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New theory emerges for Schumacher cheating scandal

Wide World of Sports logo Wide World of Sports 7/02/2019 Brett Graham
a man wearing a blue shirt: Michael Schumacher in 1994. © Getty Michael Schumacher in 1994.

New light has been shed on one of the greatest controversies in Formula One history – whether or not Michael Schumacher cheated his way to his first world championship in 1994.

Ayrton Senna famously went to his grave believing Schumacher’s Benetton team was using traction control to minimise wheel-spin under hard acceleration, which had been outlawed from the start of the 1994 season.

Senna was killed after crashing during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, with some believing he pushed his Williams beyond the limit in a desperate attempt to stay ahead of the illegal car of Schumacher.

Senna had retired on the opening lap of the previous race in Japan, and before returning to the pits, stood trackside to observe his rivals, becoming suspicious about the legality of his main rival’s car after hearing the engine note under braking.

“Senna himself was convinced that there was something different about Schumacher’s car,” former Williams team manager Ian Harrison told Autosport in 2014.

“Whether there was or not I don’t know, but Senna was utterly sure there was.”

Pictures: Michael Schumacher's life in pictures

The suspicions gained further credibility in 2011, when Schumacher’s teammate from 1994, Jos Verstappen, claimed the German was using banned electronic driving aids.

Now a new theory has emerged, which some former F1 figures believe puts Schumacher in the clear.

A just-published book – 1994: The Untold Story of a Tragic and Controversial Season, floats the idea that Schumacher’s technique of braking with his left foot could have fooled Senna into thinking the Benetton was illegal.

Left-foot braking was new to Formula One in 1994, but Schumacher was quick to adapt and telemetry traces from later in his career showed how he used his right foot to maintain 10-15 per cent throttle even while braking with his left foot. This method kept the car stable and allowed the aerodynamics to work more efficiently.

Ayrton Senna in 1994. © AAP Ayrton Senna in 1994. Willem Toet, the Australian-raised Head of Aerodynamics for Benetton in 1994, believes it was Schumacher’s technique that Senna mistook for illegal traction control.

“I think it was the use of left-foot braking combined with the throttle which would have made the strange noise,” he said.

“It would have been strange to hear the engine working in those places on the track.

“That’s what I believe is the most likely scenario.”

Mark Blundell drove for Tyrrell in 1994, and agrees that left-foot braking “became a trend at that stage,” and “it would have made a different sound.”

Suspicions that the Benetton was illegal reached fever-pitch midway through the 1994 season, after the sport’s governing body, the FIA, seized the black box that contained the engine management software.

An independent analysis of the source code revealed Benetton had software “capable of breaching the regulations,” and although the team admitted the existence of the code, it claimed it was redundant and could not be activated by Schumacher.

The rules at the time only prevented the use of traction control, not the existence of software that might be used to implement it. As the FIA had no proof it was being used, no action was taken.

A mechanic for Senna’s teammate Damon Hill also revealed that engine supplier Renault were convinced Benetton were using traction control based on analysis of audio recordings. Team owner Frank Williams has since confirmed that Senna wanted to lodge an official protest, but Williams chose not to.

In a season full of controversy, the championship went down to the final race in Adelaide. With Schumacher just a single point in front of Hill, the pair were battling for the lead of the Grand Prix when they collided as Schumacher returned to the track after briefly losing control, putting both drivers out and handing the German the title.

a green truck parked in a parking lot: Adelaide Grand Prix 1994 © AAP Adelaide Grand Prix 1994

Although many felt Schumacher had deliberately caused the collision knowing his damaged car wouldn’t have been able to finish the race, Hill’s team declined to protest.

“We at Williams were already 100 per cent certain that Michael was guilty of foul play,” said technical director Patrick Head.

“We seriously considered lodging a formal protest there and then, on the grounds that it had been so blatant.

“Because 1994 was the terrible year it was – in other words, because Ayrton Senna had been killed in one of our cars – we didn’t really think it would have been right for Damon to win the world championship that year, especially if he’d done so in court, so we didn’t protest.”

Although stewards investigated the crash and took no action, FIA boss Max Mosely later revealed in his autobiography that he felt otherwise.

“My private view was that Michael was very lucky not to be penalised and thus lose his world championship.”

Michael Schumacher wearing a uniform: Michael Schumacher 1994 world champion © AAP Michael Schumacher 1994 world champion

It brought an end to a season of acrimony, although accusations he cheated his way to the 1994 title would dog Schumacher for the rest of his career.

“I would never use an illegal system,” Schumacher said in 1998.

“I know in 1994 that we didn’t have anything illegal, but there was so much talk it became like the truth.”

And as the 25th anniversary of that terrible season approaches, perhaps this new book brings us one step closer to uncovering what really happened.

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