The dreadful events of this year’s Japanese Grand Prix were foreshadowed by what happened in the same race 20 years ago.
A crash at the Dunlop Curve during a rain-hit race left a marshal with a broken leg, in circumstances which had much in common with the incident this year which left Jules Bianchi with severe head injuries.
In both cases, a car was being recovered by marshals at the corner when another driver lost control and went into the crash scene. In 1994 it was Martin Brundle, who feared for his life as he narrowly missed a tractor which was moving Morbidelli’s car. Twenty years later, Bianchi was not so fortunate.
The ongoing FIA investigation into Bianchi’s crash will no doubt question whether enough attention was paid to the circumstances of Brundle’s accident and whether the correct lessons were drawn from it twenty years ago.
Benetton bolster their driver line-up
Although Benetton had retaken the lead in the constructors’ championship from Williams at the previous round, they remained uneasy about their position. Most of their 97 points had been scored by Schumacher, and rivals Williams could now rely on the services of Nigel Mansell alongside Damon Hill until the end of the season.
Benetton decided to bolster their own line-up by replacing Jos Verstappen with Johnny Herbert. He had started the season with Lotus, but after the team entered administration Herbert’s contract was sold to Ligier. That team had been bought by Flavio Briatore at mid-season, and following a successful test Herbert was announced as Schumacher’s team mate for the final two races. There was a degree of irony to the development, as Herbert had made his F1 debut for Benetton five years earlier, before being dropped by Briatore.
Herbert’s place at Ligier was taken by Franck Lagorce, who was reunited with Olivier Panis, his Formula 3000 team mate of the previous season. There were two more debutants on the grid – Mika Salo in Herbert’s old seat at Lotus and local driver Taki Inoue at Simtek, in the seat originally occupied by Roland Ratzenberger.
Suzuka should have seen the return of Karl Wendlinger, who had suffered severe injuries in a crash at Monaco. After a test at Paul Ricard in wet conditions Wendlinger decided he was fit enough to return, but a further test in dry weather at the Circuit de Catalunya saw him pull over after just 15 laps with neck pains.
While Wendlinger returned to his rehabilitation, the Sauber team scrambled to raise their previous substitute driver Andrea de Cesaris. However De Cesaris was indulging his passion for windsurfing at an unspecified location, so the team turned instead to its 1993 driver JJ Lehto, who returned to the grid following his brief stint as Schumacher’s replacement in Italy and Portugal.
Hill under pressure
Schumacher arrived in Japan with a chance to clinch the championship if he took another win and Hill failed to place higher than third. This seemed a distinct possibility after the Benetton driver led the way during the first day of practice and qualifying.
Meanwhile Hill, who had suffered a high-speed crash during testing at Estoril a few days earlier, was struggling. After a terse exchange with Patrick Head he marched to the Williams motorhome, telling the assembled British press he had nothing to say.
Behind Hill, Mansell was relegated to fourth-quickest by Heinz-Harald Frentzen. All was not well with ‘red two’ either. Acutely aware that he was competing for a seat at Williams the following year with a man 18 years his junior, Mansell had David Coulthard barred from entering his garage during the race weekend. Making light of the situation Jochen Maas, a former team mate of Schumacher’s, constructed a ‘Coulthard banned’ sign which appeared in Mansell’s garage.
But on Saturday morning the Williams pair, buoyed by set-up tweaks to their FW16Bs, looked a more potent force. The stage was set for a qualifying showdown between them and Schumacher – until the rain arrived.
1994 Japanese Grand Prix qualifying
Suzuka, which was holding Japan’s second round of the 1994 championship, was one of few circuits in 1994 to escape major modifications following the Imola crashes. It had been resurfaced, and kerbs and bumps had been eased around the track, but then as now Suzuka’s compact nature offered little scope for alteration and limited run-off space.
Rubens Barrichello discovered this during the soaked second qualifying session when he suffered his biggest crash since his Imola scare. His Jordan hit a puddle and aquaplaned into a barrier on the sweeping approach to Spoon Curve, forcing the session to be red-flagged. Later in the session Herbert also spun his Benetton into a barrier.
This was all in vain as the track was too wet to allow any further improvements and, unlike at Spa, it did not dry out quickly enough. That meant Schumacher took his sixth pole position of the year – his only trouble all day coming when he locked his brakes while avoiding an out-of-control Inoue during the morning session.
Herbert’s predecessors at Benetton had been almost two seconds slower than Schumacher on average in qualifying over the season so far. At his first attempt he got closer than any of them, taking fifth on the grid, 0.6 seconds off the championship leader. He shared the third row with Eddie Irvine – the driver who had wrecked his and Lotus’s hopes in Italy.
Having put his Tyrrell on the third row three times already in 1994, Ukyo Katayama had high hopes of doing the same in front of his home crowd. A disappointing 14th behind his team mate left him teary-eyed.
The struggles of fellow Japanese driver Inoue presented an opportunity for Pacific to get a car on the grid for the first time since the Canadian Grand Prix nine rounds earlier. But Saturday’s rain dashed Bertrand Gachot’s hopes.
1994 Japanese Grand Prix grid
|Row 1||1. Michael Schumacher 1’37.209
|2. Damon Hill 1’37.696
|Row 2||3. Heinz-Harald Frentzen 1’37.742
|4. Nigel Mansell 1’37.768
|Row 3||5. Johnny Herbert 1’37.828
|6. Eddie Irvine 1’37.880
|Row 4||7. Jean Alesi 1’37.907
|8. Mika Hakkinen 1’37.998
|Row 5||9. Martin Brundle 1’38.076
|10. Rubens Barrichello 1’38.533
|Row 6||11. Gerhard Berger 1’38.570
|12. Gianni Morbidelli 1’39.030
|Row 7||13. Mark Blundell 1’39.266
|14. Ukyo Katayama 1’39.462
|Row 8||15. JJ Lehto 1’39.483
|16. Pierluigi Martini 1’39.548
|Row 9||17. Alessandro Zanardi 1’39.721
|18. Christian Fittipaldi 1’39.868
|Row 10||19. Olivier Panis 1’40.042
|20. Franck Lagorce 1’40.577
|Row 11||21. Michele Alboreto 1’40.652
|22. Erik Comas 1’40.978
|Row 12||23. Hideki Noda 1’40.990
|24. David Brabham 1’41.659
|Row 13||25. Mika Salo 1’41.805
|26. Taki Inoue 1’45.004
Did not qualifying
Bertrand Gachot, Pacific-Ilmor – 1’46.374
Paul Belmondo, Pacific-Ilmor – 1’46.629
1994 Japanese Grand Prix
Before the race a ceremony was held in memory of Ayrton Senna with members of his family arriving in a helicopter painted in the late racer’s helmet colours. The track where Senna won all three of his championship titles was experiencing the kind of conditions associated with some of his greatest wins. The sky was dark, the rain incessant, the track almost flooded. The 15th race of the 1994 season would be the first held in wet conditions.
The potential safety hazards that raised weighed on the minds of some of the drivers. Martin Brundle, who had survived a nasty crash in Brazil and been an active participant in the reformed Grand Prix Drivers’ Association following Imola, raised one such concern in the pre-race drivers’ briefing. He had been alarmed by the use of tractors and similar vehicles to remove stranded cars while sessions were live, and warned of the serious consequences which could follow if an F1 car hit one of them. These turned out to be prophetic words.
The race began with a standing start. From pole position Schumacher swerved into Hill’s path but it made no difference to the Williams driver, who was struggling with wheelspin. He managed to hold off Frenzten on the run down to turn one but Mansell in the other Williams fell to sixth.
Frentzen took himself out of contention on the second lap, skidding off the track while trying to pass Hill and rejoining behind Mansell. But now the conditions got even worse.
Hail was beginning to fall and Schumacher’s car twitched alarmingly as he began the third lap with Hill one second behind. The conditions became so bad the Safety Car was deployed – but by the time Benetton warned Herbert he had already hit the deepening water on the pit straight and spun into a barrier. Brundle whizzed past, narrowly missing Herbert’s car.
Two more drivers aquaplaned at the same spot as Herbert: Katayama spun into the pit wall and as he climbed out of his car Inoue spun out at the same spot, almost hitting the Tyrrell. With Hideki Noda already out the entire Japanese contingent had been eliminated within three laps.
After seven laps the wreckage had been cleared and the rain had begun to ease, so the race was restarted. But in little time there were more damaged cars strewn around the track.
Lagorce almost lost control of his Ligier on the pit straight, backed off, and was hit by Pierluigi Martini with such force that the Ligier’s gearbox touched the screen on the cockpit of the Minardi. Martini’s team mate Michele Alboreto spun into retirement as he tried to avoid them.
Brundle’s nightmare realised
By this stage the conditions were appalling. Mansell described them as being worse than the 1989 and 1991 Australian Grands Prix – the latter had been abandoned after just 14 laps.
Brundle was also becoming worried: “I was on the radio screaming ‘get the [Safety] car out’. He was running sixth ahead of team mate Mika Hakkinen and Gianni Morbidelli. But on lap 14 the Footwork driver aquaplaned off at the Dunlop Curve and slammed into the barrier, ripping both his front wheels off.
When Brundle came around on the next lap his nightmare scenario unfolded. The marshals recovering Morbidelli’s car had brought a recovery vehicle onto the run-off area as well as an estate car. Yellow flags were being waved, and although Brundle said he saw them at the last moment and lifted off, it was too late: “My car got away from me on exactly the same puddle that Morbidelli’s got away from him.”
The McLaren was heading straight for the Morbidelli crash scene. The Accord reversed clear but Brundle saw a blue caterpillar tractor looming in front of him. “I thought that was the moment that I was going to die,” he said. But by desperately pumping the brake pedal he managed to rotate his McLaren enough to miss the tractor.
However he was unable to prevent his car from hitting one of the men working at the scene of Morbidelli’s crash. As he climbed from his McLaren the horrified Brundle discovered the man lying on the ground with a broken leg, the bone protruding through his overalls.
The race was red-flagged while an ambulance was despatched to the crash scene. As the cars reassembled on the grid, most of the drivers climbed out to have their say in the discussion over whether the race should be restarted.
Schumacher leads on aggregate
When the race resumed 20 minutes later it was to be run as an aggregate of its two parts. Under the rules of the time, this meant laps 14 and 15 were struck, and a new formation lap was run. These three laps would not count towards the final distance, which was reduced to 50.
Crucially, in terms of the championship, it meant Schumacher would run the second part of the race still holding the 6.8 second advantage he had over Hill at he end of lap 13. But this would also prove a problem for him, as drivers were not allowed to refuel on the grid, and he had been getting close to his first pit stop.
The race resumed behind the Safety Car and by lap 18 Schumacher was in for his first of two pit stops. He rejoined the track behind Hakkinen and this proved crucial. He had also been held up behind the McLaren driver in Jerez, but on that occasion Hakkinen had been a lap down. This time they were racing for position, and over the next six laps Schumacher lost 15 seconds to the fuel-light Hill while stuck in Hakkinen’s spray.
For the first time in 1994 Benetton’s fuel tactics were working against them. The race stoppage meant Schumacher’s time advantage over Hill was only theoretical – it did not help him keep out of traffic. But even so the Williams driver was flying.
Hill’s three-wheel pit stop
Hill had problems of his own. At his sole pit stop on lap 25 his right-rear wheel was stuck so it was left unchanged. Hill was unaware of this decision, and the tyre began to blister towards the end of the race.
He rejoined the track behind his team mate, who was providing the best action of the race in his efforts to deprive Jean Alesi of third place. Time and again Mansell drew alongside the Ferrari, only to have to tuck back into its wake.
Schumacher made his final pit stop on lap 40, with ten remaining, setting up a thrilling sprint to the finish which would take the form of a time trial. All he had to do was close Hill’s lead sufficiently that he would jump ahead of the Williams on aggregate time – he didn’t even need to pass Hill on track.
Schumacher had 14.5 seconds to make up immediately after his pit stop and his first laps after his pit stop showed it was going to be nail-bitingly close. On lap 43 he took 2.2 seconds out of Hill and the gap was down to 11.9. The next time by it was down to 10 seconds – Schumacher was gaining, but at an ever slower rate.
On the penultimate lap Schumacher took 1.8 seconds out of Hill and was 2.4 seconds behind. With a big push from Schumacher, or traffic for Hill, the result could swing on the final lap. But throwing caution to the wind, Hill drove his final lap on the ragged edge, lowering his lap time by a second while Schumacher’s pace relented. The victory was Hill’s by 3.3 seconds.
Alesi decided to avoid the risk of a tangle at the chicane by letting Mansell past on the last lap – the 1992 world champion punched the air as he crossed the finishing line, regardless of the fact he would remain fourth on aggregate. The same was true for Hakkinen who led Frentzen home but officially finished behind him. This was a frustration no F1 driver would know again, as the aggregate time rules were later abolished.
1994 Japanese Grand Prix result
|1||0||Damon Hill||Williams-Renault||50||1hr 55’53.532|
|8||9||Christian Fittipaldi||Footwork-Ford||49||1 lap|
|9||20||Erik Comas||Larrousse-Ford||49||1 lap|
|10||11||Mika Salo||Lotus-Mugen-Honda||49||1 lap|
|11||26||Olivier Panis||Ligier-Renault||49||1 lap|
|12||31||David Brabham||Simtek-Ford||48||2 laps|
|13||12||Alessandro Zanardi||Lotus-Mugen-Honda||48||2 laps|
1994 Drivers’ championship points
Hill knew his victory didn’t just improve his chances of winning the championship at the title-deciding round in Adelaide, it also gave his title charge added credibility.
“This is the first time that Michael has been beaten fair and square all season,” said Hill. It was his sixth win of the year, but Schumacher had been penalised at Silverstone and Spa, barred from competing at Monza and Estoril, and suffered a gearbox glitch at the Circuit de Catalunya.
But with the final just a week away, Hill had proved he could beat Schumacher on merit, and now there was just one point in it.
|Andrea de Cesaris||0||0||0||3||3||3||4||4||4||4||4||4||4||4||4|
1994 Constructors’ championship points
NB. While most of these 1994 season retrospective articles have been published on the twentieth anniversary of each race, this one has been run early due to anticipated time constraints next week.
Grand Prix flashback
- Villeneuve disqualification sets up championship showdown with Schumacher
- Villeneuve takes final win after Schumacher brothers collide
- Schumacher’s yellow flag penalty helps Villeneuve slash his points lead
- Coulthard charges to win as title contenders struggle
- Schumacher capitalises as Williams get it wrong in the rain 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
Image © Williams/LAT