16 Aug 2020


For the third in our series of great drives in Formula 1, we focus on Michael Schmacher’s 2nd place at the 1994 Spanish Grand Prix.

The 1994 Formula 1 World Championship will forever be dominated by the events at Imola on 1st May of that year which changed the landscape of Formula 1 forever. The tragic deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna in San Marino, and injuries to marshals, pit crew, and spectators during the season caused the FIA to make significant changes to safety regulations.

It was also a season of controversy with the disqualification of Michael Schumacher from two races and banned for a further two following the discovery of the Benetton team’s hidden traction control system, post-race excessive wear to the undertray plank on his car, and a black flag at Silverstone for overtaking Hill on the formation lap. This gave Hill the chance to recover lost ground until the season came to a head in the final race in Australia and further controversy with Schumacher and Hill coming together ending the race for both of them and handing the title to Schumacher by a single point.

These events all added to a season which lives long in the memory for all Formula 1 fans of a certain age.

The 1994 Spanish Grand Prix was the second race after Imola, the Monaca GP having taken place 2 weeks earlier. The Williams team were still reeling from the death of the 3-time world champion and many involved in the sport still seemed to be operating in a state of shock.

In the weeks directly after Senna’s death Gerhard Berger with the support of Hill and Schumacher had formed the Grand Prix Drivers Association (GDPA) to act in the interests of driver safety. At Barcelona, they decided to install a tyre chicane at the Nissan turn, in an act that would be repeated during the season at a number of F1 races in an attempt to slow down cars around flat out corners.

With Senna’s Williams still impounded by the Italian authorities and no solid conclusions as to the cause of his accident, these measures were considered an appropriate response. In years since some commentators have suggested they were something of a knee-jerk reaction to Imola from a sport suffering under the burning spotlight of the world’s media.

As the weekend got underway Schumacher dominated qualifying with Hill second over half a second slower. When the cars pulled up to the starting grid behind Schumacher and Hill, Hakkinen was in third, Lehto fourth, Barrichello fifth, the Ferrari’s of Berger and Alesi in sixth and seventh, and Martin Brundle eighth in the second McLaren just pipping David Coulthard making his debut in Formula 1 in the second Williams.

The 65 lap race got off to a poor start with engine failure for Beretta in the Larousse on the warm-up lap. When the lights went out, Schumacher immediately hared off into the distance, leaving the rest of the field in his wake.

Coulthard was one of the first to suffer technical issues retiring on lap 15 following a promising climb to fifth place. Then came the first round of pit stops and the moment when everything changed for Schumacher and thus throwing him into survival mode.

As all those behind him were pitting, Schumacher’s Benneton developed an intermittent gear selection problem. This got steadily worse as more gear options disappeared for the German leaving him with only fifth gear to play with. Schumacher was yet to pit, and it was expected that once he did, the car would probably be retired. Surprisingly not only did the team decided to continue, Schumacher managed to keep the car in fifth gear and crawl away from the pit box and back into the race still leading.

Schumacher, while having lost significant time to Hakkinen and Hill, was beginning to understand the new normal of driving his car with only fifth gear. Carefully choosing different racing lines and lifting off early to cruise through corners he miraculously managed to compete with the McLaren and Williams.

The lead exchanged between the three as they approach the second round of pit stops. Surely this would be the end for Schumacher? Yet again he managed to limp out of the pits on fresh rubber without burning out the clutch.

Those up and down the pit lane looking at the timing boards were astonished as Schumacher managed to keep up with the rest of the field. In later analysis some of the performance would be credited to the Ford Zetec-R engine and its particularly wide torque capability, but it’s Schumacher’s ability to adapt without significant loss of pace remains legend to this day.

On lap 45 with Schumacher in third position, Hakkinen’s notoriously fragile Peugeot engine gave in causing the Finn to retire and promoting Hill and Schumacher to first and second.

With 20 laps remaining and with little chance of catching and passing Hill, Schumacher settled into ensuring he kept a safe distance ahead of Mark Blundell in the Tyrrell. This is how the race ended with Hill taking the win, and Blundell in third, but it was Schumacher’s second place that had everyone applauding. It was Williams’ first win for seven months and Hill chose to dedicate the win to his fallen teammate.

Hill said, “I don’t think I have known such a difficult month. Everyone at Williams has been through a terrible time. This victory must go to them and to all the fans of Ayrton Senna who I met in Brazil. They wanted Williams to be successful. It was important to do well in this race and to win it is better than I expected to do.”

In an era of less transparency between teams, their data, and in car telemetry, and in a time where TV commentators talking directly to the teams on the pit wall during the race didn’t exist, it was only in the post-race press conference that the true feat of Schumacher’s second place became clear.

Schumacher said, “At the beginning it was a bit difficult to take all the corners in 5th gear, but then I managed to find a good line and keep up lap times that were more or less good enough to compete against the others behind me.”

In all his race wins in a stellar career, the seven time world champion will probably remembered for this race, one he didn’t even win, as his best ever drive.

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Editor-in-Residence, JDC Promotions Media Centre