The biggest controversies in F1


Formula 1 is no stranger to controversy. Ranging from team orders, to last race crashes, and off-track incidents, let’s take a look back at some of the major storylines.

Team Orders

Ferrari Switch Part 1 (Austria 2002)

The 2002 Austrian GP was held at the A1-Ring, and was the sixth race of the season.

In the first five races of the season, Michael Schumacher had already accumulated 44 points out of a possible 50, with his nearest challenger, Juan Pablo Montoya, 21 points behind him. Michael Schumacher was already well on the way to a fifth World Drivers’ Championship, but in Austria he had some help.

A year earlier, Rubens Barrichello had let his German teammate through after the final corner so he could finish second behind David Coulthard. However, in 2002, it happened again.

Barrichello led through the race comfortably, but with Ferrari having already decided that Schumacher was their man, they ordered that the Brazilian moved aside to let their number one driver take the victory.

It drew boos from the watching crowd, and led to Schumacher handing Barrichello the winners’ trophy on the podium, and letting the Brazilian stand on the top step. The Scuderia were fined $1million for the failure to observe the correct podium proceedings.

Ferrari Switch: Part 2 (Germany 2010)

The 2010 German Grand Prix saw Ferrari play the team orders game once again. Coming into the race, Fernando Alonso was their main man, but remained 47 points behind Championship leader Lewis Hamilton.

In between the two were Hamilton’s teammate, Jenson Button, and the two Red Bull Racing drivers, Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel.

Off the start, Felipe Massa took the lead from third on the grid, with his Ferrari teammate, Fernando Alonso in behind, and Vettel sitting in third, having started on pole position.

After the pit stops, the front three stayed the same, but the Brazilian driver was struggling, with Alonso looking to fight his way past. And then, of the course, the famous call of “Fernando is faster than you.”

On Lap 49, Massa slowed down coming out of the Turn 5 hairpin, seemingly letting Alonso through. The Spaniard went on to take victory, and would fight Sebastian Vettel for the World Drivers’ title all the way to the end.

Ferrari’s team principal, Stefano Domenicali, insisted that there were no team orders in placed, and that Felipe Massa had chosen to let Fernando Alonso through.

The Spaniard confirmed that statement from his team boss, but the FIA saw it differently. They fined Ferrari $100,000, but the result stayed the same, allowing Ferrari to keep the 1-2, with Alonso closing the gap in the Championship.

Multi 21 (Malaysia 2013)

The second race of the 2013 Formula 1 World Championship was held in Sepang, Malaysia. Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull were the reigning three-time World Champions and were looking for a fourth consecutive title.

Vettel had finished third in Australia, with Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso finishing in front of the German driver in the first round of the 2013 season.

After the race had started in wet conditions, the track dried out, with Mark Webber leading the way from his Red Bull teammate. After the second set of pit stops, the Australian emerged from the pit lane just in front of Vettel.

The team had said to the drivers before the race that whoever led after the final pit stops would go on to win it. However, Vettel attacked Webber, and eventually got past after two laps of close racing.

In the room behind the podium after the race, Webber said the words “Multi 21 Seb, Multi 21.” This referred to the two coming before the one, meaning Webber should have won the race in front of Vettel.

Elsewhere, Mercedes had their own team orders issues. Nico Rosberg was told to hold his position behind Lewis Hamilton, as the Brit came home for his first podium as a Mercedes driver.

The ‘-Gate’ Section

Rascasse-Gate (Monaco 2006)

The Monaco Grand Prix of 2006 was the seventh race of the Championship with Fernando Alonso leading the Drivers’ standings by 15 points. The Spaniard was the reigning World Champion, and was on course to go on to his second title in as many years, coming into Monte Carlo.

The controversy of the weekend came in the final part of Qualifying. Michael Schumacher had set a time to put his Ferrari on provisional pole position, with all ten drivers then coming into the pits before their final runs for the front row.

However, as Schumacher came round Rascasse, the penultimate turn, his car came to a halt, meaning all the drivers behind him, including Alonso, had to abort their laps, meaning the German was on pole position.

The stewards found that he was guilty of impeding rival cars, and that he deliberately parked his Ferrari at the exit of Rascasse in an attempt to get pole position.

He was demoted to the back of the grid and would choose to start from the pit lane in Sunday’s race. Alonso went on to win the Monaco Grand Prix, his first triumph in the principality. The Renault driver would also go on to become the youngest man to win back-to-back World titles at the end of the season.

Spy-Gate (2007)

The 2007 Formula 1 World Championship was one of the closest in the history of the sport. Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen would go on to win the Drivers’ title by a single point from both McLaren drivers, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton. However, the story off the track was one of subterfuge.

‘Spy-gate’ was a case involving both the Ferrari and McLaren teams during the 2007 season. The case saw Nigel Stepney, Ferrari’s Head of Team Performance Development, dismissed, after an internal investigation by the Italian team.

On the same day as they dismissed Stepney, Ferrari also took action against Mike Coughlan, an engineer from McLaren. 780 pages of Ferrari documents were found in Coughlan’s home, and he was dismissed by the McLaren team soon after.

McLaren launched their own internal investigation, but found that no other employees knew about the documents until the case had become public knowledge.

The FIA found the team guilty of the allegations, and disqualified McLaren from the 2007 Constructors’ Championship, and a record fine of $100million.

Renault’s Crashgate (Singapore 2008)

After a failed season with McLaren, in which tempers flared between himself and teammate Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso had moved back to Renault for the 2008 season.

The two-time World Champion had not won a race on his return to the French team, until the first ever Formula 1 night race, held at the Marina Bay Street Circuit in Singapore.

Alonso qualified badly, and started 15th on the grid. The Spaniard pitted early, the first driver to make a scheduled stop.

Just three laps later, teammate Nelson Piquet crashed at Turn 17, which led to a Safety Car, as there was no crane nearby to get the car off the track quickly.

With the new regulations closing the pit lane until the Safety Car had picked up the leading drivers, Alonso was able to close up to the pack, and take the lead of the race after the leaders had all pitted for fuel and tyres.

There was speculation at the time, but nothing could be done as there was no hard evidence that could be put against the Renault F1 team.

However, when Nelson Piquet left Renault halfway through the 2009 season, he alleged that the team had asked him to deliberately crash to give Alonso the advantage.

Renault accepted the charges, which saw Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds suspended, and both left the team.

Lie-Gate (Australia 2009)

Fewer than two years after Spygate, McLaren were in trouble again. This time, it came in the 2009 season opener in Melbourne.

Lewis Hamilton came to Australia as the newly-crowned World Champion, but the victory would go to the brand new Brawn team, with Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello finishing 1-2 and Button going on to win the World Championship in 2009.

After an incident late in the race between Robert Kubica and Sebastian Vettel, the race finished under the Safety Car for only the second time in history.

However, the controversy came behind the Safety Car. Jarno Trulli ran off the track behind the SC, which saw Lewis Hamilton overtake him for 3rd spot. The Brit then let Trulli back through, but it was after the race when everything changed.

Trulli was given a time penalty for illegally passing another car under the Safety Car, moving Hamilton up onto the podium. Hamilton had told the stewards that he did not receive any instruction to let the Italian back past him, but he did so anyway.

However, the stewards were able to find audio messages from the team which told him to let Trulli back in front. Hamilton was then disqualified from the race for  misleading officials, and Trulli was reinstated into third place.


Michelin Issues (2003/2005)

Tyres have been an issue which has plagued the sport of Formula 1 for years, and Michelin were one of the biggest causes of controversy in the 2000s. They had two major scandals in a three-year period.

Firstly, in 2003, it was found out that during races, their tyres would naturally expand, giving drivers running Michelin tyres more grip towards the end of races.

The claim was that they were also different types of tyres from the ones that had been used from the start of the season (claims made in August). After they changed their tyres, cars running with Bridgestones then won 18 of the next 21 races, proving that Michelin may well have been bending the rules slightly.

Then, in 2005, there was the United States Grand Prix. The race is regarded as one of the most controversial in the history of the sport, as only six cars eventually took to the grid for the race on Sunday.

This was because the teams running Michelin tyres had been told that if they were to go full throttle round the high-speed Turn 13 at Indianapolis, the tyres would only last 10 laps.

The problems all started on the Friday, when Ralf Schumacher had a tyre blowout at that corner, forcing him into the wall at 175mph, injuring the German. He was then unable to qualify for the race.

Come the Sunday morning, and with Michelin having informed the teams that they could not race safely, the team principals got together with Max Mosley from the FIA.

Ideas including adding a chicane to Turn 13, or it even becoming a non-Championship race were thrown out, as not all parties would agree. So when the formation lap was coming to its end, the Michelin runners, all 14 of them, pulled off into the pit lane, leaving just six cars out on the grid.

The crowd’s booing was loud enough to be heard on camera. Michael Schumacher went on to win the race from Rubens Barrichello, with Tiago Monteiro of Jordan finishing third, the only podium for a Portuguese driver in F1 to date.

After the race, Michelin, and the seven Michelin-shod teams were charged with violating several parts of the International Sporting Code:

  • Failed to ensure availability of suitable tyres for the race
  • Wrongfully refused to allow cars to start the race
  • Wrongfully refused to allow cars to race subject to speed restrictions at one corner, which was safe for such tyres available
  • Combined with other teams to make a demonstration damaging to the image of Formula 1 by pulling into the pits immediately before the start of the race
  • Failed to notify stewards of intention not to race

Title-deciding crashes

Senna/Prost (1989/1990)

Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost had long successful careers in the sport of Formula 1, and they also had one of the biggest rivalries ever to be seen on track. Two years running, things came to a head at Suzuka, with a World title going in each direction.

Coming into the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix, Senna knew he had to win both in Japan, and Australia in the final race, to win the World Drivers’ Championship. The pair qualified on the front row for the race and went off into the distance due to their significantly superior McLarens.

Prost had a comfortable lead going into the final stint of the race, but Senna started to catch the Frenchman, as he looked to claim his second title in a row.

The incident occurred at the final chicane, as the Brazilian driver tried to pass Prost down the inside. However, Prost turned in early, causing a collision between the two McLaren cars.

The Frenchman proceeded to get out of his car (both had ground to a halt and stalled), while Senna remained seated, asking for marshals to give his car a push.

Senna was able to restart his car, and took to the chicane’s escape road to carry on his way. He pitted for a new nose cone, and was then able to catch and pass Alessandro Nannini for the race lead with three laps to go.

He took the chequered flag, but was immediately disqualified for missing the chicane on Lap 46. He believed it was because the President of FISA, Jean-Marie Balestre, was French, and wanted his compatriot to lift the title.

Just a year later, and the tables were turned. The pair returned to Suzuka in another title battle, but this time, Prost was with Ferrari, while Senna was still with McLaren.

The duo lined up on the front row for the third year in a row, with the Brazilian occupying pole position yet again. This time, Prost was the one that needed to win both races to win the title.

As they got underway, the Ferrari got the better start, but Prost left the door slightly open and Senna tried to take his chance.

However, the Brazilian’s McLaren went straight into the side of Prost’s Ferrari, sending both cars into the gravel and out of the race.

Senna won his second World Drivers’ Championship, with Prost saying that Senna was “a man without value” and that he almost retired immediately after the race.

Schumacher vs. Williams (1994/1997)

As we have seen already on this list, Michael Schumacher has been known to cause some controversy and did so again in title deciders against two different Williams’ drivers.

Coming into the final race of the 1994 season, in Australia, Schumacher had a one point lead from Damon Hill. The German driver had led from the start of the race, with Hill behind him up until Lap 35.

Coming round the East Terrace turn of the Adelaide Street Circuit, Schumacher’s Benetton ran wide, and clipped the far wall. As he slowly got back onto the racing line, Damon Hill came round the corner and saw an opportunity to overtake into Turn 6.

He put his Williams down the inside, but Schumacher turned in on the Briton, and knocked both cars out of the race. This meant that Schumacher claimed his first World Drivers’ Championship.

Three years later, and Schumacher was a point ahead of a different Williams driver coming into the final race of the season. This time, it was the European Grand Prix at Jerez, and the driver was Jacques Villeneuve.

The pair, and Heinz-Harald Frentzen all qualified with exactly the same time, but as the Canadian set the time first, he sat on pole, with Schumacher and Frentzen lining up behind him.

After the second round of pit stops, Villeneuve was right behind Schumacher, and coming down to the Curva Dry Sack, he put his Williams down the inside. He was in front by the apex, as Schumacher then turned in (as he did in 1994).

However, this time, the major damage was done to Schumacher’s Ferrari, ending his race. This meant that the Canadian could just bring his Williams home, despite the damage to his left sidepod.

He was passed by both McLarens before the finish, but the third place he earned was enough to crown him World Drivers’ Champion for the 1997 season.

Matt Coles