The penultimate round of the 1994 Formula 1 World Championship took place at Suzuka in Japan.
After his return from a two-race suspension, Michael Schumacher had scored an emphatic victory in Jerez. The German had extended his lead over Damon Hill in the championship to five points.
1994 had been the year of driver changes and yet more took place prior to Suzuka. Jos Verstappen relinquished his Benetton seat to Johnny Herbert. The Englishman’s vacant Ligier drive was taken by French F3000 driver, Franck Lagorce.
Japanese F3000 driver Mika Salo made his debut at Lotus, while another Finn, JJ Lehto returned to Sauber in place of the retired Italian Andrea de Cesaris. Japanese driver Taki Inoue made his debut for Simtek in place of Domenico Schiattarella.
In Friday qualifying, Schumacher took provisional pole position by almost half a second over Hill. Fellow German Heinz-Harald Frentzen was a sensational third in the Mercedes-powered Sauber. Nigel Mansell was fourth ahead of the impressive Johnny Herbert in the second Benetton.
Eddie Irvine’s Jordan rounded out the top six grid placings. On Saturday, heavy rain meant there was no chance for anyone to improve their positions and the grid was decided on Friday’s times.
The first race
The rain didn’t cease to fall on race day and the scheduled 53 lap race got underway with Schumacher maintaining his lead over the rest of the field following in the spray. Before a single lap was completed, local driver Hideki Noda has spun his Larrousse into retirement. Lehto was also out with engine problems.
Sauber’s fortunes went from bad to worse on lap two as Frentzen compromised his race by running wide into the second corner. Schumacher began to pull out a small lead over Hill. At the end of Lap 3, all of the Japanese drivers were out, as Ukyo Katayama clouted into the pitlane wall and escaped with minor injuries.
Taki Inoue also crashed coming onto the pit straight. Johnny Hebert’s Benetton was also out after aquaplaning off on the straight itself, all of which brought out the Safety Car.
When the Safety Car peeled off, Schumacher pulled away from Hill again, with the Englishman struggling to keep the Benetton insight. On Lap 10, Lagorce’s debut came to an early end after colliding with the Minardi of Pierluigi Martini, the Italian’s teammate Michele Alboreto spun off in sympathy.
Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari was also out with battery problems. The rain worsened further and on Lap 14, Gianni Morbidelli’s Footwork aquaplaned off before the Degner Curve. The Italian was lucky to escape unhurt, moments later Martin Brundle crashed at the same corner, the McLaren struck a marshal who thankfully suffered nothing more serious than a broken leg.
Brundle feared for his life as he narrowly avoided the recovery vehicle. After these incidents, the race was red-flagged.
Japanese GP – Part 2
Some drivers were in favour of the race been abandoned and debate raged on about whether it should be restarted. Nigel Mansell, using his experience of rolling starts in Indy Car, voiced his opinion that starting behind the Safety Car was the safest way for the race to resume. Incidentally, the only driver to remain strapped in his car was Damon Hill, his mind fully focussed.
A rolling start was decided, with the result to be decided on aggregate timing. Schumacher yet again pulled away from Hill but came into the pits early to refuel, confirming that Benetton had opted for a two-stop strategy. After his stop the German found himself stuck behind Mika Hakkinen’s McLaren.
Schumacher continued to lead the race on aggregate, but Hill had put the hammer down and began to eat into his lead. Meanwhile, further back, Jean Alesi and Nigel Mansell were providing some terrific entertainment in a ferocious battle. The Ferrari’s top speed advantage allowed the Frenchman to keep the Williams behind.
Hill made his one and only stop and as well as maintaining his lead on the road, the corrected aggregate times recorded that he was fractionally ahead of Schumacher. It was not a trouble-free stop however, as the right-rear wheel was unable to come off, leaving the Williams with just three new tyres.
With the rain beginning to ease later in the race, Schumacher came in for a splash and dash and a fresh set of wet tyres. Schumacher immediately set about rapidly closing down Hill’s Williams. With the Benetton lapping two seconds a lap faster than Hill.
In six laps, Schumacher had gone from 12 seconds behind on aggregate timing to just two as the final of lap of the race begun. Schumacher had finished the first part of the race 6.8 seconds ahead of Hill prior to the red flag.
Hill took the chequered flag as the Williams team eagerly awaited Schumacher, the German found himself coming up behind Christian Fittipaldi’s Footwork who delayed him slightly. The Benetton crossed the line 10 seconds later giving Hill a 3.3 second lead on aggregate timing and his sixth victory of the season.
Behind them, Mansell made a banzai move around the outside into the chicane on the final lap to overtake Alesi but the Frenchman kept third position on aggregate. Mansell nonetheless had shown he had lost none of his speed and aggression. The final points were taken by Irvine’s Jordan and Frentzen’s Sauber.
After a season of controversy and tragedy, the Japanese Grand Prix had provided an enthralling race. The championship battle would go down to the last round in Adelaide, Australia with Schumacher on 92 points and Hill on 91.
Grid Talk Podcast
Want more content to preview your Qatar GP weekend? The Grid Talk crew have you covered with their latest podcast, the Qatar GP Preview. Owain Medford hosted Adam Burns and Tom Downey in episode 152 of the show. Both audio and video versions of the podcast are available below: