In 1994, one of the most dramatic and controversial seasons in Formula One history ended with a race that was equally dramatic and controversial. The Australian Grand Prix at Adelaide that year was the series’s first title-deciding, final-race showdown in eight years, and 25 years later it continues to divide opinion. This showdown’s protagonists were Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher.
Benetton’s Schumacher won the first two races, with Senna failing to score any points. Then at Imola, the Brazilian crashed and died at the age of 34 while Schumacher won the race. Then, British driver Damon Hill was thrust into the leading role at Williams after Senna’s death.
He delivered when it was needed, winning six races, including ones from which Schumacher had been disqualified. He was just one point behind the German for the lead of the championship heading into the final race, with a car that was performing better. Not only most of Britain was rooting for him, but fans of the Williams team, which had been through such a tragic year, were also hoping he would win.
— Damon Hill (@HillF1) February 3, 2019
Ahead of the season finale, Hill was on edge. Having been hired as the team’s second driver, his salary reflected that status, and before the race he had said he wasn’t motivated to drive hard “for the sort of money you pay someone with no experience.”
Schumacher was on edge as well. During the Friday qualifying, he had crashed chasing Mansell’s provisional pole. He ended up qualifying second; Hill was third.
At the start of the race, Nigel Mansell spun his wheels, and Schumacher immediately took the lead, while Hill slotted into second position behind him. The two fought it out through almost the first half of the 81-lap race, with Hill pressuring Schumacher throughout. On Lap 36, Hill had dropped back slightly as he passed a straggler, while Schumacher, pushing the car hard at Turn 5, lost control slightly and went off the track, hitting the wall.
“I got caught out on a bump when the car stepped out and went sideways, and I caught it,” Schumacher said later. “Then I went over the grass and touched the wall, but continued.”
Hill had not seen what had happened, and so wasn’t aware that Schumacher had potentially damaged his car. When he suddenly found the German going slowly, he decided it might be his only chance to pass him and took the inside line into the next corner. But Schumacher then turned in, and their cars collided. The Benetton was launched up in the air sideways, and almost flipped, sending Schumacher out of the race.
Hill continued slowly, but his front suspension was bent. He made a long pit stop. If the team took the time to replace the suspension, it would be impossible for him to finish in the points.
“I saw the opportunity and thought I had to go for it, but it didn’t happen,” Hill said later of his move on the corner. “In retrospect, I would have let him go.”
The German maintained that his own turn inside was a normal racing incident. Hill decided to keep quiet, but his team maintained that Schumacher had hit Hill on purpose.