Any professional sport has a dirty underbelly. Most are hiding secrets leagues do not want out for fear of soiling the sport’s reputation. Much like other sports with some hidden, and some quite public displays of debauchery and corruption, Formula 1 shares the burden of being rife with controversy.
One of the images often portrayed in F1 is that it is a congregation of underhanded conniving owners, mechanics and accountants talking up partying, overpaid, egotistical racers. That impression is actually not new. It has been around since the days of open wheel Fiats and Bugattis of the early 1900s. One doesn’t need to look much further than “playboy” celebrities of the sport like James Hunt, Jensen Button and Juan Fangio to get the idea that the history of Formula 1 participants is not exactly “savory”.
This is after all a giant, multi-million dollar business, with teams throwing around astronomical sums of money in a proverbial race to the top. In such a cutthroat environment, some throats will be cut. So it is no surprise that Formula 1’s history is plagued with controversy. Here is a list of several that Formula 1 may want people to forget about.
15- State Sponsored Racism
Racism is still a huge problem around the world, including in most sports, and F1 is sadly not exempt. In 2008, at the Spanish circuit, a crew of despicable racist fans went black-face and taunted Lewis Hamilton, the sport’s first black champion with slurs and derogatory remarks everytime he pitted. This was just one example of this deplorable behavior. While some countries take a much harder line on this, some, such as Spain, seem to condone it openly, thereby enabling more of it to occur.
14- Flavio Briatore – Fraud
After being convicted on two counts of fraud and receiving prison sentences in the early 1980s, Briatore was additionally caught up in a rigged gambling operation, and was given a three year prison sentence in 1986. All of this being public knowledge, he was still somehow offered a position of commercial director for Benetton in 1988.
His fraudulent nature did not relent there. In 2008, as Renault’s team principal, Briatore played a pivotal role in the race fixing scandal between Nelson Piquet Jr. and Fernando Alonso. After being discovered and expressing multiple vehement denials, Briatore resigned for his position, claiming he was doing this as a responsible act to save his team from being buried in bad press.
13- Track Espionage: McLaren vs Ferrari
A leak from Ferrari with 780 pages of information, including the technical vehicle plans and finances made its way into the hands of Trudy Coughlan, the wife of Michael Coughlan who happened to be the chief designer on McLaren’s F1 team. These papers happened to be intercepted by an avid Ferrari supporter, who quickly placed a call to Stefano Domenicali, the F1 sporting director. This blew up into a high-level investigation into the Ferrari leak, which ultimately resulted in multiple legal penalties against McLaren, and a record $100 million fine. This was the start of the decline for McLaren, but an even swiffer downfall for the Ferrari leaker.
As a victim of the “Millionaire Muggers”, Supremo Ecclestone was wrestled down in front of his penthouse as well as in front of his girlfriend, beaten, and robbed of £200,000 of jewelry. Instead of going down the victim route, he used this as an opportunity to use his bruised face in an advertisement for the Swiss luxury watchmaker Hublot.
11- Doping Allegations
Unlike most sports, F1 has mostly sidestepped doping allegation scandals, but it has had its share of whispers of banned substance use. Marc Sanson, the former head of the French anti-doping council, went on record to say that multiple F1 drivers would take tacrine, a medication used to treat Altzhemiers as a way to boost their memory of the circuits. F1 claims itself to be a sport with a zero tolerance policy of substance abuse.
10- Rascasse Gate (2006)
During Michael Schumacher was completing the qualifying lap in the Monaco Grand Prix where he was slightly behind Fernando Alonso in the storming lap. In what is highly suspected as an effort to deny Alonso the pole position in Circuit de Monaco, Schumacher seemed to begin driving erratically, locking up his right tire and veering off the track. Due to the inability to complete the lap, Alonso was unable to fully qualify for the pole position. While it is impossible to prove the intent, Schumacher soured his final season by being mired in this controversy, widely regarded as being fully intentional.
9- Bar Honda’s Fuel Tank, 2005
In 2005 constructor team BAR was brought in front the F1 headmaster to explain why their cars, fully emptied weighed under the league regulated 600kg minimum. After being pressed for a comprehensive explanation, the BAR team revealed that the car’s engines required a minimum of 6kg of fuel in a special collection to be able to function. This 6kb would have brought the weight of the car just nominally over the 600kg mandated threshold. The stewards accepted this as an explanation, but the FIA regulators still suspended the BAR team for a year. The ban never took effect however, as the decision was overturned due to a lack of an ability to prove this to be a purposeful cheating tactic.
8- Senna vs. Prost
At the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix a racetime quarrel between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost resulted in Prost deliberately turning his car into Sennas on the 46th lap after Senna caught up with him, taking both men out of the race. Senna was able to rejoin the race, only to be disqualified shortly after doing so, leading to suspicions that the race was being rigged for Prost.
In 1990, Senna got back at Prost by running him off the track and assuring that Prost would not achieve more points. No malintent could be proven, so the incident was labeled as just that.
7- Max Mosley – The Cover Up
In 2007 the reigning FIA president Max Mosely was involved in a bizarre sex scandal where a video of him acquired by News Of The World showed him engaging in sexual acts with prostitutes in a Nazi theme. He sued the paper, but mostly for the label of a “Nazi-themed” party, while never disputing the authenticity of the tape. No luck in trying to cover this up, though the league certainly tried.
6- Bernie Ecclestone – The Sexist
In 2005, Bernie Ecclestone suggested that “women should be dressed in white to match the appliances”. Not content with just making the statement once, he repeated it again, and got criticized again for it. In 2009, he piled onto the bad rhetoric by saying “Hitler was a leader who could get things done”. But even with all that there are still those that see him only as a great former CEO and President of F1 racing, who has worked very hard to get the sport to the level where it is today.
5- Twin Chassis Lotus 88
In 1981 a group of mechanics had an idea for a twin chassis design which would theoretically maximize the downforce produced by ground effects and let cars take corners much faster than before. The other teams were not convinced that this was within the rules and protested this technology from being implemented. Without too much thought the FIA regulators banned the twin chassis cars from the sport.
4- Crash Gate
After being dropped from the Renault team midway through the 2009 race, Nelson Piquet Jr. revealed that at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, his team managers instructed him to crash during the race in order to allow Fernando Alonso to win the race. The management was arrogant enough to think the reasons for this crash would never be revealed. The unsavory character Flavio Briatore, the team’s managing director, was banned from the sport for life of his involvement.
3- United States Grand Prix 2005
When it was discovered that the final turn at the Indianapolis circuit was going to cause the collapse of Michelin tire sidewalls, it was too late to do anything about it with multiple teams working with the brand and relying on their tires. Max Moseley ignored suggestions of constructing a makeshift chicane to allow cars to bypass that treacherous corner, and instead instructed the cars to go around the turn slowly. This decision was a low point for the sport, showing that it was run by someone who did not care for the safety of the driver, audiences or the reputation of technical partners of F1.
2- Minimum Weight Rules
Why did the British boycott the San Marino Grand Prix in 1982? Interesting story, actually. When racing against other turbo powered beasts, every team wants any advantage they can get. To keep the racing scales even, there is a minimum weight requirement for every vehicle. But when the clear advantage goes to the lighter cars, teams had to get creative about how they would be able to get a lighter vehicle in the race, while still staying within the pre race weigh in rules.
In 1982 Lotus’s Colin Chapman had an idea to include a tank in the team’s car which would hold water. When filled with water, the minimum regulation weight would be met at the weigh in. But as the race started, the water could be dumped discreetly on the track without much notice, making the car lighter. For the post race weight in, the water could be simply added back to maintain the weight.
This clever trick was discovered after a successful performance, and penalties were incurred. Not viewing this as a fair punitive point, the British chose to boycott the San Marino race.
1- Schumacher’s Return
One has to wonder if the aggressive and confrontational racers are products of their own design of their teams. After the controversy of Rascasse-gate, Michael Schumacher’s reputation for on track confrontations was well documented. In 1994 in Adelaide, Schumacher began to be overtaken by Englishman Damon Hill. Schumacher proceeded to crash into Hill, retiring both men from the race. Three years later, Schumacher performed the same maneuver on Jacques Villeneuve, casting broad suspicions on this behavior being motivated by the team to force competitive opponents out of the race. But the 1997 attempt failed as Villeneuve ended up winning the F1 championship, while Schumacher was eliminated from championship contention, discredited and sanctioned by F1.