Huge advances in safety corresponded with real-world political and financial machinations that would change motor racing forever. And it can all be traced back to one terrible Sunday afternoon
Writer Andrew Benson
Everything changed on the afternoon of May 1, 1994. When Ayrton Senna’s Williams hit the wall at Imola’s Tamburello corner, and the great Brazilian was killed by a suspension arm piercing his helmet, it set in chain a series of events that shifted Formula 1 on its axis and turned the sport into what it is today.
Grand Prix drivers had been killed before, although it had been 12 years since one lost his life during a race weekend. But Senna’s unique appeal – that intoxicating mix of charisma, talent, ruthlessness, bravery and mysticism, beamed to the world through ever-expanding television coverage – meant his loss impacted in ways that caught everyone involved by surprise. This was unfamiliar territory, even for those who could recall deaths in previous eras.
“The death of Ayrton Senna was really a dividing line,” says Patrick Head, who as co-owner and technical director of the Williams team was at the very centre of events during the tumultuous decade in which Imola ’94 was a fulcrum. “It’s always terrible that it takes an event like that – or a weekend like that, because we have to remember that Ayrton was not the only driver killed. But, whichever way you look at it, that was the most significant event for F1, within F1.”
Senna’s accident – a day after Austrian Roland Ratzenberger was killed a few hundred metres farther along the track, two days after Rubens Barrichello was lucky to survive a horrendous-looking crash a few hundred metres before – caused shock waves around the world.
And when another Austrian, Karl Wendlinger, crashed his Sauber at the Monaco chicane on the very next day of track action, and lapsed into a coma that lasted 19 days, the world had seen enough.
“Stop this,” the headline on France’s famous sports newspaper L’Équipe said the next morning, over a picture of the broken car, Wendlinger slumped in the cockpit. And such was the nervousness in F1 that it was not clear exactly what people were demanding be stopped.
At the time, very senior F1 insiders believe the President of Brazil called the President of Italy, who called Max Mosley, the president of governing body the FIA, and told him in no uncertain terms to sort things out.
When F1 turned up in Imola’s cramped but rather attractive paddock on the Thursday before the accidents, there was no sense of it being a sport that put its competitors at unacceptable risk.
Looking back now, the drivers appear terribly exposed in the cars of the time, their heads high above the cockpit sides, necks vulnerable, shoulders often visible. But Damon Hill, Senna’s Williams team-mate, says the thought never crossed their minds.
“No, because of carbon-fibre. It was a massive safety improvement on how it had been,” Hill says. “Before that, the cars were basically Kit-Kat wrappers. I mean, you just would not get people in those things now.
“I have seen some shunts when there was just nothing left of the car. Made of aluminium. Honeycomb was stronger, but the speeds and forces involved…
“You took a view that it was a lot safer than it was not long ago. You knew the team wanted to keep you safe, but you also wanted to win. So you were united in that. You’re the person taking the risk. You would accept the level of risk, because you wanted to do it.
“You knew the team would not put you in a car that was in any way unsafe, but there was always going to be a fine line between performance and safety.
“I was shocked after Imola at the reaction around me. I had always assumed there was no blame culture in racing. I had been in cars when things failed. You don’t go back and say: ‘You’re trying to kill me’. There are obviously cases of extreme negligence but most drivers don’t go into this with their eyes shut. They go in knowing they’re vulnerable.”
Senna was as aware of this vulnerability as anyone; in fact he talked publicly many times about his acceptance of the mortal risk to which he was exposed. “You are doing something nobody else is able to do,” he once said. “[But] the same moment that you are seen as the best, the fastest and somebody that cannot be touched, you are enormously fragile. Because in a split second, it’s gone.
“These two extremes are feelings that you don’t get every day. These are all things that contribute to – how can I say? – knowing yourself deeper and deeper. These are the things that keep me going.”
But this and the fact that, as Hill puts it, “what actually killed Ayrton was a kind of freaky intrusion of a piece of suspension,” made no difference now.
“It was such a threat to the sport as a whole,” Hill says. “My sense is that Bernie [Ecclestone] and Max felt very vulnerable after Imola, and a lot happened in a short time after that. There was genuine concern.”
There is some debate now about whether Mosley already had it in mind to overhaul safety in F1. Most believe he was simply doing the responsible thing as head of a sport, and safeguarding its future.
As one senior figure puts it: “I’m sure Max had a genuine interest in the health of F1, but I think he probably had a number of major political people on his back saying, you know, this sort of event can’t be part of F1 motor racing. I’m sure being rung up by the president of a country and being told to get your act together makes an impression.”
Mosley himself says, no, he had always planned to do it, and that Senna’s death was “the catalyst”.
Whatever, Mosley demanded immediate changes to the cars to slow them, and more as the season progressed. This caused a bit of unrest among the teams, but, as Head puts it, “Everybody realised after a week that they had to buckle down and comply. It’s emotive to call the cars dangerous. All racing cars were dangerous. But the levels of downforce and performance had got out of hand.
“There were an awful lot of accidents in which necks were being broken and the driver was actually undamaged but dead because of the lack of any kind of head restraint. It was the first time anyone started looking at it seriously.”
Over the next months and years, Mosley fundamentally overhauled the process of establishing – and improving – levels of safety in F1. From a process that was largely driven by the teams, central standards were defined, for both cars and circuits.
It is not exaggerating to say that this has led to a revolution in safety across the whole of motor sport. The now-ubiquitous HANS (Head and Neck Support) device was imported from the US, but impact tests, raised cockpit sides, better crash barriers, the replacement of gravel traps with asphalt and so on all resulted from a shift towards a scientific approach to establishing what improved safety and what did not.
Mosley set this in motion, but the men who made it happen were the late Professor Sid Watkins and Charlie Whiting, still F1’s race director today, and a man Head describes as “a bit of an unsung hero in racing”. Under Whiting, it continues.
While Mosley was putting F1’s house in order in terms of the way it conducted its business at the race track, his long-time ally Ecclestone was making his own revolutionary impact away from it.
The fear was that Senna’s death would badly impact on F1’s TV audience, which had begun to grow thanks to Ecclestone’s moves through the 1980s to sell the sport as one package, all or nothing. This guaranteed exposure for every race, rather than piecemeal through the year with broadcasters picking and choosing the races they fancied.
Senna was box office, and the intensity of his battles with Alain Prost had vastly increased interest in the sport. Prost had already retired, and with Senna’s death Ecclestone feared the worst. In a matter of months, its two big-name stars were gone.
Ecclestone’s immediate response was to broker a deal to get Nigel Mansell back from IndyCars and into Senna’s car. The 1992 world champion’s return created a hullabaloo, but it is questionable whether it had any real impact. The fact is that rather than damaging F1’s appeal, Senna’s death enhanced its profile, and TV audiences continued to grow. Which made Ecclestone’s other, much wider-reaching machinations all the more explosive.
Since the 1970s, Ecclestone had been increasing his influence on the commercial side of F1, first as head of the Formula One Constructors’ Association (FOCA) while team boss of Brabham, and then through his own companies, which FOCA engaged to administer its commercial rights to F1.
The Concorde Agreement was first created in 1981 to end a destructive political war over management of the sport. The latest version was running out in 1997, and in 1995 a new one was drafted: it transferred the FIA’s permission to exploit F1’s commercial rights from FOCA to Ecclestone’s own companies.
This caused outrage among some of the leading teams. It emerged in last year’s High Court trial over the selling of F1 in 2006 that Ecclestone bought off some of the smaller teams, with payments of $10m into the personal bank accounts of Eddie Jordan, Tom Walkinshaw and Alain Prost. But McLaren, Williams and Tyrrell refused to sign the 1997 Concorde Agreement.
“Bernie effectively stole Formula 1 from us,” says McLaren chairman Ron Dennis, in the biography of Ecclestone by Sid Watkins’ widow Susan. “He stole it by concealing from the teams the significant increases that were coming to them as a result of TV contracts. He used this commercial benefit to persuade teams to accept a contract that eliminated them from the passing of rights that previously existed.
“Not having a team put him in that position. The way he swerved the situation; I mean some would say it was brilliant, but in essence it was pretty deceitful because the teams were trying to say, ‘Hold on, we own these rights’.”
Mosley describes this view as “complete rubbish”, saying that Ecclestone “sort of built up the rights”. But the fact is that he did so while acting as the teams’ agent. As one long-time associate says now: “I often say to him: ‘Do you remember when we had a company called FOCA?’ He says: ‘Shut up. Your memory’s too good’.”
Williams, McLaren and Tyrrell engaged lawyers and considered suing. They believed they had a strong case. And for a while it all got very messy. The three at one stage threatened to take the issue to the European Union, which was making Ecclestone and Mosley’s lives very difficult with an investigation into whether their perceived stranglehold on motor sport TV rights was breaking competition law. In the end, though, as one senior figure put it, “Bernie in effect bought us off by saying: ‘I will make sure I look after you financially, don’t you worry’.”
The plan at the time was to float F1. Ecclestone offered the ‘rebel’ teams 10 per cent equity in trust in his F1 holding company once the float happened. The three accepted, the 1997 Concorde Agreement was rewritten and signed the following year, everyone afterwards presenting a united front in a group photo in Monaco. Sixteen years later, the flotation is still on the agenda, still has not happened and the teams have not got their 10 per cent.
In the 1998 Concorde Agreement, the FIA’s commercial rights to F1 were leased to Ecclestone’s companies, rather than the teams, for 15 years. And from that apparently subtle change there is a direct line to the bribery case being heard in Munich this summer. That has the potential to end Ecclestone’s long F1 reign.
Within a year of the new Concorde Agreement being signed, and on the strength of the commercial certainty inherent in that new contract, Ecclestone capitalised on his investment by launching a Eurobond issue, with the future revenues from sale of the sport’s TV rights as its security.
To many of the sport’s fans – and indeed its participants – this was one of the deals that take place in the world of high finance: they are vaguely aware of it, but have little real interest.
In fact, it marked a seismic change in F1’s relationship with the wider world every bit as big, in its way, as Senna’s death. Other events to do with F1’s growing international status would also have an impact.
Ecclestone and Mosley had been dealing with a number of distractions. The EU competitions inquiry was joined by a political scandal in the UK over Ecclestone’s £1m donation to Labour – which was followed by a U-turn in the government’s stance on tobacco advertising.
The ramifications of the donation and the subsequent meeting in 10 Downing Street, in which F1’s two bosses and Mosley’s aide David Ward lobbied Tony Blair for a delay in an EU ban on tobacco advertising, were bigger in Westminster than they were in F1.
Mosley eventually won from the EU a delay in the ban after offering to unilaterally outlaw tobacco advertising in motor sport by 2006, to give the sport time to wean itself off the cigarette cash without harming the industry.
The EU problem eventually subsided when its antagonistic competition commissioner Karel van Miert resigned in the wake of a corruption scandal and was replaced by the more conciliatory Mario Monti.
Then, on June 28 2000, the FIA general assembly unanimously approved a deal recommended by its senate – on which Mosley sat – to extend by a further 100 years the lease Ecclestone’s companies had on the commercial rights, for the sum of $313.7m.
Monti gave the deal his blessing, even though van Miert had been against long-term arrangements such as this. The teams had no say in it, but the surprise at what was perceived to be a paltry sum for such valuable rights was widespread. “Five years for $300m would have been about right,” Hill says now. “It’s just classic the way they did whatever the hell they liked. It’s not a democracy. It’s not a publicly owned company. It’s a sport. All that influences the show, the ability to shape the sport. It’s a complicated institution, F1.”
Mosley defends the deal. “The point is that it was a question of what we owned. Bernie always said we sold him his own business. And we could only sell him what we had. Or what we thought we had.”
And what was that?
“Well, that’s an interesting question. Television rights all belonged to the promoters, except when Bernie got them. The right to make contracts belonged to the teams. The right to do the timing and safety car and all those sorts of things, all belonged to the promoters. The rights in a race belonged to its promoter. They never belonged to the FIA.”
So why did Ecclestone pay the FIA all that money then? “For a quiet life. That’s what he would say if you asked him,” Mosley replies. “What we did have was the right to make the calendar and the right to the name, the F1 world championship.
“Well, the calendar actually was always made by the promoters, because they sat in the FIA. And that had already been given to the teams under the Concorde Agreement. So they effectively had the right to make the calendar. Which just reflected the reality, which was you couldn’t have a calendar without the teams. So the calendar had more or less gone.
“The name, well, you then get into a complicated area. We had a lot of talks with lawyers about who owns the goodwill. And you see the goodwill was all Bernie’s because he was running a business. And the FIA never ran a business. It just sanctioned the events, took a calendar fee and sent a couple of officials.
“It’s completely different from when you actually start something. That’s why the FIA should have grabbed the whole thing in the ’70s, but that’s another story.”
The money paid by Ecclestone went to the FIA Foundation – still controlled by Mosley and Ward – and Mosley says it generates about €10m (£8.1m) a year. The fact it did not go directly to the FIA impacted on the negotiations over the most recent Concorde Agreement, because the FIA was short of cash and had to barter power for money with Ecclestone.
But that’s outside the remit of this article.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of it, the 100-year deal vastly increased Ecclestone’s ability to make money out of Formula 1. And thus began a series of transactions that led eventually to the sport being bought by its current owners, CVC Capital Partners, a deal that in turn led Ecclestone to stand in a Munich courtroom.
The fundamental essence of the 1990s, then, was that of Ecclestone and Mosley’s increasing control over every aspect of F1.
Often using safety as an excuse, Mosley tweaked the rules to allow him to make changes more easily and unilaterally, even if they were unpopular and of questionable benefit (the introduction of grooved tyres and narrower cars in 1998 springs to mind), and Ecclestone began to impose his vision ever more tightly on the sport.
Differences in facilities at tracks were common in the early 1990s.
Silverstone’s popular ‘village green’ paddock, in which the motorhomes were all situated around a patch of grass, was an example. But these gradually disappeared.
“We stopped going to circuits that were different,” Head says, “and all the circuits we were going to were steadily being made the same, with the same sort of layout and design.
“Within no time the motorhomes were behind chicken wire and you would walk out from your garage across 30m of Tarmac to your motorhome area. And with a limit of three metres on the width of your awning, you couldn’t entertain your sponsors and they had to go to the Paddock Club.
“Ultimately, new tracks and countries came along. New countries were prepared to fund it and somebody had to design them. And Bernie had a guy who could do that. It was all part of Bernie’s growing control.”
Huge sums of money began flooding into F1. TV figures continued to rise, so companies were persuaded to buy the rights for increasingly large figures; ITV paid £30m to take the rights from the BBC from 1997.
With the sport’s increasing popularity, more governments were willing to spend vast sums of money to use F1 as a shop window for their country.
And a growing international exposure meant the sport became an increasingly popular forum for car manufacturers to promote their brand. As BMW, Honda, Renault, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz poured in cash in pursuit of the ultimate advertising – winning races – budgets skyrocketed.
This sped up the end of tobacco advertising – the money was now coming from elsewhere – but an increasing engagement with the wider business and political worlds meant a growing need to play by their rules.
In 1990, Senna won the world title by driving into the back of Prost at 160mph, an act that went essentially unpunished. By 2000, such an eventuality would have been unthinkable, so much had the mindset inside the sport changed. It no longer operated in isolation, running itself pretty much the way it liked. It literally could not afford to.
“F1 had become more self-conscious about its place,” Hill says. “Before that time, it used to be an event that went around the world doing its thing without too much hassle from anything. Then, with Ayrton’s accident, it became aware that it had a place in the world and it became concerned as to how it was going to fit into that new global consciousness.
“What kind of thing was it? Was it an outlaw sport, which is really what it was before, or was it going to be part of the establishment? And I think it wanted to be part of the establishment, to become part of the system of responsible government.
“There has been an attempt to tidy things up going on, polishing the car before you sell it. It has new windscreen wipers and maybe they’ve cleaned the upholstery, but is it still a Ford Capri underneath all that? I don’t know.
“Take a restaurant chain. It starts off a bit of fun, you define the culture and everything, and then it becomes a franchise and it becomes packaged and sold and multiplied, and that’s really where we’re at with F1.
“And the question is whether people want to buy that or do they want to buy freedom from control? F1 used to represent freedom from conformity and it appealed to people who did not want to conform. And one of those people, one of the best examples of that, is Bernie.”
Andrew Benson is chief F1 writer for the BBC.
Website poll results
1 Williams FW14B
Semi-auto ’box, active suspension, ABS, traction control, Newey and Mansell. Technically the most advanced F1 car we’d yet seen, and by some margin, the FW14B was pretty, too.
2 McLaren F1 GTR
F1 designer Gordon Murray’s proudest racing achievement is winning Le Mans in 1995. The F1 GTR was devastatingly quick on road or track. Murray says that, were he to do it all again, he’d change nothing.
3 Subaru Impreza 555
Colin McRae’s steed for his 1995 World Rally Championship and one of the most replicated liveries in the world. Best appreciated sideways, 5ft off the ground.
Website poll results
1 Ayrton Senna
The greatest? Or too flawed? His talent was undisputed, though. Almost three million people lined the São Paulo streets for his funeral. He still fascinates 20 years later.
2 Michael Schumacher
Like Senna, he was talented but flawed. Schuey broke all the big records and it began with Benetton. The first title in ’94 was controversial, the second a year later just brilliant.
3 Mika Häkkinen
Acknowledged by Schumacher as his toughest rival. The icy Finn with speed aplenty won the 1998 and ’99 world championships in Adrian Newey McLarens.
From Motor Sport February 1997
Ferrari’s book of excuses has reached the last full stop on the final page – it’s now or never if the Scuderia is going to win another World Championship.
The overwhelming majority of motor racing fans understand the magic that has always surrounded Ferrari. Granted, there are several of today’s Formula 1 team owners who believe that the mystique of the Prancing Horse is nothing more than a lot of sentimental hot air, but the strand of continuity, tradition and presence that links Michael Schumacher’s most recent victory at Monza, five months ago, with Froilán González winning at Silverstone in 1951 is, in my view, the key to the whole affair. Yet, all that said, there is a powerful case to be argued that Ferrari has with a few notable exceptions done a pretty rotten job with its Formula 1 team since the late 1970s.
It is 18 years since Jody Scheckter won the last world championship for drivers in one of the cars from Maranello. Since then, the team has bagged a single championship for constructors, almost unnoticed, in 1983.
This is why Ferrari just has to win the 1997 world championship. I simply do not subscribe to the view that well, er, we can wait until 1998. Or perhaps 1999. Although even Michael Schumacher privately believes it could take this long to get the job done, I think the entire team’s credibility now hangs on the possibility of winning the title this coming season. It has always struck me that one of the problems with the Ferrari F1 team is that it is the corporate equivalent of a spoilt child. It never seems to know what it wants next. One minute it agrees that its design office should be based in the UK, the next you hear rumblings that it should be back at Maranello. Drivers fall in and out of favour with corresponding frequency.
“The real problem with Ferrari is that it claims to be a single team of 450 people,” said one rival F1 designer recently, “whereas, in truth, it’s 450 teams of single people. Think what they might achieve if they were all working together.”
Since 1992, Ferrari’s fortunes have been steered by the charismatic Luca di Montezemolo. He is a man who attracts much respect, having originally made his name when he helped mastermind Maranello’s F1 renaissance in 1974, leading to Niki Lauda winning the championship in 1975 and 1977. Di Montezemolo broadly knows what is required to achieve success in F1. He is sufficiently well versed in the motor racing business to appreciate that the access to specialist technology in the UK’s ‘silicon valley’ fully justifies having the team’s R&D base here. In that respect, he took a leaf out of the late Enzo Ferrari’s book. From 1986 to 1990, GTO at Shalford was John Barnard’s design base. It was then sold off to become a manufacturing out-station for McLaren Cars. That meant they had to start again in 1993, when Barnard came back into the Ferrari fold, establishing Ferrari Design & Development. In the building next door!
So what happens if Ferrari doesn’t finally deliver the goods? Do we watch as di Montezemolo is led away in chains if Schumacher hasn’t secured the championship for the Prancing Horse by the end of the year? Will Maranello end its days being relegated to the role of some half-baked Italian version of Cosworth Engineering, shelling out V10 F1 engines on a customer basis for Minardi and Sauber?
There are even those who believe that the Maranello racing department should have been locked and barred the day Old Man Ferrari died in August 1988, left to gather dust as some sort of museum, preserved in a state of suspended animation, as a fly in amber.
It won’t happen like that, of course. But Ferrari is backed firmly into a corner now that it has every available resource to be competitive. The Maranello Book Of Excuses is now dog-eared, tatty and ready to be tossed into the rubbish bin.
Di Montezemolo remains resolute in his belief in the future. He certainly does not believe that there is an ominous Sword of Damocles, wielded by Fiat, hanging over the company. “Ferrari has been in F1 for more than 40 years and I want the team to be competitive again,” he says with a passion. “Do you think I would have invested money in building a new wind tunnel and recruiting young technicians with the intention of training them for the future, if it was our intention not to continue in F1?”
If I had to put money on it, I would bank on Michael Schumacher getting the job done for Ferrari in 1997. But, at best, I expect it to be a damn close-run thing.
And I might end up losing. AH