Copyright © 1997, 2014 Glenn B. Manishin.
The beginning of the most volatile period in the history of Formula One is marked by a single day: 1 May 1994. But once again, the roots of the transition reach back further, to the 1991 Belgian GP at Spa, where young German Michael Schumacher burst onto the F1 scene by qualifying 7th in his first Formula One start for Team Jordan, moving on just one race later to Benetton. With the absence of Mansell and the now-retired Prost from F1 for the 1994 season, there was only Schumacher to take on Ayrton Senna and make the new F1 cars — running under revised FIA specifications once again, designed to encourage more competition between drivers rather then between money and computers — a true test of driver mettle.
And new the cars were. After focusing on their active components for years, F1 designers were hard pressed to meet the new specifications, and most of the paddock was not delivered in time for much winter testing before the season’s first race at Interlagos in Brazil. As Senna prophetically told a pre-season interviewer, “It’s going to be a season with lots of accidents, and I’ll risk saying that we’ll be lucky if something really serious doesn’t happen.”
Still, everyone expected that the combination of Senna and Williams would make 1994 a cake walk to the World Championship. But in the season’s first three races, despite taking three poles, Senna had failed to finish and Schumacher had won each time, putting him 30 points up in the championship as the F1 circus descended on the San Marino GP at Imola. There in practice, something really terrible did happen. Two devastatingly violent accidents — one that killed first-year Simtek driver Roland Ratzenberger (F1’s first death in 12 years) and another that put Brazilian Rubens Barrichello in the hospital — shook the faith of the GP fraternity. Williams and Senna, visibly moved and sitting by Barrichello’s bedside with tears in his eyes when Barrichello regained consciousness, withdrew from the final qualifying session. Senna telephoned his girlfriend in Lisbon to say he did not want to race on Sunday.
But racing was Senna’s life, and he took to the track the next day holding the pole position (his 65th, by far the all-time record, again until Schumacher) once again. After a starting line shunt and six laps behind the safety car, Senna was in first place just car lengths ahead of Schumacher when, on lap seven, his Rothmans Williams-Renault bottomed out in the fast Tamburello corner, struck the wall nearly head-on at 180+ mph, and ricocheted back onto the track, a mass of mangled carbon fiber. Senna was motionless in the car, finally being pulled from the wreckage, given first aid and taken away in a helicopter. He died hours later from massive head
Senna was 34, which means that, by F1 standards, he did not die young, just hard and a very long way from home. Senna transcended the tiresome debate about whether race drivers are really athletes because he was something far rarer in this world than an athlete — he was a genius. Senna could take a 1,100-pound F1 car and transform it into a living, breathing thing; a throbbing dance partner in his dangerous pas de deux. Niki Lauda said simply, “He was the best driver who ever lived.”
“The Last Ride” (Sports Illustrated 9 May 1994) — Bruce Newman
injuries — caused when a suspension arm from the disintegrating Williams punctured his helmet. Ironically, despite all the tragic Formula One deaths over the decades, Aryton Senna was still the first and only F1 World Champion to have died during a Grand Prix race.
In the aftermath of Tamburello, the show went on, as it always has. FIA implemented emergency rules to slow the cars further (with Max Mosley brushing aside the requirement of the Concorde Agreement that rule changes must be based on unanimity among the F1 teams), mandating pit speed limits, “stepped” bottoms to reduce downforce, limited wing sizes and increased cockpit openings, among others. After a gesture of respect the next race at Monaco — where the 1st two grid spaces were left empty and a moment of silence was observed before the green light — Michael Schumacher took his first pole position and then marched to back-to-back World Championships in 1994 and 1995, with the latter season seeing a series of head-to-head duels with Damon Hill, Senna’s replacement as number one driver at Williams. Schumacher’s plain joy at winning the F1 title was itself marred by Senna’s loss, as he felt he “measured himself against Aryton” and the measuring stick was gone.
These twin Schumacher title seasons did restore a measure of excitement to Formula One, and saw a number of firsts, and lasts. Jean Alesi — who had battled with Senna as a first-year driver in the streets of Phoenix in 1990, and then with Schumacher at the new Nürburgring — finally won his first GP at Canada in 1995. After first merging with the Pacific GP
Benetton’s brilliant run of success proved very short-lived; we were but a shooting star in the Formula One heavens, destined to shine briefly then fizzle out. We finished the 1996 season without so much as a single race victory . . . the first time since 1988. All that we had worked for, all that we had slowly built up over the previous two championship years, was all gone in a matter of months. Regardless of how it was dressed up, 1996 was a total disaster.
The Mechanic’s Tale: Life In the Pit Lanes of Formula One — Steve Matchett
team, Lotus then withdrew from F1, the team in bankruptcy and total disarray after nearly a decade as a backmarker. Nigel Mansell made an ill-fated return to F1 in 1995, lasting all of three races in a specially designed “fat” McLaren to meet his new girth, but never making an impact despite a final win for Williams during an equally brief stint the next season. And in 1996, which would see Damon Hill at last conquer his own personal demons to capture the World Championship, Jacques Villeneuve — son of the legendary Gilles and fresh off an Indy 500 win and IndyCar title — joined Team Williams as a breath of fresh air. By then, Schumacher had moved on to join Ferrari for US$27 million per season, bringing Maranello three victories and a resurgence, with the Tifosi rejoicing after Ferrari’s first victory in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in nearly a decade (since Gerhard Berger’s 1998 win). With that, the transition from the Senna-dominated era of the late ’80s and early ’90s seemed almost poetically complete, with the stage set for a new generation of F1 drivers and teams to take their shot at laurels and posterity.