Which ‘blatantly illegal car’ won a championship?

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I’ve long enjoyed Nigel Roebuck’s writings on Formula 1 and I’ll miss my weekly dose of the ‘Fifth Column’ and ‘Ask Nigel’ when he departs Autosport for Motor Sport next year.

His final ‘Ask Nigels’ have been especially entertaining but this startling claim really caught my eye:

Anyone in the paddock, for example, will tell you that one year – no, I’m not saying which – the world championship was won by a blatantly illegal car.

So… which year, and which car?

A couple of contenders spring to mind. Roebuck has often insinuating that the 1981 Brabham that powered Nelson Piquet to the world championship ran underweight on occasions – notably at Monaco, where Piquet pipped Roebuck’s favourite Gilles Villeneuve to pole position.

Bitter debates have also raged over the legality of the 1994 Benetton-Ford in which Michael Schumacher won the drivers’ championship. It was found to have a hidden traction control system, and the team was also investigated for making illegal modifications to their refuelling systems.

Prior to the return of traction control in 2001 Max Mosley claimed that at least one team had been illegally using such a system, but did not state which.

Could any of these be Roebuck’s ‘blatantly illegal car’? Or is it something else?

More about traction control

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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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33 comments on “Which ‘blatantly illegal car’ won a championship?”

  1. I really bet on Benetton-Ford for that. That car was really blatantly illegal. As for Piquet and Brabham, that was only rumours. As for another car, well, if Mosley said that before 2001 at least one team had been illegally using traction control, then it must have been Ferrari. Because, instead of punishing the team, he made traction control legal, and above all, he didn’t mentioned the name of the team. If it was, for instance, Mclaren, they would be fined and banned for a couple of years.

  2. Question is, if it was so widely known to be illegal, WHY was it allowed to win the championship?

  3. 2007 when Ferrari won with an illegal floor in Australia.

  4. “Blatantly illegal”? If it were that obvious why didn’t we the people make an issue of it? We whine about Ferrari’s ‘flexible floor’. We whine about Renault’s ‘mass dampers’……where were the whiners THEN? “Blatantly illegal”, eh?

  5. 1999, when Ferrari’s barge board caused them to be disqualified in Malaysia, and they were only re-instated when the FIA retrospectively re-wrote the rules on barge board measurement, much to everyone else’s annoyance? That is a matter of record, and it is strange that Nigel Roebuck didn’t state it specifically.

  6. AmericanTifosi
    26th December 2007, 16:29

    I don’t think it’s the ’94 Benneton. I beleve Pat Symonds (check out the August issue of F1 Racing pg. 88) The FIA is such a messed up govorning body, the term “blatently illegal” is a hard term to define.

  7. It has to be the 1994 Benetton. At the time there were regular stories of the car behaving unusually in relation to its specification. For example at one race it was noted that Schumacher’s Ford V8 powered car managed to overtake the two Renault powered Williams cars from a standing start. Something that should have been impossible.

    There is also the fact that one Benetton was clearly more equal than the other and the fact that only a few people close to Schumacher were allowe to see his telemetry. I remember Johnny Herbert’s reaction on being drafted into the team when he couldn’t get within a second of Schumacher. For me no-one ever was a second faster than Johnny Herbert. My belief has always been that some senior Benetton managers were kept in the dark or elese why would they have changed drivers in the second car. Schumacher blowing away one driver over the course of the season is one thing but to draft in Herbert and have him roundly beaten just made it obvious that the whole thing was a sham.

    1. Even if you lied 10 years ago, you leave a record you get caught.

      First, the case was 1994, and Herbert was only on the same team as MS in 2 races, and he got within 1 second in one of them.

      Second, it was common in those times, that a lesser capable team mate was more than 1 second off the lead driver.

  8. Correct me if i’m wrong, but as a comment on “Prior to the return of traction control in 2001”; wasn’t it widely known that reason McLaren were so fast of the line in 99 was because they had some sort of traction control?

  9. I know Senna said about the benetton of 94…it’s acceleration out of corners wasn’t human…even schumi isn’t that good.
    I am pretty sure the 94Benetton wasn’t legal!

  10. Why have we turned to bold?
    If the traction control in the Benetton was “hidden” then it wasn’t a blatant cheat was it?
    I reckon it’s a team who were exploiting a loophole unfairly. I don’t know who though – you can all work that out for yourselves.

  11. I don’t remember the reasons now, but Benetton was disqualified twice that season, and also received a race ban or so… was that for the same motives mentioned above? And, if it was, didn’t they receive a fair punishment? And, having receiving it, were they still be illegal?

  12. Schumacher was disqualified from the British Grand Prix for overtaking Damon Hill (more than once) on the parade lap. He was then excluded from two races for failing to stop when black-flagged in the British race.

    Before he served that ban (at the Italian and Portuguese rounds) he was disqualified from the Belgian Grand Prix (in which he had finished first) for excessive plank wear.

    More on the 1994 season here: 1994 season history

  13. Given that it is a fact that McLaren used traction control and a fully automatic gearbox in 1995, and have been found to have been cheating this year, I agree with nuzzaci that it’s more than likely that Roebuck was referring to McLaren’s 1998 or 1999 title.

  14. I love the logic of that argument. Because of what it is accused of doing in 1995 and 2007 its 1998 and 1999 cars must be illegal. I just love Schumacher/Ferrari fans. Reality does not affect their world.

  15. Rohan have you got any further information on the ’95 McLaren or what was supposed to be wrong with the ’98 or ’99 cars?

  16. Steven, I do love how people jump to conclusions. For a start, I am no Ferrari fan. Nor do I like Shumacher (although I do respect him). In fact, I am a die-hard Williams fan who used to have a grudging respect for McLaren until they brought the sport into disrepute.

    Keith, I’ll try to dig up the stuff on the 1995 McLaren. The part about the 1998/99 car was speculation on my part.

  17. There’s a mention of McLaren’s traction control here in the 1994-1995 section:


    Not the best source, I admit, but the main reference I remember was in a book or magazine that I’ve no chance of re-finding I’m afraid.

  18. Benetton weren’t just investigated for tampering with the fuel rig – they were pleaded guilty, but got no punishment, thanks to a underhanded deal worked out in advance of the WMSC hearing between Mosley and the team’s QC George Carman.

    The team that Mosley was alluding to in 1999 was not a championship contender team, so it wasn’t Ferrari or McLaren.
    From memory I think the McLaren launch control was in the software on the car, but completely inaccessible for the driver, unlike the Benetton system, which was easily so. I also think the fact McLaren weren’t squeaky clean was used as an excuse to avoid punishing Benetton.

  19. Apologies to Rohan for tarring him with the Schumacher/Ferrari brush.

    McLaren have been found guilty of being in possession of another team’s data. This is not remotely unusual in F1. I have argued since the story first broke that the only exceptional thing about this case is that Max decided to investigate it. I have read the transcripts of the Renault case and there is not a shred of difference between the two. There is probably more hard evidence against Renault. There is certainly more in the public domain which is surprising when you consider that slapdash manner in which the FIA investigated that case.

    Nigel Stepney published an open letter to Max where he stated that he was receiving McLaren info from Coughlan in return and was feeding it to Ferrari colleagues. Max won’t consider investigating this. A couple of years ago two Toyota engineers were jailed in Germany for taking data when then left Ferrari but Max didn’t investigate that. Last season Colin Kolles walked down the pit lane showing all in sundry an STR drawing which apparently proved the car was a Red Bull. He presented the drawing as evidence to the FIA. Strangley the FIA didn’t ask how he came to be in possession of another team’s IP.

    Five cases of teams being in possession of another team’s IP or being said to be in possession of another team’s IP. Three are never investigated. One is found guilty without penalty and then McLaren who are painted as the biggest cheats in the history of the sport.

    I have no recollection of McLaren being caught using launch control. The Benetton traction control was hidden to the extent that the driver had to make more than a dozen control inputs to find it. Their excuse at the time was that it was never used in racing but their software people said it couldn’t be removed without risking other software damage although every other team managed it. Benetton at the time said they deliberately made the launch control difficult to access to prevent the driver accessing it. Although I am sure Michael was capable of remembering a simple sequence of buttons and gear paddle movements. Failing that of course someone on the pit wall could just read them to him.

    They also claimed they wanted to keep it for use in testing although what good a fast standing start is in testing is beyond me.

  20. I know this is a sweeping remark, but I suspect pretty much any car/team that has won the title in at least the last 20 years has not been completely ‘legal’

    But hey…. That’s F1…. Stretch as much out of the rules as possible, and it’s quite easy to overstep the mark, and head ever so slightly into the ‘technically’ illegal camp.

  21. iheard a story a while back that in ’99 a team was caught some yrs after (’01 i think) to have been using TC! it was said “the team is british and thier performance was greatly improved that year” but it was never stated which team it was.

  22. Is the “Mclaren having illegal traction control in ’98/’99” related to (or being confused with) their illegal third brake pedal which was discovered and subsequently banned, or is this an entirely separate thing? That happened around the same time (I can’t remember it if was 1998 or 1999).

  23. The third brake pedal was perfectly legal and McLaren, Williams and Jordan ran it with the full knowledge of the FIA from late 1997 up until round 2 1998, when Ferrari got the stewards to ban it. It had also been public knowledge of a while at that stage, so it wasn’t banned when it was discovered – it was banned when Ferrari found someone sympathetic in the steward’s room.

  24. Yes, I meant illegal in that classic retrospective sense the FIA employs (see mass dampers, Michelin tyres and flexible floors). I just wondered if the traction control allegations were/are entirely separate from that.

  25. Beats me. This is the first I’ve heard of them. So they certainly weren’t widely known.

  26. Bernd Haste
    21st June 2008, 13:42

    2007 Australian grand prix

    i`m still confused over this race. Was the Ferrari floor illegal? If so why wasn`t Ferrari penalised? That race was a great contributor to the outcome regarding Raikkonen/Hamilton.

    1. @Bernd haste The 2007 Ferrari floor was not illegal. It was mclaren who suspected that it could be “illegal” but it was deemed legal by the FIA.

  27. I’d vote for 1994 Benetton.

    As for the team that used TC in 1999, it is widely rumored that it was Jordan.

  28. Don’t you guys get it?!? F1 is not a sport!!!!! I have been a fanatic since 1986, and I don’t hesitate for a second to say that F1 is not a sport! F1 is more like WWF (now called WWE), where the result is more a function of what the FIA thinks will bring in the most money! Until 2006, the FIA made 30% of the revenues of FOM, which meant that an umpopular champion ould make the FIA lose money, directly! In 94, Schumi + Benetton broke all kinds of rules on their way to the championship (traction control, illegally low car, Schumi driving his opponent OFF THE TRACK SO BLATANTLY… and don’t take my word for it, those were official FIA findings, except for Schumi driving Hill off track. The FIA expected us to believe that a driver fighting for the championship in the last race of the season had forgotten that his championship rival was on his tail for the entire race! Sure, and my name is Gilles Villeneuve!). Why were they allowed to keep it? The FOM were just about to sign a very very lucrative TV contract with the Germans, that contract might not have been so lucrative had the FIA taken Michael’s title away from him, as it was judged that it would make the German fans angry and less interested in F1.
    In 2002 Toyota had literally copied the Ferrari from 2001, an act so blatant that they were found guilty in criminal court (ie there was more than enough evidence). The FIA’s reaction? Nada, nothing, not even a slap on the wrist, not even a footnote in one of their many press releases. Five years after that, and with only flimsy circumstancial evidence, McLaren get the worst punishment ever handed out in the history of all competitive sports (by a huge margin), because they used Stepney’s information to finally take away Ferrari’s Bridgestone advantage, an advantage that FIA and Bridgestone had promised that Ferrari wouldn’t have when Michelin was FORCED OUT.
    I have learned not to expect justice and fairness form F1 a long time ago. Exactly why I remain such a loyal fan, I don’t know…

    1. @Joe Just because you don’t like the race results and the outcomes of FIA’s decisions does not mean that F1 isn’t a serious sport or that there’s somekind of a conspiracy going on. You need to stop fantasizing.

  29. The ‘blatantly’ illegal car that won the championship was the Parmalat Brabham.
    To get around the excessive ground effect that was being generated by the car underbodies pre ‘plank’ the FIA ruled that the cars had to have a minimum ground clearance.
    To get around this the Brabham was fitted with hydraulic rams on its suspension that jacked the car up as it entered the pits and stood in the garage but then lowered it to ‘almost scraping’ along the ground after the car had left the pits and was ‘ready to race’.
    The only problem was the excessive ‘throw’ of the rams. I can remember seeing the Brabham drifting in and out of the pits as though it was on stilts, on occasion literally about a foot off the ground. 30 seconds later coming out of the second corner there’d be sparks and shredded bodywork being discarded as the thing scraped along the ground.
    The reason that it was banned in short order was because at that time there was no technology deemed reliable that could be used to measure the ground clearance when the car was out of the pits and in motion.
    Photographs never seemed to be considered as useable.

  30. Sorry,

    Previous post should read –

    …The reason that it WASN’T banned in short order…..

    As a point of interest the rams were justified as they were part of an active suspension system allowable in those days.

    As another point of interest the F1 cars made in those days were the most technically sophisticated that have ever been built …. and were fantastic. They often had a capability far exceeding the drivers physical limit.
    The Williams’ of this era were really something with even ‘predictive’ suspension being mooted that would set the car up to its optimum prior to each corner as they approached it.
    Those were great engineering days …. but also very expensive ones.

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