For many reasons, not all positive, 1994 will go down as one of the most memorable seasons in Formula One history. The issue of safety was at the forefront with the sport losing one of its greatest ever talents while the boundaries of technical legality were pushed to the limit. Another feature of the season was the emergence of two men who had impressed throughout 1993 and, in the months following Ayrton Senna’s tragic death, demonstrated that they could go on to become legendary drivers in their own right. No race epitomised that more than that year’s Japanese Grand Prix.
Four victories out of four at the start of the year had propelled Michael Schumacher into a seemingly unassailable lead but an emotionally charged win in Barcelona signalled the start of a Williams rival, led gallantly by Damon Hill. Schumacher and Benetton continued to blaze a trail at the front but when the German pushed his luck with the authorities a little too far, the door was opened for Hill to storm back into contention, an opportunity he seized with both hands.
After a two race ban for ignoring black flags, Schumacher saw his 21 point lead all-but-eradicated by Hill in Italy and Portugal but a victory on his return saw Michael arrive in Japan with a five-point cushion and the possibility to clinch the title at Suzuka. To do so, he would need to win with Hill lower than second but from the word go, the two were head and shoulders above the rest. The pair locked out the front row ahead of Heinz-Harold Frentzen with Nigel Mansell, back in F1 following the completion of the CART season, fourth in the second Williams. The grid was set by Friday’s qualifying times after Saturday’s session was washed out by rain and there was more where that came from as Sunday saw even poorer weather.
Despite conditions being on the edge of drivable, the Grand Prix was started under normal green flag conditions and Schumacher gave Hill a face full of spray with his customary ‘chop’ off the line. Mansell made a mess of his getaway and fell to sixth behind Frentzen, Jean Alesi and Johnny Herbert but the rain soon intensified, throwing the whole race into chaos.
What started as drizzle was soon reaching monsoon levels and as Schumacher arrived on the pit straight to complete lap two, his Benetton snaked around on the sodden race track. Michael somehow regained control but teammate Herbert wasn’t so lucky and aquaplaned off, followed shortly afterwards by the two remaining Japanese drivers in the field. Ukyo Katayama slammed his Tyrrell into the pitwall, suffering a blow to his right leg, but he had got off lightly with Taki Inoue, making his Grand Prix debut in the Simtek, coming dangerously close to striking the Tyrrell after performing his own pirouette.
The only sensible decision from the stewards was to employ the safety car but conditions didn’t seem to have improved appreciably when green flag racing resumed on lap eleven. Frank Lagorce, Michele Alboreto and Pierluigi Martini had all barely crossed the finish line before coming to grief with each other but when Gianni Morbidelli speared straight into the wall at Dunlop, the danger levels escalated again, this time a little too far. With marshals working hard to remove the damaged Footwork, Martin Brundle’s out-of-control McLaren careered towards them, unfortunately colliding with a corner worker who miraculously suffered no more than a broken leg.
Amid overwhelming pressure from teams and drivers, of which only 15 were still running from the 26 that started, the FIA decided to restart the race behind the safety car with aggregate corrected timing set to decide the result. As a result, Schumacher would effectively lead Hill away with a 6.8 second head start due to the advantage built up over the opening thirteen laps. Alesi and Mansell now ran nose-to-tail in third and fourth but the Frenchman was actually five seconds to the good on aggregate.
Strategy would soon come into play within six laps of the restart as Benetton called Schumacher in, fuelling the German up for what they hoped would be the rest of the race, expecting that it wouldn’t go the full distance. Unfortunately for Michael, he was released back into traffic and by the time Hill had stopped seven laps later, the pendulum had swung Williams’ way with their man now 7.5s ahead.
With both protagonists running on full tanks, Hill and Schumacher were now running head-to-head in a TT-style race against the clock. Having pitted earlier, the Benetton was understandably faster but not by as much as you would expect as Damon doggedly held on. On lap 36, the lead switched hands with Schumacher seemingly in a position where he only needed to follow Hill on the road to claim victory, but the improvement in track conditions and lack of a safety car meant that the race would run to full distance. Michael had to stop again.
The positions on the road now became crucial with Hill able to run ahead of Schumacher, preventing the championship leader from scampering up the road and building the necessary advantage to make a ‘splash and dash’ and retain the lead. As a result, Michael’s second stop dropped him fourteen seconds behind the Williams with just nine laps to go. On much fresher tyres, Schumacher ate into the advantage held by Hill, pulling over two seconds back on lap 43. The look on Frank Williams’ face said it all. A nail-biting finish was guaranteed.
Another two seconds were wiped out on lap 44, giving Michael six laps to overturn a ten second deficit, but Damon responded like a true champion, closing to within a second of his pursuer’s pace and with 3.6 miles remaining, just 2.4 seconds separated the top two. On different parts of the circuit, the title rivals were in direct competition and as Hill, glowing brakes and all, completed his 50th lap, the agonising wait began with millions of viewers across the world watching Schumacher exit the final chicane, while Williams and Benetton personnel fixed their eyes on the timing screens.
Red button multiscreen viewing and online live timing were a long way in the future and the British fans that brought forward their Sunday alarm call to tune in were hanging on every word from the legendary Murray Walker. “3.36 SECONDS”, he exclaimed. Damon had done it.
The fight for the final podium finish would also last the distance with Mansell’s race long effort to find a way past Alesi’s Ferrari, which included numerous attempts to squeeze through at 130R, finally bringing reward at the chicane on the final lap. Aggregate timing would step in and settle matters in Alesi’s favour but both drivers revelled in a classic on-track tussle, embracing each other in parc ferme afterwards.
Schumacher was also quick to congratulate Hill in a moment of mutual respect between the two. The two drivers would take their battle for a maiden world championship to the season finale at Adelaide where their relationship would certainly change forever. The controversial conclusion in Australia would see Schumacher take the first of seven steps to becoming the most successful driver of all time but how close it was.
In a season when Williams had their fair share of triumph and tragedy, Hill brought the title race alive with six sensational victories but this was the most impressive of them all. No-one could point to Schumacher being stuck in fifth gear, or indeed stuck in his armchair following a two race suspension. Damon had beaten him in a straight fight and although the ultimate prize would elude the Briton in the season finale, Hill was a class act even in defeat. Having handled himself impeccably in the face of incredible adversity, one of Formula One’s true champions would finally earn the title to match two years later.
(Photos courtesy of Red Bull Racing, Pascal Rondeau – Allsport)