Grand designs 1994

In the first of a new series, Keith Howard examines technology's effect on one season's racing

As John Major would have spun it, 1994 was Formula One's back-to-basics year — and one of the most controversial in the sport's history. Horror headlines flagged Imola and the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna — the only World Champion ever to die in a grand prix. There was more: Karl Wendlinger's near-fatal crash at Monaco; the hurried rule changes that came into effect at Barcelona; Michael Schumacher's two-race suspension for ignoring a black flag at Silverstone; a fire in the Benetton pit at Hockenheim and the subsequent discovery that the refuelling rig had been modified to increase fuel flow; and the notorious coming-together of Schumacher and Hill at Adelaide.

For the designers it was a year of coming to terms with the loss of electronic driver aids such as active ride, anti-lock brakes, rear-wheel steer and, supposedly, traction/launch control. The last would prove a thorn in the side of the FIA for a further seven seasons before it and the teams finally conceded that the only way to control its use was to legalise it again. Senna died convinced that Benetton was still using the system in its '94 car. An audit of Benetton's source code revealed that it still included launch-control routines, but Benetton insisted that the code was left in place so as not to make the rest of the software unstable. Other teams, which had removed traction control from their code without difficulty, were understandably suspicious.

Williams, which had won both the driver and constructor titles in the two previous years, had to settle for just the constructors' crown in '94, ceding the drivers' title to Benetton and Michael Schumacher. Here the two teams' chief designers, Patrick Head and Rory Byrne (now at Ferrari), recall that turbulent season and the new challenges it presented them.

Software policing

PH: "Even if you get the software source code it doesn't mean there Is no traction control. There was one team in 2001. which shall remain nameless, that was running an electronics board in a long thin strip shaped to look like a bit of wiring loom that acted as a modifier of pedal demand. So the FIA could be recording what pedal location the driver was asking for, but what pedal location was actually being asked from the engine was being dictated in this bit of processing hardware that didn't look like a black box. I can't comment on the Benetton case in '94 as I never had an inside understanding about it. But our software engineers never said to me that we had to leave our traction-control code in place because otherwise the software wouldn't work properly. We were able to remove anything that we weren't using."

RB: "It wasn't an area that I got involved in but I think it became obvious that it was very difficult to police the software properly. The biggest problem was all the innuendo. People were being accused of bending the rules and it was very difficult either to defend or prove. In retrospect [the banning of traction control] wasn't a rule that could be policed and that's why it was changed again in 2002."

Fuel and refuelling

RB: "Refuelling was one of the fundamental changes for '94 and one of the reasons why the lap times were not as different as people were expecting. There is a big gain in being allowed to refuel. Weight is probably the most significant parameter affecting the performance of an F1 car, and the fact that you could knock off several tens of kilos had a huge impact. And refuelling enabled you to pass strategically, without having to pass on the circuit. It was a new science and a steep learning curve."

PH: “Drivers had to be extremely fit, because the cars were lighter and whenever they came in for fuel you put on a new set of tyres. The driver didn't have to conserve the tyres, knowing that in 15 laps he'd be in for some new ones. The switch to pump fuel took the engines back 15 or 20bhp but the engine's influence on lap time is quite a way less significant than aerodynamics or tyres. Some of the so-called 'rocket fuels' that we were using previously did smell pretty awful but Elf told us that the fuel we ran in replacement was, if anything, more dangerous, and from a carcinogenic point of view considerably worse."

Anti-lock braking

PH: "Anti-lock braking and traction control were a less significant loss than active ride, but ABS was an interesting technology. We had a four-channel system that looked at each wheel individually, so the driver could brake much, much deeper into the corner because as he started unloading the inside wheels when pulling lateral acceleration, the anti-lock would deal with it. That meant you could have heavy braking on the outside wheels and light braking on the inside wheels, so it was a definite performance advantage for the teams that had developed the better systems. In '93 our drivers could stand on the brake pedal as hard as they liked and the system would ensure that each wheel had maximum retardation without locking. A lot of electronically controlled mechanical systems can respond more accurately and faster than a driver can and it can be debated whether It's right to do things automatically that have traditionally been considered a driver skill. The answer is probably best not."

RB: "We didn't ever use an ABS system in a race at Benetton, although for the last couple of races of '93 we did use a rear-steer system [based on electronics]. But I think ABS was pretty significant."

Suspension

PH: "Whereas anti-dive and anti-squat compensation was done in the active-ride system in the '93 car, we had to put it within the mechanical elements of the passive car. But that was just relearning old lessons."

RB "The banning of active ride called for a real rethink on the suspension. You don't want to go back to where you were. Active ride taught us a tremendous amount and we were able to apply that in some areas to the passive suspension and make some progress. Our passive suspension for '94 was better than that of the early '90s, for sure. Specifically, It affected our thinking on the levels of anti-dive at the front and anti-squat and anti-lift at the rear. There were other lessons we learnt in the course of using active to do with suspension stiffness and so on, and we applied all those principles to the '94 car too."

Active ride and aerodynamics

RB: "Active suspension was the biggest loss because it knocked on to the aerodynamics. For the previous year and a bit we'd been developing very ride height-specific aerodynamics. As soon as we went back to passive suspension the car was operating through a much larger range of ride height so you couldn't have any rapid changes of aerodynamic balance. The elements that were responsible for our car being so competitive in '94 were its aerodynamic stability and lower centre of gravity."

PH. "We'd invested a lot of time and effort in active ride and it had been banned. We didn't feel that it could be considered to be a driver aid as it didn't do anything the driver would otherwise have done. We did feel that Ferrari were pretty Instrumental in getting active ride banned because they had shown themselves to be not very competent at it. At the beginning of '94 our car was pretty difficult to drive. That was mainly because it wasn't always acting in the window that active ride had kept it in. We needed to make the aerodynamics a lot more benign with the passive suspension because of the changing ride height and attitude. It took us a bit of time."