Dramatic 1994

45th season of FIA Formula One motor racing

The 1994 championship would forever be remembered chiefly for the harrowing events of its third round – that dark weekend at Imola which claimed the lives of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger. The tragic events of the San Marino Grand Prix cast a shadow over the championship and began an intense period of soul-searching over how to better protect drivers in the sport. These were the most grievous events of the most traumatic season in recent memory. A Monaco crash left Karl Wendlinger in a coma which ruined a promising Formula One career. In the early part of the season injuries became almost commonplace as a succession of drivers were wounded in major accidents. 

The death of the most famous racing driver the world has ever known thrust worldwide media attention on the sport. Under fierce scrutiny, the imperative to understand what went wrong and respond accordingly forced all involved in the sport to react. In the chaos that followed circuits and cars were hastily altered. Bereft of a star driver, another champion made a sudden return. The season took an increasingly bitter turn with a series of controversial disqualifications and allegations over technical infringements. And it ended with a notorious collision in Adelaide. But before the season began few could have imagined what lay ahead. The major preoccupations in the build-up to the new season were familiar ones: disputes over the technical rules and how to inject more action into the racing.

Formula One at the beginning of 1994

“Improving the show” is not a phrase that only gained currency in F1 in the last few years. Pick up a magazine or read a newspaper report from the end of the 1993 season and you’ll find it was already in vogue two decades ago. The 1992 and 1993 championships had been largely dominated by one team – Williams – whose cars had taken pole position for 30 of the preceding 32 races. Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost won the 1992 and 1993 titles respectively at a canter. Neither stayed to defend their crowns – although in January 1994 Prost’s future was far from certain. Mansell, meanwhile, had made history by switching to IndyCars and winning that title at his first attempt. In the mid-nineties Formula One kept a jealous eye on its North American rival. While Senna remained the only world champion left in grand prix racing 20 years ago, IndyCar’s driver roster featured Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi as well as Mansell.

The 1992 champion’s defection had won IndyCar many new viewers and the quality of its racing drew praise. Formula One responded by adopting some of IndyCar’s innovations, beginning with time penalties served in the pits and the Safety Car, which had appeared during 1993. Another feature of IndyCar racing was adopted in 1994 – one which proved highly controversial. But as in-race refuelling ultimately remained part of grand prix racing for over a decade and a half, it’s easy to forget how contentious its return to F1 was at the time. Refuelling was added to the rule books in mid-1993. It was slipped in at the 11th hour following months of wrangling between the teams and the FIA on a different subject: president Max Mosley’s desire to outlaw active suspension and other driver aids. Faced with the threat of having their active cars banned mid-season in 1993 – forcing them to redesign their cars at huge cost – the teams agreed to a ban for 1994. Bernie Ecclestone seized the opportunity to add his rider: in-race refuelling, banned on safety grounds ten years earlier, would be legalised. True support for the refuelling plan was almost non-existent, and following the meeting the teams swiftly united to try to expunge it from the rules. Even Benetton team principal Flavio Briatore, who argued in favour of such gimmicks as reverse grids at the time, turned against the refuelling plan when he calculated the huge sums involved in purchasing and shipping the necessary equipment. The one team which continued to push for refuelling, preventing its rivals from achieving the necessary unanimity to get rid of it, was Ferrari. As they used the thirstiest engine in the pit lane they stood to gain the most from being able to refuel. Team principal Jean Todt even avoided a pre-season meeting of the teams where he expected to face fierce pressure to drop a plan which had raised serious concerns over safety as well as costs.

The teams and drivers

Ferrari were flexing their political muscles because they were enduring their longest-ever winless streak in the world championship. Over three years had passed since their last win, courtesy of Prost in the 1990 Spanish Grand Prix. During that time they had struggled with a succession of attractive but uncompetitive designs, and never got to grips with active suspension and other driver aids that were essential by 1993. The banning of such devices for 1994, along with the return of designer John Barnard from Benetton, promised to restore Ferrari to competitiveness. But at the dawn of the new season few expected any challenge to Senna and Williams. Even though Benetton got their new car on-track several weeks before Williams and set competitive times throughout testing, the conventional wisdom was that Williams couldn’t possibly have got it wrong. 

Benetton, however, had won at least one race per season since 1989 and Briatore had set his sights high. “If I don’t win the world championship between now and 1996 then I need a change of job,” he said before the season began. Prost’s decision not to take up his option to continue at Williams for a second season opened the door for Senna, whom Prost had blocked from joining him as team mate in 1993. But after Senna took his place alongside Damon Hill, Prost began seriously thinking of continuing in Formula One, and he looked into making a return to McLaren. Those who were hoping the Senna-versus-Prost show would resume were to be disappointed. After driving the team’s new MP4-9 behind closed doors at Estoril in early March, Prost decided to remain in retirement. “You could tell Prost wasn’t keen,” Martin Brundle reflected in a recent book, “the Peugeot engine wasn’t really very strong at that point”. Brundle’s brave gambit of waiting on Prost’s decision was rewarded: he landed the second McLaren seat alongside Mika Hakkinen days before the championship was due to start. With the exception of Scuderia Italia, who failed to complete the 1993 season and were effectively taken over by Minardi, the same roster of teams remained.

But the clock was ticking for venerable names like Lotus, who produced a mildly developed version of their 1992 chassis; Tyrrell, point-less in 1993; and Ligier, whose owner Cyril de Rouvre was arrested in December and who were soon to be purchased by Briatore. Better times seemed to lie ahead for two of F1’s newest teams: Jordan, who impressed on their 1991 debut, entered their second year with Brian Hart’s customer V10 engines. And Sauber, entering their sophomore season having taken a fine seventh on their debut, retained the backing of Mercedes and their Ilmor-developed V10s. Footwork went back to being called Arrows as the Japanese recession led Wataru Ohashi to pull his backing. Having been snubbed by McLaren in favour of Peugeot, Lamborghini scrapped their F1 engine programme, leaving Larrousse to join Arrows in switching to Ford engines. The arrival of new teams Simtek and Pacific boosted the grid to 28 cars – and meant two per weekend would be eliminated after qualifying. The move to outlaw driver aids for 1994 had inevitably drawn the strongest opposition from the teams who had benefitted most from it – Williams initially, and also McLaren, who won the final two races of 1993 with their highly advanced MP4-8.

Not that their drivers necessarily felt the same way – Senna famously used his 1992 Christmas card to Mosley to lobby for a ban on driver aids. But as the reality of the rules change sunk in during the off-season, concerns became fixed on whether it was possible to ban innovations such as launch control, which could be hidden within thousands of lines of proprietary computer source code. “I don’t think you should ban something that you can’t police,” said McLaren team principal Ron Dennis. Days before the cars arrived in Brazil for the first race, Mosley warned that if someone “deliberately cheated – not that they interpreted the rule differently to you or there was some debatable point which they may be wrong about – then I think Draconian penalties are completely correct”. But aside from worries over refuelling, safety was not a major talking point ahead of the new season. “Touch wood we haven’t killed anybody at a grand prix for 11 years now,” Mosley remarked in a pre-season interview, referring to the death of Ricardo Paletti in 1982. Those intervening years had seen other serious crashes, including the death of Elio de Angelis during testing in 1986. But some of the more alarming incidents prior to 1994, such as Alessandro Zanardi’s fearful shunt at Eau Rouge the year before, had been caused by active suspension failures. There was good reason to believe that if banning it was going to have any effect on safety it would be a positive one. But the coming months were to reveal in the most shocking way just how vulnerable drivers had become in their cars.

John Watson previews the 1994 Formula 1 Championship

The 1994 season ought to be even better for Williams than 1993 – which indicates total domination. Ayrton Senna takes the place of Alain Prost, and you can believe he will be driving as much to win races as to win the championship. Damon Hill will benefit from having the most competitive man in F1 over the last decade as his teammate. Renault V-10 power and outstanding aerodynamic properties tidy up the most complete package this year. McLaren have not found the definitive replacement for Ayrton Senna but Martin Brundle has impressed with his testing ability. Brundle’s race driving is equally outstanding and he and teammate Mika Hakkinen will certainly liven up qualifying sessions. The Finn should also find his British colleague a solid base from which to further his own career. I expect Peugeot’s V10 to make rapid progress in the HP stakes though for Brazil a points finish, in my mind, is the top priority. Benetton-Ford offer the most immediate challenge to Williams, and Michael Schumacher may well prove an albatross to Ayrton Senna.

Mile-high confidence and commitment equals speed and the new Ford Zetec R engine is already faster than last year’s six GP-winning unit. The unfortunate JJ Lehto is still unfit to take part in Brazil and ‘cub driver’ Jos Verstappen will deputise. But Interlagos will prove a daunting venue for his debut. Ferrari have probably made more internal changes in the last year than all of their rival teams put together. The 412 T1 shows new mechanical and aerodynamic thinking, though the power still relies on Ferrari’s loyalty to a V-12 layout. They are definitely the team to watch over the season. Can Jean Alesi finally break his GP duck and will Gerhard Berger finally pick up where he left off with McLaren at the end of 1992. The 1994 season signifies a new start for the Tyrrell Yamaha team. A straightforward, well-engineered design and an easy “set up and drive” package should give newcomer Mark Blundell and teammate Ukyo Katayama a good season.

It will also provide Yamaha with a suitable chassis to partner their latest V-10 engine. I expect the team to be a consistent points scorer this season. Unfortunately for Lotus Mugen-Honda everything does not look as rosy as their potential would indicate. The move to a Mugen-Honda V-10 engine does not automatically mean a faster car. Coupled with the much-publicised rift between Johnny Herbert and the team management, the season could well prove disharmonious. The danger is that Herbert’s teammate Pedro Lamy may also suffer as he benefits from a ‘family atmosphere.’ Footwork Ford will run a customer 7/8 series Ford HB engine in 1994. That is the ideal engine package for a team at this level. Christian Fittipaldi and Gianni Morbidelli are both new to the team Larrousse Ford are always difficult to assess though their move to the Ford HB engine will undoubtedly provide consistency in performance. Erik Comas remains with the team and is joined by Olivier Beretta out of F3000.

They could spring a surprise from time to time. Jordan’s improved chassis powered by Brian Hart’s V-10 engine will provide Rubens Barrichello with good results this season. Eddie Irvine is now a full-time GP driver who has personality and speed – an intriguing team balance. Minardi Ford are one of four teams using the Ford HB engine and now benefit from much stronger finance. With the experienced Michele Alboreto and Pierluigi Martini in the line-up, they could prove the most competitive of the four. Ligier may have the best engine in F1 but it is not good enough to make them competitive. Internal complications have also damaged pre-season expectations. Eric Bernard returns, partnered by F3000 champion Olivier Panis.

Sauber Mercedes compete for the second year and once again they are proving fast in winter testing. Heinz Harald Frentzen is considered the fastest German driver and will push Karl Wendlinger very hard. They are certainly a team capable of making the top four. Simtek-Ford are one of two new British teams to appear in 1994. For any new team it is important to learn to walk before they can run. Dave Brabham fulfils that need but new face Roland Ratzenberger’s need is always to be fast. Pacific Ilmor are the other fresh entrants with Keith Wiggins making a brave step into F1 from F3000. A sensible car-engine package will be exploited to the full by Betrand Gachot, but whether Paul Belmondo can sustain his position remains to be seen.


  • 6/1/94: Oliver Gavin is named as test driver for F1 newcomers Pacific Grand Prix.
  • 11/1/94: Jordan reveal the new Hart V10-powered Jordan 194. No teammate has been named for Rubens Barrichello.
  • 15/1/94: Benetton confirm JJ Lehto will be Schumacher’s new teammate, with Jos Verstappen signed as test driver.
  • 19/1/94: Rumours circulate suggesting Prost’s retirement will be brief, and he will race for McLaren-Peugeot in 1994. But his existing two-year contract with Williams, says Frank Williams, means this cannot happen.
  • 21/1/94: Lehto crashes backwards into the Stowe corner wall at Silverstone at 220km/h in his maiden test with Benetton. He fractures several vertebrae, requiring surgery. He will miss the opening races of the season.
  • 23/1/94: Senna tops his first test for Williams at Estoril.
  • 24/1/94: Prost refuses to deny he will race in 1994, amid tabloid reports McLaren and Peugeot will pay him US$20mil.
  • 28/1/94: McLaren reveal their new Peugeot-powered MP4/9 at their Woking headquarters, but no announcement of a teammate to partner Hakkinen.


  • 2/2/94: Ferrari reveal the new 412T1 set to be driven by Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger. A more powerful V12 engine, co-designed by former Honda guru Osamu Goto, will debut later in the year.
  • 9/2/94: McLaren announce Prost has agreed to test their new car. No word on if it could become a full-time drive.
  • 21/2/94: Jordan become the first team to try the new refuelling rigs in testing at Barcelona. Where pit stops took around four seconds in 1993, they are expected to take around three times that in 1994.


  • 2/3/94: Martin Brundle tests the new McLaren at Silverstone. The Brit is pinning his hopes on landing the second race seat after rejecting offers from Jordan and Ligier.
  • 7/3/94: Simtek announce Roland Ratzenberger will partner David Brabham at Simtek for at least the first five races.
  • 8/3/94: Prost tests the new McLaren at Estoril, and laps 0.5s quicker than Hakkinen. The time is still several seconds off Hill’s benchmark in the Williams.
  • 10/3/94: Senna and Hill top the times in the final pre-season test at Imola.
  • 15/3/94: Prost confirms he will not be making a comeback to F1 in 1994.
  • 17/3/94: Benetton announce Verstappen will race in Brazil, with Lehto still recovering from his Silverstone crash.
  • 21/3/94: McLaren sign Brundle to partner Hakkinen, while Frenchman Phillipe Alliot will be the team’s third driver.
  • 25/3/94: Friday qualifying, Brazil

Senna takes provisional pole from Schumacher and Alesi, with Wendlinger a surprise fourth in the Sauber. McLaren struggle with throttle problems. New teams Simtek and Pacific are several seconds off the pace.

  • 26/3/94: Saturday qualifying, Brazil

Schumacher beats Senna’s Friday time but the Brazilian goes even quicker to start his home race from pole position. Alesi and Hill lock out row two, while Frentzen and Morbidelli start from row three.


Giving chase, Senna spins and stalls on Lap 56. He leaves Brazil with no points.


  • 16/4/94: PACIFIC GRAND PRIX (Saturday qualifying)

Roland Ratzenberger will be the only driver who can claim to have a little local knowledge when practice begins at TI. The Simtek Ford driver has raced a Tuuring Car once before. Ratzenberger qualifies for his first Grand Prix in last place, almost two seconds behind Brabham and 6.3 seconds off Senna’s pace. Brazilian Ayrton Senna secured the 64th pole of his Grand Prix career despite failing to improve his lap time in final practice. Hot weather made track conditions much slower at the TI circuit and Senna’s time of 1 min 10.218 secs, set on Friday, was untouchable. Senna and Williams teammate Damon Hill, who will start third on the grid, were among several drivers to spin during the session. “I don’t know what happened. It made me feel silly and stupid,” Senna said afterwards. 17/4/94: PACIFIC GRAND PRIX (Race) Michael Schumacher makes an electric getaway to jump past Senna, who is tapped into a spin at turn 1 by Hakkinen then hit by Larini. The Brazilian and Italian are out on the spot, while the Finn continues with a big black mark on the McLaren’s nose. Senna stands trackside for a few laps listening to the German’s Benetton, convinced it is using traction control. Either way, he leaves Japan with still no points.

  • 29/4/94: SAN MARINO GRAND PRIX  (Friday qualifying)

On his first flying lap, Barrichello runs wide at the Variante Bassa chicane. His Jordan vaults over a kerb and plunges into the tyre barrier at 225 km/h. The car stands on its nose and rolls several times before coming to a stop. He is knocked out and kept in hospital overnight for observation, but otherwise sustains only a broken nose. He will miss the race.

  • 30/4/94: SAN MARINO GRAND PRIX  (Saturday qualifying)

Austrian Roland Ratzenberger died from injuries suffered in a 190mph crash during final practice. His Simtek-Ford slid off as he came down the straight from Tamburello and crashed heavily into the wall alongside the track. He was given heart massage at the scene before being rushed to hospital by helicopter, but died soon after arrival. Rubens Barrichello crashed his Jordan-Hart at the circuit only 24 hours earlier, but he escaped without serious injury. A stunned Simtek team paid tribute to Roland Ratzenberger following his death after a practice crash. A team statement described him as a “highly accomplished and successful driver…a true all-rounder, whose brave style will be sadly missed.” Ratzenberger had worked for 13 years to earn a seat in Formula One and made his race debut at the recent Pacific GP in Japan. His earlier career involved stints in the British Formula Three and Japanese Group C Championships. Britain’s Johnny Herbert said he was deeply saddened by the death of Roland Ratzenberger. The Lotus Mugen-Honda driver said: “He will be sorely missed by the many friends who enjoyed his company.” Herbert, who affectionately knew the Austrian as ‘The Rat’ added: “He had an infectious sense of humour and worked for everything he achieved in motor racing. I am greatly saddened by the loss of a friend.” Ratzenberger is the first driver to die at an F1 race meeting in 12 years. Senna does not take part in the rest of the session but his Friday time stands for the 65th pole position of his career ahead of Schumacher and Berger, while Hill bumps Lehto down to fifth.



Brabham decides to take part in the warm-up for Simtek. Seeing the positive effect on the bleak atmosphere within the team he decides to race, even though the team is still unsure if they’ve fixed the front wing issue thought to have caused his teammate’s fatal crash. The race gets off to a rough start. Lehto stalls on the grid and is hit at high-speed by Lamy’s unsighted Lotus. Debris flies clear over the towering spectator fences, injuring nine people. The safety car comes out for four laps as the front straight is cleared, Senna leading Schumacher away when the race restarts on the fifth. On the sixth lap, Senna crashes at the Tamburello curve, hitting the concrete wall at over 200 km/h, coming to rest to the right of the circuit. The race is stopped. Medical crews rush to the scene. Comas, exiting the pits in the Larrousse, misses the flags and heads onto the circuit to be confronted by the accident scene. Distressed, he elects not to take part in the restart. When the race resumes, Berger sends the Ferrari-loving ‘tifosi’ into raptures by leading the opening laps. Alboreto’s Minardi loses its rear wheel exiting the pits after a tyre change, hitting two Ferrari and two Lotus mechanics who need medical treatment. Schumacher wins at a canter after Berger’s Ferrari falters, while Larini upholds the Prancing Horse’s fortunes with a fine second from Hakkinen. The source code of all three cars’ engine management systems are requested for inspection by the FIA. But little of that matters at that moment. Two hours after the chequered flag falls, Senna’s life-support is switched off at the Maggiore Bologna hospital. The sport’s brightest star is dead.

The events of the San Marino Grand Prix brought numerous changes: For the Spanish Grand Prix,

  • the size of diffusers would be reduced,
  • the front wing end plates would be raised,
  • the size of the front wing would be reduced.
  • Combined this would reduce the amount of downforce by about 15%.

For the Canadian Grand Prix (1994)

  • the lateral protection of the drivers’ heads would be improved by increasing the height of the sides of the cockpit,
  • the minimum weight of a Formula 1 car would be increased by 25 kg (changed to 15 kg by Canadian GP),
  • the front wishbones would be strengthened to reduce the possibility of a front wheel coming loose and striking the driver,
  • the cockpit would be lengthened to prevent drivers striking their head on the front of the cockpit,
  • the use of a fuel pump would be introduced,
  • the airboxes from the engines would be removed to reduce the airflow to the engines and thus decrease the power available.

Other improvements included more improved crash barriers, redesigned tracks and tyre barriers, higher crash safety standards, higher sills on the driver cockpit and a limit on 3-litre engines are among the measures that were subsequently introduced. The FIA immediately investigated the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola, and the track’s signature Tamburello turn, was changed into a left-right chicane.” In the end, there deaths were tragic and tarnished the sport forever. They will always have a lasting legacy, and luckily, safety improvements have come about from the events of that weekend.