As long as sports have been around, there have been memorable tales of miracle victories and crushing defeats, about overcoming insurmountable odds to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. In such a competitive, drama-rich environment there have always been those seeking unconventional and controversial methods on the path to victory, and historically those questionable tactics tend to stand out, sometimes more than the amazing feats or championship wins.
Formula 1 is no exception. This multimillion-dollar conglomerate which pushes ultra-competitive drivers to the limit, always exploring to reach new boundaries, it should be no surprise that the drama of sports along with the controversy that it brings would be an integral part of it. While people talk about the close calls, amazing achievements and memorable occurrences, the controversies leave just as much of a mark on the sports history and the memories which come from it.
Let’s take a look at 5 of the most controversial happenings from the long history of Formula 1 racing.
5: 2005 United States Grand Prix
In 2005 the FIA introduced a new rule which mandated that tires used at F1 races are able to withstand the entirety of the race without needing to be changed, putting massive pressure on F1 partners Michelin and Bridgestone.
During the previous year the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where the 2005 Grand Prix was held, underwent a resurfacing. When Michelin began to evaluate the new track, not having a chance to do so before, they realized that their tires would not be able to handle the new surface of the track, and at a particular turn would cause the tires to fail entirely.
Once it was clear that the Michelin tires would not hold up past 10 laps of the race on this track, Michelin proposed that at the treacherous turn 13, a temporary chicane would be constructed which would force drivers to have to take that turn slower and preserve the tires. This decision was backed by nine out of the ten participating teams, including four teams who used Bridgestone for their tires.
The one team that refused was Ferrari, who claimed that their use of Bridgestone tires should give them the advantage because of Michelin’s failure to be adequately prepared. Bernie Ecclestone made the political move of placing the blame on the track organizers, claiming they did a poor job with the track resurfacing. On top of that, Max Moseley, the F1 president threatened that if the chicane was used, and if teams insisted on it, there would be no points awarded for this race and all FIA sports would be banned in North America. Not willing to risk it, the complaining parties relented.
There was ultimately no chicane constructed, forcing all teams using Michelin tires to pit for tire replacements during the formation lap, leaving the cars using Bridgestone tires to cruise to an easy one-two win. This issue could have been addressed with reasonable, constructive dialogue but senseless dictatorial mandating ended up being an embarrassment and a black mark on F1, forming the reputation that they did not care about the safety of the drivers or the spectators.
4: “Water-Gate” 1982
Before turbo technology was widely used, back in 1982 teams like Lotus, Brabham and Williams felt they could not compete against the teams that had adopted the technology already. They needed some strategic thinking to level the playing field and realized that the key was making their cars lighter. However, F1 had rules about minimum weight requirements to keep everyone on the same playing field.
A Lotus driver, Colin Chapman, came up with the idea of using a reserve water tank which would increase the weight of an otherwise lighter than minimum weight requirements car to just over the threshold. The team claimed it was for cooling brakes, but in reality, the water was only used to achieve minimum weight conditions and then dumped mid-race in order to get the cars to be lighter. The water would be refilled to the tank before the end of the race for the post-weigh-ins. The winners ended up being a member of the Brabham team and a member of the Lotus team, both teams that did not employ turbo technology. However, once the tactic was found out, they were disqualified retroactively.
This stirred up a lot of controversy as this tactic, while questionable, was not actually illegal. Making a rule after the act in order to negate the result could not possibly evade being considered a biased decision. In fact, the disqualification handed the victory over to Alain Prost. He happens to be French, much like the then FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre.
With Prost moving to first place, the driver who went to second was from McLaren, a team that utilized the same tactics as Lotus and Brabham, yet that team went unpunished, casting a long shadow on the punitive decision.
3: Crashgate – 2008 Singapore GP
This first-ever nighttime Grand Prix held in Singapore and was a signature occurrence, but it was immediately seized by controversy. Renault won a championship recently in 2006, but their 2008 season was a disappointing one. Fernando Alonso started the race from 15th place, and had to pit just on lap 12 for fuel and new tires.
On lap 17, Renault instructed their other driver Nelson Piquet Jr to crash, and he did so in an area with no cranes nearby. This caused a safety car to have to come out to the track, and by rules, the pits are unavailable during the time the safety car is present. The front runners who ended up eventually needing to pit could not do so due to the extended time it took to clear the track. When the pits opened, most teams had to pit their cars, but Alonso stayed on the track overtaking the lead and coming in for a victory.
In 2009, Renault dropped Piquet Jr from their team, he made a public allegation that Renault forced him to crash in order to manipulate a situation where Alonso would win the race. After an investigation, it was determined that Renault did cheat in this manner, and were accused of fixing the race.
As punishment, Renault was banned from F1 for two years, their shady managing director Flavio Briatore was banned from all forms of motorsport for life, and Pay Symonds, the chief engineering executive, was banned for 5 years. Alonso was allowed to retain his win as he had no part in the decision of his team.
2: Spygate – 2007
This one was marred with intellectual theft and espionage, all outed by a foolish mistake which created one of the biggest controversies in F1 history. One of Ferrari’s mechanics, Nigel Stepney was unhappy with how the team was being run, so he stole 800 pages worth of technical information containing details about the 2007 cars and future technology plans. He had made a deal to provide these to McLaren engineer, Mike Coughlan.
Stepney tasked his wife Trudy with making copies of the documents quietly. She dropped it off a small, discreet copy shop, but luck was not on their side. The person who accepted the work turned out to be a massive Ferrari fan. When he saw what he was asked to copy, he quickly contacted Ferrari and alerted them to the leak.
Ferrari fired Stepney and sued McLaren, ultimately reaching a settlement with Coughlan. McLaren was disqualified from the 2007 Constructor’s Championship and fined a record $100 million by the FIA. Hamilton and Alonso, McLaren drivers at the time, were still permitted to compete in other championships that year, but Ferrari easily took home the Constructor’s Championship.
1: Senna vs. Prost 1989-90
Arguably the biggest rivalry in the history of F1 was between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. It began when the two were teammates on McLaren in 1988. In the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix Senna needed to win the race for the title and Prost would have won only if Senna did not finish the race. On the 46th lap, Senna collided with Prost, effectively ending Prost’s race. Senna, however, was able to rejoin and quickly made his way up to 2nd place. He then surpassed the leader to get to first place and take the win.
By this time, Prost had already spoken to the FIA officials with regard to the legality of Senna rejoining the race. The deliberations on the matter resulted in Senna being judged as rejoining illegally, disqualifying him from the race, and ultimately resulting in Prost becoming champion. Senna was furious, accusing Prost and the FIA president having ties which caused the politically motivated decision to usurp his win, and he vowed revenge.
The following year at the Japanese Grand Prix, Senna was favored to win. When Prost narrowly took over the lead, both competitors took a simultaneous turn causing them to collide, allowing Senna to retake the lead and win. With accusations rampant about this being a revenge collision, Senna dismissed it as just something that happens in races.