There is no peace for Benetton as they prepare for the Portuguese Grand Prix. Even with the championship at a standstill, while the Anglo-Italian team is trying to make up for the Italian Grand Prix (the worst race of the season for Jos Verstappen and J.J. Lehto), trying to forget the various events that have involved it, it is being pulled in by a new Schumacher case. It looks like a genuine case, which could well inspire a film about international intrigue. On Tuesday, 13 September 1994, a number of German newspapers, more or less qualified, started writing again that the leading driver in the Formula One World Championship would be ready to leave his current team at the end of the year. According to these rumours, Michael Schumacher's lawyer has found a clause in his contract with Benetton which would allow him to change teams. The divorce would take place after his last three remaining races. And, to reinforce this hypothesis, some words are quoted from an interview with Michael Schumacher, who, when confronted with a specific question, replies:
"You know more about it than I do".
A sentence that lends itself to many interpretations and is not considered a denial. In fact Schumacher also said that he is tired of repeating the same things over and over again, that he has a contract with Benetton until 1996. Also in Germany, rumours circulated in the afternoon that Flavio Briatore himself, general manager of Benetton, was ready to leave the team in case Michael Schumacher left. Here too there is a kind of misunderstanding: the team manager, in a report in Sterri magazine, claims that he might give up Formula 1 to devote himself to a less stressful activity at the end of 1995, if he wins the World Championship. In short, there seems to be a conspiracy to increase Benetton's problems. Flavio Briatore, from his office in Enstone, denies everyone and everything:
"I have spoken again with Schumacher and his manager Willi Weber. There are no problems, they will honour their contracts. There is someone who wants us badly and does everything to set us against each other. Evidently we annoy with our successes. We are working to prepare a great comeback for our driver and give him a winning car. That is the only thing that interests us. Even the interview on Stern was misrepresented. It was enough to cut a few passages from it to change the meaning of what I wanted to say".
As if that wasn't enough, however, from England comes a piece of news that could fit, doing a bit of Fanta-Formula 1, right into the Schumacher case. This is the story: Lotus is in trouble, with debts of around 24.000.000 lire. On Monday, manager Peter Collins asked for a kind of receivership. In this way he avoided that some group could take over the ownership of the prestigious team by buying the debts from suppliers. For a number of months, during which the necessary capital will be sought to resolve the situation, no one will be able to intervene. But someone quickly spotted a coincidence. Nigel Mansell, about to return to Formula 1 (at Williams), has Lotus, with which he debuted in 1980, at heart. He could play a master-driver role in the team that was once Colin Chapman's (although the team hastens to deny it). In this case Williams would have the chance to accept a negotiation with Michael Schumacher, considering that the German has said that he will only race for teams that can provide him with winning cars. With Williams there is Renault, who will also supply engines to Benetton next year. Be that as it may, the Schumacher mystery was cleared up on Wednesday the 14th of September 1994, when the Bild Zeitung headlined on its front page:
"The contract is over".
Claiming that the driver might even retire from the Formula One World Championship and only start again next year in another team. But the indiscretion was immediately denied. Willi Weber, the German's manager, and Benetton, flooded the newspapers with faxes announcing that Michael Schumacher would regularly finish the 1994 season with his team and together they would aim for the title.
Flavio Briatore and Michael Schumacher have evidently come to an agreement. Strengthened by the offers from other teams and the problems that troubled Benetton, Michael Schumacher was able to ask for more money and obtained more favourable economic conditions. The fact that there was only talk of 1994 is equally symptomatic: the discussion went on for 1995. Even though the driver already had a contract, he was able to call it into question. However, various sources claim that at 90% Benetton and the German driver will also find a solution for the future. The Bild scoop therefore takes on another meaning, revealing how the German's lawyers have found a key loophole to break the contract with the Enstone team. In essence, just a way to demand a higher salary. The Hamburg newspaper hints at three possible developments in the situation: the driver does not race in the last three races and changes next year; having served his disqualification, he changes and aims for the title with another team, probably McLaren, which would have offered him 30.000.000 lire per season; he takes more money and stays where he is. At this point, the third hypothesis seems to be the right one: there is talk of 1.000.000 dollars per race, double what has been agreed so far, a contract that is also valid for 1995. Also according to Bild, Michael Schumacher has demanded the dismissal of technical director Tom Walkinshaw and Flavio Briatore. In the eyes of international public opinion, they would become the two scapegoats of the controversy. At the helm of Benetton should go Cesare Fiorio, currently at Ligier. A risky inference, given that the Italian manager is an employee of Flavio Briatore. Be that as it may, in the meantime the Circus continues its journey and arrives at Estoril, for the thirteenth round o f the Formula 1 World Championship to be held on Sunday 25 September in Portugal. Last year on this track there was Ferrari's first ringing: Jean Alesi led nineteen laps from the start of the race. Then the Frenchman finished in fourth position, slowed down by grip problems. Alesi, who by now has forgotten the retirement at Monza (but his brother José has a few more grey hairs because of the journey home, always made with the accelerator pushed to the maximum) hopes to make further progress.
"Ideally I would like to make the last pass in front of everyone, first I don't care".
There is a certain optimism in the Ferrari box. Recent tests in Barcelona have shown good progress by the Maranello cars.
"We don't make predictions, but we should be close to the best, namely the Williams. We have several new things to put on the track: a different rear wing, a different slide, something on the engines. In short, we are confident".
The track, which has a very narrow new chicane, in theory doesn't seem suitable for the 412T/1B. But if they have really made progress, then things could change:
"We will try to annoy Hill and the other drivers. Honestly, I would be happy if Schumacher won the title. He deserves it and his team has not treated him too well".
Damon Hill has a chance to get closer to the disqualified German driver in the standings: winning would bring him within one point of Michael Schumacher, but he is allied with Ferrari. It must be said, however, that the Maranello team will be looking for the result above all for itself:
"I can give the team a positive season grade: 6.5. We have scored nine podiums and one win so far, which was Montezemolo's more or less stated goal at the start of the championship. But another success before the end would help us to have more momentum for 1995".
On Friday the 23rd of September 1994, Gerhard Berger took provisional pole position in the Portuguese Grand Prix, on a track that only a few months ago would certainly have seen the Maranello cars much further back in the standings. A sign that the work carried out in recent weeks on the set-ups and the 412T/1B had yielded positive results. But it must also be said that in the feat there is credit to Gerhard Berger, who does everything himself: first a fantastic, perfect lap. Then he is in the right spot at the right time to stop Damon Hill from trying to overtake him. It all happened right in the middle of the new chicane where the Englishman's Williams was forced to slow down in order to overtake the Ferrari, which, after the flying lap, was travelling at a reduced speed to return to the pits. Thus, Damon Hill had to start again and, forcing his way through, he runs into a spectacular and frightening accident. From which he emerges unharmed. Thrown like a fury, Damon Hill is hit in the middle by Eddie Irvine's Jordan, which had spun off at turn 9 of the circuit. The impact sends the Williams flying into the air, which falls back with its wheels spinning. Hill's helmet, although protected by a roll-bar, touches the sand.
"Irvine was not at fault. He had lost control of his single-seater and could do nothing to avoid the impact. It was good that I was not close to the guardrail. I had never crashed in my entire career. It's no fun at all".
Quite a risk for the driver fighting for the World Championship victory and wanting to win the race in the absence of Michael Schumacher, in order to gain valuable points. At Estoril, starting on pole position is a nice advantage, because it is difficult to overtake. So Gerhard Berger was able to enjoy his day of glory, with no worries whatsoever.
"We did a good job, especially in the four days of testing in Barcelona. However, it seems to me that our opponents are still a bit more consistent. We can do a fast lap, but then the material deteriorates, especially the tyres".
The problems are actually not completely solved for Ferrari. The Austrian, however, does not lose his good humour. Ezio Zermiani, RAI television correspondent, tells him:
"You're like Tomba (the Italian world champion skier), it seemed like you couldn't manage to be the fastest and instead you have provisional pole. Even Alberto sometimes wins without giving the impression of forcing it".
The Austrian rider replies:
"The only difference between me and Tomba is that he always gets interviewed by beautiful girls, while I always get small, ugly clients…".
Hill's accident led to the suspension of practice a few minutes before the end, creating difficulties for those who were on the track to look for fast laps. Behind Berger and Hill came the young David Coulthard, who was getting better and better, and Mika Hakkinen in the McLaren-Peugeot. Alesi gets fifth place, as his last attempt is nipped in the bud. On the contrary, the Frenchman passes Michele Alboreto, who slows down while the red flags are out, and receives an official caution.
"Too bad, because the car is good and I could have done better. I will make up for it in the second qualifying session".
Almost unanimously the drivers criticise the new chicane, wanted for safety reasons, as being too narrow and slow. And swear words are also expressed to define the new corner. Even Alesi has harsh words for those who made the change to slow down speed:
"It's obscene for Formula 1. It's fine to watch in a helicopter or walking. The truth is that they have done nothing here. The kerbs are always high, dangerous. The chicane looks like a mountain hairpin bend. Now Estoril is the worst circuit in Formula 1".
Ferrari, beautiful and damned: on Saturday the 24th of September 1994, the Maranello team conquers another pole position, on Sunday it will race to win, but it also gets into an unpleasant controversy. On the one hand there is Gerhard Berger who will start in front of everyone, on the other a $50.000 fine imposed on the team and a day's conditional disqualification. The event leading to the heavy punishment took place on Friday evening at 9:45 p.m.. A group of technicians and mechanics from the Maranello team (apparently thirteen people) wanted to leave the circuit, along with personnel from other racing teams. But the door that is normally used to enter and exit during the day is locked. Someone forces the lock, and the security guards call the Republican National Guard, i.e. the police: after an investigation the stewards, at 3:10 p.m. on Saturday, issue a communiqué in which a fine of $50.000 and a suspension for one Formula 1 Grand Prix is imposed on Scuderia Ferrari for having broken Article 151 of the FIA sporting regulations. The disqualification will be lifted if there are no further similar incidents in the next three races. The Maranello team retorts in the harshest terms.
"For a trivial episode Ferrari has suffered a ridiculous and unacceptable disqualification. While waiting for the authorities to discuss the appeal presented, the team underlines how the actions of the stewards definitively demonstrate the state of confusion and the total lack of credibility and seriousness of Formula 1, as we have been seeing since the start of the season. Faced with such a situation the fairest thing would be to withdraw cars and drivers and return to Maranello. Ferrari does not do this just out of respect for all sportsmen and their fans".
In fact, the fact, however objectionable, could remain within the scope of a justification by Ferrari and a request for an apology. To have imposed a disqualification, albeit with a conditional sentence for an episode that has nothing to do with sport, seems not only disproportionate but also senseless.Nor should it be forgotten that the Portuguese organisers have a nasty habit in the evenings of closing all the doors without in any way indicating the only one that remains open. Returning to racing, since it became part of the calendar, the Grand Prix of Portugal has always been one of the key moments of the season. Even on Sunday, 25 September 1994, it could play a decisive role in the hunt for the title. Absent the disqualified Michael Schumacher, it is an open challenge between Williams-Renault and Ferrari. On the one hand Damon Hill who wants the victory to recover 10 of the 11 points that separate him in the classification from the German of Benetton, on the other hand the team of Maranello in search of the second affirmation. Gerhard Berger starts in pole position, a nice advantage on a narrow and winding track on which it is difficult to overtake. The Austrian has thus added something to his own and his team's records: it is the tenth time he has started in front, the second since the start of the championship. For Ferrari it is pole position number 113 overall and the third this year. But if everyone is cheering for Schumacher as champion (even Lauda says that Michael is the only one who deserves the final success), the race will certainly not be set only against Damon Hill. The race is to win, to gain another dose of confidence for the future. And it will not be easy to hit the target, as Williams is close and very dangerous in race trim, while other dangers are represented by McLaren-Peugeot, Tyrrell-Yamaha and Jordan-Hart. Gerhard Berger takes pole with the time set on Friday. No one manages to do better in the second session, although Damon Hill comes close, taking 0.158 seconds. Due to some strange asphalt alchemy, the track is slower than the previous day but allows for improvements. Indeed, the Williams show some advantage in tyre consumption and reliability. In addition, during the morning Jean Alesi again breaks an engine (one of the more powerful qualifying ones) and in practice in the afternoon, having found it impossible to improve, he is content with his fifth place on the grid, also to save tyres for the race. It is clear, however, that Jean Alesi, having nothing to lose, will try to be the protagonist of a blazing start and will leave no stone unturned to grab a placing that will repay him for so many recent disappointments.
On Sunday the 25th of September 1994, at the Portuguese Grand Prix, Gerhard Berger takes the lead and stays there in the early stages of the race. The Austrian driver gets ahead of David Coulthard, who overtakes Damon Hill at the start, while Jean Alesi overtakes Mika Hakkinen. However, Ferrari's dreams of glory vanish on lap 7, when Gerhard Berger is forced to retire due to a gearbox failure. On lap 26 the gearbox of Ukyo Katayama's Tyrrell-Yamaha also fails, and the Japanese driver is forced to retire. This retirement allows Rubens Barrichello to bring his Jordan-Peugeot into fourth place. The race tactic for Gerhard Berger was to make three pit stops for tyre changes and refuelling. Damon Hill and David Coulthard were to do the same. But at this point Williams, now sure of getting the maximum result, reduced the stops to two, as also planned by Jean Alesi, who had more fuel on board and was slightly slower. For the game of pit stops, Damon Hill takes the lead on lap 18, then passes Jean Alesi from lap 19 to lap 22, leaving him then to Rubens Barrichello until lap 25. David Coulthard then took the lead for two laps, but the young Scot made a mistake in a chicane and Damon Hill took advantage to escape. On lap 38, Jean Alesi's other Ferrari retired after colliding with David Brabham's Simtek-Ford while trying to lap him. Soon after, Jos Verstappen managed to overtake Martin Brundle's McLaren-Peugeot and take fifth place. Meanwhile, undisturbed, Damon Hill continued his run and won his third consecutive race, finishing ahead of his team-mate, David Coulthard. The one-two allows Williams-Renault to take the lead in the Constructors' World Championship. Mika Hakkinen finished third with his McLaren-Peugeot, followed by Rubens Barrichello, fourth with Jordan-Hart, Jos Verstappen, fifth with Benetton-Ford and Martin Brundle, sixth with the second McLaren-Peugeot. Olivier Panis, who finished the race in P9, was later disqualified for excessive skid wear. Everything according to script, at least as far as Williams-Renault is concerned. Damon Hill and David Coulthard acted the part: they had to finish first and second and they did their part to perfection.
Now the 32-year-old Englishman, now on his eighth win, the fifth since the start of the season, is perfectly in line to contend for the world title against the disqualified Michael Schumacher. In the standings the German, at 76, has only one point left. The World Championship starts again, then, with three races still to go. And the question that arises is this: will Benetton (which has also lost the leadership in the constructors' championship, making Frank Williams doubly happy) be able to withstand the attacks of the rival team, which from the next race, to be held in Spain, at Jerez, will also have the theoretical support of the returning Nigel Mansell? It is difficult to give an answer. Indeed, in the two races without the German driver, Briatore's team seems to have lost more competitiveness than expected. Both in qualifying and in the race. In Portugal, the Anglo-Italian team collected only the fifth place of Jos Verstappen, facilitated by some important retirements. Among the retirements were those of both Ferraris. Gerhard Berger had to give up on lap 7, while he was in the lead, due to a gearbox failure. Jean Alesi went off the track due to a collision with David Brabham's Simtek during lap 38, when he was third. After winning pole position in the Portuguese Grand Prix, the Maranello team - unfortunately - only went home with a $50.000 fine and a one-day conditional disqualification. It is true that the disciplinary measure taken by the FIA for breaking down the circuit door is a blatant and absurd gaffe. But the matter remains open and will have to be discussed by the appeal court. Far more serious, however, is the negative track record. The cars are more competitive than in the past, but reliability is still precarious. And that is like throwing away possible successes. According to the rivals themselves, in fact, Gerhard Berger would have had a good chance of keeping first place. So the gearbox failure is even more painful. As for Jean Alesi, it has already been said but it bears repeating: he has to go. The fact remains that he did not make it to the finish line, for the fifth consecutive time. Says Jean Todt, at the end of the race:
"Before we were not competitive but we had reliability. Now we can win but we have failures. We had to work hard, making too many changes on the cars. Now we will concentrate on the details in order to close the championship in the best possible way".
And Gerhard Berger replies:
"I am convinced that I could have finished first. The car was going well, I had managed to find a good set-up in the morning. I had no problem keeping the Williams behind. I find it very important, however, to be competitive again, even if it is frustrating not to reap the benefits of the hard work. It will be difficult to be as strong in the next race at Jerez, as the track is too slow for us. But in Japan and Australia we will take some satisfaction. I'm not interested in playing the role of referee between Hill and Schumacher, I'll count for Ferrari and for me".
After a complaint from Ferrari, Jean Alesi had to appear at the race direction together with David Brabham to answer to the stewards for the accident that had involved him. After hearing the parties, the judges decided to impose a one-day conditional disqualification on the Australian, who was held responsible for throwing the Ferrari off the track.
"It was the minimum. Brabham had already damaged me at Monte-Carlo. You don't behave like that, it's also a lack of respect: first he stepped aside by widening the trajectory, then he closed the door. He was lapped twice and there were blue flags from the marshals signalling the overtaking attempt. I believe that David does not have the physical condition to face a whole race. I understand that certain cars and their drivers are needed to complete the line-up, but they should at least be a little more careful".
And as for the race, Jean Alesi admits:
"I had decided to make only two stops and so I was a bit slower. But third place was within my reach. I obviously had to push hard to avoid the attacks of Hakkinen and Barrichello. If I waited for Mr Brabham to step aside on another part of the circuit I would have lost precious time. Incidentally, this is the second time he has hit me and he never came not only to apologise but also to explain himself. Inconceivable".
For his part, David Brabham, one of the three driver sons of Sir JacK Brabham, former World Champion, speaks only through a statement issued by the Simtek team:
"I didn't realise at first whose car it was that hit me. When I found out it was Alesi, I can't say I was surprised".
Nice joke, but if the Australian didn't notice, it means he didn't see anything, that he wasn't paying attention. Despite all the attention, on the other hand, Olivier Panis, classified ninth with the Ligier, could not avoid being taken out of the classification: as mentioned, during scrutineering the wooden step under his car was found to be worn beyond repair. And the FIA was inflexible, as it had been with Michael Schumacher. Speaking of the world challenge, Damon Hill, son of art, is not the type to let feelings and emotions show. But a big smile stands out on his face. For him, who has just renewed his contract with Williams by one year, winning was an imperative, a necessity. Now the team, already two points ahead of Benetton in the Constructors' World Championship standings, can also concretely fight for the Drivers' World Championship.
"And that's what I like most, because I don't drive to go fast. If they give me the fastest car, the best car, I can do three or four laps, then I stop and I am not satisfied. For me the battle, the direct confrontation, is important. And, at this point, I am ready, one hundred per cent, to measure myself against Schumacher. I know very well that he is very good, an ace. But I'm not afraid, everyone will play their own cards. I also have a fantastic team on my side".
It was almost a foregone conclusion to win the Portuguese Grand Prix without the German on the track...
"That's not true. Berger got off to a very strong start and we had to pull hard not to lose contact. I don't know how it would have turned out if Ferrari had stayed in contention. Maybe the race would have been decided in the pit stops. In any case it wasn't easy: this is the most physically demanding circuit, terrible. The lapping is difficult and dangerous. In addition, there is always the unknown factor of breakdowns that can arrive suddenly. For me it was a tough competition. That's why I think the victory is very nice, appreciable".
Also happy was David Coulthard, for the first time on the podium. But the Scot did not hide his bitterness at the cruel situation he finds himself in. He is considered by Frank Williams, he has shown himself to be a capable and very fast driver, also considering his 23 years of age. But now he will have to return to his role as test driver. His place will be taken by Nigel Mansell. The sponsors (in search of world famous personalities) and also Renault wanted him. Frank Williams expresses words of appreciation for David:
"He has a contract with us, and we will do everything to keep him. I know other teams are looking for him. It will be difficult for him to leave us, though not impossible. We hope to keep him".
The hunt for Coulthard comes mainly from McLaren team principal Ron Dennis, who would be willing to let Martin Brundle go free in order to secure the services of the Scot. A good story for the drivers' market. Meanwhile, however, Ron Dennis' team achieved another small result with Mika Hakkinen's third place. A confirmation of the Finn's skill and the progress of the car with the Peugeot engine. As had already happened at other circuits, the French engine made a good impression in the new, more powerful version. For little Italy, the Portuguese Grand Prix was an authentic disaster: P9 for Gianni Morbidelli (after Panis' disqualification), P13 for Pierluigi Martini, P14 for Michele Alboreto. Too little. But Giancarlo Minardi, endowed with a typically Romagnolo temperament, doesn't give up and reinforces the team: the team principal of the team of the same name will take another twenty people between technicians and mechanics, to try to make a further quality leap. And he should be lucky enough to be chosen as the official team to supply the Ford engines, abandoned by Benetton. The one who does not speak at all is, for once, Flavio Briatore, team principal of Benetton, who renounces one of his favourite practices. He hardly speaks after the race, just like Alesi does when he gets angry. The Italian manager limits himself to making a couple of jokes:
"We are calm, we will win the title, now Schumacher is back, you will see".
But the Italian manager is dark in the face and tense. It will not be so easy, Williams is fierce and ready for the challenge. In any case all teams, except Larrousse and Footwork, will stop at the Portuguese track for a series of tests from Tuesday 27 to Friday 30 September 1994. Michael Schumacher will take the wheel of his Benetton again. But the Anglo-Italian team will also have the Canadian driver Paul Tracy, third in the Indy championship and a Penske driver, drive on Thursday alone. An interesting element, but he will not be used in the last three races of the season. Confirmed instead the return of Mansell: Nigel will be on stage next week, again at Estoril, with the Williams-Renault. Someone has already called it the artificial challenge.
But, even if Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill are facing each other, fighting for the world title, thanks to the decisions taken by the FIA, for Formula 1 it is still a panacea. Three races to go and one point difference (in favour of the German). Anything can happen. And, this is the beauty of the story, the battle - barring unpredictable surprises - could last until the last metre of track, in the final race in Adelaide. On one side the most brilliant driver of these years, the emerging, the young German driver called to replace in the imagination and in the hearts of the fans Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. On the other, an often underestimated son of art, already senior in age but with limited experience since he has so far competed in 31 races. Who will win? Says Frank Williams, owner of the 34-year-old driver (because he was born in 1960 and not 1962 as he had announced on his Formula 1 debut, taking two years off as Gilles Villeneuve had done, for fear of appearing too old:
"I am afraid, because that Schumacher is a devil. We have done the maths. On average he gives his teammates a 1.5 second lap time gap. If he had been there in Portugal, the pole position would probably have been his. And maybe the race too. We in the team have to work, help Damon".
He, Damon, son of two-time World Champion Graham Hill, seems to be untroubled.
"I know it will be difficult. And that if certain things hadn't happened, I'm talking about disqualifications and other things, we wouldn't be here studying plans and tactics. But I'm not backing down, I'll give it my all. I have nothing to lose. I've been next to Prost, Senna and Mansell. I have learnt something. And then I like winning more and more, I race for this, not just for the pure pleasure of driving".
The first confrontation between Hill and Schumacher after about a month's absence of the Benetton driver will take place on the same track in Estoril, on Tuesday 27 September 1994. Practically all the teams will carry out four days of testing and it will be the occasion for Michael's return after two races of disqualification. The driver does not show up until Monday evening. But he makes a typically obvious statement:
"I was hoping that the other competitors would take a few points away from Hill. Instead he was able to take full advantage of my absence. So it will be harder for me".
The only one not losing his good humour is Flavio Briatore, Benetton team principal:
"I expect a fresh and relaxed Schumacher. He has rested for two Sundays and has not even picked up any more disqualifications…".
Analysing, however, the duel that will animate the final part of the World Championship, we can say that Michael Schumacher will be on his own, while Damon Hill will have the total support of a team like Williams, used to playing for world titles. Michael will have to fine-tune the car and rely little on team-mate Jos Verstappen, who is good but still a bit immature to be of help in these situations. Damon Hill, on the other hand, will be supported by Nigel Mansell, who will make himself available to him and try to give some advice on car set-up, pledging to be a faithful squire on the track. Assuming the moustachioed Englishman is not taken by some rapture, as happened when he was at Ferrari and caused Alain Prost to lose the title. But this time Nigel is gambling his place and money for 1995. And he won't be able to play tricks. On Tuesday, therefore, everyone will be on the track, even if it is only private practice. For Ferrari there will be both Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger. To seek reliability they will pick up the race where they left off on Sunday.