Down to the wire

You wouldn't have given tuppence for his chances of victory after qualifying, but when down in Suzuka Damon Hill kept his hopes alive with a champion's drive.

From the moment that Michael Schumacher so insouciantly began to hammer home quick laps in qualifying, you began to form the impression that victory in the Japanese GP — and the World Championship — was all but a formality for the dour German. As he and the Benetton handled the circuit's sweeps and flat-out swerves with almost majestic ease, Williams struggled, its FW16Bs looking cumbersome and intractable. Worse still, as far as his championship aspirations were concerned, Damon Hill was floundering in Nigel Mansell's wake. True, he outqualified his team-mate on the strength of Friday afternoon's lap, but on Saturday the former champion had been in a class of his own as he became the only man to break into the 1m 36s bracket. There is evidence that Hill did a fair amount of soul-searching prior to Saturday's final session, but then the skies opened and washed everything away in anti-climax. Going into the race, the advantage seemed entirely with Schumacher.

Suzuka, however, has a tradition of serving up the unusual and, when raceday dawned wet, there was just the chance of something unpredictable. What none of us could foresee as the grid formed, though, was just how this would become the most exciting race of 1994.

Against the odds, and in the face of monumental pressure, Hill beat Schumacher to the damp chequered flag by 3.365s after a fantastic duel, on a day when, against the run of the season, Williams' one-stop fuel strategy beat Benetton's two-stop tactics with a lap to spare, to narrow the gap between the two drivers to a single point as they headed to Adelaide.

It was Michael who won the start, with a clumsy swerve that echoed Mansell's move on Alain Prost at Estoril in 1990. Its wheels spinning, the Benetton speared straight across from left to right, across Hill's bows. It looked dramatic and it was certainly deliberate, but Damon expressed no bother with it later and perhaps the television angle foreshortened things and made it look less subtle than it was.

Whatever, down into the first corner Michael was precisely where he wanted to be, but Hill had the unwanted attention of Frentzen, a splendid third fastest for Sauber, nudging his way alongside as he took the outside line. A wee bit further back, Mansell had bogged down with excessive wheelspin and been engulfed, so that Johnny Herbert in the second Benetton was fourth ahead of Alesi and, temporarily, Irvine. They stayed that way to the end of the lap, except that Mansell edged back ahead of the Jordan.

Frentzen screwed his chances on the second lap, when he went autocrossing and dropped back to sixth. "I tried to pass Hill on the outside line but there was either oil or fuel on the track," he said later. "I realised that I wasn't able to stay on the track so I just tried to keep control of the car and went through the gravel. The handling was good at that time, but immediately after the pit stop it was almost undriveable for reasons I don't yet know. . ." His chances evaporated there and then.

Initially, Hill closed right up on Schumacher, but, just as we settled down to the prospect of an unfettered encounter between the two championship contenders, white hailstones fell at the start/finish line as a prelude to disaster. Schumacher and Hill completed their third lap and headed into the fourth as they gingerly slithered past the pits, the main straight now literally awash, but when third placed Herbert came through nine seconds later all hell broke loose.

"As I was coming through the 130R bend they told me on the radio that it was raining really badly there." said Johnny, who was further to the left of the track and may thus have been on the wetter section where the water sprayed up by Schumacher and Hill moments earlier would have fallen. "And in any case I could see that the rain was like white stones on my visor, it was so bad. The track looked like a lake, but I was being very careful not to come right off the power because that can make things worse. I had one moment, collected it, and then another, and suddenly I spun six or seven times. I was just a passenger."

The Benetton aquaplaned down the straight, rotating all the while, and as it glanced a wall and left its nosecone in the middle of the track, there were some close avoidances as those immediately behind braked and snaked round it. Then Katayama's thoroughly disappointing weekend for Tyrrell came to an inglorious and painful end as he mirrored Herbert's demise. The Tyrrell clobbered the pit wall and Ukyo, who had almost been in tears the previous day after feeling that he had let his expectant countrymen down by qualifying only 14th, was assisted away with a badly bruised right leg.

Compounding things. debutant Taki Inoue spun his Simtek too, also striking the pit wall.

His team-mate, David Brabham, said: "The car would just let go. You had no warning; you'd just suddenly find it snapping one way or the other and it was pure luck whether you caught it or not."

As the wrecked cars were cleaned away the race continued, with the safety car and then an official car deployed to slow things down. The former did not immediately pick up on the leaders because they had gone by before the incidents began, but Schumacher in particular showed commendable common-sense by obeying the yellow flags and his radio messages and resisting any temptation to push too hard in his chase after the safety car. Since Suzuka has such a long lap, the official car also went out to hold the field, and as the rain gradually began to ease team managers went up to the stewards to voice their opinions as to whether the event should be stopped. Eddie Jordan was among the most vocal, as is his desire, expressing his driver's views that the race should be stopped immediately.

As these talks went on the rain eased further, and with every driver behaving sensibly the officials prepared for a restart. This came at the end of lap 10, and with a rolling start by the pits the field was racing again by lap 11. This time, it would last for only a handful of laps.

Schumacher instantly got on the loud pedal and slithered away from Hill to the tune of 4.8s, with Alesi resuming in third place from Mansell and the attentive Frentzen and Brundle. Hakkinen was further back, shadowed by Morbidelli, with Blundell, Irvine, Barrichello, Panis. Fittipaldi and the fast-starting Lotus duo of Zanardi and the extremely impressive Finnish debutant Mika Salo pushing along hard ahead of Comas and Brabham.

Lagorce, Martini and Alboreto had all disappeared on lap 10 when they became entangled going by the pits. The French rookie spun, claiming he had been tapped by Martini, who said that he had been unable to see anything. Alboreto was an unwitting victim, and all three were out. Berger, too, had gone out that lap, his battery condition warning light flickering on as indication of low voltage. He was advised by radio to creep to the pits, but refused, parking the Ferrari rather than risk running at such low speed in the conditions.

On lap 14 Morbidelli made himself dizzy when he aquaplaned on standing water in the Degna Curve, where the yellows were still out, and removed the front wheels from his Footwork. Just as marshals were clearing this away Brundle arrived and did exactly the same thing. As the McLaren slid off it struck a marshal who was assisting another with removal of the FA15.

"I really thought that was it for me, said Brundle. "I thought that was the moment that I was going to die. I was headed straight for the caterpillar tractor that was moving Morbidelli's car, and then somehow, right at the last moment, I just missed it. I really don't know how."

Ironically, he had voiced concern about such vehicles being used to remove damaged cars during the morning's drivers' briefing. Bearing in mind the circumstances of his demise and near miss, it seemed churlish that the stewards later issued him with a reprimand for 'driving too fast' in the conditions.

If Martin had a lucky escape, so too did the marshal that he struck. The man was thrown into the air, but suffered nothing worse than a fracture of his right leg, just below the knee.

This time the race was red-flagged, and for the next 23 minutes debate raged whether it should be resumed as Christian Fittipaldi and Mansell accompanied Flavio Briatore to the stewards office. There it was decided that it would be restarted.

"There were no disagreements and the stewards behaved very professionally," reported Mansell. "If it rains again we're going to face a very tough decision. It's very dangerous out there."

Berger was as ever very conscious of his role as elder statesman and safety spokesman, but said: "I'm not too worried about it. We know it's dangerous but everyone is being sensible."

While the debate had been conducted Hill was the only driver to remain strapped in his car, his mind totally focussed on the job ahead. Then, as the cars assembled behind the safety car, which would run one lap with its lights on and another with them off before the competition began again earnest, Mansell had new tyres fitted, and Zanardi his ride height raised. This time, 15 cars were left.

This became 14 almost immediately when Barrichello stopped in the pits with electrical problems in his Jordan's transmission, while the two Lotus' (on successive formation laps) and the lone Ligier all made sensible use of strategy to refuel.

As the racing resumed in earnest when the safety car pulled off, Schumacher again began to speed away from Hill, but when he came in for fuel after only the fifth of the scheduled 37 restart laps, it became almost certain that the team had opted for a two-stop fuel policy to Williams' one. Michael had 6.8s in hand on aggregate from the first part, but when he resumed his times were initially way off Hill's. Had he, after all, taken on sufficient fuel to go the distance? Time would tell. . . And why hadn't Benetton brought him in for fuel during the formation laps when everyone else was still going slowly?

Much later the truth emerged. Schumacher felt that the Benetton was heavier than he expected, and was beginning to wonder whether the team had changed its strategy and opted for just that one stop. Curiously, however, he didn't radio in to check with the pit crew, and after he'd lost a lot of time following Hakkinen for several laps the team gave him the wake-up call. "We didn't bring him in until we did because we didn't want to risk putting him down the back among the traffic, with all the spray, during the safety car laps," explained Tom Walkinshaw.

And that feeling of heaviness? The officials had informed the teams of their intention to put the safety car out and run the race behind it until the 40th lap, in the event of the rain returning, so the team had put in an extra 10 litres just to make sure that Michael could make the 40th lap if it became necessary. Meantime, Mansell was into a frantic chase of Alesi which made the best F1 television of the year. The Ferrari's rearward-facing onboard camera showed the Williams time and again drawing level with the Ferrari, like something out of the Frankenheimer film Grand Prix, only to lose out to the Italian car's top speed. It was a fantastic duel between two hardened professionals, and it speaks volumes for their I respective abilities that neither in any way did the dirty on each other. At the end it was nice to see them embrace in parc ferme. The race had been proof positive that Mansell was right back to his old form as far as aggression is concerned, though it is relevant to record that his lap times were still nowhere near Hill's even when he was running on clear road.

Frentzen chased them initially until his fuel stop on lap seven, whereafter he simply survived with the Sauber's unsteady handling. Hakkinen thus rose to fourth on the road, troubled by poor handling balance, and initially Schumacher seemed to be making little impression on the McLaren as Irvine kept them both in sight and Fittipaldi and Comas followed at equal distances. Further back, Zanardi was coping with a Lotus which had lost both mirrors and whose diffuser was steadily collapsing, and inadvertently delayed the hungry Salo for a few laps.

"I didn't realise that Mika was close behind me," said Alex, "and I'm really sorry if I held him up."

When Hill made his one fuel call on lap 12 Alesi went ahead on the road, his life made easier when Mansell came in a lap later. The Ferrari driver stayed out until lap 16, whereupon Hill resumed the lead having stayed ahead of Schumacher, who still had Irvine close enough to be potentially bothersome. Further back, Alesi had escaped the pits just ahead of Mansell, and within a few laps they were back at it, harder than ever.

The confusion for those spectating without recourse to Tag Heuer's timing screens can only be imagined, for the hangover times from the first section of the race meant that what was happening on the road did not necessarily reflect the true order. By the 22nd lap Hill was 7.2s ahead on the road, but that equated to a mere 0.484s on corrected aggregate, and Schumacher was now back into his stride. Even though he was not on the same part of the track as Hill, he was poised to regain the lead. By 25 laps he had at last converted the deficit into a 3s advantage even though he was still adrift of Damon on the road, and the questions became more pressing. Was the Benetton going to have to stop again, or had it been 'slow' for that strange period because of its fuel weight? At the time only Benetton knew.

The truth came for everyone else on lap 27 as Michael dived in for a superbly executed splash-and-dash stop which involved the B194 standing still for a mere 7s. Half of that was occupied by the refuelling, the rest as the switch to a new set of Goodyear wets was completed.

The atmosphere was now electric as the calculations began. There were 10 laps left and when Michael slashed three full seconds off Hill's corrected 14.599s advantage just on his 30th lap, it seemed a foregone conclusion. And just to complicate matters more, what little traffic there was started to come into play.

Hill's Williams was now sliding all over the place, and at times Schumacher was lapping two seconds a lap faster. Steadily he eroded the deficit. 8.352s, 7.032s, 5.245s, 4.231.

Sharp-eyed observers noticed that there had been a problem during Hill's stop, which materially affected his ability to withstand Schumacher's challenge. The right rear wheel proved reluctant to come off, and the Williams crew decided to leave it on. Thus Damon had only three fresh Goodyears.

"That was actually a mark of good pit work because they had taken the decision beforehand that if there was any problem with the tyre they should leave it on, so rather than spending more time than necessary trying to get it off, they left it on and it proved to be the right decision," he said.

"I had no idea during the race that it was the same tyre — I thought I'd got a new set. And they worked well for a bit — but there were only three of them so towards the end the traction wasn't perhaps what it should have been. And the right rear was blistered on top of everything. Its useful life had expired!"

On lap 49 he came up behind the 'blind' Zanardi, but fortunately Alex was well tuned in to the developing situation despite his lack of mirrors. "At the end I was driving looking to each side all the time. I could see the blue flag and I expected Damon and Michael to come by me at any moment. I wanted desperately not to be the one who might accidentally determine the outcome of the World Championship." A fine man, Mr Zanardi, who as well as all his other troubles was racing under the emotional burden of his father's death the previous week.

Fittipaldi proved a greater problem when Hill encountered him on his penultimate lap, and the Footwork lost him valuable ground at the hairpin as it upset his rhythm. With a lap to go the gap was 2.4s, and Damon was all over the road as he used armfuls of lock to keep the Williams going. It looked messy and dramatic, but that was a highly effective last lap, as he opened the gap to 3.365s to score the most crucial victory of his career. All year his detractors have accused him of all sorts of shortcomings, but once and for all he showed in Suzuka that the greater the pressure the greater the man. It was the first time all season that he had beaten Schumacher in a straight fight, and to have done so in such conditions, and under such phenomenal pressure, was indeed a mark of the man. In parc ferme afterwards the German strode to the Williams and shook his rival s hand, before administering a slap on the helmet that said: You beat me, dammit, but I respect you for it.

”It was just a question of taking as many risks as I could not to let any of my advantage slip away," said Damon. "There were a couple of backmarkers there too, and I was praying I wouldn't be delayed. But they were pretty good here. . ."

Schumacher duly held on for second, his tyres in much better shape than Hill's.

"I was feeling confident all through the weekend, and under normal circumstances the strategy we planned could have worked out." said Michael. "But because of what happened today it didn't work out. And in the end they beat us by that. . ."

Mansell's jubilation at passing Alesi on the last lap lasted as long as it took his crew to relay the news that he remained fourth on aggregate, 4s adrift of the Ferrari, Jean admitting that he had been doubled up with laughter crossing the line when he saw his rival's momentary jubilation. Further back Irvine reaped the reward of another sensible, if understeer-plagued drive with two further points, which helped offset Jordan's disappointment with Barrichello's retirement. Hakkinen led Frentzen home sixth on the road, but the positions were reversed on combined times so that Heinz-Harald took the final point by 3s. Fittipaldi was a lapped eighth from Comas, who at one stage had kept Hakkinen honest until his late fuel stop, and Salo completed a brilliant GP debut by coping with the dire conditions as if born to them. Once by his troubled team-mate, Mika raced after Panis and grabbed 10th place from the Ligier on lap 31.

"I'm delighted to finish my first Grand Prix with 10th place," said the Finn. "It was very busy at the start, but to be honest it was a bit boring towards the end." Make no mistake, this is another great star in the making.

Blundell retired from 10th place with engine failure on lap 27, bringing to an end an awful weekend for the Tyrrell team, which just never seemed to hit the performance level one expected of it. Brabham took 12th place from the unhappy Zanardi.

"It's tremendous to win, as in the back of your mind you think that if I won and there was one point in it, wouldn't that be nice," said the stressed but highly relieved Hill.

"You keep telling yourself to be realistic, it is a tall order to beat Michael as this year he has been the class of the field. It was a tremendously exciting race, it's just a shame we weren't together on the same part of the track, but I was on the radio on every lap being informed of his progress."

As he began to relax and savour the moment, and to look forward to Adelaide where the winner would take all, he added: "I want to mention the service of remembrance that was held for Ayrton before the race. Ayrton was very popular here in Japan, and inside the team our thoughts are still very much with him. I would like to dedicate this victory to Ayrton's family, some of whose members were here today, in remembrance of him."

Wherever he was watching, Ayrton would have been proud of Damon's performance, especially the way he pulled out time on that last lap. This was a fighter's victory. You don't beat Schumacher in those conditions, with a less agile car, if you're second rate. D J T

STARTING GRID

5 SCHUMACHER Benetton B194 1:37.209 (1) 1:57.128 (2) 0 HILL Williams FW16 1:37.696 (1) 1:57.278 (2) 30 FRENTZEN Sauber C13 1:37.742 (1) 1:56.935 (2) 2 MANSELL Williams FW16 1:37.768 (1) 2:00.963 (2) 6 HERBERT Benetton B194 1:37.828 (1) 1:59.729 (2) 15 IRVINE Jordan 194 1:37.880 (1) 1:57.760 (2) 27 ALESI Ferrari 412 T1 1:37.907 (1) 1:58.610 (2) 7 HAKKINEN McLaren MP4/9 1:37.998 (1) 1:58.204 (2) 8 BRUNDLE McLaren MP4/9 1:38.076 (1) 1:56.876 (2) 14 BARRICHELLO Jordan 194 1:38.533 (1) 2:01.905 (2) 28 BERGER Ferrari 412 T1 1:38.570 (1) 1:58.926 (2) 10 MORBIDELLI Footwork FA15 1:39.030 (1) 2:07.293 (2) 4 BLUNDELL Tyrrell 022 1:39.266 (1) 2:02.266 (2) 3 KATAYAMA Tyrrell 022 1:39.462 (1) 2:04.187 (2) 29 LEHTO Sauber C13 1:39.483 (1) 1:59.943 (2) 23 MARTINI Minardi M194 1:39.548 (1) 2:01.929 (2) 12 ZANARDI Lotus 109 1:39.721 (1) 2:02.077 (2) 9 FITTIPALDI Footwork FA15 1:39.868 (1) 2:00.084 (2) 26 PANIS Ligier JS39B 1:40.042 (1) 2:00.575 (2) 25 LAGORCE Ligier JS39B 1:40.577 (1) 2:02.780 (2) 24 ALBORETO Minardi 194 1:40.652 (1) 2:02.219 (2) 20 COMAS Larrousse LH94 1:40.978 (1) 2:01.035 (2) 19 NODA Larrousse LH94 1:40.990 (1) 2:05.354 (2) 31 BRABHAM Simtek S941 1:41.659 (1) 2:09.453 (2) 11 SALO Lotus 109 1:41.805 (1) 2:01.637 (2) 32 INOUE Simtek S941 1:45.004 (1) Did not run (2)

Did not qualify: 34 GACHOT (Pacific) PR01 1:46.374/Did not run 33 BELMONDO (Pacific PR01) 1:46.629/Did not run

JAPANESE GRAND PRIX, Suzuka, November 6 50 (12 plus 37) laps of 3.644-mile circuit (182.200 miles)

Pos Driver Constructor Time/Retired Best Lap Lap 1 Damon Hill Williams FW16-Renault V10 1h 55m53.532s 1m 56.597s 24 2 -Michael Schumacher Benetton B194-Ford Zetec-R V8 1h 55m 56.897s 1m 56.697s 44 3 - Jean Alesi Ferrari 412 T1 – Ferrari V12 1h 56m 45.577s 1m 58.438s 24 4 - Nigel Mansell Williams FW16-Renault V10 1h 56m 49.606s 1m 57.912s 25 5 - Eddie Irvine Jordan 194-Hart V10 1h 57m 35.639s 1m 58.095s 31 6 Heinz-Harald Frentzen Sauber C13-Mercedes V10 1h 57m 53.395s 1m 59.612s 19 7 Mika Häkkinen McLaren MP4/9-Peugeot V10 1h 57m 56.517s 1m 59.831s 24 8 Christian Fittipaldi Footwork FA15-Ford HB V8 49 laps 2m 00.456s 26 9 Érik Comas Larrousse LH94-Ford HB V8 49 laps 2m 01.088s 40 10 Mika Salo Lotus 109-Mugen-Honda V10 49 laps 2m 01.811s 43 11 Olivier Panis Ligier JS39B-Renault V10 49 laps 2m 02.413s 39 12 David Brabham Simtek S941-Ford HB V8 48 laps 2m 03.105s 41 13 Alessandro Zanardi Lotus 109-Mugen-Honda V10 48 laps 2m 04.371s 26 Ret Mark Blundell Tyrrell 022-Yamaha V10 26 laps - Engine 2m 00.437s 20 Ret Rubens Barrichello Jordan 194-Hart V10 16 laps – Gearbox electrics 2m 07.632s 13 Ret Martin Brundle McLaren MP4/9-Peugeot V10 13 laps - Accident 2m 04.733s 13 Ret Gianni Morbidelli Footwork FA15-Ford HB V8 13 laps - Accident 2m 06.206s 13 Ret Gerhard Berger Ferrari 412 T1 – Ferrari V12 10 laps - Electrics 2m 11.960s 2 Ret Franck Lagorce Ligier JS39B-Renault V10 10 laps - Accident 2m 20.381s 2 Ret Pierluigi Martini Minardi M194-Ford HB V8 10 laps - Accident 2m 19.252s 2 Ret Michele Alboreto Minardi M194-Ford HB V8 10 laps - Accident 2m 21.689s 2 Ret Johnny Herbert Benetton B194-Ford Zetec-R V8 3 laps - Accident 2m 12/194s 2 Ret Ukyo Katayama Tyrrell 022-Yamaha V10 3 laps - Accident 2m 16.655s 2 Ret Taki Inoue Simtek S941-Ford HB V8 3 laps - Accident 2m 21.978s 2 Ret JJ Lehto Sauber C13-Mercedes V10 0 laps - Accident No time - Ret Hideki Noda Larrousse LH94-Ford HB V8 0 laps - Accident No time -

Winner’s Average Speed: 94.324 mph Conditions: Very wet Fastest Lap: Damon Hill, 2m 02.446s on lap 12, 112.505 mph

Championship points – Drivers: 1 Schumacher 92; 2 Hill 91; 3 Berger 35; 4 Häkkinen 26; 5 Alesi 23; 6 Barrichello 16; 7 Coulthard 14; 8 Brundle 12; 9 Verstappen 10; 10 Blundell 8; 11 Panis and Frentzen 7; 13 Fittipaldi, Irvine and Larini 6; 16 Katayama 5; 17 Bernard, Martini, de Cesaris and Wendlinger 4; 21 Morbidelli and Mansell 3; 23 Comas 2; 24 Alboreto and Lehto 1.

Constructors: 1 Williams-Renault 108; 2 Benetton-Ford 103; 3 Ferrari 64; 4 McLaren-Peugeot 38; 5 Jordan-Hart 25; 6 Tyrrell Yamaha 13; 7 Sauber Mercedes-Benz 12; 8 Ligier Renault 11; 9 Footwork Ford 9; 10 Minardi Ford 5; 11 Laurrousse Ford 2.