F1: Controversial moments in the world’s most elite motorsport - The Statesman

F1: Controversial moments in the world’s most elite motorsport

Representational Image (Photo: AFP)

Formula 1, or F1 for short, is undoubtedly the football of motorsports. Fans get attached to teams more than the drivers fairly early and are loyal till death.

There comes a time when a team (or driver) engages in some underhand tactics. However, it does raise questions about the integrity of people involved in F1.

The Statesman has compiled a list of the 10 most controversial moments in F1’s chequered history:


1994: Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger’s shocking deaths
Without meaning to sound too insensitive, a crash in a sport as frenetic as F1 is not a big deal and while a loss of human life can never be trivial, Williams driver Ayrton Senna’s crash and subsequent death at Imola is a dark event that has been shrouded in controversy for decades since.The racing fraternity was reeling with rookie Ratzenberger’s death during qualifying on Saturday but nothing could have prepared them for Senna’s death come race day. While the crash in itself could have been avoided, there was another bigger issue. Senna’s time of death was marked as 2:17 pm local time which meant the triple champion had died on impact. Instead of cancelling the race and thereby suffering a massive financial loss, the organisers delayed the announcement of his death and while subsequent trials in Italian courts have dragged on, their much-delayed judgement have left many who witnessed Senna’s death with a sour taste in the mouth.

1989-90: Senna-Prost, an epic rivalry that went too far 
Super-fast cars driven by ultra-competitive athletes is a concoction that is bound to bring controversy. And when two of the greatest drivers of their era went head-to-head, sparks flew and how. Suzuka, hosting the Japanese Grand Prix, was witness to some decidedly underhand tactics from both McLaren drivers as they desperately tried to win the championship. First, in 1989, Prost was leading the title ranking going into the penultimate race of the season with Senna needing a win to keep his championship hopes alive. Prost led the race from pole and didn't let Senna pass, which led to the Brazilian barging him off the track and going on to win the race. F1 stewards decided to disqualify the Brazilian and scupper his chances of the year’s tittle, a contentious decision even now. Then next year at the same venue, with Prost trailing Senna in the championship, Senna (now driving for Ferrari) once again hit the McLaren man in what could be called a deliberate accident. No action was taken against the Brazilian and he went on to lift the championship, much to the disbelief of Prost

1985: F1 finally boycotts South Africa over apartheid
Formula 1 has always been a sport reserved for the highest echelons of society but its apparent pro-Apartheid stand had brought the ire of many human-rights activists from around the world. FIFA had expelled the nation in 1960 and so had the IOC in 1970, but F1 continued to hold an annual race at the Kyalami circuit  and despite intense public pressure, didn't bar the African nation till 1985. A vast majority of fans felt that by not removing the South African GP from the calendar for such an extended period of time, spoke volumes about their allegiance. 

1994, 1997 & 2006: Michael Schumacher, the legend with a tarnished reputation
A majority of F1 fans born in the 80s and 90s will instantly associate the sport with one driver: Michael Schumacher. And while nobody can doubt the five-time champion’s talent or competitiveness, the German did have a few on-track moments which have tainted his legacy. At the 1994 Australian GP, he smashed his car into Damon Hill’s, claiming it was “purely unintentional”. Then three years later, a near-identical incident to the one at the Australian GP, Schumacher went into Williams driver Jacques Villeneuve but somehow the Canadian managed to finish the race despite the collision. Schumacher was disqualified that year from the driver’s ranking but his low-blow tactics came to the fore at the 2006 Monaco GP. Fernando Alonso had been impressive in practice and looked certain to clinch pole, but Schumacher literally stopped his car midway, causing a massive traffic jam of sorts which ensured his Spanish opponent could not beat his time. Stewards felt he had cheated for obvious reasons and despite public denials from Schumacher, gave the pole to the rightful recipient, Fernando Alonso.

2007: McLaren-Ferrari Spygate
F1 has a rich and storied history of which many instances can be made to champion the cause of the premier motorsport. The 2007 spying scandal involving McLaren and Ferrari, however, had many hanging their heads in shame in its aftermath. Corruption had permeated the uppermost echelons of McLaren, who were desperate to overhaul their arch-rivals Ferrari by any means unnecessary. A Ferrari chief mechanic handed over substantial data ( from cars to finances to strategies) to McLaren and by a stroke of misfortune for McLaren’s Chief Designer Michael Coughlan, the bubble was burst. A record $100 million fine followed for McLaren but their reputation never truly recovered ever since. 

2005: Indianapolis and the 3-team fiasco
While the current lot race purely on Pirelli tyres, not so long ago Bridgestone and Michellin were the preferred choice for most of F1. As a matter of fact, the vast majority of F1 teams raced on Michellin, with only three racing on Bridgestone (Ferrari, Minardi and Jordan). And after some spectacular tyre failures, Michelin stated they could not guarantee tyre’s safety for more than 10 laps. An incredible admission, which of course did not go down well with F1’s governing body, FIA, who decided against changing the rules to suit Michellin and decided the race would go ahead. A farcical full-race occurred as all teams on Pirelli tyres went back to the pits after the customary formation lap, amid loud boos from unsuspecting fans. Michael Schumacher in his Ferrari, won what was effectively a six-driver race at a canter in what a leading commentator described as “the strangest race I have ever seen.”

2002: Stagegate in Austria
Again Michael Schumacher at the centre of the storm, but this time the blame fell mostly towards his employers: Scuderia Ferrari. Schumacher was conceding for the driver’s title and for a change, his younger teammate, Rubens Barrichello had outperformed him on a race weekend. But with the Brazilian out of the reckoning for the drivers championship, Ferrari gave him clear orders to let his teammate pass him, going against the very instincts of motor racing in the process. 

2008-09: Racism rears its ugly head in Spain
Two years in a row, then McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton was subject to torrent abuse from a section of fans in Spain. First at testing in February 2008 and then at the 2009 Spanish Gp F1’s first ‘black’ champion had to drive around the track with some fans clearly showing that a lack of education persists in the European continent even. With black paint on their faces, these fans disgraced themselves and the sport each time the Briton pitted. While the FIA condemned their actions, the fact that no action was taken rankled many fans.

1982: Williams’ Watergate
One man’s ingenuity is viewed by another as plain and simple cheating. In the capricious world of F1, tweaking a little too much can get you on the wrong side of the administration. That is exactly what Williams decided to do, by putting large water tanks in their cars, emptying them just before the race and then filling them back up immediately afterwards. What that meant was effectively they were running on a much lighter load than compared to their competitors, who were of course, unaware. So the illegal ballast methods were found out and the FIA promptly disqualified Williams and Brabham from the Brazilian GP in which Nelson Piquet Sr and Keke Rosbeg (Father of 2016 champion Nico) had come first and second respectively.

2009: Crashgate in Singapore

The most recent incident in the list, Nelson Piquet Jr’s ‘convenient’ crash at the 2009 Singapore GP seemed a little fishy at first, but when stewards delved deeper, Renault’s massive culpability came to light. Front-runner Fernando Alonso had a poor qualifying session, starting the race from 15th place and was effectively out of the race until his teammate crashed just after he went in for a pit stop. The safety car came out and enabled Alonso to catch up to the rest of the pack and Renault’s further pulled themselves in the quagmire that was fast spreading by sacking Piquet after the race. To which the aggrieved driver responded with a statement clearly stating that “The team told me to crash and that’s exactly what I did.” While Alonso won the race, by the time the revelation saw the light of day, it was too late and some members of Renault’s technical department got banned for their part in the controversy, a massive let off considering the grand scheme of things.