“It was one of those events which at a crucial stage in one’s development arrive to challenge and stretch one to the limit of one’s ability and beyond, so that thereafter one has a new standard by which to judge oneself.”
~Kazuo Ishiguro – The Remains of the Day~
Formula One had enjoyed a sustained period of relative safety but everyone’s illusions were shattered during the weekend of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. There was disquiet in the paddock when Roland Ratzenberger died after crashing during qualifying on Saturday afternoon. This was replaced by stunned disbelief the following day when triple world champion Ayrton Senna lost his life after his car speared into the wall at the Tamburello corner. Not since the 1960 Belgian Grand Prix had two drivers died in the one race weekend and it had been almost eight years since the death of Elio de Angelis during testing at the Paul Ricard Circuit.
It is usual for change to be gradual in Formula One. The teams get many months and often years warning in advance of any new modifications, allowing everything to be manufactured and tested for all perceivable eventualities before it ultimately gets used in anger on the track. In an attempt to dramatically reduce speed new aerodynamic modifications had been rapidly bought in for the Spanish Grand Prix. The size of the rear diffuser had been decreased and this had resulted in some unforeseen follow-on effects with several rear wing failures during testing as the smaller diffuser meant the rear wing was less securely fixed to the car floor and was more affected by vibration.
The designers had agitated for more time before ratifying the changes but the FIA refused. The teams complained that it was like taking a hacksaw to their sophisticated machinery. Alan Jones commented prior to the race that “What they’re trying to do is long term probably good for the sport but they’ve just overreacted and bought it in too quickly. And I think now, right now tonight, these cars are probably more dangerous and harder to drive than they were two weeks ago.”
Another significant development was the formation of the Grand Prix Driver’s Association. For the first time, the drivers had a common voice with regard to safety and at the Spanish Grand Prix they stood up to the organisers and refused to race until a requested chicane had been installed.
Martin Brundle stated, “The confrontation we had in Barcelona was because they had done most of the work apart from an area we felt strongly about, the exit to the fast Nissan corner. The wall there is at a bad angle and we go through that corner at 240 kph. It could have been Tamburello all over again.”
Michael Schumacher in his Benetton dominated practice and qualifying and was 6 tenths faster than Damon Hill in the Williams. Hill had struggled with his car all weekend. It was nervous and difficult to drive with its stiff springs and lack of active suspension and Hill had already spun it three times, including that morning during the warm-up.
Schumacher got away well off the start with Hill keeping ahead of Mika Hakkinen in the McLaren for second. David Coulthard, driving in his maiden Grand Prix as the newly signed second driver for Williams, managed to go from ninth on the grid up to sixth on the start.
Schumacher looked unbeatable as he rapidly pulled out a significant gap over the field. The top three cars spread out quickly but the race for fourth was much closer as Jean Alesi with his Ferrari V12 engine was the fastest down the main straight but was holding up JJ Lehto and Coulthard who were stuck behind him despite their better handling and speed through the corners.
All the drivers were using the same tyres but the new aero regulations had significantly decreased the amount of downforce, which in turn had increased tyre wear due to wheel sliding. It was not yet known if the tyres would even last well enough to do two stops, let alone if two stops had any advantage over three stops, but it was predicted that the front runners would all attempt a two stop strategy.
Schumacher was 15 seconds ahead of Hill when Hakkinen was the first to pit on lap 15 which made it clear that he was on a three stop strategy and why he had been able to keep so close to the Williams which had been faster all weekend. Coulthard was the next to pit on lap 16 but his pit stop was complicated by his engine stalling which he then had difficulty in restarting and after a significant delay he came out in 20th place. This was thought at the time to be due to his inexperience but later he had to withdraw from the race due to engine problems, which possibly had caused his difficulties in the pits.
It was at the end of lap 21 that Michael Schumacher first pitted, the last of all the front runners to do so. He had a 37 second lead over Hakkinen but within a few corners of him re-joining the race he had several back-markers un-lapping themselves, and when Coulthard breezed past him easily it was obvious he had a major problem. Less than two laps later he had lost his large lead over Hakkinen and it was while watching the on-board footage that it became apparent that he was stuck in 5th gear.
Hakkinen overtook him easily on lap 23 and for the first time ever a Peugeot engine led a Grand Prix race. By half race distance Hakkinen was almost five seconds ahead of Hill but Schumacher was managing to maintain third place, nine seconds behind Hakkinen and holding off those behind him. Schumacher’s gear problems appeared at the time to be intermittent as there were times when he was actually lapping faster than the two drivers in front of him.
On Lap 30 Hakkinen had his second pit stop where he only changed his tyres, but didn’t take on any fuel while Hill didn’t stop for the second time until lap 42. Schumacher was now in the lead, five seconds ahead of Hakkinen. Hakkinen and Schumacher both pitted on Lap 47 and Hill then inherited the lead, six seconds in front of Schumacher, who had Hakkinen chasing him down only three seconds behind. This was quickly bought to a stop on Lap 48 when Hakkinen’s Peugeot engine, which had been prone all season to overheating, blew up in a cloud of white smoke.
Damon Hill only needed to maintain his concentration to win the race as he now had a comfortable lead over Schumacher who somehow was continuing to lap reasonably competitively while stuck in 5th gear. Martin Brundle was in third until his engine blew and the whole rear of his car lit up in flames both of which bought him rapidly to a halt. Mark Blundell was now in third for his first points finish for Tyrrell, as well as the first ever podium for a Yamaha engine.
Everyone on the podium was elated. Hill had won the race for his bereaved team, but both Schumacher, who had hung on for second with his defective gearbox, and Blundell who was in third were as happy as if they had won the race. Everyone was grinning as they enthusiastically poured champagne over each other.
Michael Schumacher had driven an amazing race to finish in second. Even though it was a very fast track with no second gear corners there were six third gear corners. In fact, his lap times were so competitive that there was disbelief that he had actually driven more than half the race with only fifth gear and it wasn’t until Benetton made public his telemetry that they were believed. What was even more astonishing was that he managed to pit without his car stalling. No one could doubt any longer that Michael Schumacher would have an amazing future in Formula One.
Schumacher said, “I never would have imagined to finish that race, and even second position is to me something like a victory. At the beginning it was difficult to run with this fifth gear through all the corners but then I managed to find a good line and keep up the lap times to more or less compete against those who were behind me.”
Williams had come into this race devastated with the loss of one of the greatest drivers of all time. They had struggled all weekend with their car but it had all come together when it really mattered. It was Damon Hill’s fourth victory and a sentimental victory for Williams after the death of Ayrton Senna only a month before.
An emotional Damon Hill said after the race, “This race was very important to do well, and to win was better than I expected to do. Michael put up as to be expected a tough fight. But this victory must go to everyone at Williams who have been through terrible times and also to all the fans of Ayrton Senna who I met in Brazil who said to me they would be very pleased to see the Williams team do well.”