Brought to you by TJ13 contributor Oddball
Formula 1 has always pushed the boundaries of what is legal but everything was to change in 1994.
A frustrated Senna had left the McLaren team to join with the Williams outfit, but from the very outset he was struggling against the rising talents of a young Schumacher. This was the year that traction control and other driving aids became outlawed.
At the first race of the season, Senna was surprised at the speed of the Benetton. In the previous season the Williams was the car to beat and he left McLaren with a clear intention of regaining his title but after following the Benetton he became frustrated at his lack of progress and was sure they had some form of driver aid in the car.
Senna retired from the Japanese Grand Prix, however he chose to remain at he side of the circuit and as the race continued he became convinced something wasn’t right with Schumacher’s car. He observed how the engine note change as the German powered away from slow speed corners and felt sure that somehow the Benetton team had fudged a form of traction control. Some will argue that this fact triggered the unfortunate events of the San Marino Grand Prix as when a pushing Senna, (who had a poor season start), tried to makeup for the Williams cars deficiency. However this is something that we will never know. The traction control scandal was a small part of the story, the other being a humble fuel filter.
This year the management of F1 had decided that due to a lack of excitement in the previous season and because of the dominance of the Williams machines, they would take away electronic driver aids, active suspension and re introduce in-race refuelling. The whole refuelling endeavour was to force the teams to make a pit stop which in turn could throw an element of uncertainty into a race. The teams where quick off the mark and realised that time could be found in the stops and as we see today places can be gained with a slick turnaround. At the very first race The Benetton pit crew had shown the way but their slick stop raised a few eyebrows.
During the refuelling stage a car would enter the pits, stop on their marks and then the team could go to work quickly switching the tyres and topping off the fuel.
Once the hose was connected to the car, fuel could be delivered into the tank but this was by far the slowest aspect of the entire pitstop. As fuel entered the tank via a close metal coupler, air vented away so no pressure could build up inside the closed system. If the mixture was allowed to escape this could force a very volatile mix of hydrocarbons to become atomised and this posed a very real risk of a flash fire. With this in mind the whole pit lane was limited to a refuelling rate of 12.1 litres a second but Benetton had other ideas.
To shave off nearly a second the team had removed a small inline filter. At the later hearing in Paris the team claimed that the FIA had been approached and had approved the modification, it was later revealed that they could pump the fuel a full 12.5% quicker than a standard rig (I am sure that wasn’t the intention..wink,wink).
The race at Hockenheim in July 1994 was a victory for Ferrari but it’s win will always be overshadowed by the events that happened during the Benetton pit stop. Jos Verstappen (father to Max) came into the pits and while refuelling the inevitable happened. A very small amount of fuel escaped the rig and made contact with the hot exhaust and brakes. It was later revealed that debris had entered the system which prevented a valve from sealing. All hell broke lose when Verstappen’s car was engulfed in a ball of flames. The whole pit lane and a startled Benetton pit crew vanished into the inferno. The unfortunate Dutchman was helpless as the very seat belts that are designed to prevent injuries held him in place. As a cruel twist, moments before the accident a helpful mechanic had lifted the protective visor on his helmet and as the temperature climbed his exposed skin began to scorch. Verstappen escaped the incident with burns around his eyes but thankfully no other crew members were severely injured or killed but this was more luck than judgement.
After the accident the World Motor Sport Council hearing surrounding the Benettons skid board, traction control and the fuel fire was brought forward but the night before the hearing the FIA were informed by the Larrousse team that they too were told by Intertechnique (the makers of the fuel rig) to remove the filter from the refuelling rig.
Flavio Briatore of Benetton pointed out that in prior meetings all but four teams had removed the filter. The FIA judged that Benetton had not tried to cheat but did say that the team removed the filter without authorisation with a view to gain an advantage. The team were found guilty of the offence but somehow escaped punishment.
After the hearing, Benetton released a statement which said:
‘The Mild Seven Benetton Ford Formula 1 Team is very pleased with the result of today’s hearing in Paris, which has completely cleared its good name from any allegations of cheating. Whilst the team may not have been able to satisfy the World Council as to the precise cause of the wear of the skid board it was delighted that the FIA stated in clear terms that there was no question of the team cheating. The team were also completely cleared of the charge of removing the fuel filter illegally. This should put an end to unfounded and wild speculations in the press that the removal of the filter caused the fire at Hockenheim. Before the hearing the FIA conceded that it was not alleging that the removal of the filter had caused the fire. In giving the World Council’s decision, the President [Max Mosley] stated that its unanimous view was that the filter was removed in complete good faith and that it would be inappropriate to impose any penalty whatsoever’
The whole affair was a black spot in a very difficult year and the allegations of traction control will continue to haunt Schumacher’s image but in it all we should also praise the steps taken in fire safety because today I could have been writing about a totally different outcome.