Lewis Hamilton’s thinly veiled finger-pointing at Mercedes’ impartiality may seem like the petulant self-indulgence of a cosseted 21st-century sports superstar, but, in Formula 1, it’s hardly new. In a sport with this much pressure, and where the competitors are so much at the mercy of elements that they can’t control, there is a long history of drivers having very public hissy fits at their own employers.
1978 – Niki Lauda vs. Bernie Ecclestone
When a rock meets a hard place, or a bastard meets an even bigger bastard or – in this case – a man used to learning the hardest way imaginable what his worth was versus a man determined to profit as much as possible, from any absence of it in his opponent.
Niki went to Brabham chiefly because of the mental exhaustion of dealing with the grinding machinations of Ferrari. The relief – even the relief of working under Ecclestone – briefly lifted the Austrian’s spirits, but not by enough to check his gradual disinterest in the sport, and, partly in revenge for an uncompetitive Brabham, he demanded a salary of $2m – stratospherically higher than everyone else.
Bernie being Bernie, not only did he point blank refuse, but in his ire at confronting someone apparently as greedy as himself, called the Austrian’s sanity into question, then rang round his rivals to tell them not to offer more than a quarter that sum.
Lauda nonetheless held the trump card and, sure enough, when on the verge of having the sponsor he had brought to the team, Parmalat, sign a lucrative extension to its title sponsorship, dropped his bombshell; in front of Ecclestone and Parmalat’s CEO, the Austrian stated he wouldn’t be their driver.
In the teeth of the mother and father of all face losses, for once – possibly for the only time – Bernie buckled, paid up, but somehow still won when Lauda quit his mega-bucks deal during Canadian Grand Prix practice the following year, and this bloke called Nelson Piquet was available – on the cheap, naturally.
1989 – Alain Prost vs. Honda
Less paranoia, more a Gallic shrug to the reality that Ayrton Senna was Honda’s guy, and Prost was their admired, if unexciting, second fiddler; “a samurai vs a computer”, one head Honda honcho admitted candidly during a private dinner with the Frenchman.
The event’s at the San Marino race – where Senna broke their agreement not to overtake at the first corner – set in motion not only Mclaren’s polarisation around the two superstars but Alain’s distrust that Honda were not playing fair; he was losing touch with Ayrton’s pace nearly as fast as he lost touch with Mclaren’s love.
It culminated in a very public media bloodletting at the Italian Grand Prix. Prost’s engine, now irrefutably “inferior”, given his 2-second gap in qualifying to the Brazilian, or so he claimed. Quite what Senna thought of Honda’s alleged favouritism isn’t known, although, given that the power units had let him down three times that year whilst in the lead, it’s quite possible he figured Prost had the right point, just about the wrong man.
Sure enough, the Italian race itself encapsulated the twisted logic behind the Frenchman’s complaints to uncanny perfection. Senna took off to build an enormous lead, Alain slowly worked his way to second place, then inherited the lead as his teammate’s Honda engine blew up.
On the podium, Prost compounded the dagger he’d thrust in Ron Dennis’ corporate heart by handing his trophy – in Ron’s eyes, Mclaren’s property – to a delighted and scarcely believing Tifosi, already claiming the Frenchman a whole year before his Ferrari switch.
In case Honda didn’t get it, Prost demonstrated in the most public way possible; never bet against the computer.
1990 – Nigel Mansell vs. Ferrari
Two improbable wins in his debut year saw “Our Nige” bulldoze his way into the Tifosi’s hearts, lauding him the nickname Il Leone (the lion) in response. This mutual love-in became distinctly one-sided once previous chum, Alain Prost, arrived – a man whose sheer ability alone would probably have shown Lionhearted Nige up the Yellow Brick Road, but who also came equipped with an obsessive attention to detail and fierce work ethic.
Already well clear of his grumbling British teammate in the championship, Silverstone provided ample evidence, as the Frenchman remained with his engineers late into the evening post-qualifying, whilst Nige disappeared for a round of golf with Greg Norman.
Mansell might have argued he had nothing to prove, having taken pole position but the commitment to the cause off the track, rather than on it, Alain might have replied, often reaps other dividends.
Sure enough, come race day, the crowd’s favourite’s gearbox, belying its occupant by developing a mind of its own, sent the Englishmen into retirement nine laps from the finish. Nigel, inspired by the errant transmission’s cantankerous melodrama, tossed his British sweat-and-tear-drenched gloves and balaclava to the crowd, stormed through the media swarm complaining he couldn’t understand why his car was always the one that broke down, (sound familiar?) then kicked off an impromptu press conference stating his family should come first and he was going to retire.
Quite what his family thought when he reversed the decision after Williams swiftly offered him a contract isn’t known, but if they were as proud and patriotic, hopefully, realised at least another year of the absent King of the Jungle was definitely a price worth paying.
1993 – Ayrton Senna vs. Ford
Crushed by Mansell in the all-conquering FW14 the previous year, then outmanoeuvred by Prost to the Englishman’s petulantly vacated seat, Senna started 1993 angry he had to take on his arch-nemesis in an under-powered Mclaren Ford.
But when it began to dawn on the triple world champion his asthmatic V8 wasn’t even as powerful as the latest spec version found exclusively in the Benetton, angry didn’t begin to scratch the surface of the Brazilian’s hyperbolic indignation.
Perhaps taking a leaf out of Prost’s Honda complaints four years earlier, but substituting resignation for anger, Senna harnessed the injustice of it all and mounted a furious, scarcely credible title assault. As dazzling on track as he was withering off it, Ayrton continually harangued the company and any journalist who would bear witness to the outrage of a man of his genius forced to do battle with the most technologically advanced car in history, burdened with the equivalent of a caravan, rather than an engine, behind his shoulders.
Despite Benetton’s exclusive contract, Ford caved into the abuse, partly due to the public tarnishing of its reputation, but mostly due to the realisation this Senna guy might actually carry off the impossible.
Ultimately, it wasn’t enough. However, the pneumatic-valved Ford was still no match for the V10 Renault and though the Brazilian’s five victories were among his very best, Prost ultimately trounced him, clinching the title with two races to go.
2006 – Fernando Alonso vs. Renault
Accusing the FIA of favouring Ferrari after removing his fastest time in qualifying at – surprise, surprise – Monza, Alonso was already teetering on a cliff of paranoia by the time the circus arrived in Shanghai for the Chinese Grand Prix a fortnight later; a cliff he’d well and truly vaulted off by the time everyone had packed their bags for the next race in Suzuka.
Swiftly pulling out an enormous lead in the wet conditions, whilst championship rival Michael Schumacher struggled on his Bridgestones, the sun finally penetrated the thick curtain of cloud, so the Spaniard’s lead evaporated as quickly as the water on the track. Suddenly, not only was his nemesis bearing down on him but so too Renault teammate Giancarlo Fisichella.
In the resulting confusion of defending from the Ferrari, whilst simultaneously trying to protect a team leader lapping two seconds slower than him, Fisichella went past, dropped back, then re-took his team-mate, dragging Schumacher with him.
A botched final pit-stop and Fisichella sailing straight on at the first corner when emerging from the pits in front of the Ferrari left a furious Alonso contemplating losing the championship lead for the first time that year, and he went straight to DEFCON 1 rant mode, accusing Renault of not only failing to do enough, but making him feel “alone” in the team.
Renault made some salutary noises and everything was smoothed over once they got to Japan, but given what machinery the team had given him for two consecutive seasons one couldn’t help thinking, karmically, the Spaniard got what was coming the following year.
2007 – Fernando Alonso vs. Mclaren
Jettisoning Renault for Mclaren, Alonso surely expected another championship winning car, but not a championship winning teammate, given rookie Lewis Hamilton was the other new recruit.
With the rookie roaring round the outside of the double world champion at the season opener, Alonso was disabused of this notion almost as quickly as his young teammate could drive. Even before April was out, Fernando was telling his Spanish media chums all was not well against this seriously quick upstart, and once F1 arrived for the Hungarian Grand Prix, and with “Spygate” rumbling away behind the scenes, the two intractable Mclaren headaches were about to fuse into one enormous migraine.
Feeling Hamilton had compromised his qualifying run, Alonso duly parked in his pit box just long enough to prevent the Englishman from doing a second run himself, thereby setting in motion both Ron Dennis’s headphones (hurled in disgust at the unfolding insubordination), $100m in fines and the erasure of that season’s points, all once the Spaniard had unwisely decided to blackmail his boss with his personal knowledge of Mclaren’s Ferrari subterfuge, in return for guaranteed number 1 status.
Instead, confessing to the FIA, Dennis jettisoned any bipartisan sense of fairness in favour of his protégé to the point where at the Chinese Grand Prix he admitted Lewis’ fatal pit entry error was triggered by his own team battling not Ferrari, but the other Mclaren driver. In the end, Alonso was packing his bags to return to Renault, yet everyone lost and neither Mclaren, nor the Spaniard, have won a title since. Never mess with Fernando – even, and especially if, you’re Fernando.
2009 – Rubens Barrichello vs. Brawn
Having spent six years skipping being second fiddle and going straight to third at Maranello, at least the little Brazilian couldn’t be accused of baseless paranoia when finding himself on the wrong end of calls made by the main architect of his Ferrari pain, Ross Brawn.
A season under his old boss running the honking embarrassment of Honda at least gave Rubens one season of tranquil indifference to the whiff of team orders – irrelevant when all anyone was fighting over was 12th place – but once the outfit was reborn as the eponymous Brawn, a world title, especially one they could end up losing, critically shifted the laissez-faire attitude.
Buoyed by teammate Jenson Button’s season-opening dominance, but acutely sensitive to the team’s dwindling resources, Brawn openly raised the possibility a collective response might be required to defend a fragile lead in the face of better-financed competitors, something Barrichello, understandably, was keen to avoid. Pointedly stating at Barcelona that if he were given team orders he would ignore them, Brawn’s heart-warming story risked rapid frostbite even before they got to the Nurburgring, where the team then contrived to drop him from 1st to 6th.
“I don’t want to hear all this blah, blah, blah – they cost me a race,” he emotionally told the media afterwards.
Outscoring Button from a victorious Valencia onwards undoubtedly forestalled further outbursts, but he still finished nearly as far behind his teammate as he had in his final season with Michael Schumacher, and it was ultimately hard to get away from the feeling Senna’s protégé was – whisper it – a bit of a bad loser.