Karl Wendlinger cannot stay away from the motor world. On Sunday October 9th 1994, the 25 years old Austrian driver, who had been in a coma for almost two weeks after Montecarlo’s accident, lets everyone know that he had the doctors’ permission to return to the wheel of a racing car. In all likelihood, he will do a series of cautious tests at the wheel of a Sauber Formula 1 at Le Castellet, after the European Grand Prix at Jerez.
"I am excited, but also confident and determined to resume racing. I continue physical rehabilitation, but on a neurological level I am fine".
Speaking of Sauber, it seems certain that next year Mercedes will no longer supply its engines to the Swiss team. The German company won’t be able, almost certainly, to equip McLaren that can not break the contract with Peugeot. That’s why he would choose the team of Eddie Jordan, one of the teams that have marked the greatest progress in recent seasons. Meanwhile, the week leading up to the European Grand Prix begins with a series of tests that will start on Monday October 10th 1994, at the Estoril circuit in Portugal. Ferrari will be on track for two days with Gerhard Berger, who requested these tests to set up the car for the season finale. On Tuesday or Wednesday there will also be the Williams-Renault with the returning Nigel Mansell. The Englishman makes it known - if he has not been misinterpreted - that he is not going to help Damon Hill against Schumacher, but that he comes back to win. While in Portugal the tests take place, the latest news regarding the disappearance of Ayrton Senna in Imola concerns the recording of the images shoot by the small camera fixed on the Brazilian’s car. Is it true that it was seized at the Italian Grand Prix, held in Monza, because it could be a decisive test? Absolutely not, assures the lawyer Causo of Rome, who with his colleague Naccarato assists Williams and all English-speaking suspects involved in the proceedings of the prosecutor Passarmi. That is the magistrate of Bologna who investigates the death of Senna and that of the Austrian Ratzenberger, another victim of the tragic weekend of Imola.
"The cassette with the images of Ayrton’s camera car has been delivered spontaneously by us in August, and does not contain images of the impact against the wall, but only the previous moments. In our opinion they are insignificant".
There is no mystery, according to Causo, and his version does not contradict that of the FIA, for which there are no images of Williams at the time of the accident.
"In fact, the impact has not been recorded because the director had removed the images, just before the accident, on the following car, that of the german Schumacher, who was attempting the comeback".
At the Italian Grand Prix, the Public Prosecutor Passarini would have brought with him a tape containing a Brazilian television service O Globo, which could not be seen in Bologna because it was registered with the American system, rather than with the European Pai. The cassette apparently have been duplicated by FOCA with the new system, and it was thus possible to clarify the meaning of a sentence spoken by Williams to the technicians the day before the San Marino Grand Prix:
"For me the situation is dangerous, if tomorrow Senna has an accident, you are in trouble".
It seemed the anticipation of the drama, but one detail has solved the doubt: the technicians were those of Goodyear, to which Williams asked some sets of additional tires. Meanwhile, according to lawyer Causo, the hypothesis of the breakage of the steering wheel as the cause of the accident would be reduced:
"Telemetry data confirms that the steering wheel had lift until the moment of the impact. So it broke later".
According to the lawyer, the air force tests, which must be cross-checked with those of the experts of the University of Bologna, have found that the fatigue of the metal of the steering column concerned only one sixth of the circumference of the barrel.
"It is equivalent to no more than 15% of the barrel, an irrelevant amount".
Friday October 14th 1994 begins with a final challenge of the Formula 1 World Championship for Michael Schumacher:
"For me, seeing in the mirrors Mansell or Coulthard is the same thing".
The German is not worried about the return of the English Lion, back in Formula 1 thanks to a fabulous engagement to help his teammate and compatriot Damon Hill. And the Benetton driver doesn’t even seem to give much weight to the result of the first day of practice of the European Grand Prix, which sees him only in third place. He is preceded by Hill himself, who takes the provisional pole position, and the other German driver, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who drives the Sauber-Mercedes. Schumacher’s return to the races, after two rounds of disqualification, offers a day of timed practice conditioned by an unconscious gesture of Katayama with Tyrrell. The Japanese driver, as good and fast as naive, breaking after a few minutes the Yamaha engine of his car floods the whole track with oil. On the slippery asphalt no one can make a better time than Frentzen, whose clean lap he had already done before this episode. The true values therefore remain hidden. We have to be content with understanding that Jordan is competitive (P4 Rubens Barrichello, P5 Eddie Irvine), that Nigel Mansell is still a bit in the rehabilitation phase of Formula 1 (P6) and that Ferrari, when it comes to slow and tortuous tracks, reels among the difficulties (P7 Gerhard Berger, P8 Jean Alesi). Saturday will be the real challenge to take the pole position, with Michael Schumacher in the role of favorite. The second place of Heinz-Harald Frentzen, however, gives another reason to talk about the scandals that are hitting Formula 1 recently: in fact, in the pits, instead of talking about the Schumacher-Hill duel, there is nothing more than gossiping about another sensational case, involving three important names: McLaren, Mercedes and Peugeot. It is increasingly strong the rumor that the German company would want to strengthen its presence in the Circus of engines, joining the English team. On the contrary, it is said that the agreement has already been made and that only the official announcement, which is expected shortly, is missing. Drivers announced: Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Mika Hakkinen, then the arrival of Michael Schumacher. The story, if confirmed, is emblematic for Formula 1 and for sport in general. Faced with interests there is no longer contract that holds. On the other hand, we have seen what happened with Alain Prost and Michael Schumacher, as far as drivers are concerned, and now we are seeing a similar intervention between manufacturers. Peugeot had a contract to supply its engines to McLaren for three years, plus a fourth as an option. And, for a debut, the results were not even too bad, however not such as to justify a traumatic divorce. Instead, evidently, a crease was found in the contract that allows the break. There is talk of a penalty of 25.000.000 dollars, a seemingly huge amount but it must be considered that the investment of Peugeot has certainly been much higher. Says Jean-Pierre Jabouille, sports director of the sports section of the French company:
"We cannot hide the fact that we have been talking about this problem for a long time. We technicians know nothing and we continue to work. We will be here next year too".
A half admission, also because it is said that in 1995 Peugeot will go with Jordan, which is a promising team. But what a sadness. Chased away, faced with the possibility of McLaren having a more prestigious supplier. The time of fairplay, of style, is over. And in fact, on Saturday October 15th 1994 it seems to be back, with all due respect, to the times of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. In fact, Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill, pretenders to the Formula 1 title, separated in the standings by a single point, are playing a good slice of the season in the European Grand Prix. The German and the Englishman are both in the front row, almost looking at each other in the eye, after the Benetton driver conquers his fifth pole position since the start of the World Championship.
The crowd at the circuit is witnessing a very close qualifying, with a good fight not only at the top (Rubens Barrichello, Johnny Herbert, Nigel Mansell, Gerhard Berger, Michael Schumacher, Damon Hill and finally Michael Schumacher, all alternate at the top in this order). An preview of what may happen in the race. Says, at this regard, the returning Nigel Mansell, who in qualifying gets the third place:
"I have the best chair to enjoy the challenge".
In fact, the Lion should help his teammate. From his behavior, it will depend the possibility of being at Williams also in 1995. He should step aside, if he were ahead of Damon Hill in the final, and try to take away points from Michael Schumacher by attacking the German if the Benetton rider was within his reach. Meanwhile, Schumacher and Hill, like their predecessors, do not spare themselves even in words. Damon in recent days had questioned the honesty of the opponent, raising suspicions about the use of irregular systems by Benetton. Michael replies that Hill is a small man of no value. There are, however, also different names from the usual in the first rows, such as that of Heinz-Harald Frentzen with the Sauber-Mercedes (P4) and Johnny Herbert, in P7 with his new Ligier. Ferrari must be satisfied with Gerhard Berger’s P6, ready to face race of waiting to take three or four points and confirm the third place in the standings of the Drivers' World Championship. Very far Jean Alesi, in P16. The frenchman stumbles into another of his misadventures: with the brakes blocked, the Ferrari driver gets silts up and does not participate in the second qualifying round. Excellent Morbidelli (P8) and good debut of Domenico Schiattatila with Simtek, because he manages to enter, even though with the last time, in the grid. Speaking of Italians in Formula 1, Flavio Briatore, born in the province of Cuneo, 44 years old, is the man who in five seasons, since taking the lead of Benetton Formula, italian team based in England, has brought it to the top. Since the beginning of the year he has seen an impressive series of successes and at the same time has been the protagonist of a thousand controversial episodes, controversies, discussions. Now he is practically forced to start over. Will he be able to break ten years of absolute domination of Williams and McLaren?
"I am optimistic. We have the best driver and the car that has won so far eight races out of thirteen disputed, even if they took one away. In motorsport, anything can happen, unfortunately. But if values are respected, Schumacher will be world champion. I would also like to say that it would be fair. The team has gone through difficult times. But we are comforted by the support of the fans. They stop us on the street and tell us: you have been the best, you deserve the title".
Regrets, mistakes you could have avoided?
"When it goes as well as we do, you can’t complain. In Formula 1 everything is and must be at the limit. Many things have happened to Benetton. They accused us of using prohibited electronic systems, of seeking advantages in the refuelling of the fuel. We have been put on trial, they have discharged us. The truth is that when one grows up and takes the place of others at the top, it always bothers. It’s normal. Last year when we came third, we were the nicest team. Now we’ve become obnoxious. The only thing we really regret is the disqualification of Schumacher in Belgium".
And this could not be avoided?
"It was an accident. Michael’s car went on a curb and deteriorated the flat bottom. But the rules were unclear. So much so that it has been modified. From the next race the wooden step inserted under the cars will be protected by titanium plates. And the rule for the black flag has also been changed. From now on, if the penalties are not communicated in writing within twenty minutes of the incriminated event, it will not be considered valid. This clearly shows that the previous rules were open to different interpretations".
So Benetton was persecuted...
"Let’s say there was a special focus on us. And that the measures have not always been applied with the same rigour towards others".
But don’t you think you put yourself out there with some heavy handed statements against the FIA?
"When we protested, as happened in Barcelona, there were many of us, almost all of us. In any case they will never put the gag on me, this is certain: when I have something to let people know, I will always say it openly".
Weren’t you wrong to bet everything only on Schumacher?
"Michael is a champion, the best. There is no Hill that holds".
Meanwhile, however, you almost lost him, Schumacher...
"There was a very unusual situation. Before, there were always at least two or three champions. Now it’s just him at the top. It is clear that other teams tried to take it away from us. We had a contract and we could have enforced it. We preferred to see him again, to be happy. You cannot work together when you are forced and unhappy".
And that cost a lot of money. That’s 16.000.000 dollars, one a race.
"Sacrifices were made. We shared the expenses, a little us, a part the sponsors, who were very happy to keep the driver. They are huge figures, but it is a market law, when there is supply...".
But the excessive demands of the protagonists could lead to ruin, as is happening in football or baseball in America.
"I’ve always been very clear about that. I am always ready to find an agreement: if major teams like Williams, McLaren and Ferrari want to put a cap on the engagements, that’s fine with us. Meanwhile, it will always be the driver to decide for the team and the best car, on equal terms. Certainly the expenses increase. But we are fortunate to have a universal image and a huge television coverage. Those who invest large sums in Formula 1 see them coming back in terms of commercial success".
Benetton and Ferrari have often pinched each other over the course of the season. How are the relationships now?
"Goodfor me, correct. It’s normal to argue, to have different opinions. But the goals are similar and the whole Circus is pleased with a strong and competitive Ferrari. We just need it not to be faster than Benetton".
There is a serious crisis of Italian drivers, who are disappearing.
"It’s not our fault. We’d be happy to tap into the house. But maybe our kids can’t suffer anymore. As drivers for the future I see the Brazilian Barrichello, the Scottish Coulthard and our Verstappen. Then there is Alesi, who is older, but has talent and I am convinced that he will rise to the top. Maybe in the new blue levers there is something good, but it will be necessary to wait".
Flavio Briatore’s personal goals?
"Win the World Championship now, and win it back next year. With Benetton, which is an Italian team. Then I might as well retire, this sport is very stressful. We were lucky enough to have the owners who supported us very much. Bringing home the world title is the least to say thank you".
On Sunday 16th October 1994, at the start of the European Grand Prix, ran on the Spanish circuit of Jerez de la Frontera, Damon Hill sprints well and at the first corner precedes Michael Schumacher, while Nigel Mansell goes down to sixth place, behind Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Rubens Barrichello and Gerhard Berger. Mansell passes Berger again during lap 2, and Barrichello on lap 6, before the Jordan driver recovers during lap 12. The debut of Japanese driver Hideki Noda, with the Larousse-Ford, ends with a gearbox failure after ten laps; while the Japanese driver slows down, Nigel Mansell hits the car of Rubens Barrichello, and then stops at the pits to mount a new front wing. A little later, Michael Schumacher overtakes Damon Hill during the first round of pit-stops; both are far from Heinz-Harald Frentzen - who makes a one-stop strategy - with Mika Häkkinen following in fourth place and Eddie Irvine fifth. Damon Hill takes the lead briefly during the second set of stops, after which Michael Schumacher maintains a comfortable lead for the rest of the race. Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s strategy fails when the German driver, lacking grip, falls to seventh place, behind Gerhard Berger and Rubens Barrichello. Meanwhile, Eddie Irvine passes in front of Mika Häkkinen and takes third place, before being overtaken again by the McLaren driver following a second fastest stop. In the final stages, Rubens Barrichello is slowed down by a puncture on the left rear tire, favoring the return of Heinz-Harald Frentzen in the top six, just ahead of Ukyo Katayama’s Tyrrell-Yamaha. In a race marked by great reliability, there are nineteen cars that will finish the race: the last is the Simtek-Ford of Domenico Schiattarella (even though with a delay of five laps), while Nigel Mansell is the last driver to retire, spinning during lap 48. Michael Schumacher’s margin of victory over Damon Hill is 24.6 seconds, while more than a minute divides him from Mika Häkkinen, third at the finish, and Eddie Irvine, the last driver left full laps. Gerhard Berger and Heinz-Harald Frentzen complet the top six, although a lap behind. Frentzen manages to fend off Ukyo Katayama for only 0.2 seconds. With two races remaining, Michael Schumacher remains in the lead of the Drivers' World Championship with 5 points ahead, while Benetton returns to the lead of the Constructors' World Championship, with 2 points ahead of Williams. Alain Prost already proclaims Michael Schumacher World Champion.
“He is the fastest, there is nothing to do, it deserves the title".
Back on track after two disqualification races, Michael Schumacher has given a driving lesson to the whole Formula 1, winning the European Grand Prix as a dominator. Eighth seasonal success and above all a demonstration of character that says a lot about his qualities of authentic and complete champion of the steering wheel. If he had not lost 16 points of exclusion from the standings for the black flag at Silverstone and the success taken away by disqualification in Belgium, Michael could already celebrate his first world champion. Not to mention that in the last two races he’s been home watching Damon Hill’s successes. His success was also the triumph of his team, Benetton. Michael has driven as a champion: not the slightest mistake, perfect lapping (no overtaking), absolute skill at every juncture of the race. The team prepared the winning strategy and a car that, as usual, showed considerable superiority. The tactical move that led to success was that of three pit stops for refueling, while all other competitors had planned two or only one. With an increasingly lighter car and new tyres, Michael was able to face the lapping with extreme ease while Damon Hill paid tough time every time he found himself overtaking another car. And in the end the gap was very clear. Almost 25 seconds ahead, with a slowdown in the last laps and an extra stop that can be calculated as a penalty of about 20 seconds. The two rivals practically made the race apart, considering that Mika Hakkinen, third at the finish, was detached by more than a minute and that Gerhard Berger, ranked fifth after Irvine, was rounded. A race unfortunately also boring, but not because of the drivers. The continuous pit stops make sure that the spectacular Formula 1 loses a lot, turning it into a game of hide-and-seek. First out wins. Michael Schumacher says:
"At the start I got a bit scared. Damon started very strong and preceded me at the first corner. I couldn’t understand what his tactics might be and I had to wait".
Hill, however, in the first part of the race until the pit-stop that opened the series of pit stops, gained only a second. He basically led until lap 17. From the stop to change the tires Schumacher came out already in the lead and was not taken again, except for two laps, at the second stop, when he then returned to the lead.
"I forced myself to the maximum and I took a nice margin that allowed me to administer the test".
On the podium, the German driver gives vent to all his joy. No one like him gives the impression of joy: almost angry gestures, grimaces of happiness, looming tears.
"A fantastic result. Getting back on track after a month and always finding myself in first place is a great thing for me and the team. Together we make a great group".
The joy of Michael Schumacher is shared by Flavio Briatore, who knew he had to face a very important day, a kind of test of the truth:
"We had faith, but it was hard. Now if there is justice we must win the World Championship. The tactic was perfect, we designed it so Michael would never get caught up in traffic. There was not the slightest problem. Now the appointment is for Suzuka. And it is not said that it is not the final one".
It is a difficult moment for Williams: Michael Schumacher’s victory has not only made the German a big step towards winning the title, but also brought Benetton back to the top of the Constructors' World Championship. In addition, the team completely missed the strategy of the race and the graft of Nigel Mansell turned out to be a real mistake. The Lion did not help Damon Hill and in fact put the team in trouble with an unexpected stop at the pits for crashing into Rubens Barrichello’s Jordan. After an excellent recovery following a not exceptional start - he had immediately overtaken Gerhard Berger and then the Brazilian - Nigel in rounding the Japanese debutant Noda was overtaken by the same Barrichello and in braking he hit the back of the Jordan. So he had to pit on lap 15, lost over a minute and was forced to run at the back of the group until, on lap 48, he went off the track after a spin.
"It was great to come back, I am in perfect physical shape. In the end I lost control of the car, but I will make up for it in the next races".
Frank Williams takes the result with philosophy, dismissing the issue with a joke:
"How many pit stops has Mansell made? Four: three in pits and one in the grass".
Maybe the developer regrets leaving David Coulthard behind, but business is business, and sponsors are in charge. Damon Hill shows up at the post-race press conference with a very dark face. Although Ecclestone forced the Englishman to shake hands with Michael Schumacher to make peace after the verbal clashes of recent weeks, the Williams driver did not like the defeat suffered by his rival. The tension between the two is always strong: on the podium they ignore each other, spraying champagne in opposite directions. Scenes already seen, after all.
"I didn’t miss all the chances for the title, but I must admit I expected to drive a more competitive car. It has to be said that Schumacher and Benetton have worked very well. I hope to take revenge in Japan. We made the mistake of only stopping twice for tires and fuel and I was delayed by traffic on track. In addition, after the last pit-stop I seemed to be less fast than before. But the challenge is not over and I will carry it on until the last meter".
Behind Hill and Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen - for the fourth time in a row - took McLaren on the podium, ahead of the struggling Eddie Irvine. Jordan could also have placed Rubens Barrichello in the top six, if the Brazilian had not punctured a tire. Thus Gerhard Berger climbed to fifth place and Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who had been third for 32 laps, totally blocking the platoon of unlikely pursuers, brought the Sauber-Mercedes in sixth position. Jean Alesi, who had conquered three places with the usual fast start, is forced to settle for tenth place, due to the lack of acceleration of his Ferrari. The Sherry (that here in Andalusia flows. freely) has a bitter taste for Ferrari. In fact, maybe it’s better not to toast, neither for the fifth place of Berger, nor for the fact of having brought two cars to the finish line. Once again on a slow and winding track, the Maranello cars showed huge limits both in qualifying and in the race. A reality difficult to accept, given the means available and the thousands of kilometers covered in the tests. Gerhard Berger admits:
"I’m happy with the placement just because it’s worth something for the constructors' championship and because I aim to keep the third place in the drivers' one. Apart from that it was a disaster. The car wasn’t even either, if you will, but it wasn’t competitive at all. Let’s not talk about Benetton and Williams that are on another world. But it was unacceptable to have to fight with McLaren using the Peugeot engine on its debut in Formula 1 and with Jordan being a small and willing team. Everything has to change. Next year I want to win. And for this Ferrari will have to prepare a new engine totally different and a valid single-seater, shorter and less difficult to drive. In the next race in Suzuka we should go much better, but this is not enough to satisfy us".
Hard words, those of Gerhard, but justified by facts. Strangely Alesi appears, instead, calm:
"It was not possible to do more. I took terrible risks for nothing. I didn’t have any acceleration and when the power came from the engine it was already time to brake. For me Blundell’s Tyrrell was an insurmountable obstacle. Let’s hope this all ends soon".
Probably the French driver refers to the 1994 season. However, one of the usual radio box voices must be recorded. Some say that the French driver is also involved in the breezy McLaren turn. Mercedes would supply Ron Dennis' team and Peugeot, to justify its forced transition to Jordan, would want Jean Alesi on the British team, while Ferrari would take Rubens Barrichello. But it’s very difficult for Alesi to accept the trade.
"I must admit that a month of holidays, even if forced, did me a lot of good. I rested, physically prepared, recharged my energy. I was in Switzerland, I accompanied my brother Ralf a few times when he was engaged in Formula 3. In short, when I arrived in Spain I was in full shape".
On Monday October 17th 1994 Michael Schumacher smiles, with his strange smile as a child grew up in a hurry, a little enigmatic. The fact of having served two races of disqualification certainly annoys him a lot. The job of the driver, besides having given him fame and already a lot of money, he really likes. And he’s certainly not the type to be happy to stand still while others run. But he makes a good face. And then the return to the track was fabulous, so much so as to forget the past misadventures.
"Of course, it couldn’t have gone better. Benetton and I didn’t make a wrong move. Qualifying, car preparation for the race, race strategy. Not a smudge. Now I have 5 points ahead and I intend to play them well in the two races that remain to be played".
Will there be a particular tactic for the two decisive races? Flavio Briatore, head of the Anglo-Italian team, answers this question:
"We have the advantage. Even psychological. Michael, in Japan, can afford a setback, even not to get to the finish line. And play it all a week later in Australia. Hill instead in Suzuka will be forced to place at least second. And it will not be easy, being under pressure...".
So Schumacher could do a waiting race, ready to drive on the conservation to control his rival?
"It’s not in my temperament, and it would also be foolish. We have to do everything to win right away. We have already wasted a little too much this year. This is why every opportunity should be taken".
By the way, at Jerez, the Benetton driver matched Ayrton Senna with eight wins in one season. In the last two races he could reach Mansell (nine successes, achieved in 1992) and also set the new absolute record at ten. Without forgetting that a first place was taken with the disqualification at Spa-Francorchamps for the bottom of the irregular car and that in the end will have played only fourteen tests out of the sixteen scheduled. A performance that could put Michael Schumacher among the greatest of all time in his third season in Formula 1. But it is not the records that particularly interest the very fast German.
"I run to win. So much so that between a huge offer of money for a risky engagement and a certainly competitive car, I will always choose the second solution. It is clear that dollars interest me, like everyone else, but they are not the main thing in absolute. And then it would be foolish to think only of money. In any case, earnings are always closely linked to success".
He’s no fool, Michael Schumacher, but he has a weakness too. Nationalistic. He always dreamed of driving a Mercedes to win the World Championship. And since the company in Stuttgart is moving to find a competitive team (the agreement with McLaren is practically done, only the announcement is missing), the direction of the driver and that of Mercedes converge. It is said that everything will happen in 1996. But in the meantime Schumacher, the driver who had amazed everyone at his debut with Jordan in the 1991 season finale, could already have won two world titles. The first will be up for grabs on Sunday November 6th 1994 in Suzuka.