Formula 1 in 1994: Tragedy and Controversy
The 1994 Formula 1 season was marred by tragedy and allegations of cheating. Several teams accused Michael Schumacher and Benetton of breaching FIA regulations on multiple occasions throughout the season. The season started and ended in controversy.
Disputes began at the first race of the season in Brazil. On lap 21, race-leader Ayrton Senna in the Williams entered the pits. He was followed closely by Michael Schumacher in his Benetton. However, Schumacher's pit-stop was completed quicker, and the German came out of the pits ahead of the Brazilian. Schumacher went on to win the race and this sparked speculation of a quicker pit-stop system being used by Benetton. This took a turn for the worse at the German Grand Prix. Jos Verstappen, Max Verstappen's father, suffered minor burns to his hands after his Benetton caught fire while refueling. Four members of the Benetton pit crew also suffered burn-related injuries. The governing authorities of Formula 1 investigated the incident and found that a fuel filter had been removed. This allowed the valve to catch fire while also allowing Benetton to refill cars 12.5% faster, saving the team roughly one second per pit-stop.
The FIA made launch control illegal for the 1994 Formula 1 season. At the French Grand Prix, Michael Schumacher started the race at P3 and quickly overtook the two cars ahead into the first corner. The commentary team, along with David Coulthard, said Schumacher's start reminded them of previous Formula 1 seasons when launch control was legal. After an investigation, the FIA found a launch control system fitted in the car. Speaking to Autosport in 2014, former Williams team manager Ian Harrison said:
“Senna himself was convinced that there was something different about Schumacher’s car.” Whether there was or not I don’t know, but Senna was utterly sure there was.”
Tragedy at Imola
In the third race of the season, tragedy struck the paddock. The weekend saw the deaths of two Formula 1 drivers, Roland Ratzenberger and two-time world champion Ayrton Senna, in separate incidents. Ratzenberger was involved in a fatal crash during the qualifying session on Saturday. As a result of his death, drivers agreed to reform the Grand Prix Drivers' Association.
The race took place as scheduled and 7 laps in, tragedy struck again. Traveling at a speed upwards of 300 km/hr, Senna could not make a turn and crashed into the wall, dying instantly. After Senna was taken to the hospital, the race restarted and Schumacher eventually took the checkered flag.
1994 Formula 1 Season Finale
The biggest controversy of the 1994 Formula 1 season came at the final race in Australia. One point separated Schumacher and Hill, which meant that whoever finished the race ahead, would win the championship. Schumacher took the lead of the race and was followed closely by Damon Hill, his championship rival.
On lap 35, Schumacher ran wide and brushed his car against a wall. The rapidly approaching Damon Hill saw the opportunity to pass the German and decided to take the inside line towards the next corner. Schumacher, at this point, turned his car aggressively towards Damon Hill, causing a collision that retired both drivers from the race. Schumacher won the championship by one point as neither driver finished the race. Williams - still reeling from the loss of Ayrton Senna - decided not to lodge a protest. Ultimately, the FIA took no action against Schumacher and the German was awarded the Formula 1 championship.