The calm before the storm – when 1994 looked like F1’s salvation

Nineteen Ninety-Four. For the Formula 1 observer, the Orwellian air is appropriate.

The season is viewed as a rancid low point. It started with tragedy, ended with controversy, and the intervening period was filled mostly with acrimony – from every source imaginable. Compared with the outset, F1 come the season’s end looked rather more than a year older.

And more starkly than you might think. Prior to this storm there was in fact, briefly, utterly incongruous calm. As, based on the 1994 season’s opening round at Interlagos in Brazil which was exactly 25 years ago today, it appeared the year was to be the scene of an F1 renaissance. However laughable that seems to hindsight.

It appeared that way unexpectedly too. Williams had creamed the previous two seasons and now for 1994 had triangulated much of what resistance it faced in that time by recruiting Ayrton Senna. Most foresaw a year of demonstration runs.

There was wider trepidation too. For this season various electronic ‘gizmos’ – such as traction control and active suspension – were banned while in-race refuelling was back after an 11-year absence.

Not too many regretted seeing the back of the gizmos, yet FIA President Max Mosley’s means of getting rid caused resentment. He dropped a bombshell in mid-1993 that in his view the systems didn’t conform to current rules let alone future ones (a technique of his that would become familiar). After some horse trading he gave the devices a stay of execution only until the year’s end.

Plenty doubted also the FIA’s ability to police the ban effectively, plus there was confusion about what was banned and what wasn’t. Also, as part of that panicked horse trading, refuelling returned, behest of Bernie Ecclestone who thought it good for ‘the show’. Many feared a holocaust in the pits.

Yet the expectation of a Senna-dominated year was broken almost alone by the unlikely source of Williams’ technical boss Patrick Head. “My feeling,” he stated as everyone headed out to Brazil, “is that this season will be the closest world championship for a very long time.”

It did not reflect mere healthy paranoia. Williams it transpired was under-cooked. The FW16 had appeared late, and in its early form was prone to snap oversteer particularly over bumps of which there are plenty at Interlagos.

As ever the explanation was obvious in hindsight. With the gizmo ban, Williams had the most to ‘un-learn’.

My feeling is that this season will be the closest world championship for a very long time - Patrick Head

“To be honest,” said designer Adrian Newey later, “we made a bloody awful cock-up. The rear end grip problem was purely a set-up problem. We were learning about springs and dampers all over again after concentrating on active suspension for two years, whereas most people had been away for only one. We also had a rather silly aerodynamic problem – basically the front wing was too low.”

Senna put the car on pole at Interlagos, but his engineer David Brown insisted that “Williams wasn’t on pole...Ayrton was”.

Senna leads from pole...but for how long?

All of this might not have mattered, had not in the same moment a formidable foe stepped forward. Michael Schumacher had long served notice that he was F1’s next big thing, and this year his Benetton team was set to provide a car worthy of him. Unlike the Williams, the Benetton appeared early and flew immediately. Its Ford engine also was much improved, shoving out 14,000 revs.

Still the consensus remained Schumacher being Senna’s closest challenger was a relative assessment only. That was until Brazil’s race day, wherein the consensus was blown apart. For the first time in a long time, in a dry race at last, a non-Williams had the legs of Williams. Schumacher edged in on leader Senna early on, got ahead via a quicker first pitstop (something else that would become familiar in time) then once the final stops were done he had a lead of an incredible 9.2 seconds.

In the final stint Senna dug ever deeper and chipped back at Schumacher’s advantage, only to spin out with 16 laps left. He likely fell victim to the sort of snap oversteer Williams identified. Schumacher then won at a canter – perhaps surprisingly it was the only F1 race he won by a lap.

And for all of the resentment at how Mosley had effected it, the gizmo ban appeared to have had the desired effect. This included a clearly tightened competitive order. And unusual faces in unusual places.

A single second separated the qualifying best of Jean Alesi’s Ferrari in third and Eric Comas’s Larrousse in 13th. More likely suspects of Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari in 17th and Martin Brundle’s McLaren in 18th were even further back

One such unusual face was Footwork, née Arrows, which for much of its history was viewed as a midfield plodder only. But in Brazil it was clear that its new chassis was neat and much improved, as well as that its Ford HB engine didn’t have the weight and bulk of its Mugen-Honda predecessor. Gianni Morbidelli made good on it all by claiming a career-best sixth on the grid. His team-mate Christian Fittipaldi may have been in the vicinity too had the skies not opened before his second run in Saturday qualifying.

Morbidelli was one place shy on the grid of the amazing Heinz-Harald Frentzen, making his F1 debut in the Mercedes-powered Sauber. Frentzen had arrived from the Mercedes sportscar programme and after his prodigious effort here some noted that in sportcars Frentzen was often quicker than a certain team-mate named Michael Schumacher (though that turned out to be rather a myth).

The other Sauber, piloted by Karl Wendlinger, was two places back on the grid and he reckoned he would have been the one ahead but for an engine failure on Saturday morning. It all led Autosport to speculate about Sauber – itself a famous sportscar name – possibly replacing McLaren in F1’s ‘big four’ teams.

Many hearts were cheered also by the resurgent Tyrrells. With Yamaha power and Ukyo Katayama at the wheel it featured two common sources of mirth. But Ken Tyrrell reckoned that both were significantly better than the ‘93 Tyrrell chassis made them look, and with Harvey Postlethwaite and Jean-Claude Migeot back on board – the pair who designed the cars of Tyrrell’s previous renaissance in 1989-90 – that wrong was righted for ‘94. The car flew; Katayama started tenth and did even better on race day by storming to fifth place by the end. Mark Blundell in the other Tyrrell might have been even higher but his Sunday’s effort was ended early when his right-front wheel broke and sent him into a violent accident.

And perhaps the most unlikely interloper of all was that most famous band of triers Minardi. Its car was essentially a rehashed version of its ‘93 one yet veteran Michele Alboerto around Interlagos was making a sweet tune out of it, evidenced by him setting fourth-fastest time in Saturday morning practice. A few present in Brazil even wondered out loud why he hadn’t been considered for the McLaren seat that sat vacant for much of the off-season.

Lucklessly it wasn’t to convert into a representative grid slot, as the car required an engine change prior to the final qualifying session and by the time he could run rain had soaked the track. He started down in 22nd then his electrics failed early in the race. Alboreto nevertheless showed what might have been by setting third-quickest time in the warm up.

One of the FIA’s aims, in banning many of the electronic systems, appears to be bearing fruit. Undeniably, the overall competitiveness of the field has been tightened - Nigel Roebuck

Jordan too despite by designer Gary Anderson’s admission having “screwed up” qualifying, got recompense with local boy Rubens Barrichello climbing to finish fourth in the race.

And while at Interlagos it was clear from the off that Senna and Schumacher were on another level, behind them a single second separated the qualifying best of Jean Alesi’s Ferrari in third and Eric Comas’s Larrousse in 13th. More likely suspects of Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari in 17th (admittedly hampered by technical problems) and Martin Brundle’s McLaren in 18th were even further back. The damp-but-drying warm up continued the theme with eight different teams in the top 10, including Wendlinger second and Blundell fourth.

“One of the FIA’s aims, in banning many of the electronic systems, appears to be bearing fruit,” said a satisfied Nigel Roebuck watching on. “Undeniably, the overall competitiveness of the field has been tightened”. John Watson, commentating for Eurosport, concurred. “[It’s] something we’re crying out for, regulation changes seem to be playing some part in bringing the field together...[It’s] very very competitive indeed, auguring for a great season in 1994.’”

As is often the case in F1, the optimism was fleeting. Most of these unlikely and less well-resourced challengers were hampered particularly by a series of mid-year rule changes that followed Imola’s harrowing events in round three. The field was blown apart once more.

And even among all of the cheer there was the odd portent in Brazil’s round one of what 1994 was to become notorious for; that Motor Sport magazine rather prophetically referred to as “clouds over the new dawn”.

First during the race there was a four-car accident of considerable violence, in which Jos Verstappen’s Benetton struck a blow on Brundle’s helmet, a knock that Brundle says still affects him. That no-one was injured more seriously was a matter of sheer mercy.

Even among all of the cheer there was the odd portent in Brazil’s round one of what 1994 was to become notorious for; that Motor Sport magazine rather prophetically referred to as “clouds over the new dawn”

And this gave rise to another portent. The stewards decided that Eddie Irvine was at fault for the smash and he, eventually after an appeal, got a three-race ban. He was to be just the first of three drivers forced to sit out races in 1994. Underlining the season’s outlier status, following the season we’d wait close to 20 years for the next driver ban...

There was a third portent, as there was a post-race protest of Schumacher’s victorious Benetton. The bone of contention, perhaps oddly, was its bargeboards – now of course de rigueur but at the time fairly new. The regulations then said all parts of the car between the lines of the front and rear wheels visible from underneath had to be uniformly flat and impervious. As a consequence teams often added ‘shadow plates’ sticking out from the sides of the floor so that things like the mirrors could not be seen from underneath. But the Benettons in Interlagos had no such features covering its bargeboards, and Jordan reckoned this was a breach, and protested the winning car.

It probably had a point, but its method and timing miffed a few – Charlie Whiting indeed had invited all to raise any concerns they had at scrutineering earlier that weekend. Whatever was the case the stewards threw the protest out, and didn’t return Jordan’s protest deposit fee.

Little did we know that we’d have to get used to such spats in 1994. Particularly when it came to the pariah Benetton squad.

But all that lay in the future. As things were there appeared plenty to look forward to in 1994. Senna faced a major battle – in the classic new boy versus old hand mould – and had ceded a 10-point head start. This would be in front of a packed, unpredictable pack in which the underdog would have plenty of days. Even the refuelling fears looked overblown.

So all left Brazil in good heart, encouraged that they might after all get a season to remember. In the event though 1994 was to be a season that no one readily could forget, however much they wanted to.