The Badgerometer is where we compile a Top 5 things from the previous grand prix (or anything else we fancy when there’s no race). Sometimes the racing is barely featured. With F1 heading to supposedly sunny Catalunya this weekend, where better to look to for this week’s edition than past races held under the banner of the Spanish Grand Prix?
1994 was a defining year for Formula One for so many reasons. The loss of the great Ayrton Senna shook the sport to its very core. The following races were hard for all involved, but the emergence of Michael Schumacher as a true great, along with his battle with Williams’s team leader Damon Hill, began to slowly ease the pain. Hill may have won in Spain, but the real story was how Schumacher managed to keep pace in second…while stuck in 5th gear for most of the race. Using his knowledge gained racing in sports cars, he managed to alter his driving style to keep revs high and not losing speed, and also making a pit stop. In fact, he kept within fighting distance of Hill for most of the race. Michael Schumacher came of age in 1994, and this race showed just how vast the potential of his talent was.
The inaugural Spanish GP at the Catalunya venue had competition and glory in spades. The season was divided into two halves; the first dominated by the reliable McLaren-Honda hauled to the front by the genius of Senna, the second by the super-quick Williams-Renault piloted by Nigel Mansell, overcoming it’s fragility of earlier rounds. But the crux point of the season was this race, one that Mansell had to win to have any chance of getting his hands on that elusive Drivers Championship. In damp conditions, he succeeded, but not before going wheel to wheel with Senna down the main straight, creating an iconic image that still evokes emotions today. Low slung F1 cars, sparks flying behind them and air trails off the rear wing. Classic stuff.
It’s a strange thing to have two of the closest finishes in the sport’s history in the same list. The 1981 race, held at the previous venue in Jarama, was Gilles Villenueve’s final race win, ahead of four other cars, all separated by a gap of 1.24 seconds. Villeneuve qualified 7th, and over the first few laps he managed to work his way up to 2nd, behind reigning champion, Williams’s Alan Jones. After building a 10 second lead, Jones went off, falling back to 7th and Villeneuve inherited the lead, with Jacques Laffite in his Ligier snapping at his heels. As the race wore on, it became apparent that Villenueve was quicker on the straights, but Laffite had the edge in the corners. While they fought, the rest of the field slowly caught up, to a point where the last few laps were a pack of cars all in with a chance of picking up the win. Villenueve tactical expertise kept his car in front, taking a victory no-one thought possible.
Michael Schumacher’s second inclusion on this list shows another skill in his arsenal that the world witnessed for the first time. The rain definitely came down in Spain that afternoon, and after a boggy start from 3rd on the grid, Schumacher took the lead on lap 13 and didn’t look back. Racing at three seconds a lap faster than anyone else, his speed on a track reminiscent of a swimming pool was the perfect demonstration of his powers as the “Regenmeister” (“Rainmaster”). Taking his first win for the Prancing Horse, Schumacher finished the race 46 seconds ahead of Jean Alesi, and had lapped everyone up to fourth. We all didn’t know it at the time, but the Red Baron had just been born.
Although these two already feature on the list, their first encounter in Spain was just too close to call. 1986 is wildly considered one of the best years in Formula One history, with the title going down to the wire between four drivers. Ayrton Senna had taken Nigel Mansell’s seat at Lotus the previous year, and wasted no time in becoming a race winner. The same happened for Mansell, breaking his duck after moving to the Williams team and joining the Grand Prix winners club. After a hiatus of four years, Spain returned to the race schedule, this time at Jerez. A clash of the titans was on the cards in the closing stages as Mansell hunted down Senna, only 1.5 seconds behind on fresher tyres. It all came down to the final corner, with Mansell getting a stronger exit heading to line for a photo finish. 72 laps of racing excitement boiled down to who would get over the line first. Senna took it, ahead by a margin of 0.014 seconds, a record that stood until some Ferrari shenanigans in 2002. If they start/finish line hadn’t been moved back 200 yards that morning, Mansell would’ve had the win.