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Season Retrospective: 1994 Review

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The story of 1994 is intrinsically tied to three very emotive issues. Firstly, there’s the Imola weekend, which included the unsolved mystery of the death of an F1 great at the precise moment where he was on the back foot. Secondly, there’s the continuing controversy surrounding Benetton, including the allegation of illegal traction control (and the links to claims Senna made shortly before his death), the Silverstone incident, and Schumacher’s disqualification at Spa. And finally, there’s Adelaide.

It’s difficult to imagine considering the season without these three things, in particular the death of Senna which is such a pivotal moment in F1 history. And given that Schumacher and Benetton usually don’t those ut of those very well, it’s very easy to frame it in a ‘good vs evil’ narrative. Indeed, it seems some people still consider Damon Hill the rightful 1994 World Champion, 18 years after it was settled once and for all, regardless of whether or not what Schumacher did at the last race was ‘right’.

But perhaps it is time for a new angle on this – take out the emotion surrounding Senna’s death and what was and wasn’t proven by the FIA, and it puts a whole new spin on the season. The fact is Michael and Benetton ran riot for half of the season. They were simply untouchable, to the point that it’s barely worth commenting on. Michael had matured into the best driver on the grid and no one was going to stop him – not even the FIA.

As an aside, I wonder how he compared to the accepted top 2 by the end of 1993. It’s difficult to tell whether or not he had actually reached Prost’s level – because as Prost was in such a dominant car, it was difficult to tell how good he really was. But it is worth considering that Alain was pushed quite hard by Hill in the second half of the year – in fact, with a bit of luck on his side, Damon could have won 5 races in a row, which would have put him into title contention. Judging by that, Damon is either a massively underrated driver, near the level of one of the all-time greats, or a past-it Prost was merely guiding the FW15C through the motions. Did Prost retire because he knew that Senna would have made a mockery of him in 94, showing that he was (no pun intended) over the hill?

It’s fair to say that Michael was already second best to Senna at the start of 94, if not by the end of 93. The rule changes shook up the order and suddenly Benetton had the best car – strictly, car number 5, because number 6 was clearly not up to the same standard, merely in the field to satisfy the FIA and pick up the occasional point or two. Michael used it to great effect, and it’s unlikely that Senna would have been able to do anything about this.

Some say Ayrton would’ve fought back – I really doubt this. The reason I doubt this is because Damon needed a lucky break to get back into it himself – after all, before the British GP he had won just once all year, and that was a Benetton gearbox-related gift. The rest of the time, car 5 was in the distance and there was little anyone could do about it. Sure, the Williams was better at the end of the season compared to the Benetton than it was at the start. But it still wasn’t the best car.

Damon got back into the title race because won in both races in which Michael was banned and inherited the win at Spa. Credit where credit’s due, he made the most of his opportunities, something James Hunt didn’t do in 1976, but it’s not like the opposition put up much of a fight – McLaren had dreadful Peugeot engines and a mediocre driving line-up, while Ferrari had too many reliability issues, and the rest were just making up the numbers as far as the title battle was concerned.

I am still a big Damon fan, but even I can see that he was very fortunate and was second best over the course of the year. He even needed a stroke of luck at Suzuka, with Benetton messing up their strategy and allowing him to capitalise and take the win on aggregate timing. A win for Schumacher there and the title would’ve been all but over there and then even with the two race ban and the disqualification.

The ban itself seems a bit of a farce, which is probably why some believe the conspiracy theory: that the FIA banned Michael in effect as a punishment for the illegal traction control that Benetton were allegedly using on his car. Either that or they did it to close up the championship. But why would they want to attract attention to the sport for the wrong reasons yet again?

I can only think that the FIA believed they handled the situation correctly, despite insistences from Benetton that they didn’t, and that the heavy-handed ban was a product of the atmosphere of the time – witness Irvine’s three race ban for the Interlagos pile-up, and Hakkinen’s one race ban for causing crashes in consecutive races. Looked at within that context, it – the punishment, at least – makes sense.

And so to Adelaide. Numerous times I have heard the incident described as “75-25 Michael’s fault”, or even “65-35”. Even as someone who will defend Michael more often than not these days, this is astonishingly naive. Think of it in the context of the day – Michael’s move, as blatant an attempt at cheating as you’ll ever see, was almost without precedent in F1 at the time. It’s so easy for an armchair fan to say today that “Damon should have been more cautious”. But why? Only Senna in recent times had deliberately taken a championship rival out, and that was motivated as much by his own personal squabble with Balestre as the guarantee of the title.

There would have been no reason for Damon to expect Michael to turn in on him, even if you ignore the fact that he only had a couple of seconds to react after it became clear Michael’s car was terminally wounded. And surely if you are willing to accept that Michael did it deliberately (and you’re entitled to think he didn’t, but you’d be very much in the minority), that should be it – if someone intentionally drives into another car on a race track to take them out, it is 100% their fault, end of. The question should not be “how culpable was Damon?” – how can he be culpable for his title rival deliberately crashing into him? The question should be “why didn’t anyone take any action?”

The stewards dismissed the collision as a racing incident. Michael was not punished. He retained the title. There have been a couple of suggestions of why this happened – that the FIA didn’t want the title to be decided off the track, or that it wouldn’t be a tasteful way to end the season after What Happened. It all seems a bit odd really – that is both the lack of a punishment and the potential reasons. The lack of a punishment is significant because it too must be viewed in the context of those heavy-handed bans – those incidents got excessive punishments but the most obvious of the year wasn’t punished at all. Meanwhile, the potential reasons don’t seem to fit – surely in a time where people were sensitive about accidents, the FIA would look to make an example of someone crashing deliberately.

But look at it another way – what punishment could they possibly hand out? They could ban him for a race (again), but that wouldn’t change the fact that it cost Damon the title. The only way they could ‘give’ the title to Damon was if he had points deducted or was just disqualified for the championship. The latter was of course the punishment dished out to Michael after the collision with Jacques Villeneuve at Jerez, but that had three years of hindsight and was also without the pressure of it changing the destination of the drivers’ title.

Did the stewards bottle it? Possibly – but then they must have been under pressure, since if they had disqualified him without concrete proof that he did it intentionally, they would have faced further uproar. It is worth bearing in mind that the stewards also absolved Michael of any blame at Jerez too. It took an FIA intervention to alter that – presumably because they were pressured into it, after an angry reaction from the media and the public demanding that he shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it for a second time.

The only conclusion I can draw, therefore, is that the stewards simply didn’t have the evidence to nail Michael for his move (on either occasion), and the FIA were reluctant to step in on this occasion because it was the final round, they didn’t want to be put in the embarrassing position of announcing a different world champion to the one people saw on the telly at Adelaide, and they especially didn’t want to do this with no evidence. After all, there was only the one precedent, again after which no action had been taken – perhaps Max Mosley just accepted that it was ‘one of those things’.

In any case, regardless of moral victories, the right man won the title. Michael was the best driver by a country mile, and had the best car at his disposal. From here until 2006, he was unparalleled – in all 7 title wins, he was clearly the best guy out there, and if he didn’t dominate, it was either due to FIA intervention or a trick of the points system. And when he didn’t have the best car, he drove the wheels off it and nearly won another couple to add to the total. Anyone doubting the man’s ability needs to take a step back and look at how he won his titles. He didn’t just win 7 world titles. He utterly annihilated everyone 7 times.

All image sources are unknown, with the images reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’

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Written by James Bennett

September 17, 2012 at 12:12

One Response

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  1. McLaren’s Peugeot engines were certainly very poor compared to the normally-aspirated Hondas from ’89 to ’92 (it’s probably not fair to include the turbo of ’88) and even the customer Fords in ’93.

    And of course, the French manufacturer continued in F1 for another six seasons with Jordan and then Prost, picking up a few podium finishes but never once coming close to winning a race.

    But I’m not sure I’d call Hakkinen and Brundle a “mediocre” driving line-up. There’s certainly no denying that it wasn’t as good a line-up as Prost and Senna, or Senna and Berger – or, in terms of ’94 only, Berger and Alesi at Ferrari.

    But there’s no denying either that Mika and Martin *were* good drivers, even before ’94. And they certainly did what they could with the car and the troublesome Peugeots – Hakkinen wringing out six podium finishes (including at Imola, and four in a row from Spa to Jerez) and coming fourth in the Drivers’ Championship, and Brundle finishing second at Monaco and third at Adelaide.

    Des Elmes

    January 6, 2017 at 14:22


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