The San Marino GP weekend will long be remembered in motor racing, for all the wrong reasons.
The death of Ayrton Senna, following so closely on that of Roland Ratzenberger in qualifying the previous day stunned the Formula One fraternity in Imola, in precisely the way that Jim Clark’s at Hockenheim in 1968 did. At the end of the most traumatic weekend in Grand Prix racing’s history since Spa in 1960, shattered teams packed away their equipment, still barely able to comprehend the enormity of the tragedies that had befallen them on a weekend that had initially promised so much.
In the end it mattered not that Michael Schumacher had extended his World Championship score, nor that he, Benetton and Ford had achieved the hat-trick. Not that Nicola Larini had opened his championship points score at last with a fine second place. Nor that third was the gripping subject of a race-long duel between Mika Hakkinen, Karl Wendlinger, Ukyo Katayama and a recovering Damon Hill who had been brushed out of third place in a brief clash with Schumacher on the opening lap.
Truly, this was a nightmare weekend matched only by the aforementioned events at Spa, 34 years ago, and Indianapolis in 1973.
After Ratzenberger’s fatal accident and the incident involving Rubens Barrichello during qualifying, the tension hanging over the Imola circuit was almost tangible at the start of the race, and within moments of Senna snatching the initiative from Schumacher, and as Berger wreathed his rear wheels in smoke like a drag racer, the first deadly move unfolded. Lehto had stalled his Benetton and sat helpless on the grid. Prayers that no one would strike him went unanswered, and as we all tried to put images of Didier Pironi and Riccardo Paletti from our minds, car after car made phenomenal avoidances. None more so than Frentzen, whose reactions saved him as he jinked round the stricken B194. Others followed, but when Lamy arrived he was completely unsighted.
“As we left the grid the car I was behind – de Cesaris – I think it was suddenly dived to the right,” said Pedro. “I saw a space to the left and went for it. That’s when I suddenly saw JJ and hit him. I had no chance to avoid him, because up until that point I hadn’t been able to see that there was a stationary car on the grid at all.”
Mercifully the Lotus struck the Benetton’s left rear wheel with its right front, rather than hitting it directly from behind the way Paletti’s Osella had Pironi’s Ferrari at Montreal in 1982. The impact nevertheless exploded the Enstone car’s gearbox and broke the Lotus’ engine, but as the latter shed its right-hand wheels and the Benetton its left rear, it absorbed some of the energy. The 107C slithered along the grass on the left-hand side of the track before then spinning back across the circuit and Gachot just managed to avoid him.
We feared the worst, particularly bearing in mind JJ’s recent neck injury, but the Finn was OK bar a badly bruised right arm. “What happened to me was nothing,” he said, thinking of the events of the previous day. But he had dined with his friend Ratzenberger only days before in Monaco, and had travelled down with him to this race. His comeback was indeed a harrowing affair.
Lamy, meanwhile, had climbed swiftly from his Lotus, himself unhurt, and went to apologise to all, as if any blame could be attached to either. But the greater hurt awaited him when he would learn the news of Senna his great friend and mentor.
There was worse to come even from this incident. Wheels from the Lotus had been thrown over the debris fencing and into the crowd. One spectator had a miraculous escape as he ran and one wheel and tyre landed just behind him. Three others, and a policeman, received what were thankfully minor injuries.
Incredibly, the race was not stopped. As the safety car controlled Senna, Schumacher, Berger, Hill, Frentzen, Hakkinen, Larini, Wendlinger, Katayama, Brundle, Morbidelli, Blundell, Martini, Fittipaldi, Herbert, Panis, Comas, Bernard, de Cesaris, Beretta, Brabham, Gachot and Alboreto (who had had trouble firing up his engine and had started from the pit lane), track workers frantically tried to clear the rubbish and sweep the track.
After four laps the safety car’s lights were turned off. By the end of lap five the field was cleared to race again and as they went into lap six Senna and Schumacher were instantly at it, leaving Berger who in turn was well ahead of Hill (who admitted he’d botched his start) and Frentzen. But as they went through Tamburello at the start of lap seven everything went terribly wrong. Senna’s Williams simply didn’t make the corner, but instead appeared to veer quite sharply to the right in a manner as frightening as Gerhard Berger’s 1989 accident. But this time the angle was more acute, and the point of contact was further round the bend. Just as Gerhard did, Ayrton struck the concrete wall, but this was an even more severe impact, which threw his Williams down the track, where it came to rest. It seemed surprisingly intact, but the sight of Ayrton slumped in the cockpit told its own horrible tale.
This time the race was stopped, and as Schumacher drew up to a halt on the start/finish line, the others were stopped before the last corner. Everyone feared the worst.
After a lengthy delay, around 45 minutes, came the news, not of Senna’s condition, but that the race would restart at 2.55. There would not yet be an end to this terrible weekend, though many would have been content to leave this dreadful place there and then.
Everyone, drivers and spectators alike, was terribly nervous, and we watched in horror as the midfield bunched together. Morbidelli seemed a little premature on getaway, and Brundle in particular was rudely elbowed aside as the Italian moved off. Whatever some other drivers might feel, their anger, fear and frustration were not going to be exhibited as caution.
This time Berger boiled to the fore, but since the race times would be aggregated there was no real need for Schumacher to apply immediate pressure. Nevertheless the idea of Hill trying to nose by at Tosa was anathema to him, and he defended his place. Somehow Damon’s front wing was damaged and he would stop at the end of the lap for replacement. Thereafter his awful afternoon would be concentrated on a steely run to sixth.
“Damon and I were very close, but I didn’t feel his car touch mine. I just saw that something had broken on his car after we had been running closely together. Maybe he touched the kerb on the inside, but I really don’t think that we touched,” said Schumacher.
The evidence suggested that Damon touched somebody, because it was the right-hand wing endplate that was damaged. Later Hakkinen would sheepishly put his hand up, but whether this was to say ‘Mea culpa,’ or ‘Not me this time,’ was not clear. Most blamed Schumacher.
Oblivious to Senna’s accident, the tifosi cheered heartily at the sight of Berger in the lead and Nicola Larini’s presence in fourth place, for as events would reveal this was an Imola where the more vocal supporters of the red cars appeared to care little that they were in an arena of great tragedy.
Schumacher followed Berger for eight new laps before he actually passed him on the road exiting Tosa, but then he pitted for fuel and it was not until lap 19 that he officially gained the lead. By then Gerhard had gone.
“I was quicker than Gerhard at the end of the straight, but he made it very difficult for me.” said Michael. “It was certainly an interesting part of the race. There was nothing unfair about it, and I knew I had an advantage over him, from the first part, of 3.6s. I knew I would be making an early pit stop, so I wasn’t taking any risks in trying to pass. Instead I was waiting for him to make a mistake, and when that came I used it to overtake. After my stop he was in front again…”
But not for long. After pitting on the 10th new lap it is said that Gerhard had sensed something awry with his left rear wheel, and within two laps he was back in the pits to retire. Nothing amiss could be found, Ferrari said, and in the circumstances the team advised him not to continue. Another school of thought said that the Austrian could finally bear no more after the accidents to two of his friends. Whatever the truth of the matter, Gerhard conducted himself with bravery and dignity all weekend, and of all the drivers racing knows just how it feels to step over the fine safety line at Imola.
In the refuelling stops Hakkinen had taken the lead of a Grand Prix for the first time, from laps 10 to 13, before he too came in, and then it was Larini’s turn to star until Schumacher repassed him on lap 19. Thereafter Michael’s work was effectively done. All he had to do was bring the Benetton to the finish, and this he duly did. But it was a triumph that brought him nothing, despite his rather unseemly smiles on the rostrum. “There is no satisfaction at all for me,” he said. “This win certainly should make me satisfied, but for me too many things happened this weekend to let me feel that.”
Behind him, Larini established himself in a second place that Hakkinen could not challenge, opting to stop just once for fuel and driving extremely well, but the Finn’s third was far from secure even once things had settled down after all the stops. Wendlinger had been a factor ever since the second start had seen him take fourth place ahead of Katayama, Martini, Fittipaldi, Morbidelli, Herbert, Blundell, Brundle, de Cesaris, Panis, Brabham, Bernard, Beretta, Frentzen, Gachot, Alboreto and the delayed Hill.
“I’m very pleased with my fourth place.” said Karl, after a tough race. “but there’s no reason for a party. I’m just very relieved that this sad weekend is over now. I tried several times to pass Hakkinen, then 12 laps from the end the exhaust broke. Fortunately the engine didn’t lose too much power.”
The battle was finally resolved in Mika’s favour when that exhaust cracked, and the Finn raced home to his second podium finish and the first (and the first points) for Peugeot.
“I have to admit I was pleased,” said Mika. “It was good fun: I pushed very hard all the way, but unfortunately it wasn’t enough to get a better position. Lack of straightline speed has been our problem all weekend, and starting from eighth I knew it would be hard to pass people. But at the end of the day it was OK.”
Katayama and Fittipaldi had at one stage been right with these two as the race drew to its conclusion, but as they lapped Herbert and Blundell the two pairs got separated. Katayama had been there or thereabouts all race, like Christian sitting as high as third during the first fuel stops, and Tyrrell’s strategy of opting for two sets of hard Goodyear Bs and then a set of softer Cs proved just right. Arrows should have taken points here, but Christian’s promise (he’d lapped quicker in the morning warm-up than in qualifying) evaporated as his brakes began to fade. With three laps left a hardening brake pedal finally seemed to have negligible effect on his ability to slow the car and he went straight on into the gravel. This blow came 14 laps after Morbidelli had vacated seventh place when his overheating Ford HB finally seized.
Hill’s determined and brave charge (don’t forget, he had no real idea all through the race why Senna’s car had gone off) brought him to within less than 20s of Katayama by the finish, but by then there had been the final drama. Exiting the pits on the 49th lap Alboreto’s Minardi lost its right rear wheel as it passed by the Benetton, Ferrari and Lotus pits, and several personnel were injured as it ran amok. This was the point when the race should finally have been called, but by some crass judgment the brutal contest was allowed to drag on to the bitter end.
Martini and Herbert both slipped away after their initial high placings, the former having a half spin at Tosa on lap 27 when squeezed a little by Brundle and then later going off there for good on lap 38, while Blundell’s chances were damned by a loss of power from his Yamaha V10 after 20 laps, and then a clout from Frentzen which punctured his left rear Goodyear. Thus it was Frentzen who came through for seventh after another strong drive that almost made up for the problem he had when he stalled his engine on the formation lap of the restart. “All my race,” he admitted, “I had to think of my friend Roland. ” Brundle too drove in torment for much of the time, confessing afterwards that he really had very little idea what to say in the aftermath. Senna had always been one of the competitors he most admired, and with whom he felt a strong affinity. Martin lost a little time with his first tyre stop, when the earthing lead took a while to disconnect, then a lot more on his second with what appeared to be a clutch problem.
Comas didn’t restart, having earlier pitted with severe vibrations and then for some extraordinary reason being allowed back on to the track when the first race had been red flagged. He arrived at the scene of Senna’s accident going very quickly, but just managed to stop, and while there were no red lights on the overhead gantry by the start/finish line, nor at the end of the pit lane, it defies belief that the team could not have known of Ayrton’s accident. Team-mate Beretta blew up, and Gachot succumbed to fading oil pressure in the Pacific after running as high as 17th. The final straw came when Katayama’s Tyrrell momentarily caught fire in parc ferme, by the medical centre.
And so drew to a close an appalling weekend, arguably the worst in the sport’s history. Immediately afterwards began the calls for safety revisions, regulation changes and Heaven knows what, from knowledgeable and ignorant alike, as insiders tried to step back and assess the terrible events. In this black hour what were needed most were cool heads and wise counsel. Unpalatable though it may be, we began to appreciate that there is little fundamentally wrong with the sport that we love, and that the 1994 San Marino GP was simply, terribly, the weekend when the luck that has combined with intensive design and development to progress motor racing safety so dramatically, finally ran out. – D J T