Can young drivers learn anything from the 1994 Formula 1 Season?

The 1994 Formula 1 season was dramatic, controversial, enthralling and tragic and has always deserved a closer look to find out what really happened during that disputed year. Author Ibrar Malik felt the same way and so decided to write a book chronicling the 1994 season. Due to be released on January 12, 2019, 1994 – The Untold Story of a Tragic and Controversial F1 Season delves into all the controversies, tragedies and characters that made 1994 such a fascinating year.

Being a Formula 1 junkie who has an ever sagging bookshelf of F1 books cluttering my office, I am very much looking forward to what looks to be a classic in the field. One of the things that  I started wondering about was what, if anything today’s current crop of young drivers could learn from 1994 and how they might apply it to their careers. I recently spoke to Ibrar about this very issue and the reality is that they can learn quite a bit.

Physical Issues

Motorsport Prospects: Billy Monger is only one of the most recent examples of drivers battling back from serious injury to race again such is their passion for motorsport. Are there any examples of a driver demonstrating this from the 1994 F1 season?

Ibrar Malik: Yes. 1994 was supposed to be the year JJ Lehto became one of F1’s top drivers, but the season ended his Grand Prix career. The Finn’s downfall stemmed from a neck-breaking accident during pre-season testing, unfortunately he then rushed his return. Lehto subsequently claimed “…in F1, you don’t have time. Flavio Briatore (Benetton’s boss) is a businessman. Benetton needed two strong cars scoring points, so I didn’t have any choice (but to return).” However Robert Kubica has recently demonstrated to any aspiring young drivers out there that if you have enough determination you can return to F1 even years after a major accident.

Canada 1994 proved another struggle for Lehto, here he is pictured in 20th position. Conversely his teammate, Schumacher, dominated this race having once again started from pole. Photo: Alastair Ladd

Whilst it is tempting to return from a major injury sooner rather than later, I believe Lehto’s example shows that is not always a good thing. JJ qualified on average 2.2 seconds from Schumacher during 1994. No driver within a top F1 outfit has performed so badly compared to their teammate since. The upcoming book provides greater analysis on this and whether it was merely down to his injuries or something more sinister? It also reveals something few know about Lehto during 1994 which helps readers further understand his struggles. You’ll see from the below even Frank Dernie, Benetton’s chief engineer in 1994, didn’t initially know some of the things uncovered. That’s not the only thing the book reveals about Lehto in 1994…

His dismal 1994 performances effectively forced Lehto out of F1. However he astonished everyone by claiming an unexpected victory at Le Mans in 1995. Lehto later admitted it had been the first time after his accident, some 18 months prior, that he felt fully race fit. My latest blog which will be released on 1/1/2019 and provides more detail on how Lehto went from a potential star to damaged goods in 1994 (at least in F1 circles). I would encourage all aspiring drivers to read it and learn from Lehto’s mistakes.  

Mental Issues

Motorsport Prospects: Schumacher was a massive presence in 1994 and he seemed to intimidate other drivers both during races and in testing. Was this a matter simply of an exceedingly high level of confidence or something more?

Ibrar Malik: Schumacher worked out that intimidating other drivers helped him achieve success so he applied himself accordingly. For example during the 1994 French Grand Prix post-race press conference Schumacher looks evidently fresher than either Hill or Berger. Damon (Schumacher’s main rival to the 1994 title) later commented within his autobiography “Having won the race, Michael got out of the car showing not a bead of sweat. That’s when I began to think, “This guy is different.” That wasn’t a coincidence, on the contrary the German wanted his rivals to know he was fitter than them. So they would give up that bit sooner whenever they were competing against Schumacher during a long, hot, tough race.

Book contributor Joan Villadelprat (Benetton’s team manager in 1994) admitted “Benetton’s plan was to defeat Williams and his pilot Ayrton Senna, even in the psychological war that was very big.” Villadelprat’s claim is backed up by Schumacher overtaking Senna during the formation lap in Brazil 1994, and doing the same to Hill at Silverstone. Furthermore Benetton appeared to try fooling Senna & Williams during morning warm-up at Imola, by running at a pace which suggested a one stop strategy, not the three stop strategy Schumacher actually used during the race.

Another contributor, Richard Wise of Williams, alludes to an intriguing story within the book. “I remember standing at the front of the (Williams) garage with Ayrton – the first time I had ever really been ‘alone’ with him. Michael Schumacher drove out of his garage and stopped right in from of us. He then did a perfect traction control start leaving the tell-tale tyre marks within 10 feet of us. I looked at Ayrton and he looked at me, shook his head and said “that’s what we are up against, how can we compete against that?” The upcoming book investigates whether that was just another case of Schumacher intimidate his rival or was it some else?

When probed further Wise responded “The black tyre grip marks (Schumacher left behind in 1994) were very short on/off/on/off, without any sideways sliding” which seems similar to those seen in 1993 (indicated by the red circle) when traction control was permitted. Photo: Landmensch

Motorsport Prospects: Why was Schumacher so much faster than everyone else more often than not. I am especially thinking of the time he tested a Ligier. According to Martin Brundle, he was the only one who could cope with Schumacher in this way.

Ibrar Malik: As you would expect from such a legendary F1 engineer, Frank Dernie has provided exceptional insight on this with the upcoming book and remember he had close ties to Ligier & Schumacher during 1994. Dernie exclusively reveals why Schumacher was able to go 1 second quicker than Panis, during that one day when the German tested the Ligier in December 1994. It not only ties in with what the Renault engineers saw in their telemetry but also with comments made subsequently by Brundle and Schumacher’s other Benetton teammates when they were quizzed about his speed. Since this is one of the book’s biggest exclusives you’ll understand why I cannot share it here. However the book includes some telemetry traces and other rare images some of which are annotated to help readers understand things.

Moreover the book’s theory also explains why Schumacher’s 1994 & 1995 Benetton teammates all found the car especially twitchy. It also seems to explain what Senna heard on Schumacher’s car at Aida 1994 which convinced the triple world champion that the Benetton had illegal traction control. When I explained this theory to former F1 driver, Mark Blundell, he replied “that all makes a lot of sense”. Since Blundell was also taken out of that first corner in Aida, his words carry weight because like Senna he would have also heard Schumacher’s Benetton trackside.

Mark Blundell exclusively shares his opinion on the 1994 accusations & controversies within the upcoming book. Photo: Alastair Ladd

The relationship between driver and mechanic/engineer

Motorsport Prospects: How important is the relationship between driver and mechanic/engineer?

Ibrar Malik: Very and like the intimidation point above, Schumacher worked on this aspect much more than his peers. Pat Symonds (Schumacher’s race engineer in 1994) said Michael got to know about his mechanics and their families which in turn inspired them to work that bit harder for him. Ultimately this translated into lap time and today it is common practice, however Schumacher was one of its pioneers. It also explains why Benetton and later Ferrari were essentially built around him.

Willem Toet worked with Schumacher at both teams and is another key book contributor. He explains how Michael was usually the first at the circuit and the last to leave. If another hour with his engineers might get them 0.1 sec, he was always there irrespective of how late it was. A real example of this is during the 1999 Monaco Grand Prix weekend where on the Friday, which is supposed to be a rest day for teams and drivers, Schumacher went back to Maranello to test his starts. As a result he beat Hakkinen off the line and won the race!

Christian Silk, was race engineer to the second Benetton driver during 1994 and told me for this book “Schumacher was really good at listening to the team and adjusting his driving depending on what engineers wanted him to do…Schumacher made up a lot of his time on exit of slow corners.” The detail of which is discussed in the book but essentially this was a key reason why Schumacher was so quick during 1994.

A comparison of Schumacher’s and Herbert’s throttle traces through a 160mph corner. Whilst telling, the upcoming book analyses this and other traces to help readers understand what was Schumacher’s additional speed down to? The above was based on their throttle traces shown at 2:57 within the below clip; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NtaV_cOGgTM&t=25s

Dealing with tragedy

Motorsport Prospects: Unfortunately, tragedy has marked motorsport and will continue to do so. 1994 had one of the most tragic weekends in F1 history. As a driver, how does one process this and continue to race?

Ibrar Malik: Different drivers seem to have their own personal way of overcoming this, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach. The upcoming book is dedicated to Roland Ratzenberger who sadly lost his life during qualifying at Imola 1994. His team bravely carried on with the event simply because they felt that was what Roland would have wanted. The decision on whether or not Simtek raced was left to their other driver, David Brabham, who later recalled “I only raced because I needed to pick the team up, to help them get through the situation.” 

Understandably most drivers took extra precaution after witnessing Ratzenberger’s horrfic crash and you can visibly see them taking care over Imola’s high kerbs and it in their lap times. But Senna, seemed different. The most comparable experience to Ratzenberger’s crash that Senna had to draw upon was Jerez 1990 when he visited the scene of Martin Donnelly’s near-fatal incident. Donnelly later revealed “the amazing thing for me is that Senna watched all of that, saw it all first-hand, holding my crash helmet and possibly watching me die from a crash. He watched all the needles and syringes and the tracheotomy. Then he went back to his garage, put his helmet back on, visor down, and with just 10 minutes left, did the fastest lap of Jerez ever of that track.”

Senna later reflected on Jerez 1990 “I had to put myself together, walk out, go to the racing car and do it again, and do it even better than before. Because that was the way to cover the impact it had on me.” The next time Senna stepped into an F1 car after Ratzenberger’s tragic accident was the Sunday morning warm up for Imola 1994. The Brazilian topped the timesheets with a massive margin over the next car, just as he had done in Jerez 1990. This is not to suggest the Brazilian was reckless, he was simply overcoming his fear by facing it head-on. The question I am interested in understanding and what the book explores further, is did that play any part into what sadly happened to him later on?

Senna and Schumacher were about to fight it out for the 1994 title until fate sadly intervened. The book helps readers decide whether Schumacher was beating Senna fairly in those opening rounds or not? Photo: Alan Dahl

Dealing with the politics in sport

Motorsport Prospects: Politics are an ugly part of all modern sports, whether it be local or on the international stage. 1994 was plagued with politics and whispers of cheating. For a driver just wanting to race, how can they block this out to focus on the task at hand?

Ibrar Malik: Again I think it is personal and each driver needs to find their own way of blocking out distractions, like politics, and focusing solely on their driving. In late 1998 there was a lot of media speculation on whether Hakkinen had cracked because of how that year panned out. The Finn and McLaren felt subjected to politics as many FIA decisions went against them and in Ferrari’s favour which helped tighten the championship. McLaren therefore hid Hakkinen from the media during the Nurburgring weekend and as a result he produced one of his great F1 drives. I can understand that approach because talking with people drains energy for introverts like Mika (and myself) whereas it gives energy to other more extroverted people.    

Schumacher’s way of dealing with politics in 1994 was somewhat different. Rightly or wrongly he believed the FIA were manipulating the championship against him and he felt like a mere pawn sacrificed in a bigger political game. But unlike Mika, the German made a scathing attack on his championship rival (Hill) prior to the 1994 European GP. It is also widely believed that Schumacher then took out Hill during the final race to win that year’s championship. On the surface this approach seemed to backfire on Michael because 1994 was the year where his perception changed from being the charming up-start to being viewed with suspicion because of these actions. But on the flipside certain drivers needed to feel that the world was against them in order to extract their best performances. Remember Mark Webber at Silverstone 2010 and the “not bad for a number two driver” affair?

Similarly Senna had a history of accusing others of politics. When Brundle started winning in F3 the Brazilian claimed the British authorities were against him. In 1984 Ayrton, competing in one of his early F1 races, looked on course to win the Monaco Grand Prix in the unfancied Toleman before the race was stopped due to adverse weather conditions. Afterwards, he accused the French authorities of fixing the race to ensure Prost (a Frenchman) won. Later in his career he frequently clashed with Jean-Marie Balestre, the former FISA president, who Senna claimed rigged title battles in favour of his main rival, Prost. Whatever your view in whether there was any truth behind any of these instances perhaps Senna used these emotions to extract more performance from himself?

Gilles Villeneuve is my all-time hero. Sadly during the last two weeks of his life he felt Ferrari politics were against him. Photo: ideogibs

Given all of the above I feel it’s important for young aspiring drivers to work out what kind of personality they are, which in turn will help them work out how to block out politics / unwanted distractions when the time comes. Or perhaps even use those emotions to unlock additional performance from themselves.  

A big thank you to Ibrar Malik for taking out the time during an incredibly hectic run up to his book launch to speak to Motorsport Prospects.

Hi Book 1994 – The Untold Story of a Tragic and Controversial F1 Season is due for release on 12th January 2019. It can be pre-ordered by clicking here.

You can read a free sample of the book that will be available on this link on 1/1/2019. In the meantime you can read other 1994 F1 blogs or stay up to date with book reviews by visiting the website here.

Author: Mark Boudreau