Sidepodcast - All for F1 and F1 for all

After eight - A look back at F1's sordid past - Moments that F1 would like swept under the carpet

Published by Subhayan Mukerjee

Damon Hill races Michael Schumacher
Credit: LAT Photographic/Williams F1

Ever since its conception over sixty years ago, the world of Formula 1 has been witness to several epic moments in its record littered path. While most of them have been extraordinary driver battles, breathtaking overtaking maneuvers and blitzkrieg lap times, there have been quite a number of occasions which fans look back to, and hang their heads in shame.

Here are eight of the most forgettably shameful events that the highest form of motorsport could have done without.

McLaren Spygate, 2007

McLaren have been the quintessential frontrunners of Formula 1. Right since their debut in the sport in Monaco 1966, they have consistently been at the helm of things, winning races, and plucking titles like ripe cherries. Iconic and instantly recognizable, they have a huge fan base and are one of the most celebrated teams in the sport’s history.

2007 however, is one season that McLaren and their fans would love to erase from memory, for reasons that aren’t hard to find.

It all started when a former Ferrari employee, Nigel Stepney, and McLaren senior designer, Mike Coughlan were accused by Ferrari of possessing confidential technical information about each other's teams. Several court cases and raised eyebrows later, it was revealed that Stepney had passed on secret technical information to Coughlan, and McLaren were deemed to have breached the International Sporting Code for possessing the same. They were stripped of their championship points, disqualified from the final Constructors’ standings and asked to submit their 2008 chassis for scrutiny. If any irregularities were found on it, they were warned, they wouldn’t be allowed to contest the 2008 season at all. McLaren passed this test, but they were heavily fined for this controversy. The legal pedantics went on for three more years, in the midst of which, Stepney was fired by Ferrari, and Coughlan by McLaren. In 2010 an Italian Court sent Stepney to jail for eight months.

The teams sorted out their differences in the middle of 2008, however, after McLaren issued a press release apologising to the FIA, to Ferrari and the entire Formula 1 community at large. But that did little to rid the sport of such an unsporting espionage act - a blemish which will continue to taint the sport forever.

Michael Schumacher, Part 1, 1994

Michael Schumacher won his first title amid a lot of controversy, the site of which was the Adelaide Street Circuit during the Australian Grand Prix of 1994. Schumacher (Benetton) and Damon Hill (Williams) went into this final race of the season, with Schumacher leading Hill by a single point in the driver’s championship. Schumacher took the lead at the very start, with Hill closely trailing behind him, and this order remained for 36 laps, till Schumacher went off track at the East Terrace corner, hit the wall with one set of wheels and then bounced back into the track, still in the lead.

When two corners later, Hill tried to take the inside line and overtake the Benetton, Schumacher turned in sharply (an extremely dangerous move, given that both had their own racing line), only to collide with his rival, do a sideways wheelie and crash out. All hopes of a world title faded then and there for the German, as Hill continued the race, and pitted to repair his car damages. However, later on, the damages sustained by his car’s front suspension wishbone couldn’t be repaired and he retired.

Since neither driver could score a point, Schumacher won the championship, and the FIA judged Schumacher’s dangerous maneuver to be a mere racing incident, and not a driving error. However, the Formula 1 community remained cynical and some chose to believe otherwise - a belief strengthened by the near repeat of the incident in 1997 between Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve, when Schumacher was disqualified.

The aftermath of Senna's death, 1994

Many fans consider Ayrton Senna to be one of the best drivers that Formula 1 has ever seen. And it’s not for no reason. His car control bordered on the supernatural. His spirit on track was indomitable. And when it rained, his skills transcended limits which were humanly possible.

Not surprisingly, his fatal crash at Imola, during the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994 has often been regarded as the blackest day in Formula 1 history. And it was made a shade blacker by the alleged subsequent cover-up.

When Senna’s Williams shot off the Tamburello Corner and hit the wall at over 200 kilometers an hour, he died instantly, and those behind the scenes were aware of that. Nevertheless, it was put under covers of secrecy and the race allowed to end. The coldness reached its peak when a young Michael Schumacher, who went on to win the San Marino Grand Prix, went atop the podium without having an inkling regarding his death. Fans cheered, the podium runners exchanged hugs and slaps of congratulations. Champagne bottles were uncorked. Although one of the foremost drivers had just been killed, nothing got in the way of the celebrations.

Under this veil of selfishness, was yet another, darker intention that the FIA, to this date deny.

Italian law demands that, when a sportsman dies at a sporting event, the event is cancelled instantly and the death is investigated. The FIA maintain that Senna died in the hospital, but that was after emergency procedures were performed at the track to keep him alive.

This action, when later revealed was booed no end. The media was enraged, as were the fans. When Senna’s funeral took place in São Paulo, over three million people attended it, including several famous motorsport personalities of the yesteryears. Brazil declared three days of national mourning. Senna’s family, however didn’t allow Bernie Ecclestone, the then President of Formula One Management, to attend the same.

Michael Schumacher, Part 2, 1997

Michael Schumacher may be the greatest driver ever when it comes to statistics on paper, but he’s also been notorious for some of the most unsporting acts in Formula 1 history. In 1997, Schumacher led Williams’ Jacques Villeneuve by a single point into the last race of the season, which was the European Grand Prix.

Schumacher was in the lead, with Villeneuve following closely behind, when in the Dry Sack Corner at Jerez on lap 48, Villeneuve went on the inside to pass Michael. With the Williams halfway past his Ferrari into the corner, Schumacher swerved right violently, and his front right hit the Williams bang in the middle on the left. The Williams escaped unscathed, but Schumacher crashed out - a horrifyingly similar déjà vu from 1994. Villeneuve went on to finish the race third, and win the world title.

This time however, the FIA judged Schumacher’s maneuver to be a “serious driving error” and completely disqualified him from the season’s standings and stripped him of all championship points.

To this day, the most successful driver in Formula 1 history, also remains the only driver who has ever been disqualified from an entire season.

A shame indeed.

Tyrell's lead shot controversy, 1984

Tyrell Racing was a moderately successful team in Formula 1 before they pulled out of the sport owing to financial issues, and in the 28 years they raced, they won one constructor’s title and three driver’s championships. In 1984, when they were trying to find a foothold in the steadily increasing financial environment that the sport demanded, they were the only team to use a naturally aspirated engine, as opposed to all the other teams who used turbochargers.

Using a naturally aspirated engine meant their car did not reach the minimum weight stipulated in the FIA rules. This was a problem that other teams had faced as well in previous seasons before shifting to turbos. The workaround back then had been to keep the car light but keep ballast tanks in the car, to be filled with fluids to raise the weight to the required minimum. Teams like Brabham and Williams had earlier used water-cooled brakes, which loaded the car with enough water to pass the weight test. During the race, water was released in the normal braking direction, and the car ran lightweight throughout the race, only to be topped up with water later on before they were weighed in the end. The rule in particular stated that a car could be weighed up using only the usual car fluids and nothing else.

In the 1984 season, observers noticed that lead shots were escaping from the top of the Tyrell 012s. It was later revealed that Tyrell were running the race with lightweight cars and in the end, topping their tanks with an additional 2 gallons of water mixed with 140 pounds of lead shot. As this was pumped in under a lot of pressure, some escaped the tank vent and rained down in the neighbouring teams’ pit boxes.

When the FIA probed into the matter, it was revealed that the “water” was 27.5% aromatics and constituted an additional fuel source. Tyrell was thus charged with taking on additional illegal fuel, using illegal fuel lines and using illegal fitted ballast on their cars. Following this, Tyrell was disqualified from the 1984 world championship. They fought back in the FIA court of appeal and the charges were slightly modified, but they remained disqualified nevertheless, losing all championship points and the additional subsidised travel benefits for the championship in the following year.

Many people have blamed the FIA for this incident because they looked at it as a means to get rid of all the non turbo cars from the grid - which it did eventually. We will not know for certain what the intention was, but as it stands today, it was indeed a rather controversial incident, and one that our beloved sport could do well without.

Bahrain Grand Prix, 2012

Tense times in Bahrain
Tense times in BahrainCredit: Ferraro/LAT Photographic

When real world politics mixes with something as pure and pristine as sport, it makes for one rather controversial concoction - something that the whole world got a bitter taste of during the Bahrain Grand Prix of 2012. Human Rights activists called for the cancellation of the Grand Prix following excessive use of force by the Government authorities on people held under detention. Anonymous, the faceless global hacktivist group, warned the Government that in the event of a race, they would launch a full on cyber assault, and they even pulled down the website by launching a distributed denial of service attack.

The Government decided to go ahead with the race nevertheless, showcasing it as an instance of national pride, in an attempt to cull the attacks - and it was even pulled off successfully. The atmosphere around the circuit however, was sombre. Protesters burned tyres outside the venue, and most of the drivers and team personnel later remarked that they were wary throughout the weekend.

This controversy made headlines in countries where people had never heard of Formula 1 before. The grand prix was slammed by worldwide media and was referred to as a repressive method to achieve order in the country. Though the race was thrilling, wherein Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel emerged victorious, it did little to erase the sport’s association with an oppressive regime to control the citizens of the country.

Renault Crash-gate, 2008

Renault’s infamous “Crashgate” comes close to topping the list, because it was, simply put, disgraceful at an all new level. The Singapore Grand Prix of 2008, was Formula 1’s first night race ever. The Marina Bay Circuit, lit up by thousands of powerful streetlights, complete with overflowing grandstands looked all set to host an incredible debut race. And it did, as Fernando Alonso hit a brilliant pit stop strategy and capitalised on a safety car situation following team mate Nelson Piquet Jr’s crash and emerged victorious. That too, from a rather hopeless grid position. On the surface it looked like a stunning combination of teamwork, strategising and driving, and it would have remained that way, had Nelson Piquet not spilled the beans of what actually happened behind the scenes, a year later.

It was revealed on Brazilian TV, that Nelson had crashed his Renault on team orders - so as to make the yellow flagged session favourable for his team mate Alonso. Back in 2008, refueling was allowed during the race, and the crash was staged at such a moment, that would allow Alonso to stay just ahead of the fuel-heavy cars who had pitted, yet behind the lighter yet-to-pit cars. Alonso took the lead of the race with ease and won it.

When the conspiracy was unveiled, the FIA was quick in taking action. Not only had Renault manufactured a scenario to win a grand prix, they had also thrown safety concern to the dogs and endangered the lives of drivers on the track and spectators. A huge FIA litigation followed: Renault was sued on race fixing grounds. As a result, Flavio Briatore, the Renault team principal was given a lifetime ban from FIA events. Renault was also given a two-year suspended ban, with a warning that a repeat of a similar nature would result them in being banned forever.

Renault tried fighting back with libel against Piquet Jr, but in the end they had to issue explicit apologies for the same. Things got worse for Renault, when their chief sponsors, ING decided to sever all ties with them later on during the season. Nothing hurts the image of a sport more than blatant “fixing” and this was just that. We’re just glad that such fixing hasn’t happened again, and going by the harsh treatment meted out to the miscreants, we can be assured that it won’t.

Six cars on the grid, 2005

The single most shocking and shameful incident in Formula 1 history - the United States Grand Prix of 2005. Following a high speed crash during Friday practice (that of Ralf Schumacher’s Toyota) owing to excessive tyre wear, Michelin advised their customer teams that the tyres provided for that weekend, were unsafe for the track. This was mostly because in-race tyre changes were not allowed in 2005, and the recent resurfacing of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway resulted in huge amounts of tyre wear.

Michelin requested the FIA to allow for a new chicane to be built ahead of the race, which would make the track safer for Michelin-shod cars. The FIA argued, saying that it would be unfair for the remaining Bridgestone teams if a new chicane was indeed built. The seven Michelin teams, thus unable to come to a compromise decided to withdraw from the race. As a result, after the formation lap on Sunday, the F1 community witnessed the weirdest, and possibly the most embarrassing grid ever - with only six cars on it.

Ferrari drivers Rubens Barrichello and Michael Schumacher took their positions on the grid, with two Jordans and two Minardis behind them. What happened was possibly the most dreary, and predictable race in all of Formula 1 history. The Ferraris finished 1-2, a whole lap ahead of the the two Jordans, who finished yet another lap ahead of the two Minardis.

The race was, quite expectedly, a disaster for the fans who had paid to come and watch. It was booed and jeered no end. The entire Formula 1 community was shell shocked as well. If this was where the greatest motorsport in the world was headed, it raised serious doubts regarding its sustainability and future public image. Thankfully we haven’t had a repeat of such an ignominious act since then, and we hope that we never do.

Of course, we’ve seen several other instances too in the past, where team strategies, overtaking maneuvers and a lot of other factors have raised several eyebrows across the motorsport community, but none of them quite escalated to the level that these eight did. And the fact that one of these incidents happened only in the previous season, means that we can never be sure too that acts of such kind won’t happen in the future.