F1 driver sackings: The most brutal firings and bitter disputes in F1 history

Thomas Maher
Ferrari's Alain Prost driving during the 1990 season. Driver sackings

Ferrari's Alain Prost driving during the 1990 season.

Relationships between F1 drivers and their teams can sometimes to an end in less than friendly circumstances. Here are some of the most brutal driver sackings…

While the vast majority of drivers and teams part ways in a friendly fashion, sometimes the relationships break down to the point where the two sides (or even just one side) can’t be bothered being nice anymore.

Let’s look back over some of Formula 1’s most brutal break-ups, where drivers found themselves thrown out on their ear unceremoniously, or where team bosses opted to tell their drivers of their firing via unusual means.

Kevin Magnussen (McLaren 2014)

The Danish driver made his F1 debut with the Woking-based squad in 2014, immediately scoring a podium on his debut.

It was to be the high point of his season, with Magnussen putting in a solid, if unspectacular, year to finish 11th overall in his first season in the sport.

Teammate Jenson Button would finish eighth overall, with a points tally of more than double his rookie teammate.

Having been kept dangling over his future for 2015, Magnussen eventually lost out on retaining his seat as McLaren signed two-time World Champion Fernando Alonso alongside Button.

Demoted to the reserve role for 2015, Magnussen would be dropped entirely by McLaren at the end of the season. But, rather than be told face-to-face in a meeting, Magnussen learned of his dismissal after getting an email from then-boss Ron Dennis’ personal assistant. Worse, the email arrived on his 23rd birthday…

“It was a short paragraph explaining that there would be nothing for me in the future,” Magnussen said of the impersonal email.

“It arrived on my birthday, actually…”

Magnussen’s axing came after his predecessor, Sergio Perez, was released by McLaren after a single year at the team. Having been offered a contract, Perez claims to have already signed his documents and sent them back to McLaren, only to learn that he was being dropped in favour of Magnussen…

Nelson Piquet Junior (Renault, 2009)

Nelson Piquet Junior, son of a three-time F1 World Champion, arrived to a Renault race seat with great fanfare in 2008, as he was teamed up with Fernando Alonso.

But Piquet struggled for pace and form at the beginning of his career, not helped by a Renault that was a clear step backward from the machines the Enstone-based team had produced in recent seasons.

Scoring his first points at Magny-Cours, Piquet scored his maiden podium at Hockenheim and appeared to be finding his feet towards the end of the season.

But the 2009 Renault proved to be even less competitive and, having failed to score any points at all during the first half of the season, Piquet was dropped by then-team boss Flavio Briatore.

But the drama was only getting started, as Piquet made allegations against Briatore and other members of management, claiming that he had been ordered to deliberately crash out of the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix in order to help teammate Fernando Alonso to victory.

Renault, and Briatore, launched criminal proceedings against Piquet in response, claiming the Brazilian was attempting to blackmail them in order to finish out the 2009 season.

However, investigations would reveal that Piquet’s claims were accurate, with Briatore and Renault both incurring the wrath of the FIA during the ‘Crashgate’ scandal.

“The conditions I have had to deal with during the last two years have been very strange to say the least – there are incidents that I can hardly believe occurred myself,” Piquet would later say about his time working with Briatore at Renault.

“If I now need to give explanations, I am certain it is because of the unfair situation I have been in in the past two years.

“I always believed that having a manager was being a part of a team and having a partner.

“A manager is supposed to encourage you, support you, and provide you with opportunities. In my case it was the opposite – Flavio Briatore was my executioner.”

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Sebastien Bourdais (Toro Rosso, 2008)

Even in the early days of the Red Bull driver programme, the organisation picked up a reputation for being ruthless and extremely tough on the drivers within its fold.

Even if one of those drivers was a four-time consecutive Champcar champion, as Sebastien Bourdais was when he was signed to partner up with the promising Sebastian Vettel at Toro Rosso in 2008.

While a low start from Vettel gave way to regular points finishes and a famous win at Monza, Bourdais failed to make the same progress as he struggled to adjust to life in F1.

While Bourdais managed to score points during the first half of the 2009 season, Toro Rosso dropped him in favour of Spanish youngster Jaime Alguersuari, with Bourdais retreating back to the United States.

“The way they [Toro Rosso] got rid of me was very disappointing,” Bourdais told France’s AutoHebdo, having reached an out-of-court settlement over the way the partnership ended.

“[Red Bull owner] Dietrich Mateschitz was at the Nurburgring but he did not speak with me. He did not call me. Everything was done by SMS, which to me has no style.”

Team boss Franz Tost denied that Bourdais had been dumped by text: “I told Monsieur Bourdais personally that he is not going to drive any more and did not write any SMS.”

Alain Prost (Ferrari, 1991)

Having almost landed the 1990 World Championship for Ferrari (until an infamous collision with Ayrton Senna ended their year in the gravel at Turn 1 at Suzuka), 1991 was an unmitigated disaster for Prost and the Scuderia.

Prost would finish the year in fifth place overall, with just over a third of the points of championship winner Senna, with three second-places being his best results of the year.

The Frenchman was openly critical of the handling of the 642 and 643 chassis, famously describing the car as being like ‘a truck’ at the Japanese Grand Prix.

“After a few laps, the shock absorbers no longer worked and the steering was incredibly hard,” Prost told Autosport.

“At the end of the race, I said it was like driving a horrible truck, no pleasure.”

With the Scuderia having fired their team boss Cesare Fiorio earlier in 1991, Prost’s comments were the straw that broke the camel’s back – he was dropped by Ferrari ahead of the season finale in Australia.

In an interview with Joe Saward ahead of the Australian Grand Prix, Ferrari team boss Claudio Lombardi revealed that, in the week before Adelaide, “the behaviour of Alain Prost was really worse and worse, and Ferrari took this decision”.

“The relationship between a top driver and a top team involves the performance of the driver and then the behaviour of the driver,” he said.

“For the first point, we are very happy with the performance of Alain Prost. I personally worked with Alain for the last four months and I think he is really a very good driver and a fantastic test driver. The second point is behaviour. The behaviour of Alain Prost during this season has not been at the level that Ferrari would like from a top driver. His behaviour inside and outside the team meant that Ferrari had to stop the relationship.”

With Prost sitting out the 1992 season, he returned to F1 in 1993 with Williams – winning the World Championship with ease. Ferrari, meanwhile, would have to wait until 1995 to score another Grand Prix victory.

Damon Hill (Williams, 1996)

While the Grove-based squad were the dominant force of the 1990s, no driver would win two titles driving one of Adrian Newey’s Williams.

Nigel Mansell didn’t stick around for 1993 in order to defend his dominant ’92 championship, as he found out Williams weren’t willing to throw money at him to stay after securing the signature of Alain Prost – someone Mansell wasn’t all that keen on working with again.

“I was looking forward to defending my title, I was looking forward to a great year in 1993,” Mansell recently revealed. “Whether Prost was my team-mate or not.

“Then, less than 24 hours after winning the title, I learned that I didn’t have a drive for the following year! If I really wanted to race, it was on half the salary of 1992. It wasn’t really a good offer, was it!”

“It’s nothing new [Frank Williams wanting to get rid of him], he’s done it to a number of drivers before.”

Damon Hill would encounter a similar situation in 1996. Having made his debut with the team in ’93, Hill put in a plucky championship challenge in 1994 but had a dismal ’95 season that sowed seeds of turmoil between himself and his bosses.

The arrival of rookie Jacques Villeneuve re-ignited Hill for ’96, with the British driver putting in a much stronger season to head into the closing stages of the year fending off Villeneuve in the championship fight.

But Hill knew, even before the title showdown in Suzuka, that he would not stay at Williams for ’97, as the team weren’t willing to pay for him. According to reports at the time, Hill was looking for a pay increase from $7.5 million to $12 million – but Williams opted to end talks rather than negotiate.

In the end, Hill would win the title and head off to backmarker team Arrows, while Heinz-Harald Frentzen was brought in to replace him at Williams.

Honourable mentions

Renault driver Jolyon Palmer was replaced by Carlos Sainz for the 2017 F1 season, but hadn’t been told the news by anyone at Renault when he logged onto the internet and saw the headlines about his dismissal.

Having struggled for form as a rookie at Renault, Palmer had made it halfway into his second season in the sport before Renault took the decision to replace him.

“I knew when I read it on Autosport,” Palmer said of his dumping. “And then I knew it was true as well, I spoke to some people. That was it.”

Jordan driver Heinz-Hard Frentzen was unceremoniously dumped by the Irish team midway through 2001, just two years on from Frentzen’s famous underdog championship challenge.

In the days heading into Frentzen’s home race at Hockenheim, the contract between both sides was unceremoniously torn up following an “exchange of views” between Jordan and Frentzen at Silverstone. Frentzen was dumped via fax, with the German driver bringing Jordan to court over their contract dispute.

In late 2002, the matter was resolved “amicably”.

More recently, Mick Schumacher is reported to have been told of his release from Haas while standing in a hotel lobby with team boss Guenther Steiner.

Having failed to secure his seat and with Haas bringing in veteran Nico Hulkenberg for 2023, Schumacher met with Steiner in a hotel lobby ahead of the season finale in Abu Dhabi, where he was informed of his sacking.