F1 2009: Year of controversy (Part 1)

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A late start left no time to get the Malaysian race finished

Formula 1 seems to have become incapable of getting through a season without some kind of scandal.

But even after 2007’s spying investigations and the Mosley scandal last year, somehow 2009 even manage to trump these for controversy. Here’s the first of a two-part look back at the controversies that spoiled the F1 season.


When Bernie Ecclestone suggested changing the points system to favour the driver who won the most races – dubbed the ‘medals’ system – it was met with a chorus of disapproval from pretty much everyone. Except the FIA.

The sports’ governing body rushed to introduce the new concept for 2009, ignoring FOTA’s more reasonable suggestion to retain the points system, but give more points for race wins.

The ‘medals’ system was doomed never to become a reality – not in 2009 nor, as Ecclestone hoped, in 2010. Depending on who you ask, there are two explanations why.

Either the FIA were so eager to put one over FOTA they overlooked their own rules which prevented them from making such a change. Alternatively, the whole thing was a ruse to distract people from other controversial developments.

Whichever is true, F1’s reputation was not well served by having the sport’s big players publicly disputing how the game should be played mere moments before kick-off.

To cap it all, although the FIA intended to drop the medals system for 2010 an error in the original version of the 2010 rules meant it was originally left in. This was later corrected and there’s been no serious discussion of the medals system since.


Hamilton’s disqualification

Hamilton was disqualified from third place at Melbourne

Lewis Hamilton had wrung an impressive performance out of the McLaren MP4-24 in the car’s first race. From 18th on the grid he was running fourth late in the race when the safety car was deployed. When Jarno Trulli skidded off at the last corner it promoted him to an unlikely podium finish.

That’s the version of events we would remember had it not been for some catastrophically bad decision-making at McLaren – which they then compounded by lying – a lack of guidance from the stewards and, some might add, the FIA’s zeal for going after the silver team and its former principal Ron Dennis.

Unsure what to do about Trulli, Hamilton radioed his team to ask what to do. They incorrectly told him to let the Toyota past.

After the race the stewards investigated Trulli for passing Hamilton. McLaren, fearing a punishment, repeatedly denied they had allowed Trulli past. The radio transcripts utterly undermined their position.

McLaren reacted by suspending sporting director Dave Ryan, who then left the company, and Dennis moved to concentrate on the road car division. The FIA chose not to punish them further, having already disqualified Hamilton from the race.

Much of the coverage afterwards focussed on McLaren’s mistake, the lies and the damage to the world champion’s reputation. Not nearly enough attention was drawn to how easily it might have been avoided with the kind of clear rules and effective stewarding commonly seen in far less prestigious racing series.

McLaren believed from their experience at Belgium last year they were not allowed to contact race control for guidance. But later in the season Red Bull were allowed to do just that. What teams are expected to do in the future is anyone’s guess, and there’s nothing to stop a repeat of the situation happening again.

Hamilton’s disqualification

Twilight races

Evening light proved hazardous for drivers at Melbourne

In an effort to improve viewing figures for F1 races in Europe, Ecclestone began putting the promoters of F1’s more distant races under pressure to hold them at times better suited to European TV schedules.

The Australian Grand Prix promoters agreed to run their event as a ‘twilight’ race, with the chequered flag falling shortly before sunset. After the Grand Prix, unhappy drivers complained about having to finish the race in poor visibility:

I think twilight racing is not the way to go. In Melbourne it was obvious that it just increases the danger so much. The visibility is so difficult, you can’t even see the edges of the track in some corners. I was driving into the sun and that’s not what racing is about. So I really hope they reconsider that.
Nico Rosberg

But that was nothing compared to the problems they faced at Malaysia. The locals had warned Ecclestone that a ‘twilight’ start risked the race being disrupted by one of the region’s notoriously heavy rain storms.

And that’s exactly what happened. The clouds opened, the track flooded, and for the first time in 18 years half-points were awarded because too little of the race’s scheduled distance had been completed.

Hopefully they won’t be foolish enough too make the same gamble next year.

Twilight races

Double diffusers

Timo Glock's Toyota - diffuser highlighted (click to enlarge)

Shortly after the first of the 2009-specification cars rolled out onto the track at the beginning of the year, a row began over the legality of the diffusers used by two models: the Williams FW30 and the Toyota TF109.

Eventually a third double-diffuser car appeared – the Brawn BGP 001 – which had the most devastatingly effective implementation of the design. But teams who had started the season without the devices protested to the FIA that they were illegal.

It took until after the third race of the year for the FIA to rule in favour of the ‘double diffusers’, opening the way for other designers to duplicate the innovation on their cars.

Whether or not the rules actually forbade the designs is a moot point. There was no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ about the designs – this was the kind of judgement call that inevitably has to be made with technical rules.

But the row was allowed to drag on for far longer than it should have. It later emerged Ross Brawn had warned the teams last year that parts of the aerodynamic rules could be exploited, but the opportunity to clear up the rules had been missed.

To Brawn’s credit, it was more than the double diffusers that won them the titles – witness Williams and Toyota’s inferior finishing positions in the championship.

Maming matters worse, the decision to make the diffusers legal undermined the efforts made to allow F1 cars to race more closely, as they considerably increased their reliance on downforce and sensitivity to aerodynamic disturbance.

Double diffusers

These rows were bad enough but the biggest controversies of the season were still to come. Tomorrow we’ll look back on double-diffusers and the the budget cap furore which threatened to split F1 in two.

Author information

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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42 comments on “F1 2009: Year of controversy (Part 1)”

  1. The fact that all of those things only equate to a fraction of the controversy in 2009 illustrates what a crazy season it was!

    Of course, good racing should be the priority, but one of the reasons I love F1 so much is because of all the off track shenanigans. I mean, I hate Max Mosley but a small part of me wants him to stay on as president just to keep the battles going

    1. I agree that a little controversy can be entertaining. Watching Alonso squirm as Hamilton took him to task in his rookie year was awesome.

      However, watching Max tweak the rules, the teams, and the fans at every chance he got highlighted how futile it was for anybody to challenge him (until the break away). And the lack of consistent stewarding was maddening.

      I would settle for a boring season of really good racing if it meant consistent policy and no meddling.

      1. I agree. Most of the races are boring to watch these days but controversies and scandals make F1 much more interesting.

    2. I normally agree with you Ned but on this one I’m afraid I have to disagree.

      The “sport” is being ruined by the constant political games being played out in the background.

      It’s time F1 went back to being a racing series where the action takes place on the track instead of the, now all too regular, WMSC hearings.

      1. I’d love to have 26 Piquet Jr’s racing :P

  2. I think this is Part 1 of an atleast 5 part series :)

    1. Possibly a series of novels in their own right, Hmmmm How about and F1fanatic season review, hardback, lots of pics and some reader input……I’d certainly buy it.Are you feeling prolific in your literture output Keith!!!!

  3. The breakaway threat and Singapore may take a while to write Keith…

  4. I find medals completely wrong. My favourite point system is 10, 6, 4, 3, 2, 1. I don’t understand why they changed it.
    Twilight or night races is something I really can’t understand. What’s more spectacular in those? After a couple of Singapore Gran Prix I think we’re all bored enough because of lack of overtakings, even if they run with the dark.
    The Hamilton issue has been punished. I agreed. Nothing else to talk, I see.
    Double diffuser: I simply can’t figure out why it tooks months to decide on that. That risked to counterfeit the results of the championships, and probably did! Not as m uch as ferrari says, but probably did.

    1. The 10, 8, 6… system was introduced because Schumacher was winning most races and he was wrapping up the championship halfway through. It was intended to make the championship closer.
      Why it has been kept for so long I don’t know, I prefer the 10, 6, 4 system too.

      1. To be flippant: because it’s better! No matter how you change the points system, Button would always have won, so why not make it more interesting? Personally I think we should go back to the Best 11 system (though it would have to be Best 13 with 19 races next year), coupled with current points tally.

    2. The thing is the FIA declared the Double Deck Diffusers legal at the earliest opportunity… first practice at the first race.

      It only dragged on because the other teams refused to accept the decision and appealed, BMW not even managing that in time, and therefore appealed at the following race. That is why it took 3 races to resolve.

      …and lets not forget Ross Brawn lobbyed the teams to sit down and go through the rules with a fine toothcomb to erradicate these loopholes before the 2009 designs were too advanced… and the other teams refused thinking they could selfishly gain an advantage.

      DDD are simply the fault of FOTA 100%

      1. DDD were the biggest problem of 09…apart from the break away threats.

      2. Weren’t they even already declared legal during wintertesting?

        McLaren had the beginning of their DDD already o nthe car during their last test and used a blocked off version for the first 2 races.

        1. yes in pre season they stopped being illegal…but when teams asked about using a DDD while developing the cars in 08 they were illegal…

          Then to help brawn win the WCC they took 3 races into season to make up their minds fully.

          If I was RBR I would be still stewing over this.

          1. yes in pre season they stopped being illegal…but when teams asked about using a DDD while developing the cars in 08 they were illegal…

            What probably happened is that there are different routes to the DDD, some of which were illegal by the rules, it was these designs that were submitted during development.

            The FIA are hardly going to say “yes your design is illegal, but this design submitted by Williams is considered legal… here, have a look” are they?

          2. no some cars didn’t ask in development phase, and just showed up in 09 pre-season saying look at us we are so clever.

  5. If double diffusers are so bad for racing, which everyone seems to agree they are, why were they not banned for 2010? Surely somebody must have thought of that!!

    1. I guess the FIA/teams had the chance to close that loophole for 2010, but they didn’t.

      Why didn’t they? I think this is a big issue. The argument by the non-diffuser teams at the beginning of the season was that the double diffuser concept was against the spirit of the rules. So why not get it fixed at the next available opportunity, and hopefully improve the racing as originally intended?

      1. It comes down to agreement between the working groups, FOTA and the FIA.I have a feeling that the cost of development and further redesign is seen amongst the teams has prohibitive expenditure. It will be much easier and less expensive to run evolutions of this years car than start over again. As we know McLaren and Ferrari have their cars almost finished already. Why these aero rules were not tightened earlier on is debateable, but I would guess it comes down to the fact that designers fancied being able to take advantage at some point.

  6. The FIA could only ban the double diffuser in 2010 with the unanimous agreement of the teams. This was refused.

    It was also certain teams that refused to adopt Ross Brawn’s amendment back in April 2008 which would have eliminated the device. They had not spotted the loophole. Having warned them, Ross did what anyone in his place would have done.

    1. Having warned them, Ross did what anyone in his place would have done.

      …what anyone with a brain would have done.

  7. We have to be grateful for the controversies — IMO they were a lot more fun than the races have been in 2009.
    Lets bring back Flavio and other personalities, plus appoint Don King as chief representative of something.

    If there are no scandals or controversies, F1 is in trouble : those processions in some far-out new track are not much fun to watch.

    1. you’ve got a point there.. either that or have 6 races at spa and monza each year……

  8. keepF1technical
    10th November 2009, 16:05

    Here’s the first of a two-part look back at the controversies that spoiled the F1 season.

    Come on Keith, we love it. Pushing the boundaries has always been part of F1, be that technical boundaries or other media enhancing discussions!

    Didn’t one of your previous polls confirm that its not just the racing we tune in to F1 for? Lets face it, who tunes in to any other race series during the off season for the gossip.

    1. HounslowBusGarage
      10th November 2009, 16:52

      I agree.
      And if you look at it the other way round, without the controversies there would be precious little to talk about on sites like this!

    2. True it gives us plenty to talk about and if it hadn’t been for it all then I would have been bored by quite a bit of the racing.
      However, the breakaway threat and Singapore was just too much and damaged the sport and allows articles such as this http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/blog/2009/nov/05/toyota-ferrari-formula-one-f1 as Keith pointed out in the articles in brief section. It may keep us going for news but at what cost for the sports reputation?

      1. i’m not convinced that the threat of a break away series caused any damage really, not compared to having the nazi sex romp scandal

      2. The threat of a breakaway series, as always, was all mouth and no trousers… or however the saying goes. It was a threat with no substance, and Max & Bernie knew that.

  9. Will double diffusers be allowed for 2010?

    1. I think so.

  10. When we are talking about controversies, “Hamilton’s disqualification” isn’t a good title. It was about Hamilton’s and McLaren’s lies, not about disqualifying him (does someone actually disagree disqualifying someone who consistently lies to stewards in order to get podium?).

    Obviously the point you are making with that title is that “not nearly enough attention was drawn to how easily it might have been avoided with the kind of clear rules and effective stewarding commonly seen in far less prestigious racing series” and even though it’s easy to agree with you on rules should be clear, some flaws in the rules are nothing compared to lying.

    I think it’s obvious all the controversy was about lying and nothing else. Even though you might think there should have been more debate about the rules, doesn’t really make it a big controversy.

    1. I agree. Some fans bleating over the fact that their favourite driver isn’t allowed to break the rules doesn’t constitute a “controversy” (see also 2008). It just constitutes “sour grapes.” :P

  11. I think Formula 1 should return to the good ol’ days of the 90s and below that’s when it was really racing. Not much money was involved, not much technology was involved, it was all very simple and only true car control and sisu was needed to win a race. I started watching F1 in 2002 and I don’t remember much because I was kid, but through the years I have seen pieces of old school F1 and it really was great. I think F1 should return to that.

    Renault should return with their colors, McLaren should come back with their silver and black colors with Hakkinen behind the wheel. Williams should come back with their active suspension.

    1. I would like unsincronised manual shifting and steel brakes

  12. To everyone who finds that the controversies make up for boring races – perhaps if everyone connected with the sport would concentrate more on the sport rather than the battles around it, the sport would be better.

    1. … and the Malaysia fiasco was yet another demonstration of why Bernie Ecclestone is the single worst thing happening to Formula 1.

  13. ahhh the memories, good times…

  14. If you are a FAN of F1 then you should watch it whenever it happens,arranging twilight race for that is folly.
    I have to watch F1 races at 1800 hrs in the evening after the sunsets,and have to miss many races because of load shedding,for me it will better if I could watch it at midnight when everybody is sleeping in peace & I can rumble those 26 V8 @ 18,000 RPM.

    1. Absolutely, the fly away races are practically the only ones I can see Live while the family sleeps.

      Not anymore though, thanks Bernie :-(

  15. Nothing on the Renault race fixing hupla?

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