1990s

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An era of collisions, whether on track, as Senna and Schumacher come through, or in boardrooms as Max and Bernie carve up the sport
By Maurice Hamilton

May 1, 1994. This date whacked an unsuspecting younger generation around the head in the same way that the death of Jim Clark on April 7, 1968, had stunned their forefathers. In a period when a leading driver seemed to be killed every month, it was the loss of the incomparable Clark that caused such unprecedented shock in 1968 as opposed to the accident itself. On May 1, 1994, it was both cause and effect. The loss of Ayrton Senna, and Roland Ratzenberger the day before, brought a 12-year casualty-free era in Formula 1 racing to a terrible conclusion.

On each occasion, however, the message was the same: motor racing always was and always will be an inherently dangerous sport. The difference in 1994 was that the gradual infiltration of complacency and ignorance had been brought to an abrupt and shocking halt by the sight of a racing driver – an internationally renowned sportsman, no less – dying on television pictures relayed to living rooms around the globe.

The World Wide Web had barely begun to spread its informative tentacles, but the blurry impressions created during that grim afternoon at Imola were enough to change the image of F1 racing – and the reporting of it – forever.

The cause of Clark’s accident had been barely discussed beyond the motor sport pubs and clubs. In 1994, the world demanded to be told why a sporting god had been killed. Or, at least, a rampant media, bristling with pious indignation on behalf of its audience, felt a compelling need to insist on immediate answers to simple questions covering a complex and painful subject. Motor racing, and Formula 1 in particular, was about to be stripped bare as never before.

Once the poignant eulogies covering Senna’s achievements had been done with, the search for further information by uninformed and indifferent journalists latched on to certain aspects of the Brazilian’s character; issues that had festered in the late 1980s but which had erupted as Senna transported his sometimes controversial methods and frightening self-belief into the new decade.

Senna had arrived in the 1990s carrying emotional baggage filled with the residue of a clash at the penultimate race of 1989.

The partnership with Alain Prost at McLaren had degenerated into a clumsy collision as Prost, determined not to be intimidated yet again, turned into Senna’s car as they braked for the chicane at Suzuka. Senna never fully recovered from not only losing the World Championship to the Frenchman, but also being punished by a governing body and its president Jean Marie Balestre who, Senna noted, did not simply possess a French passport but wore it on his sleeve.

The affair rumbled on into the early months of 1990 as Senna and Balestre refused to back down. To support his deep sense of moral outrage, President Balestre issued no less than a portfolio of press cuttings from France Soir, Nice Matin and L’Equipe, as well as extracts from Rombo and Autosprint (Italy) and Motoring News (UK). Apart from confirming that one way or another Senna had indeed brought the methods of FISA (the FIA’s sporting arm) into question, the cuttings gave a startling insight into how publications can put differing interpretations on one subject.

But the theme was always the same, and it was enough to provoke Balestre’s anger. To prove that this was not a personal matter, Balestre had also included the various rules and regulations that Senna was alleged to have contravened. Balestre argued that Senna had brought the sport into disrepute; reading Senna’s remarks on the subject left little doubt about the validity of that accusation. Here is a Senna quote carried by Nice-Matin:

“… economic and political pressure groups have been pulling strings to make Prost World Champion… Balestre wants to see Prost become World Champion…”

That seemed fairly unequivocal to most observers, regardless of their allegiance. But, despite Balestre’s sometimes outlandish methods, Senna’s views on the French connection between Prost and the president seemed to be verging on paranoia. Prost, a resident in Switzerland, had always kept his enthusiasm for the French under tight control, and he and Balestre could scarcely be called good friends.

Early in the piece, Senna’s employer, Ron Dennis, had taken a haughty stance over Senna’s exclusion from the Suzuka result. “What FISA has done is wrong… we won’t allow this to be swept under the carpet” were phrases that rang in the media’s ears. Clearly, this man meant business.

After increasing the value of shares in fax paper companies with countless press releases from Paris threatening this and that, the FIA duly withheld Senna’s licence. In February, it issued a list of 35 drivers entered for the 1990 World Championship. Senna was not among them. Jonathan Palmer, McLaren’s test driver, was number two to Gerhard Berger – for about an hour. Another communiqué from Paris said everything had changed; a revised bulletin would be released shortly. To be fair, it had only taken three months to sort this out, so what difference would another 60 minutes make?

Finally, ‘The Word’ arrived. Senna would be taking part after all. Fines had been paid and apologies proffered. Now the world waited eagerly for Ron Dennis to take the FIA to the cleaners. Two decades later, the world continues to wait.

At least in 1990 Senna would no longer have to put up with his diminutive nemesis on the far side of the McLaren garage, Prost having moved next door to Ferrari. As it turned out, these two would be in contention for the title once again, Prost scoring Ferrari’s 100th Grand Prix win along the way.

This milestone in race history came at Paul Ricard, an extremely smooth track that allowed a Leyton House-Judd to work efficiently, run non-stop and lead for 45 laps, only to have a fuel pick-up problem that robbed Ivan Capelli of victory. This was the first spectacular demonstration of Adrian Newey’s talent, a designer who would have a considerable influence on behalf of Williams and McLaren in the decade ahead.

For now, though, it was McLaren vs Ferrari, with Senna having the edge throughout the second half of the season – but only just. Then we reached the penultimate round at Suzuka.

Senna claimed pole but was incensed when the benefit of the prime starting position was annulled as officials refused to move pole to the cleaner side of the track. Senna knew that Prost, starting from the outside of the front row, would make the better getaway. Then, to make matters worse, at the pre-race briefing Senna learned that drivers would not be allowed to cross the line marking the entrance to the pitlane, the very spot where Senna and Prost had collided in 1989. In effect, this would rule out overtaking on the entire circuit as this was the only place where it was possible.

If Prost got ahead at the start, that would be that. The Ferrari was the better car on this track and a win for Prost would take the championship to Adelaide, a street circuit where anything could happen.

Prost, as Senna predicted, made the better start and moved to the right ahead of the McLaren. As they raced downhill towards the first corner, a fifth-gear right-hander, Prost moved left to take his line, thus leaving a gap on the inside. Senna, accelerating all the time, saw the gap and aimed for it. Prost took his line into the corner and the two cars collided. Prost claimed the corner was his since Senna was not alongside. The front of the McLaren hit the back of the Ferrari, taking them both out of the race – and Prost out of the championship.

A year later, in an emotional rant at the same circuit, Senna would admit that that move had been deliberate. The FIA did nothing. If the ’90s are to be remembered for a moment of far-reaching consequence for ethics within the sport, then this was it. One driver deliberately making contact with another? Game On. As we shall see.

In the weeks preceding that unconventional settlement of the 1990 F1 title, Michael Schumacher had claimed the German F3 championship and shared a Mercedes-Benz C11 with Jochen Mass to win the Mexican round of the FIA Sports Prototype World Championship. The 22-year-old German was destined for F1 and he got his break courtesy of a Grand Prix driver having an altercation with a London cab driver and then using CS gas to make his point. Legal this may have been in Bertrand Gachot’s native Luxembourg, but in England it was worth a spell at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.

Schumacher was given the vacated seat at Jordan, a team enjoying a colourful and impressive Formula 1 debut. This was at Spa-Francorchamps, a circuit which made Schumacher’s seventh on the grid even more noteworthy than it already was. The clutch broke at the second corner. Not long after, the same thing happened to a contract Eddie Jordan thought he had in place with the precocious youngster. At the next race, Schumacher drove for Benetton and there he would stay for four seasons, winning the championship twice. But not without controversy.

The death of Ayrton Senna had thrust the hopes and responsibility of Williams-Renault onto Damon Hill’s comparatively inexperienced shoulders for the remainder of 1994. In only his second full season, the Englishman rose to the occasion, taking the fight to Schumacher even if he was helped by the Benetton driver being banned for two races. But the muttered suspicions over the use of traction control (banned in ’94) by Benetton would be nothing compared to the furore which erupted when Schumacher collided with Hill in the final race at Adelaide and put the Williams driver out of the championship. According to the FIA officials, this was merely a ‘racing accident’. Compared to Senna’s blatant and potentially lethal tactics four years earlier, the catch-all phrase probably had some merit.

Not so in 1997, when Schumacher attempted to settle the championship at Jerez by driving into the side of a Williams driven by Jacques Villeneuve. This time there was no room for doubt. The on-board camera showed Michael deliberately applying right lock with the Williams clearly alongside. For this, the FIA stripped Schumacher of the points gained for finishing second in the championship, a punishment as effective as a slap on the wrist and being sent to bed without supper. Thus, the validation of rough contact continued, certainly in the eyes of young competition licence holders as they noted the behaviour of their heroes.

By now Schumacher was with Ferrari. Jean Todt had slowly gathered the beleaguered team together following a shaky start that saw the Frenchman offer his resignation after a succession of failures in 1996. Schumacher had extended his deal – helped by a retainer of $30 million to add to the same amount again from personal endorsements – and the partnership, now under the technical direction of Ross Brawn, was showing the first signs of becoming an irresistible force.

But not before McLaren had also regrouped after an undistinguished period. Mika Häkkinen would win the title twice as the decade came to a close, his silver McLaren carrying branding from West, a cigarette company and one of the last to be associated with F1. Tobacco advertising had been controversial from the moment it first arrived with Lotus in 1968. It would be no different as the era came to a close.

In 1990 Walter Thoma, the president of Philip Morris (EEC region), had used a media dinner at the Monaco Grand Prix to complain about pressure groups daring to call for a ban on tobacco sponsorship in motor racing. Talk about misreading the signals, as the anti-smoking lobby gathered a momentum that would prove unstoppable…

By 1997, the F1 teams faced restrictions in France, Germany and Britain, where the colours of the tobacco companies could remain on the cars, but without brand names. Proposed legislation threatened to remove tobacco advertising completely in Europe, a call that prompted Bernie Ecclestone to move F1 away from traditional venues and spend more time in the Far East, where the laws were less stringent.

Meanwhile, Ecclestone was to find trouble much closer to home.

In May ’97, Tony Blair had become British Prime Minister following a landslide victory. Labour had pledged to ban tobacco advertising in its manifesto and support a European Union directive. This stance was reinforced by blustering statements from Frank Dobson, but the hapless Health Secretary was no match for Ecclestone. Bernie went straight over the poor man’s head and arranged a meeting with Blair. Even better, Ecclestone brought the erudite Max Mosley with him.

The FIA president argued persuasively that motor racing was a world-class business with Britain leading the way in this high-tech industry supporting 50,000 full-time and 150,000 part-time jobs, responsible for £900m in exports. By the beginning of November, Labour was saying that F1 should be exempt from tobacco legislation.

But some judicious research by three newspapers revealed that Ecclestone had donated £1m to Labour in January. Blair was forced to apologise for mishandling the affair. Ecclestone had won all roads. Not only did he have the exemption, he also got his money back from a chastened government. In 2008, the release of internal Downing Street memos would reveal that the decision to favour F1 had been taken at the meeting with Ecclestone and Mosley.

Elsewhere, matters were not running as smoothly as Bernie might have hoped. Plans for a stock market flotation of the F1 business in London and New York hinged on the television rights being worth £2.5 billion. Ecclestone had sold the rights for F1 in Britain to ITV for £60 million but larger sums were expected when F1 would be carried on digital television and generate, according to Mr E, £600m within a few years. It was to be one of the very few miscalculations made by Ecclestone, even though his stock in the Sunday Times Rich List was to rise from £75 million in 1994 to £2.3 billion 10 years later.

The problem for Ecclestone was that his business possessed few tangible assets and there were worries in 1997 about how the 65-year-old’s kingdom might eventually be passed on to a successor. Of more immediate concern was an ongoing dispute between the Formula One Constructors’ Association and three renegade teams. McLaren, Williams and Tyrrell were refusing to sign the latest Concorde Agreement. The dissenters were unhappy about certain aspects of the financial arrangements and the provision for a successor. There was also unease over Ecclestone’s business relationship with Mosley. Or the other way round, to be precise.

When Mosley became president of FISA in 1991, he said he would resign after a year so that he could be judged on his merits. Twelve months later he was re-elected for a four-year term. He then engineered the merger between the FIA and FISA, and in October 1993 he became the FIA president. He was re-elected in October 1997.

During this time, the FIA granted F1’s commercial rights to Formula One Management for 14 years in exchange for an annual payment from Ecclestone. The F1 teams were not happy about losing the rights and this was one of the reasons behind the triumvirate refusing to sign the 1997 Concorde Agreement. Meanwhile the flotation had come to nothing after the European Commission had begun to investigate F1 in general, and Ecclestone and Mosley in particular.

Mosley came under pressure on another front when race officials made a complete hash of the results at the end of the 1998 British Grand Prix. There was outrage when Schumacher appeared to have won through the help of amateurs. At one point he was deemed to have overtaken under a yellow – an offence worth a 10-second stop-go penalty, notification of which had to be delivered to the Ferrari pit within a certain period of time. When the notice finally arrived, it was partially handwritten and illegible. Since the race had reached its final stages there was confusion over whether Schumacher should make his stop-go in the pits or whether the 10 seconds would be added to his overall race time.

Playing safe, Ferrari brought Schumacher in at the end of his final lap and conducted the 10-second stop-go before releasing him to complete his slowing-down lap. The race stewards, meanwhile, added the 10 seconds to his overall time – but later rescinded the penalty because other discrepancies in the procedure had been brought to light.

Häkkinen, leading Schumacher by six points coming into the race, had been given second place. McLaren argued that Schumacher would have lost more time entering and leaving one of F1’s longest pitlanes had the stop-go been carried out during the race. The chief sports writers for Britain’s newspapers, making their annual visit to an F1 race, had a field day, many of the tired hacks gleefully highlighting the sport’s confused priorities as McLaren allegedly spent £25,000 employing Italian craftsmen to lay a tiled floor in the Silverstone garage.

Snide comments aside, McLaren’s attention to detail was one of the more noticeable changes that had seen teams satisfied with a banner draped across the back of the garage at the start of the decade, but not content 10 years later unless their temporary workplace resembled a centre spread from an upmarket design magazine. The ’90s was a time when image began to demand just as much attention as performance.

The Japanese refer to it as the ‘Lost Decade’ – as well they might. The ’90s represented a period of literally paying the price for financial madness in the ’80s, boom eventually leading to bust in Japan. A large proportion of the huge debts turned bad, which in turn led to a crisis in the banking sector, with many banks having to be bailed out by the government – presumably with as much outrage as you’re ever likely to see in such a polite society as bankers continued to receive their bonuses. Sound familiar?

F1, of course, sailed through this recession and others like it. Reading between the lines, however, there were the first signs of difficulties for the smaller teams as major manufacturers began to take serious interest. Nineteen teams started the decade, 11 finished it. Gone were names such as Lotus, Brabham and Tyrrell.

Lost decade or not, the never-ceasing quest for the safest sport possible had been accelerated. Proper safety cars, wheel tethers, increased cockpit protection – these were just a few of the far-reaching practical consequences of that dreadful afternoon on May 1, 1994.

That as the decade that was

1990 Nelson Mandela is freed from prison in South Africa, Iraq invades Kuwait leading to the Gulf War and Margaret Thatcher resigns as Prime Minister to be succeeded by John Major. Prost joins Ferrari, but the rivalry continues with arch-enemy Senna and again they collide at Suzuka, handing the world title to Senna who a year later admits he deliberately crashed into his rival.

1991 The Soviet Union collapses and Boris Yeltsin is elected President of Russia, apartheid is repealed in South Africa, media tycoon Robert Maxwell drowns in the Atlantic and Queen frontman Freddie Mercury dies with AIDS. Senna wins his third and final world title, Prost leaves Ferrari and takes an F1 sabbatical, and Michael Schumacher makes his debut in a Jordan at Spa. By the next race he’s in a Benetton.

1992 The Cold War between American and Russia ends, Bill Clinton is elected President, conflict escalates in Bosnia, Prince Charles and Princess Diana separate, and the Queen laments her “Annus Horribilis”. Nigel Mansell, in a Williams, finally wins his World Championship and then declares he will walk away from F1 and go racing in the American CART series.

1993 The World Trade Centre building in New York is bombed by terrorists, 76 cult members die at Waco, Texas and Parliament sets out procedures for the privatisation of British Rail. On the circuit Prost returns with Williams and wins a fourth title, while rival Senna takes a brilliant victory in the rain at Donington. Prost retires for good at the end of the year.

1994 O?J?Simpson goes on the run, Nelson Mandela becomes President of South Africa, Tony Blair is elected Labour party leader and Kurt Cobain, frontman of Nirvana, kills himself. Michael Schumacher wins two F1 races before the bleakest weekend in GP history at Imola, where Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna die. In Australia Schumacher wins the title after clashing with Damon Hill.

1995 There is a bombing in Oklahoma City, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is assassinated, Barings Bank collapses, eBay is founded and the first full-length computer-animated film Toy Story is released. Michael Schumacher wins a second world title, while the ever-popular Jean Alesi wins the Canadian GP driving the number 27 Ferrari on the Montréal circuit named after Gilles Villeneuve.

1996 Mad Cow disease hits Britain, Dolly the Sheep becomes the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell, and Charles and Diana divorce. Schumacher moves to Ferrari, while Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, team-mates at Williams, fight for the World Championship. Hill takes the title, becoming the first son of a former champion to do so.

1997 Tony Blair becomes Prime Minister, Princess Diana dies in a car crash in Paris, Mother Theresa dies, Hong Kong is returned to China and Andy Green sets the first supersonic land speed record in ThrustSSC. Schumacher and Ferrari come to the fore but the German is disqualified after colliding with Jacques Villeneuve at Jerez and the Williams driver takes the title.

1998 US President Bill Clinton is involved in a sex scandal with an intern, Viagra is launched, the Real IRA bombs Omagh and James Cameron’s Titanic wins a record 11 Oscars. Finn Mika Häkkinen wins the World Championship for McLaren, fighting off an increasingly strong challenge from Schumacher and Ferrari.

1999 NATO forces go to war in Serbia, the euro becomes the new currency of Europe, there are fears that a ‘millennium bug’ known as Y2K will disrupt computers and Lance Armstrong wins his first Tour de France. Häkkinen wins a second championship after Schumacher breaks his leg in a crash at the British Grand Prix. Eddie Irvine is runner-up for Ferrari.

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