Flashback: A tale of dodgy traction control and alleged cheating in Formula 1

Ayrton Senna in 1994 believed his arch rival had an unfair advantage

Ayrton Senna in 1994 believed his arch rival had an unfair advantage

The suspicion raised by former Formula 1 team owner Giancarlo Minardi, that Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull could be using a clever form of traction control, has conjured up memories of a similar scenario that played itself out during the 1994 season when Ayrton Senna went to his grave convinced that Michael Schumacher’s Benetton B194 was using traction control – and he may well have been right.

Senna and Schumacher were clearly the two main contenders of that season. The Brazilian, a three times world champion, having moved to Williams and Schumacher the young upstart with the Benetton team packed with a back room of the brightest technical gurus such as Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne, all led by flambouyant Flavio Briatore.

Frpok the outset Senna was struggling with the Adrina Newey designed Williams FW16, it was not as easy to drive as the all conquering predecessors, namely the FW15C and FW14B. Nevertheless those close to Senna claim he drove the car harder than anything he had driven before, and although he never finished a race in 1994 he did qualify on pole for all three races he started.

Ayrton Senna battled in the Williams FW16 but still scored three out of three pole positions

Ayrton Senna battled in the Williams FW16 but still scored three out of three pole positions

Senna explained at the time, “I have a very negative feeling about driving the car and driving it on the limit and so on… Some of that is down to the lack of electronic change. Also, the car has its own characteristics which I’m not fully confident in yet.”

And famously added, “It’s going to be a season with lots of accidents, and I’ll risk saying that we’ll be lucky if something really serious doesn’t happen.”

In Brazil, Senna confided with his close associates that he was suspicious of Schumacher’s Benetton, and that he felt the team was using some form of traction control which along with active suspension and ABS was banned for 1994.

He became convinced of the use of traction control when after retiring from the Japanese Grand Prix he stood by the side of the track and heard the difference in engine sounds and characteristics between Schumacher’s car and his teammate Jos Verstappen’s supposedly similar Benetton B194.

At Imola, Senna was killed during the race and the Formula 1 world was sent reeling.

Michael Schumacher, Ross Brawn and Flavio Briatore in 1994

Michael Schumacher, Ross Brawn and Flavio Briatore in 1994

Coincidentially or ironically straight after the race the FIA impounded computer control systems of Ferrari, McLaren and Benetton. Shortly after Silverstone that year the governing body decreed that Ferrari had co-operated, and were clean, but two Benetton and McLaren were fined $100,000 each for attempting to deny the FIA’s inspectors access to their computer programme codes.

The Independent newspaper reported at the time: When the inspectors got into the Benetton computers, they discovered a hidden programme, and it was dynamite: a programme called Launch Control, which allowed Schumacher to make perfect starts merely by flooring the throttle, the computer then taking over to ensure that the car reached the first corner with no wasteful wheelspin.

Legal in 1993 but outlawed by the new regulations, the programme was still there – although now it had been concealed. To find it you had to call up the software’s menu of programmes, scroll down beyond the bottom line, select an apparently blank line, press a secret key – and, hey presto, without anything showing on the screen, Launch Control was ready for action.

Only a few people know if Michael Schumacher's Benetton B194 was legal

Only a few people know if Michael Schumacher’s Benetton B194 was legal

Brawn’s claim that the system had not been used during the 1994 season could neither be proved nor disproved; the FIA’s decision to publicise their findings suggested that they had their suspicions. After all, if Launch Control was now redundant, why had it had been left sitting in the software? Because, the Benetton people said, the task of isolating and removing it was one of impossible complexity. (The concealment, they added, was simply to prevent somebody switching it on by mistake.)

‘That’s enough to make me believe they were cheating,’ a computer specialist with another F1 team told the author at the time. ‘Look, we purged our own software of all the illegal systems during the winter. I did it myself. It took me two days. That’s all. Perfectly straightforward. And the fact that they disguised it was very suspicious.’

Also that year, after an investigation by Intertechnique at Benetton’s team factory, the FIA revealed that the team had been using an illegal fuel valve, without a fuel filter, that pumped fuel into the car 12.5% faster than a normal, legal fuel valve that had a filter.

This may have explained how Schumacher was able to leap frog Senna and take the lead at the season opening Brazilian GP. Upon which the Brazilian was forced to chase hard, but to no avail as he spun out in front of his home crowd.

Jos Verstapen suffered burns after a pit stop fire at the 1994 German GP

Jos Verstapen suffered burns after a pit stop fire at the 1994 German GP

Verstappen, who was lucky to survive with only minor burns when a fuel hose fire caused flames to engulf his car during a pitstop at the German GP, spoke of his 1994 season with Benetton alongside Schumacher

“I know what happened when we were together at Benetton. People think I’m looking for excuses but I know that his car was different from mine. I always thought it was impossible; I braked at the limit and took the corners as hard as possible, so how could Schumacher do it?”

“There was something wrong. There were electronic driver aids. It was never mentioned, but I’m convinced and when I later asked Flavio Briatore he replied ‘Let’s not talk about it’. So I know enough now,” claimed Verstappen.

The tragic story of the 1994 season is now part of the history and folklore of Formula 1, but it begs the question: Would Senna have been pushing the limits (in and out of the car) had he not been up against a rival using illegal means to gain an advantage?

And with this in mind it obviously must never be allowed to happen again in Formula 1 ever again. (GP247)

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