Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher's 1994 Australian Grand Prix collision (lost fan footage of Formula One crash; 1994)
On lap 36 of the 1994 Australian Grand Prix, Williams-Renault's Damon Hill attempted to pass Benetton-Ford's Michael Schumacher at the sixth corner. It ended with the pair involved in a collision, terminally damaging both cars and giving Schumacher his first of seven World Championships by one point over Hill. The crash has been cited as among Formula One's most controversial, with allegations persisting that Schumacher intentionally triggered the collision to guarantee his title after damaging his Benetton a corner prior. Formula One Media (FOM) footage of the accident is widely available. However, fan footage also exists, with one video allegedly affirming claims Schumacher's actions were deliberate.
The 1994 Australian Grand Prix culminated an infamous and controversial Formula One season. 1994 had witnessed the fatal accidents of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna at the San Marino Grand Prix; several near-misses such as Karl Wendlinger's crash at Monaco and Jos Verstappen's botched German Grand Prix pitstop that led to an inferno; a tense political situation between the FIA and its affiliated teams; and allegations of cheating primarily lodged against Benetton-Ford, Ferrari, and McLaren-Peugeot.
Prior to his death, Senna kickstarted the cheating allegations by claiming he heard Michael Schumacher's Benetton B194 using traction control outlawed under the 1994 regulations. Accusations against Benetton and Schumacher intensified throughout the season, particularly over revelations the B194's software contained a disarmed launch control system during an FIA investigation. Further scorn emerged concerning the team's removal of a filter within the refuelling equipment that was blamed for Verstappen's incident. Despite this, and likely influenced by Formula One's complex politics, Benetton were not found to have cheated and escaped punishment despite having pled guilty over the refuelling incident. But accusations still emerged decades afterwards, such as when Verstappen in December 2011 alleged Schumacher's car contained illegal components like traction control.
On track, Schumacher was dominant for much of the season, being victorious in half of the sixteen races and finishing second twice. Despite his strong performances, his teammates Verstappen, JJ Letho and Johnny Herbert struggled to keep up, fuelling accusations the German's B194 was illegal. He was also disqualified from second place at the British Grand Prix for failing to adhere to a five-second stop-go penalty he received for overtaking polesitter and Williams-Renault driver Damon Hill before the start. Schumacher was later banned from the Italian and Portuguese Grand Prix by the FIA World Motorsport Council for the British Grand Prix incident. Additionally, the German driver was disqualified from the Belgian Grand Prix when it was found that the wooden skid block, added to all cars as a safety feature to avoid excessively low ride height, had worn by more than 1mm.
All this allowed Hill to considerably reduce Schumacher's championship lead. Hill struggled with the original Williams FW16 that proved difficult to drive following the banning of technologies like traction control and active suspension. However, the FW16B's introduction following the San Marino Grand Prix sparked a dramatic change in fortune, as the Englishman subsequently won the Spanish Grand Prix and five others, while also achieving five second places. Three of his wins occurred at the Belgian, Italian and Portuguese Grand Prix. After winning the penultimate Japanese Grand Prix over Schumacher, Hill was now on 91 points, one behind Schumacher.
During qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix at the Adelaide Circuit, Hill's new teammate Nigel Mansell claimed pole position, setting a target of 1:16.179. Schumacher's best time was 1:16.197; any further pole position attempts were squandered when the German made a rare unforced error, crashing into the first chicane and ending his session prematurely. A new B194 was rebuilt from another chassis, leading some to ponder whether any illegal components were inserted into it. Hill was unable to profit from Schumacher's crash, qualifying third with a 1:16.830 lap time. The race occurred on 13th November and saw the title contenders easily pass Mansell at the start. Mansell later claimed he was instructed beforehand to avoid influencing the championship outcome, and conformed to this with a deliberately poor start. Schumacher still led Hill by a few seconds following their second pit stops. Hence, it naturally appeared the new World Champion would be on the top step of the podium.
On lap 36, Hill began closing in on Schumacher after losing some time passing backmarkers. The latter pressed on but upon reaching turn 5, made another critical error. A slight lapse in control meant Schumacher hit a bump at the East Terrace corner which directed the Benetton into a nearby barrier. His car suffered some damage to its right wheels and it limped into turn 6. Hill crucially did not witness the incident. Thus, upon seeing Schumacher considerably slowing into turn 6, Hill made his move. Schumacher turned into the corner at the racing line, which forced Hill, who was on the inside, to brake and hit the kerb to avoid a possible collision.
Alas, it was too late and the pair collided. Schumacher was almost overturned in the accident, eventually hitting a nearby barrier which ended his race. Meanwhile, Hill carried on but his Williams suddenly limped back towards the pits. During the collision, Hill's front-left wheel hit the Benetton's sidepod and rear wheel, which bent a front wishbone. The Williams team's initial joy at Schumacher's retirement turned to concern, despair and anger as Hill entered the pits as repairing the wishbone was a tall order. Forcibly re-straightening it proved a no-go and a full repair would take too many laps for Hill to have any chance of scoring points. Thus, the car was retired, giving Schumacher the title by one point. Not even Mansell's victory at the event and subsequently winning the Constructors' Championship improved the Williams team's morale.
The contentious end prompted a stewards' investigation, suspicious of whether it was merely a racing incident. After the assessment of FOM and any fan footage that was transferred to them, it was decided that Schumacher would retain his championship. Interestingly, Williams never protested the decision, despite consensus within the team that Schumacher's actions were deliberate. Director of Engineering Patrick Head later explained the team was still affected over Senna's accident, and a further protest would be inappropriate. Then-FIA President Max Mosley, while accepting the stewards' decision, believed that Schumacher's escape from any sanctions was fortunate. Meanwhile, Schumacher and his supporters criticised Hill for his approach to turn 6, deeming the move as an unnecessary risk.
Schumacher's 1995 campaign was considerably less controversial, winning back-to-back titles with 102 points compared to Hill's 69. But after the German moved to Ferrari and endured an inconsistent campaign, it allowed Hill to win his sole title in 1996 over teammate Jacques Villeneuve. Initially, Hill was frustrated over how he lost the 1994 title but did not necessarily blame Schumacher for it. However, this changed at the 1997 European Grand Prix, when, in a similar incident, Schumacher collided with title rival Villeneuve when the latter tried to overtake. This time, not only was Villeneuve able to limp home in third to win his only championship, but Schumacher was excluded from it after footage showed he deliberately tried to take his rival out. His reputation was greatly affected in the aftermath, and while he did rebuild it thanks to five consecutive World Championships from 2000 to 2004, some observers believed his 1994 win would never be universally accepted.
The official FOM footage is widely available for public viewing. It was assessed alongside fan footage taken from the stands during the investigation. Unlike the FOM coverage, the additional recordings have not been publicly released. The most interesting of these was discussed on a 14th May 2020 Bring Back V10s podcast which featured Glenn Freeman, Edd Straw and Andrew van de Burgt. At the 40:57 mark, Freeman mentions that a fan transferred his recording of the incident to the FIA, insisting it "proved" the accident was intentional on Schumacher's part. Alas, not only was it dismissed during the investigation, but its whereabouts remain entirely unknown. Whether it actually did prove Schumacher's actions were malicious remains a point of debate.
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- 1994: The Untold Story of a Tragic and Controversial F1 Season providing a detailed account of all the controversies surrounding the 1994 season, including how official and fan footage was used during the Australian Grand Prix investigation. Retrieved 6th Oct '23
- Motorsport detailing the final days of Roland Ratzenberger. Retrieved 6th Oct '23
- Racing News 365 summarising the deaths of Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna. Retrieved 6th Oct '23
- Racing News 365 summarising Karl Wendlinger's crash at Monaco. Retrieved 6th Oct '23
- Autosport detailing Verstappen's disastrous pitstop at the German Grand Prix. Retrieved 6th Oct '23
- Independent reporting on Benetton and McLaren escaping punishment over cheating allegations throughout the season. Retrieved 6th Oct '23
- Sportskeeda summarising the main controversies of 1994. Retrieved 6th Oct '23
- Motorsport detailing Senna's accusations Schumacher's Benetton was using traction control at the Pacific Grand Prix. Retrieved 6th Oct '23
- Motorsport reporting on Verstappen's allegation that Schumacher's Benetton was illegal. Retrieved 6th Oct '23
- Formula One providing the results of the 1994 season. Retrieved 6th Oct '23
- RaceFans detailing the British Grand Prix and the subsequent sanctions against Schumacher and Benetton. Retrieved 6th Oct '23
- RaceFans detailing the Belgian Grand Prix and Schumacher's disqualification from it. Retrieved 6th Oct '23
- MotorSport summarising the 1994 season. Retrieved 6th Oct '23
- Snaplap summarising the Williams FW16. Retrieved 6th Oct '23
- RaceFans detailing the Japanese Grand Prix. Retrieved 6th Oct '23
- StatsF1 detailing the points standings heading into the Australian Grand Prix. Retrieved 6th Oct '23
- RaceFans detailing the Australian Grand Prix and the infamous collision. Retrieved 6th Oct '23
- Autosport summarising Mansell's start at the Australian Grand Prix, which the driver later claimed was intentionally poor. Retrieved 6th Oct '23
- Archived Atlas F1 summarising the collision and other incidents involving Schumacher later in his career. Retrieved 6th Oct '23
- StatsF1 detailing the points standings following the Australian Grand Prix. Retrieved 6th Oct '23
- Bring Back V10s discussing the incident and intriguing amateur footage that has never been publicly released. Retrieved 6th Oct '23
- RaceFans reporting on additional comments made by Mosley regarding the incident and Head's explanation on why Williams did not lodge a protest. Retrieved 6th Oct '23
- F1 Fansite detailing the 1995 F1 standings. Retrieved 6th Oct '23
- F1 Fansite detailing the 1996 F1 standings. Retrieved 6th Oct '23
- RaceFans detailing the 1997 European Grand Prix and Schumacher's collision with Villeneuve. Retrieved 6th Oct '23
- F1 Fansite detailing the 1997 F1 standings. Retrieved 6th Oct '23