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The 1990s: the best F1 decade ever?
Though the 1990s will be remembered by F1 fans for one day, one circuit, and one corner, the real story of the decade is how Ayrton Senna came to be driving a Williams-Renault FW16 at Tamburello, Imola on 1st May 1994, and the man behind that car.
Senna had picked up the new decade where he’d left off the last, with two championships for McLaren-Honda in 1990 and 1991. But by 1992, the advantage had swung back to Williams, who’d been divorced by Honda after winning both titles in 1987. After an interim year with Judd engines, Williams had persuaded Renault to return to F1 in 1989. Then in 1990 it embarked on an even more significant partnership when it snapped up a 32-year old designer by the name of Adrian Newey.
Newey - remarkably - had been fired by the Leyton House F1 team. We say remarkably since it was largely Newey’s genius and single-mindedness that had allowed the relatively underfunded team to shine, just occasionally. Williams allowed him to pick up where he’d left off at Leyton House with the Williams FW14. Crucially however, Williams’ engineering team had taken the active ride, traction, and assisted braking and steering systems other teams had messed with to another level. Combined with what looked like a copy of the Leyton House’s aero’ package, the FW14 was just about unbeatable. After Nigel Mansell blitzed the 1992 championship, drivers were falling over themselves to get behind the wheel.
Senna went as far as saying he’d waive his fee to drive for Williams and threatened to leave F1 for Indycars if McLaren didn’t get its act together. However, for 1993, Williams signed Alain Prost - who’d been fired from Ferrari at the end of 1991 and had taken a sabbatical - and only on a one year contract. Mansell had been dispatched after his win; Prost, it was all too apparent, would retire once he’d completed what was effectively a formality and taken the FW15C to the championship. It was either that or face Senna in the same team again, the reason he had left McLaren for Ferrari in the first place. The stage was set for Senna’s arrival in 1994.
Only it didn’t go according to plan. Stripped of much of its electronics, the FW16 was a tricky car to drive, even if you were Ayrton Senna. Worse, there was a new kid on the block in the form of Michael Schumacher’s Benetton-Ford B194, which might not have been as devoid of electronic devices as it was meant to be. Certainly the FIA found a launch system buried in the car’s software but was unable to prove it had been used. There was a bad smell around Benetton all year, especially when it was revealed the cause of a spectacular pit fire was a missing fuel filter. A filter that had the potential to slow down the rate at which fuel could be pumped. The 194 made all the other drivers anxious and none more so than Senna, who failed to catch it in the first three races of the 1994 season.
Did Senna go into Tamburello that day thinking he was chasing an illegal car? There are many that think he did. And there are many that have thought other factors were at work (or weren’t) as the FW16 plunged off the track, a freak geometry of impact detaching the wishbones of the right front wheel, one of which would pierce Senna’s helmet. Following in the shadow thrown the previous day by the fatal accident of Roland Ratzenberger, May 1st 1994 was the decade’s, if not the sport’s low point.
Schumacher went on to win the title in 1994, but not without giving further insights into the lengths he and Benetton would go to win. Williams’ post Senna line up of Damon Hill and David Coulthard would sort the FW16 and in B-spec came within one misjudgement of winning Hill the title. To be fair to Hill though, he could not have expected even Michael Schumacher would drive him off the road just to win. But as we were to find out, that was Schumacher’s MO. Ruthless as Senna could be, it never felt quite right that his crown should be passed to Schumacher.
In 1995 Benetton switched to Renault power, and Schumacher won again but would move on to Ferrari and what would prove to be a five-year project to turn the Scuderia into the super-team of the early 00s. Without their superstar, Benetton lost its edge and began to slowly fade away.
Williams and Newey were back on the ascendency with titles for Hill in 1996 and Jacques Villeneuve in 1997. And the Newey story would continue in the last two seasons of the decades when Mika Häkkinen would take back-to-back titles for McLaren-Mercedes in cars designed by, yes, Adrian Newey, who’d left Williams in 1996 having been made an offer he couldn’t refuse to relocate to Woking.
It’s impossible to oversell the impact of Adrian Newey on 1990s Grand Prix racing. Cars of his design won six constructors championships and six drivers championships. We really shouldn’t be surprised at what’s happening at Red Bull right now.