Was Michael Schumacher's Title-Winning '94 Formula 1 Car Illegal?


Benetton B194 1994 F1 car. Image by Flominator, licensed under GFDL.

Benetton B194 1994 F1 car. Image by Flominator, licensed under GFDL.

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When it comes to records in Formula 1, no one owns more than Germany’s Michael Schumacher. In terms of superlatives, Schumacher has more championships (seven), more race victories (91), more pole positions (68) and more victories in a single season (13, in 2004) than any other driver in Formula 1 history.

With a record like this, you’d think that Schumacher was a shoe-in for the “greatest driver of all time,” but the F1 star seems to have as many detractors as he does fans. Many believe that Schumacher’s greatest skill was the uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time.

Schumacher took his first F1 World Championship in 1994, driving for the Mild Seven Benetton Ford Team, where he was paired with teammate Jos Verstappen for much of the season. Schumacher earned eight victories that year, while Verstappen had none; in fact, the Dutch driver finished no better than third, and retired early in six of his ten races.

Was the remarkable difference between the drivers ability or something more insidious? According to Autoweek, Verstappen now claims it was the latter, saying that Scumacher’s 1994 car was fitted with illegal electronic driver aids, such as launch control and traction control.

Verstappen has no hard evidence, other than a conversation with then-team-boss Flavio Briatore. When confronted about the issue of driver aids, Briatore allegedly shrugged it off with a dismissive, “Let’s not talk about it.”

Even then-rival Ayrton Senna expressed his doubts about the Benetton B194’s legality after watching Schumacher’s performance in the opening races of the 1994 season. The FIA investigated the car and later found evidence of a launch control function, but the team claimed the software was inactive. No penalty was levied against Schumacher or the team.

The past is the past, and no one seriously expects an investigation into the events of a Grand Prix season some seventeen years back. Schumacher’s fans will ignore Verstappen’s claims as “sour grapes,” the ramblings of a driver who never quite managed to achieve immortality.

Schumacher’s detractors, on the other hand, will see this as more proof that the  F1 great relied more on luck than on skill. Like it or not, racing often honors the lucky more than the adept.
 
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