The technical regulations for the 1994 Formula One season were announced at the 1993 Canadian Grand Prix. One of the major announcements was that electronic aids were to be banned from Formula One, which included power brakes and the traction control system. Also banned for the 1994 season was the use of ABS and active suspension. This was done as there were fears that electronic aid systems were levelling the field up, putting more emphasis on the car rather than the driver talent. Some spoke out against traction control, including Ayrton Senna, who said he preferred to have more control of the car instead of having the computers drive it for him. Max Mosley, the president of Formula One's governing body, the FIA, spoke out in favour of banning traction control, saying that the systems "could be extremely dangerous and unpredictable". Around the same time as the announcement regarding the technical regulations for the 1994 season, many in the sport were questioning the legality of active suspension, which was a key factor for it to be banned for 1994. Some in the paddock regarded the decision as an attempt to restrict Williams, as the team held a strong advantage with its active suspension system and other driver aids. The unraced concept of continuously variable transmission (CVT) was also banned, but it was well known that Williams had spent several years developing and testing such a system, which threatened to further increase their cars' advantage if introduced. Behind the scenes at Williams they considered the timing of the announcement by Technical Delegate Charlie Whiting as "regrettable", with some questioning if Nigel Mansell's 1992 Drivers' Championship victory would still be regarded as valid. Also introduced for the 1994 season was refuelling during races, for the first time since 1983. As a result, all team personnel working on the car during pit stops had to wear fire-protective clothing as a safety precaution. The FIA changed the rules to spice up the sport partially due to declining television ratings from the 1993 season compared to the 1992 season. It was also suggested the rule changes could benefit the Ferrari team, as the outfit had struggled with the introduction of its driver aids, and stood to gain from the re-introduction of refuelling due to its V12 engine configuration, which was less fuel-efficient than the V10s and V8s built by their rivals.
Cheating allegations were made at the first round of the 1994 season, the Brazilian Grand Prix. On lap 21 of the race, Senna in the Williams who was leading the race, made a pit stop, with Michael Schumacher in the Benetton close behind. The Benetton pitcrew made a very quick stop for Schumacher, getting him out in front of Senna to lead the race. Schumacher went on to win the Grand Prix after Senna spun out of the race. This sparked speculation that Benetton were using a system to make quicker pit stops than their rivals.
During the weekend of the Pacific Grand Prix in April, Ferrari test driver Nicola Larini (who had replaced Jean Alesi for the early part of the season), leaked to the Italian media that he had used traction control during the practice session for the race. Ferrari and Larini later denied the claims to the worldwide press. The "leak" by Larini further raised suspicions about teams using illegal aids to help them in races. Senna retired on the first lap of the race after a collision with McLaren driver Mika Häkkinen. Instead of going back to the Williams pit area, Senna opted to stand and watch the cars complete the race to see if he could hear any noises that suggested traction control was being used illegally in the other cars. Senna returned to the Williams pit area after the race suspicious that the Benetton car was illegal.
At the San Marino Grand Prix, both Senna and Roland Ratzenberger suffered fatal accidents. After the race weekend, the FIA asked the teams that finished first, second and third in the race (Benetton, Ferrari and McLaren respectively) to provide copies of their engine management system source code to see if an undetected traction control system was stored in there to gain an illegal advantage. Ferrari supplied the code immediately, but McLaren and Benetton only handed over the code after the FIA's deadline, for which they were fined $100,000.
Several technical rule changes were announced by the FIA at the Monaco Grand Prix to help improve the safety of the cars. Downforce on the cars was reduced with the diffuser restricted to help reduce the amount of grip available. In between the Monaco and Spanish Grands Prix, the teams tried out the revised cars in test sessions throughout the week. Several teams experienced problems with their revised cars; Ligier suffered two cracked wing mountings, while Williams noted a cracked mounting during testing at Jerez. The biggest incident to note was that of Pedro Lamy in a Lotus car at the Silverstone Circuit. While approaching the Bridge corner on the circuit, the rear wing on the Lotus detached itself leading to a sudden loss of downforce. The Lotus cartwheeled off the circuit at 170 mph (270 km/h), flying through a protective fence, landing in a spectator access tunnel. Lamy was hospitalised as a result of the accident. In the week leading up to the Spanish race, Benetton team boss Flavio Briatore criticised the FIA, accusing the president Max Mosley of making "ill-considered, snap decisions" and that some of the components on the Benetton car may not have been subjected to quality control checks. In a letter sent to Mosley on May 25, Briatore also said:
It will be theirs and the FIA's responsibility that they race. Now that the teams have had an opportunity to test and evaluate the Barcelona regulation changes, it has become apparent that there are serious problems. The stability and consistency of the cars has worsened. This can be confirmed by discussions with the majority of teams and their drivers. The cornering speed of the cars may have been reduced, but the likelihood of an accident has been increased. Several teams are experiencing structural failures which are attributable to the change in regulations. The loading on key components, such as rear wings, has changed and moved outside the designed range. Despite these concerns, you continue to insist on these ill-conceived measures. It is our opinion that the ability of yourself and your advisers to judge technical and safety issues in F1 must be questioned.
The Benetton team, along with Williams, McLaren, Lotus, Pacific, Simtek, Jordan, Footwork Arrows and Ligier debated the issue in the Williams motorhome to discuss the technical regulations. More changes came into force for the Canadian and German races, with the introductions of "pump fuel" (more closely related to commercially available fuel, slightly reducing horsepower and engine performance) and the "plank" (a piece of wood running along the underside of the chassis that is monitored for excessive wear, increasing ride height and thus decreasing grip).
Allegations of cheating reignited at the French Grand Prix, when, starting from third on the grid Schumacher overtook both of the Williams drivers, Damon Hill and Nigel Mansell, leading into the first corner of the race. This raised suspicions, once again, that Benetton were using traction control. There were also incidents involving other teams, notably Ferrari and McLaren. While commentating on the race for Eurosport with John Watson and Allard Kalff, Williams driver David Coulthard, who was replaced by Mansell for the race, stated that Schumacher's start reminded him of the type of starts from the 1993 season when traction control was legal. Hill was on pole position for the British Grand Prix after qualifying fastest. During the parade lap on the way to the starting grid, Schumacher, starting second, illegally overtook Hill. As a result of his illegal maneuver, Schumacher was given a five-second penalty at 14:27 local time, 27 minutes after the original incident. Schumacher never came into the pit lane to serve the penalty when originally given the penalty, and on lap 21, Schumacher was given the black flag. Schumacher stayed out on the circuit while Benetton team boss Briatore, along with Benetton technical director Tom Walkinshaw went to discuss it with Race Director Roland Bruynseraede, arguing that they had not been properly informed of the punishment given. Schumacher eventually served the time penalty on lap 27, finishing the race in second position behind Hill.
After the British Grand Prix, Schumacher and Benetton were fined $25,000 for breaching the sporting regulations, with the FIA choosing to open an investigation surrounding the events at the race. Joan Villadelprat, Benetton's team manager, stated that although they made a mistake at the race, the race stewards also made a mistake as Benetton were not notified within 15 minutes of the offence as specified by the regulations. It took 27 minutes for the decision of the stewards to reach Benetton.
The German Grand Prix brought up more controversy leading to further allegations of cheating by Benetton. During a pit stop, the Benetton car of Jos Verstappen was set on fire during refuelling as the fuel nozzle would not enter the car properly. Verstappen suffered minor burns, with four of the Benetton mechanics also burned. Intertechnique, the company which manufactures the refuelling equipment for all the teams, were delegated by the governing body to examine the Benetton factory shortly after the German race. After Intertechnique examined the factory, a statement was released by the FIA. In the statement, the FIA said that "the [fuel] valve was slow to close because of the presence of a foreign body" and that a filter designed to eliminate any possible risk of fire had been removed. An estimate by an outside party stated that without the filter, fuel flowed into the car at a 12.5% faster rate than usual, saving one second per pit stop. Benetton issued a press release shortly after, announcing that they had contacted an "independent company specialising in accident investigation" to give opinions on the refuelling method. They also announced that a copy of the FIA report had been sent to Marriott Harrison, their legal advisers. The FIA announced, as a result of their findings, that Benetton would be summoned to a World Motor Sport Council meeting on October 19. On August 11, three days before the Hungarian Grand Prix, Intertechnique representatives said that no request had been sent from Benetton to remove the filter from the nozzle and that they would never authorise Benetton to remove the nozzle. Benetton made a press release on August 13, stating that there was a fault in the equipment provided by Intertechnique.
Before Schumacher's appeal from his disqualification at the British Grand Prix, he was disqualified from the Belgian Grand Prix as his Benetton had excessive wear of the plank. The FIA allowed the plank to be ten millimetres deep, with an allowance of one millimetre meaning that the plank must be a minimum of nine millimetres to be deemed legal. A majority of the plank on Schumacher's car measured 7.4 millimetres, 1.6 under the legal tolerance. Benetton, along with Schumacher, claimed that the plank had excessive wear due to a spin by Schumacher during the race. Benetton launched an immediate appeal, with a World Motor Sport Council meeting set for September 5. The allegations of Benetton cheating throughout the summer of 1994 led to rumours of Schumacher quitting the team. The team released a statement denying the rumours, stating that Schumacher would complete the season.
Schumacher and Benetton, along with three other drivers, were summoned to a FIA World Motor Sport Council meeting on July 26 to discuss his black flag at the British Grand Prix. It was announced at the meeting that Schumacher was disqualified from the race, thus losing his six points he earned from finishing second in the race, and in addition he was handed a two race ban. This meant Schumacher would miss his home race, the German Grand Prix, along with the Hungarian Grand Prix, unless he chose to appeal the decision. In addition to the punishment handed to Schumacher, Benetton were fined a total of $600,000—$500,000 for not listening to the Stewards' at the British race, and $100,000 for not sending copies of their engine management system when immediately requested. At the council meeting, the governing body also announced that no evidence had been found to suggest Benetton were using illegal electronic systems, but did say that an illegal system did exist, which could be activated at any time. Benetton and Schumacher appealed the decision made by the FIA, allowing the German to race at his home Grand Prix.
Both Michael Schumacher and the Benetton Formula team feel that the penalties inflicted on them were very severe. Together both parties have agreed to appeal in front of the International Court of the Appeal of the FIA through the respective National Sporting Authorities, and therefore Michael Schumacher will take part in the upcoming 1994 German Grand Prix. This decision has been reached following the concern from both Michael Schumacher and the Benetton Formula team that Michael's absence from his home Grand Prix would unfairly penalise and disappoint all the German fans who have long awaited this event. Michael Schumacher and the Benetton Formula hope that this appeal will result in a decreased penalty. Their priority now is to prepare for a winning performance this weekend.
Schumacher's appeal regarding the two race ban was rejected at the FIA International Court of Appeal, with the FIA opting to keep his two race ban intact, meaning he would miss the Italian and Portuguese races. JJ Lehto replaced Schumacher for the two races.
The World Motor Sport Council hearing surrounding Benetton and the fuel fire at Hockenheim was brought forward to September 7, with the disqualification of Schumacher at the Belgian Grand Prix also moved to the same day. The night before the hearing, however, the FIA were informed by Larrousse, one of the other teams competing in the championship, that they were informed by Intertechnique in May to remove the filter from the refuelling rig, a point Flavio Briatore made in prior meetings that all but four teams had removed the filter. The FIA in the hearing judged that Benetton had not tried to cheat by removing the filter from the refuelling rig, but the governing body did say that the team removed it without authorisation from Intertechnique to try to gain an advantage. Thus the team were found guilty of the offence, but escaped punishment due to this valid plea in mitigation. Schumacher's appeal against his disqualification at the Belgian Grand Prix, however, was rejected by the FIA. After the hearing, Benetton released a statement which said:
The Mild Seven Benetton Ford Formula 1 Team is very pleased with the result of today's hearing in Paris, which has completely cleared its good name from any allegations of cheating. Whilst the team may not have been able to satisfy the World Council as to the precise cause of the wear of the skid board it was delighted that the FIA stated in clear terms that there was no question of the team cheating. The team were also completely cleared of the charge of removing the fuel filter illegally. This should put an end to unfounded and wild speculations in the press that the removal of the filter caused the fire at Hockenheim. Before the hearing the FIA conceded that it was not alleging that the removal of the filter had caused the fire. In giving the World Council's decision, the President [Max Mosley] stated that its unanimous view was that the filter was removed in complete good faith and that it would be inappropriate to impose any penalty whatsoever.
At the same hearing, the McLaren team was found to be in breach of the technical regulations, specifically over a fully automated gearbox upchange device in the transmission system that was confirmed to have been run in Mika Häkkinen's car during the San Marino Grand Prix. The FIA's discovery of this device occurred when McLaren test driver Philippe Alliot, who had taken a race seat at Larrousse mid-season, commented on the fact that the cars of his new team did not possess such a facility. The system was found to contravene the regulations and was duly banned—as was the potential of an automated downchange facility—but McLaren went unpunished, as the FIA was satisfied that the team believed it to be legal when fitting it to the car under its interpretation of the regulations.Weekend of the 1993 Canadian Grand Prix - Technical regulations for the 1994 Formula One season announced by the FIA.
March 27, 1994 - Michael Schumacher won the opening round of the 1994 season. A quick pit stop carried out by his Benetton team during the race sparked rumours of cheating.
April 30, 1994 - Roland Ratzenberger dies after an accident during the qualifying session for the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
May 1, 1994 - Ayrton Senna dies following an accident at the Tamburello corner during the San Marino Grand Prix. Benetton, Ferrari, and McLaren asked to provide copies of their engine management system. Benetton failed to send a copy until three weeks after the original notification from the FIA.
May/June 1994 - A raft of technical changes made to improve the safety of the cars.
July 10, 1994 - Michael Schumacher overtakes Damon Hill illegally on the parade lap on the British Grand Prix, and as a result is given a five-second penalty. After initially ignoring the penalty, race control gives him the black flag and he eventually comes in on lap 27. Benetton and Schumacher are fined $25,000 for breach of sporting regulations at the British race.
July 26, 1994 - At a FIA World Motor Sport Council meeting, Schumacher has the six points he earned at the British Grand Prix taken away from him, and is given a two race ban to be served immediately. Benetton were fined $500,000 for ignoring the Stewards at the British race and $100,000 for not sending copies of their engine management system when requested. Benetton and Schumacher immediately appealed the fines and race ban imposed on them.
July 31, 1994 - During a refuelling pit stop at the German Grand Prix, Jos Verstappen's Benetton was set on fire as the fuel nozzle would not enter the car properly. Verstappen, along with four Benetton mechanics were burned.