK.”
Hill was also on the radio to Williams, urging them to tell Coulthard to let him past. “My view is that the team should have acted sooner in asking David to let me by,” he said afterwards, “and I let them know my feelings on the radio”.
Coulthard eventually let him by as they approached Pouhon on lap 36, then at the end of the lap he came into the pits to have his rear wing checked. The team discovered a support mounting had broken but with eight laps remaining they believed it could go the distance. This can’t have been an easy decision given the events of Imola and the questions about the condition of Senna’s car when he had crashed.
But Coulthard now had another problem – rising temperatures during the long pit stop caused an electrical problem which left his car jammed in fourth gear. Mark Blundell caught and passed the Williams in his Tyrrell but Coulthard knocked his rival into a spin at La Source and took the place back.
There were no further dramas for Schumacher after his second pit stop. With a two-race ban for his Silverstone infraction likely to begin at the following round, he had gone into his enforced absence with a pair of wins which gave him a 35-point lead over Hill with 50 available.
Hill was a disappointed second, Hakkinen benefited from Coulthard’s problem to take third for McLaren on his return. Verstappen was an impressive fourth given that the first lap of the race was his first ever at Spa in dry weather.
Despite their pole position, Jordan came away without any points for the third race weekend in a row. Barrichello had skidded off at Pouhon following his pit stop – a few laps after Adams’ race ended in the same gravel trap.
1994 Belgian Grand Prix result
|1||0||Damon Hill||Williams-Renault||44||1hr 28’47.170|
|5||4||Mark Blundell||Tyrrell-Yamaha||43||1 lap|
|6||10||Gianni Morbidelli||Footwork-Ford||43||1 lap|
|7||26||Olivier Panis||Ligier-Renault||43||1 lap|
|8||23||Pierluigi Martini||Minardi-Ford||43||1 lap|
|9||24||Michele Alboreto||Minardi-Ford||43||1 lap|
|10||25||Eric Bernard||Ligier-Renault||42||2 laps|
|11||32||Jean-Marc Gounon||Simtek-Ford||42||2 laps|
|12||12||Johnny Herbert||Lotus-Mugen-Honda||41||3 laps|
|29||Andrea de Cesaris||Sauber-Mercedes||27||Throttle|
Five hours after the chequered flag had fallen came a dramatic change in the order. Schumacher’s car was thrown out after it failed a technical inspection, and Hill was promoted to first place – he received the news shortly after arriving at Brussels airport.
The Jabroc plank fitted to the underside of Schumacher’s Benetton had measured 2240x300x10mm when new. The last dimension was the crucial one – the car was deemed illegal because more than 10% of its original thickness had been lost.
The narrowest the plank should have measured was therefore 9mm. But the stewards found it had been worn away to as little as 7.4mm thick at a position 100mm back from leading edge, and the worn section extended for around 800mm – more than a third of the plank.
Benetton lodged an appeal which was heard ten days after the race on September 7th – for convenience it was added to their two existing appeals from Germany and Britain. The team argued the damage had been done to Schumacher’s plank when he spun on a kerb at Fagnes, but the FIA claimed the scratches from that spin could be seen further back on the plank, and did not relate to the extensive wear seen at the front.
Benetton’s appeal was rejected and Schumacher’s disqualification was upheld. That left his points lead reduced to 21. And with Schumacher’s ban from the next two races in Italy and Portugal upheld, Hill had two priceless open opportunities to take aim at an open goal reduce Schumacher’s lead to almost nothing.
Grand Prix flashback
- Villeneuve slip-up hands title lead back to Schumacher after Panis crash
- Villeneuve’s binary season goes on as Panis charges to second
- Schumacher’s wet weather mastery puts him on top
- Villeneuve picks a fight, Frentzen wins one
- Ill Villeneuve withstands Irvine attack to win again
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