PAT SYMONDS ON MICHAEL
F1 Racing technical consultant Pat Symonds became Michael Schumacher’s race engineer at Benetton in 1992. They quickly became an effective fighting force as Michael grew from a raw talent to a contender for the title in 1994, a season beset by tragedy and
As race engineer to Michael Schumacher in the Benetton days, Pat recalls that high-pressured first championship win
1994 was a memorable year for F1 in every respect – not all of them good. For me, it was the culmination of a sequence that had started when I formed a working relationship with Michael that grew into a particularly strong friendship, and one in which we achieved the highest goals we had each set ourselves.
The story really began two years earlier, in 1992, when, after a short sojourn away from Benetton, I was asked to act as race engineer for Michael. I hadn’t been race engineering for a couple of years, but it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. We were all acutely aware of the prodigious talent this young man possessed.
Testing was our rst experience of working together at the sort of intense level that fosters the close relationship between driver and engineer which is so important for success. The nal pre-season test in 1992
was at Kyalami in preparation for the rst grand prix of the season. By the end of that test, I felt that we were working as a really cohesive team. Michael was giving me exactly the feedback I needed, and I had been able to impress him by using techniques to set up the car that were new to him but extremely successful. We came fourth in South Africa, and successive podiums
in Mexico and Brazil followed, which meant we returned to Europe third in the drivers’ standings.
The flyaway races then, perhaps more so than now, were a great chance for teams to gel, since we not only spent time in our normal working environment, but also in something of a social atmosphere due to extended periods away from home. During this time, the mutual respect we had for each other grew, as did a friendship that endures to this day.
While I had the greatest admiration for Michael’s ability to drive an F1 car extremely quickly, it was not this that made him unique. What raised him above the already very high standard of his peers was his amazing attention to detail and his innate ability to reserve a large amount of mental capacity for analysis and tactical thinking, without missing a beat in terms of consistency of performance. This was perhaps best illustrated by his approach to fitness.
Before Michael, the most professional driver I had worked with was Ayrton Senna. While these two exceptional drivers had much in common, it was a long while before Ayrton accepted that his lack of fitness was costing him performance. Michael, on the other hand, was obsessed by developing his stamina and upper body strength. He knew that as other drivers showed signs of fatigue toward the end of a race, he was still able to push to the limit.
It was not just his recognition of this that impressed, it was the level of detail he went to in order to achieve his goals. As an example, during a race-distance test, when we stopped for a tyre change or to x a problem, Michael’s trainer would take a blood sample from him. This was then analysed and his gym routine adjusted until blood samples taken during training matched those taken during circuit testing. In this way he knew the aerobic regime he would follow in the gym was suitable.
It was his sagacity that provided him with his rst race win that year at Spa. Although the race started dry, it soon became necessary to t wet tyres. It was a typical Spa race and before long the track was drying and the wet tyres showing signs of distress. On lap 30, Michael made a small mistake and Martin Brundle, his very capable team-mate, swept past him. Michael’s rst thought as he sat in Martin’s slipstream was to check his rival’s tyre condition. On noting that the rears were starting to chunk, he decided to pit for dry tyres and, by pre-empting everyone else, was able to take a well-deserved victory.
The next year, 1993, followed a similar path, and Michael’s mental capacity was paramount in developing the intricate B193 with its active suspension, launch control, distance-mapped automatic gearbox and unique four-wheel-steer system. The season brought only one win, but Michael’s self-esteem was developing at a rate that let him challenge at any level. Had the reliability of the car been better, he would have improved on fourth place in the championship.
And so to 1994, a year that brought ultimate success to Michael, but only after a season marred by tragedy and innuendo. Even before testing began, everyone was prepared for a change to the status quo. Williams had built the most effective of the actively suspended chassis but, with such systems banned for 1994, we all had to re-apply our knowledge in building passive suspension systems – and, perhaps more importantly, aerodynamic characteristics that were no longer beholden to the ability to run at a constant height.
Our efforts in this direction at Benetton were mighty. We hadn’t gone as far down the road of peaky aerodynamics as some, but we fully understood that we needed benign aero maps to achieve success in 1994. In addition, we had developed sophisticated tools to understand and develop the vehicle dynamics and ride, and the loss of the active control loop merely reduced the number of equations that had to be solved. We were able to convert these tools to good effect: the compromises reached between a suspension soft enough to give good mechanical grip and aerodynamics that would provide consistent
downforce at varying attitudes were far better than any of our competitors managed.
In January we had a brief shakedown at Silverstone. This nearly ended in disaster for Michael’s team-mate JJ Lehto, who suffered a heavy accident that kept him out of racing for some months. Michael was complimentary about the car, but the cold conditions made a real judgement difficult.
As we headed to Estoril for the first proper test, we were confident our car was good, but we were acutely aware that last year’s best car, the Williams, was now being driven by the universally acknowledged best driver, Ayrton Senna. It was going to be a challenge, but the first laps were extremely encouraging; Michael said he felt he had a car capable of winning the championship. When Michael made a comment like that, you tended to listen.
“At the first test of 1994, Michael said he felt he had a car capable of winning the championship. When Michael made a comment like that, you tended to listen”
In spite of our optimism, in sport all things are relative and we could not ignore the fact that the Senna/Williams combination were also posting impressive times. That kept us pushing to the maximum. On top of this we had a major problem. Not only was our Ford-Cosworth Zetec engine signicantly down on power compared with the Renault RS6 we were ghting in the Williams, it also had a fragile crankshaft. The records will show that Williams dominated winter testing, but what they won’t show is that Michael had limited running, and what distance we did was generally with a relatively high fuel load so that we could disguise our true pace.
After the last test at Imola in March, we had still not been able to complete a race distance without failure, and with the cars about to be shipped to Brazil for the rst race at the end of the month, we were getting desperate. With a new crank design we attempted a race distance at a freezing cold Silverstone South circuit the day before the cars had to leave. It was so cold, we could barely operate a stopwatch, but we certainly got further than ever before.
We did not arrive in Brazil well-prepared. The Benetton team knuckled down to what remains to this day a legendary job list as we tried to ready ourselves for racing. Jim Vale was the number one mechanic on Michael’s car, and working with him were Jonathan Wheatley, current team manager at Red Bull, and Kenny Hand-kammer, now chief mechanic at the same team. Together with many others we toiled through the work, surviving on just a few
hours sleep. With a fresh engine for each day we somehow got through practice and qualied second to Ayrton. Our latest-spec race engine was so fragile that we skipped the normal Sunday morning warm-up.
In the race we managed to get past Ayrton by dint of a better pitstop and were pulling away when Ayrton spun trying to keep up. It was a perfect illustration of how the new rules played into the hands of both Michael and the team. While we couldn’t cover as many miles in testing, we’d spent hours practicing pitstops. From Michael’s side, he practised his in- and out-laps relentlessly, and it was this attention to detail that enabled us to pass Ayrton in the pitstop.
We returned to Europe on a high after a second win in Japan and another retirement for Ayrton. Our euphoria did not last long: the next race on the calendar was Imola on that fateful day when motor racing was to change forever.
Once again we saw the depth of Michael as the events of that weekend unravelled. His public persona was that of the detached professional. Those of us who were close to him could see the hurt and anguish the weekend brought to him.
In the wake of Imola, the FIA imposed a series of changes to the technical rules in the hope that slowing down the cars would prevent a recurrence of these tragedies. It was a awed process, but unavoidable if we were to prevent an anti-F1 backlash from the public.
Our beautiful car was progressively neutered. First the diffuser was cut away and changes were made to the front wing with a view to reducing downforce. These were introduced for Spain, which that year followed Monaco – a race where Karl Wendlinger had suffered life-changing head injuries in yet another accident.
In spite of the changes, we continued to enjoy success with a win in Canada and a second place in Spain, achieved in spite of being stuck in fth gear for much of the race. Michael’s drive in Spain showcased his ability. When the transmission stuck, he did a couple of slow laps and, during these, learned how to get the best from the car. His subsequent laps were extremely impressive – he had adapted his driving style in a remarkable way.
At the time we were also living under the shadow of the accusation that we were using illegal launch-control software. This arose when the FIA, on inspecting our software, found an old menu left over from earlier days that set up launch-control parameters. It was acknowledged that these were not part of any control loop, and indeed inspection of data from our starts showed an amount of variability that was not consistent with a launch-control system. The case went no further but was leaked to the press.
In Germany we fell foul of the authorities once more and this time perhaps with more reason. A lter in the refuelling rig had been removed and it is probable that this caused the fuel valve to jam, causing a major re as Michael’s team-mate Jos Verstappen’s car was refuelled.
Among the other changes introduced in the wake of Imola was the ‘plank’, a large skid block placed under the car to force higher ride heights and lower downforce.
This change was to prove very significant at the Belgian Grand Prix, where Michael was disqualified when the skid block was found to have worn to below the minimum thickness in one area. The hastily introduced rules stated that if the plank was less than 9mm thick in any area, it was to be removed and weighed and providing the weight was greater than 90 per cent of the new weight then it would be accepted.
The scrutineers ignored this detail and, in spite of protestation that the damage was caused when Michael spun across the kerbs and was therefore force majeure, we were disqualified.
We were racing in Belgium under appeal, since at Silverstone another bizarre incident had got us into trouble. On the formation lap, Michael, second on the grid, went past Damon Hill who was on pole. It was the sort of move we had all seen so many times and continue to see today, but in the mood of the time it led to a penalty being applied. Tom Walkinshaw argued the penalty with the organisers and, when a black ag was shown to Michael, told us to ignore it. It was a grave mistake and Michael was banned from the races in Italy and Portugal.
Michael’s return in the European Grand Prix yielded another win but he lost to Damon by three seconds in a bizarre Japanese Grand Prix that was stopped in heavy rain and restarted some time later, with the times aggregated to give a nal result. It was the only time that Michael did not understand his objective. Leading on the road he thought he had the race in the bag, but in spite of copious encouragement on the radio he failed to pull out a sufficient lead to take the overall victory.
So we left for the season nale in Australia with just a single-point lead over Damon. The outcome is well-documented: Michael hit the barrier and careered into Damon, taking both cars out of the race. At the time it never occurred to me that it was anything but an accident and yet I completely lost my cool; I believed we were sure to be sanctioned. The result stood and we won the championship.
Taken in isolation this last accident seemed to be nothing other than an unfortunate occurrence, but after the incidents at Jerez in 1997 and Monaco in 2006, I can’t help but wonder if this was the rst manifestation of Michael’s single character aw.
As a human being, few drivers can compare with Michael. He is witty, caring and decent. These qualities always shone through and he was continually thinking about how best to help others. As someone who enjoyed life, the parties at my house where he was often to be found in the kitchen drinking the couple of beers he would allow himself and enjoying being with his team, were legendary. He also had an immensely competitive instinct. This is neither surprising nor unusual for a racing driver but occasionally, when time was not available for a considered judgement, this side of his character would dominate and lead to him behaving in an unsporting manner.
It was the one aw that haunted him through his career, but in no way should it detract from the victory he so deservedly took in 1994. The odds were continually stacked against us for reasons that were sometimes coincidental, sometimes the fault of us as a somewhat naive team, and largely for reasons that can only be described as Machiavellian. At the end of the season, Michael and I talked intensely about whether or not it was worth carrying on in such an environment. I was ready to walk away from a sport I felt was tainted. I am glad I didn’t: winning both the drivers’ and constructors’ championship the following year was the best possible answer to our critics.
FIRST WIN “Michael’s sagacity provided him with his first race win in Spa 1992. Michael decided to pit for dry tyres and, by pre-empting everyone else, took a well-deserved win”
FIRST CONTACT “On the first lap at Magny Cours in 1992, Michael pushed Ayrton Senna off the track and into retirement. Some laps later, when it suddenly began to rain, the race was stopped. We were on the grid waiting for the re-start when Ayrton appeared. He had already got changed, but decided to come and ‘discuss’ the incident with Michael. I acted as referee!”
FIRST PRINCIPLES “Michael practised his in- and out-laps relentlessly, and it was this attention to detail that enabled us to pass Ayrton in the pitstop in Brazil in 1994”
WHEN FIRST ISLAST “We were first over the line in Belgium ’94, but Michael’s skid plate was found to be worn below the minimum thickness. We protested that this was due to damage incurred when he spun over the kerbs, but he was disqualified”
DOUBLE TROUBLE “The next race was Silverstone, and Michael was banned from the races in Portugal and Spain after passing Damon Hill on the formation lap then ignoring a black flag”
BY A N Y M E A N S N E C E S S A RY “At the season finale in Australia, Michael hit the barrier and careered into Damon, taking both cars out of the race. It never occurred to me it was anything other than an accident, but I completely lost my cool; I believed we were sure to be sanctioned. The result stood and we won the championship”