Top ten… F1 scandals

Top ten

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The eyes of the F1 world are fixed on the twists and turns of the Ferrari-McLaren espionage scandal.

F1 is no stranger to controversy – here’s ten of the juiciest from recent years…

Water cooled brakes, 1982

One of the most celebrated controversies ever to hit F1. In 1982, fearing that their turbo powered rivals had them completely out-gunned, several top British teams including Brabham and Williams started fiddling with the minimum weight rules.

Unlike the fuel-thirsty turbos, they could run their cars far lighter than the minimum weight and had to use ballast to bring it up to the minimum level.

Lotus’s Colin Chapman hit on the idea of using a reserve water tank – ostensibly used for brake-cooling – to bring the weight up. They could then dump the water after the race had started, and (legitimately) top it up again after the race before the car was weighed.

Nelson Piquet (Brabham) and Keke Rosberg (Williams) finished first and second – but when FISA (now FIA) found out about the water tanks they were thrown out.

This caused a political stink – the cars had been legal to the letter, though not the spirit, of the rules. Plus John Watson’s McLaren, that was elevated to second following the disqualifications, was similarly illegal and yet went un-punished. Not for the first time there were dark mutterings about the shared nationality of FISA President Jean-Marie Balestre and new Brazilian GP winner Alain Prost.

The British teams boycotted the San Marino Grand Prix, but it made no difference. By the end of the year most of them had made arrangements to obtain turbo engines anyway.

Tyrrell, 1984

Two years later virtually all the teams were running turbos with one notable exception – Tyrrell. Team boss Ken Tyrrell tried to use an inelegant variant of the water tank trick, this time using lead shot, to get around the minimum weight rules.

But when he was found out all manner of unrealistic allegations were thrown at him, including suggestions that he had been using illegal fuel mixtures.

The Tyrrell team was thrown out of the championship, a move which also stripped Martin Brundle of a hard-fought second place at Detroit.

Prost vs Senna, 1989-90

The controversy to end all controversies. Late in 1989 Alain Prost made public remarks that he was sick of team mate Ayrton Senna’s intimidatory tactics on the track. So when Senna tried to pass him for the lead at Suzuka, Prost calmly turned his McLaren into his team mate’s car, taking both out of the race.

An incensed Senna regained the circuit via an escape road, got his car fixed, passed new leader Alessandro Nannini and won the race – only to be disqualified. Prost was champion. A furious Senna thought he saw the hand of Balestre at work, and vowed revenge.

Exactly one year later at the same venue he took it. Despite having taken pole position for the Japanese race Senna’s request for pole position to be moved to the favourable side of the circuit (as is common practice now) was refused.

So when Prost passed him at the start from second on the grid, Senna kept his foot buried into the accelerator and hammered into Prost’s car. The crash took them both out, and Senna was champion.

BAR’s fuel tank, 2005

Many teams have fallen into the cracks between what the FIA technical regulations say and what they mean. That was exactly what happened to BAR in 2005.

Following the San Marino Grand Prix, in which Jenson Button and Takuma Sato finished third and fifth respectively, the FIA stewards asked BAR to explain why the car weighed 594.6kg when completely emptied, rather than the regulation minimum of 600kg.

The team claimed that the engine required a minimum of 6fg of fuel, stored in a special collector, to function. The stewards accepted that but BAR were surprised to see the FIA appeal against the stewards’ verdict.

At a hearing in Paris on May 4th BAR presented their evidence and insisted that the car had never run below 600kg during the race. The FIA countered that the only satisfactory way to prove this was by draining the car of fuel.

The court of appeal agreed with the FIA but, fortunately for the team, did not carry out their requested sentence of a year’s ban from F!. They were forced to miss the next two rounds.

Schumacher’s ‘slips’ 1994 & 1997

For three years the question of whether Michael Schumacher deliberately crashed into Damon Hill at Adelaide two win the 1994 championship was debated furiously. But an apparent repeat of the move on Jacques Villeneuve in Jerez in 1997 removed all doubt in the eyes of many.

Perhaps even more scandalous than the deliberate crash was the FIA’s weak response. Schumacher was disqualified from the championship (in which he had only finished second anyway – and he was not stripped of any race wins) and forced to help an FIA safe driving initiative.

Which seemed more than a little ironic.

‘Fix’? Jerez ’97 and Melbourne ’98

The other scandal at Jerez that year was McLaren’s stage-managed finish to let Mika Hakkinen win the race. Not only was team mate David Coulthard asked to move out of the way, but also Williams’ Jacques Villeneuve, which gave the impression of collusion.

It got worse at the start of the next season when, once again, Coulthard let Hakkinen past, this time to honour a pre-race agreement. After that McLaren boss Ron Dennis found it difficult to refute charges that he was overly sympathetic to Hakkinen.

Rascasse-gate, 2006

The number one controversy of last year – bigger than Fernando Alonso’s penalty in Italy, dwarfing even Renault’s mass dampers being banned.

When Schumacher flailed to a halt at Rascasse during qualifying, only the most naive could avoid the conclusion that he’d done so deliberately to delay his rivals. Yet he protested innocence.

Ferrari’s stinging denunciation of the stewards’ verdict against Schumacher left a bitter taste in the mouth and it soured Schumacher’s final year in the sport.

Michelin, 2003

Michelin was only in the third year of its return to the sport when it became embroiled in a very messy affair that damaged its relationship with the governing body. Just three years later it was on its way out again.

The tyre rules in 2003 specified how wide a tyre must be before a race, but not during. Michelin’s tyres were found to expand during use, affording more grip. It was a simple exploitation of a rule that had a clear intention – but also a clear limitation.

When rivals Bridgestone supplied the FIA with details of what Michelin were doing the governing body reacted instantly, demanding that tyres also be inspected after the race and subject to the same size restrictions. Michelin were forced to hastily revise their tyres ahead of the Italian Grand Prix.

That weekend an infamously heated press conference saw Ferrari’s Ross Brawn defend the decision against widespread opposition led by McLaren’s Ron Dennis and Williams’ Patrick Head. The latter pointed out that Michelin’s tyre construction had been in use for over two years and never called into question.

At Monza Michelin’s five-race run of victories ended – Bridgestone-shod Ferrari won all the remaining races and took both championships.

United States Grand Prix, 2005

The farce at Indianapolis in 2005 terminally hurt Michelin’s relations with the FIA and damaged F1’s reputation in the place where it needed it most.

The 2005 rules demanded that tyres last an entire race. When Michelin arrived at the newly resurfaced Indianapolis circuit from the American Grand Prix it discovered that the banked final turn was causing the sidewalls on its tyres to collapse. This was no one-off caused by an unusual new construction – Michelin had no tyres that it could bring to the race to allow its seven teams to compete.

What followed was the hideous spectacle of F1 at its worst. A total lack of contingency planning and impossible political intransigence turned one mistake into a needless farce.

Although FIA President Max Mosley was not present at the race, he opposed a request by the Michelin-supplied teams to construct a temporary chicane before the final corner to allow them to race – even when the offered to start from the back of the grid and forego the right to score championship points.

Mosley instead offered the conspicuously unrealistic alternative of making the Michelin drivers take the banked corner very slowly – which would have been lethally dangerous.

When all but the six Bridgestone-shod cars started the race it provoked a feverish war of finger-pointing. None of which did anything to change the fact that F1 had out on a dismal non-event in the heartland of American racing – at the very venue where Ferrari’s fixed finish three years earlier had caused great ill-feeling.

Belgian Grand Prix, 1981

The Belgian Grand Prix of 1981 began with a protest by the drivers, who were unhappy about the safety provisions for their mechanics. It met with little sympathy from the race organisers, who hurried them back to their cars.

The formation lap began haphazardly with cars circulating the track in a random order, then squeezing past each other to form up on the grid. Near the front Riccardo Paletti’s Arrows stalled, and his mechanic Dave Luckett jumped down from the pit wall to get the car re-started.

What followed was sheer horror. The TV cameras looked on as the race organisers, apparently oblivious to Luckett crouched behind the Arrows, gave the start.

The cars streamed past Patrese until his own team mate, Siegfried Stohr, totally unsighted, smashed into Luckett and Patrese’s car. Stohr leapt from his car and thumped his crash helmet in anguish as he realised what had happened.

Incredibly, Luckett survived with only broken bones. F1 had an enormously lucky escape.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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9 comments on “Top ten… F1 scandals”

  1. Pardon me but where did you find the information about Colin Chapman’s water reserve tank?

    Many thanks for your help.

  2. I haven’t got a source to hand on that one but it’s well documented. If you’re looking for a book try this or this or this.

  3. I had never herd the Belgium 1981, There is a video on youtube of it and its trully appauling! I think that Jerez 97 Jaques moved out of Mikas way as he was closing in on him and only need a few points to win the championship and wanted to avoid a scramble

  4. True – but Coulthard had to let Hakkinen past as well, and he was told to by the team. Not F1 at its best…

  5. What about Benetton-1994: the year when the Italian team cheated (by using an illegal fuel rig), accepted the blame and was not punished?

  6. Yes, there was no shortage of candidates for this list. I just didn’t want them all to involve Michael Schumacher…

  7. Apparently, so I’ve herd rumors that McLaren at Jerez 1997 blackmailed Williams that they would favour Ferrari drivers while being lapped in the then following, 1998 season. They would naturally do the opposite if Williams let them win the race. It mattered not in the end, as McLaren had a huge performance advantage regardless and Williams were left struggling.

  8. List is incomplete without the mclaren-mercedes and Ferrari 2007 saga. Also known as spygate.

    1. That occured after this was published – note the date.

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