29th May 1994 – Circuit de Catalunya.
The 1994 Formula 1 season remains one of the most talked about seasons of the sport till date. The reasons behind this are many. The season was marked by many tragedies with the deaths of Austrian Roland Ratzenberger and 3-time World Champion Ayrton Senna at the San Marino Grand Prix. This led to the reformation of the Grand Prix Drivers Association. The season also featured one of the tightest title races of all time between Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill with Schumi claiming his first crown.
One of the defining performances of the season was Michael’s race in Spain. Schumi had won the first 4 races of the season in his Benetton-Ford and was looking good for the 5th in a row when he qualified on pole for the second consecutive race. Damon Hill started besides him on the front row.
At the start of the race, all was looking good, and Schumi established a sizeable lead up at the front with Hill and Mika Hakkinen fighting for the second position. However, during the round of the first pitstop, Schumacher’s gearbox got stuck in 5th gear. He still managed to complete the pitstop without surrendering the lead.
He was overtaken by Hakkinen on lap 23rd and soon surrendered 2nd to Damon Hill too. Despite the impossible task of nature, he held his position for the next few laps posting times not far off from those in front. He completed a pitstop despite the problem pursuing. Hakkinen’s engine gave up with 17 laps of the race remaining, and at that time, the Finn driver was poised to challenge Michael for 2nd spot. Mardin Brundle, who was Hakkinen’s teammate at McLaren-Peugeot, gained the third position but before he could challenge Schumi for the second spot, he too retired with 4 laps to go. Schumacher finished a comfortable 2nd – more than a second ahead of Mark Blundell.
The impressive nature of Michael’s achievements is difficult to express in words. Let us try though: most of us have driven a car or at least sat in one. Now imagine doing all of the following – struck in 5th gear, taking turns and corners, slowing down and stopping (the pitlane) without your gearbox blowing up or the clutch totally giving up. Now imagine doing all of this during an F1 race where you’re supposed to drive at speeds over 300 km/hr with other drivers breathing down your neck.
Michael managed this by forming different lines to take around corners and slowing down before the end of the straights. How he managed to hold the car together during his 2 pitstops is a reflection of the genius that the man is. Add to it, it was a telling fact that Michael was only in his 4th season as an F1 driver and at that time, Michael credited his drive to the experience he had gained by driving in the World Car Series earlier during his career.
Till date, several of F1’s experts labels the Circuit de Catalunya 1994 as Michael’s greatest ever drive despite him not winning the race.