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.
Prior to his unfortunate demise, Ayrton Senna believed that Schumacher’s Benetton team was using traction control. This was likely done to minimise wheel-spin under hard acceleration/ As a result, it was outlawed from the start of the 1994 season.
“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.”
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 recently 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 questioning the Benetton’s legality.
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.
Willem Toet, Benetton’s Head of Aerodynamics 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.”
Another former F1 driver, Mark Blundell 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. This was after 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 Michael 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.
“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.