As much as Formula One is a sport about technological advancement and driver skill and bravery, it also has in its closet some stories that aren’t of a pleasant nature. Whether it be deliberate accidents, strikes or shady goings on, the Badgerometer brings them to you!
1994 – Benetton’s Season of Scandal
Benetton’s 1994 season was about as scandal hit as you can get. Rule changes had seen driver aids such as active suspension, anti-lock brakes, traction and launch control banned, but there was suspicion that some – notably traction control – were still be used. A number of teams were suspected but the chief culprits, and those whose car achieved the greatest success, were Benetton.
A team run by Flavio Briatore? Accused of foul play? With his reputation? Surely not.
Benetton were alleged to have been using illegal traction control systems, evidence of this supposedly coming from some stunning getaways from Michael Schumacher, including passing both Williams cars off the line in France. The team was also discovered to have illegally removed a filter from their tank, allowing fuel to be pumped in to the car 12.5% faster than the mandated system. This came to light rather spectacularly following Jos Verstappen’s famous pitlane fireball at Hockenheim, but the team would eventually be acquitted of intentional wrong doing.
Meanwhile Schumacher’s title bid was nearly ruined by further scandal. He overtook Damon Hill on the parade lap on the British Grand Prix and, after ignoring the penalty handed to him, was black flagged and hit with a fine and a two race ban. Michael’s was later disqualified from the Belgian Grand Prix when the under car plank was found to be 1.6 millimetres under the legal tolerance. The team argued that an off during the race had caused this discrepancy, but Michael’s exclusion stood.
Despite all this the team was not docked points as the FIA failed to definitively prove wrong doing. And Schumacher? Despite missing a number of races he went to the season final in Australia battling Hill for the title. And then they collided or something, but no one remembers that…
1982 – The FISA-FOCA war.
This season in F1 history is seen to be one of the most chaotic in history. A driver strike at the start of the year meant that the sport was facing a mutiny before 1982 even began, but that was eventually resolved after a barricade at a South African hotel, led by Didier Pironi and Niki Lauda. But, at the Brazilian Grand Prix, the war between FISA (a subcommittee of the FIA and governer of rules) and FOCA (all the teams united) got a bit tetchy after the Brabham of Nelson Piquet and the Williams of Keke Rosberg were disqualified for running, in FISA’s eyes, illegal water tanks.
This ignited the touch paper on the feud, which culminated in a FOCA team walkout in Imola for the San Marino Grand Prix. Only 6 cars were scheduled to race – Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Renault – but some other teams relented due to “sponsor commitments”.
The race would be contested between Ferrari and Renault, but when the French team broke down, it was between Didier Pironi and Gilles Villenueve, with the former winning thanks to breaking a gentlemen’s agreement between the two. Villeneuve would declare his former friend an enemy, and would be killed in practice at Zolder a race later.
The FISA-FOCA war would eventually be settled by the signing of the Concorde Agreement, but thanks to the way it escalated, it claimed the life of one of the greats.
2007 – Spygate
It’s always tempting to copy someone else’s work, right? Come on, we’ve all thought about it. For a few employees of McLaren and Ferrari one Spring, it was a bit too tempting, and nearly brought McLaren to it’s knees at the end of the season.
It all began when then-Ferrari chief mechanic Nigel Stepney approached McLaren engineer Mike Coughlin with the Prancing Horse’s specs before the 2007 season started. The Brit kept the plans in his house, and when Stepney was fired from Ferrari around the time of the US GP that year, Coughlin was named by Ferrari in their internal investigation, and was promptly sacked from his job. Coughlin’s house was searched and a massive 780-page document was found – otherwise known as a Smoking Gun. The ruse between the two was cemented by a local Woking photocopier reporting to Ferrari that Coughlin’s wife had tried to copy the document. Oops.
The FIA’s initial hearing halfway through the season yielded no punishment, but it was announced that a second hearing would be held in September after “new evidence” came to light. McLaren had suffered from infighting between World Champion Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton that season, and many thought that the Spaniard had blown the whistle on some more shenanigans.
McLaren were found guilty of “illicitly collecting and holding information from Ferrari to confer a dishonest and fraudulent sporting advantage upon McLaren”, fined $100m and had their points expunged from the 2007 constructors championship. All for the sake of getting ahead of their competition. Tut-tut.
1990 – Scandal at Suzuka
Perhaps the epitome of the Senna-Prost war, the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix saw scandal both on-track and in the corridors of power. Senna topped qualifying but was unhappy that pole was on the right-hand side of the circuit, as was the tradition at Suzuka. Positioned off the racing line, Senna believed this to be dirtier and thus less grippy. The Brazilian and his McLaren team requested that it switched to the left and were, initially at least, successful.
However FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre would intervene and insist that pole remain on the right. Senna saw this is unfair. Believing Balestre to be pro-Prost, and still deeply bitter about the president’s role in his disqualification at the same race 12 months earlier, he saw this as a blatant attempt to prevent him taking the title. Prost was now almost certain to get the jump in to turn one – as he had in ’89 – but Senna wasn’t going to let that happen again.
You can call it a driven man standing up for what he believed in or you could look at it as a sickeningly dangerous act of revenge – whatever your opinion, the fact is that Senna intentionally took Prost out at turn one, ramming the Frenchman in to the gravel.
However he faced no punishment for his tactics, which were significantly more blatant than those he’d employed the previous year. Balestre would make it quite clear who he felt to be in the wrong but Senna escaped with his second drivers’ title.
“It is a scandal that a world championship should be decided on such a collision and I leave everyone to be their own judge of who is to blame,” Balestre said afterwards.
The incident also turned the already-frosty Prost-Senna relationship into a polar blizzard of bad feeling. The two who only make up four years later, shortly before the Brazilian perished at the San Marino Grand Prix of 1994. Balestre meanwhile, who passed away in 2008, still receives criticism for his perceived efforts to aide Prost and reign in Senna.
2008 – Crashgate
When Nelson Piquet Jr. smacked the wall at Turn 17 on lap 15 of the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, not many people thought much of it. The Brazilian wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire, and it was considered a rookie mistake. What it turned out to be was the start of a intricate collusion to win that Grand Prix. Allegedly.
The thought of a team ordering a driver to crash is a crazy one, but if you believe what unfolded in the middle of 2009, it can now be considered part of F1 history. According to Piquet Jnr, both technical director Pat Symonds and team principle Flavio Briatore told him of the plan to have him crash after teammate Fernando Alonso had made his first pit-stop. With the Brazilian’s accident occurring at a corner where there was no crane to lift him away, the safety car would have to make an appearance. Alonso would benefit – being ahead of the cars that would choose to stop, while waiting for the cars in front to stop later. Alonso won the race, lifting Renault, who at the time were considering leaving the sport.
The FIA looked into the matter and dealt out some hefty sanctions – Braitore and Symonds were banned for life from any F1 involvement. Although they had the bans overturned in a French court, Flav now says he’s done with the sport, while Symonds agreed with the FIA that he’d stay away until 2013, although he is now acting as a consultant with Virgin Racing. Piquet Jr. now races NASCAR Trucks.
And Fernando Alonso? The Spaniard claims he knew nothing of the whole incident.