The nine greatest F1 controversies

13th September 2020
Ben Miles

Formula 1, and sport in general, loves a bit of controversy. As much as people may say we really “don’t want to see that kind of thing” it sells papers, makes the news and brings in audience. Until it rumbles on for too long and people get bored of it. But what have the biggest controversies ever been? It’s a hard list to pick out the greats, but we’ve had a go.


Some will be missing from this list that you think should be included. For example the 2005 United States Grand Prix and the Michelin tyres debacle, but we’ve already included that as one of F1’s five biggest fails, so we don’t want to drag over old ground.

Controversies in Formula 1 can stem from something as simple as two cars clashing or something as complex as corporate espionage. They sometimes fizzle out, but given the stakes, some end in tragedy, so before you read on, please do not consider this a celebration of any of these controversies, more a warning to the future not to repeat the past. F1 will not listen of course, it never does, but if we could avoid some of these things happening again we’d all be grateful.


‘Crashgate’ and Singapore Grand Prix – 2008

This is the only time I bow to the convention of taking a controversy, finding a small root word and adding the suffix -gate to it. I will bow to that irritating convention just this time because “Crashgate” has become such a well-known phrase to refer to the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix deliberate crashing controversy. Probably because it’s a lot shorter.

The basics of this are wrapped up in that name. Nelson Piquet deliberately crashed his car during the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix to trigger a safety car at exactly the best moment for Fernando Alonso’s pit strategy, which ended in the double-World-Champion Spaniard winning the race. The alleged brainchild of Flavio Briatore (a man no stranger to the odd controversy) and Pat Symonds at Renault, Piquet executed the plan to perfection – helped by Ferrari going all Ferrari and messing up Felipe Massa’s pit stop, leaving the Brazilian stuck at the end of pit-lane fuel hose still attached. Piquet kept schtum for all of a year, until it became clear mid-way through the following year that he was going to lose his drive. And his father – triple World Champion Nelson Piquet – spoke up. The rest is history: Briatore and Symonds got banned, then got unbanned. Alonso went to Ferrari, Piquet went to NASCAR before winning the first Formula E title, Briatore left F1 and Symonds now works for Formula 1 itself.


McLaren vs. Ferrari – 2007

Spy-gate? No, stop it! This one has all sorts of intrigue, espionage, and a great dollop of sadness in it. In the middle of the 2007 F1 season, while McLaren and Ferrari, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Räikkönen were battling for the F1 crown, Ferrari sent some jaw-dropping allegations around the motorsport world. A former employee – Nigel Stepney, the ex-Head of Performance Development – had passed on technical specs of the latest Ferrari to a McLaren engineer. The FIA opened an investigation, found no evidence, and McLaren were given no penalty.

But a second hearing took place a few month later (with new evidence), a whopping $100million fine was imposed and McLaren were chucked out of the 2007 Constructors’ Championship. McLaren then supplied information that Renault had come to be in possession on a similar amount of info about McLaren’s cars, and the whole F1 world was in danger of descending into a tit-for-tat series of scuffles and finger pointing. Eventually McLaren accepted some guilt, with Ron Dennis himself claiming to be the man who brought forward the extra evidence. Renault were found guilty but went unpunished and the legal proceedings against several McLaren employees in Italy were dropped. F1 was able to get on with what it did best – bickering about other things.

In a sad coda to the story, the man at the centre of the controversy, Nigel Stepney, was found guilty of “sabotage, industrial espionage, sporting fraud and attempted serious injury” in an Italian court. Initially sentenced to over a year in prison, his sentence was reduced when he pleaded guilty and he served no time. In 2014, after having worked in GT racing for some time, Stepney died in an unexplained incident on the M20. What had apparently started with his wish to leave Ferrari during a technical reshuffle had ended in tragedy.


Villeneuve vs. Pironi at the San Marino GP – 1982

The sad thing about F1, is that if you have a major controversy, its protagonists will play out any repercussions at 200mph on the track. And that is what happened when Gilles Villeneuve and his team-mate at Ferrari Didier Pironi fell out catastrophically at Imola in 1982. Ferrari were on for a 1-2 in Italy, something most racing drivers dream of being a part of, and basically just had to trundle to the finish to guarantee a wild reception from the Tifosi. With their only real opposition, Alain Prost’s Renault, having retired on lap four, the two Ferraris had it all to themselves and Ferrari told the drivers to slow down. Villeneuve decided this also meant hold station, and thought that when Pironi subsequently passed him that he was just playing up to the crowd. So he repassed Pironi and slowed down. Come the last lap Pironi charged through, with a hard pass, and won the race. Villeneuve was outraged. Believing he had been betrayed he vowed never to speak to Pironi again.

Two weeks later the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder was to be the resumption of this now bitter intra-time battle. Pironi was set for pole as final qualifying drew closer to an end, having set a time one-tenth faster than Villeneuve. Villeneuve set off for one more attempt at beating his French team-mate, and never returned. Hitting the back of Jochen Mass’s car and perishing in the ensuing accident. Many believe he was pushing too hard in an attempt to beat Pironi – we’ll never know. The F1 world lost one of its great stars. Seven races later Pironi’s career was over after an horrific crash at the start of the German Grand Prix left him unable to race again. Pironi died four years later in a crash while offshore powerboat racing. His girlfriend, Cathering Goux, would give birth to twins shortly afterwards, naming them Gilles and Didier in honour of two of motorsport’s great lost stars.


Racing Point RP20, the ‘pink Mercedes’ – 2020

This one is still rumbling now. What do you do if you’ve run out of money mid-season, and had to build back up from basically nothing, but you still need to design a car for the following seasons? Well, how about copying the most successful car on the grid? That is the rough process (minus the odd technical meeting) that lead to the birth of the Racing Point RP20. Racing Point (the former Force India, former Spyker, former Midland, former Jordan team from near Silverstone) needed to get itself back on track, with a car that would only be a stop-gap in the fill-in season that 2020 was supposed to be before the new regs arrived in 2021 (ah, remember those simpler times?). So the team decided to save some money, by building what would later be billed a “Pink Mercedes”. The RP20, to the naked eye, is literally just that. And the rest of the pit-lane was... unhappy.

There was nothing technically wrong with that though, as long as they had designed the car themselves – even if that design process was from photographs of another car. But, if it had received any plans from Mercedes, to copy any of the parts that the FIA specifically states you must design yourself, well, then it was in trouble.

The RP20 was protested almost immediately, although weirdly not during the first race of the season. Renault protested the RP20 after noticing that its rear brake ducts were identical to those on the Mercedes, brake ducts being one of the FIA’s “listed parts”, and therefore something you needed to design yourself. Renault protested again in Hungary, and then Silverstone. But then Ferrari also submitted a clarification request, and McLaren raised concerns and so-on and so-on. Racing Point were eventually fined €400,000 (remember that bumper fine that McLaren got?) and deducted 15 Constructors’ Championship points as it was decided that Racing Point had received CAD drawings of the brake ducts in question.

Technically this one still rumbles on, but the protests have been withdrawn as the FIA has said that rules on designing your own car will be tightened up for the following season – even though all teams have agreed to use the same cars in 2021. Go figure.

The whole of 1994 – 1994

If you think the Racing Point kerfuffle has gone on for a long time, this is one that lasted a whole season and encompassed a whole load of separate things. Firstly there’s an illegal fuel filler – first noticed when somehow Michael Schumacher’s Benetton left the pits before Ayrton Senna’s Williams in Brazil, despite the Brazilian entering the pits first. It would later be the cause of a massive fire at the German Grand Prix, images of which have become iconic, and it was found that Benetton had removed the fuel filter from the filler, allowing it to fill 12.5 per cent faster.

Then, at the Pacific Grand Prix at the not-at-all missed Aida circuit, Ferrari driver Nicola Larini – standing in for Jean Alesi – told media he had used traction control during practice. Ferrari strongly denied this, but suspicions were raised. Senna, who retired on the first lap, watched the whole race from the sideline to try and hear if cars were using traction control.

The disastrous weekend at Imola that year then resulted in an agreement between the teams and the FIA to make changes to the cars, and slow them down. But at the French Grand Prix Schumacher leapt from third on the grid into the lead by the first corner and suspicions were raised again. The FIA analysed the Benetton B194 and said they had found it had launch control. But, despite finding this in the system, the FIA claimed that there was no evidence that Benetton had used it and took no action. Then at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone Schumacher overtook Hill on the warm up lap, was given a Stop-Go penalty, ignored it and a subsequent black flag and was banned for two races, with the ban due to start at the Italian Grand Prix after a failed appeal. Before that came the Belgian Grand Prix, at which, you guessed it, Schumacher was disqualified for an illegal floor. At that point it was almost worth just giving up trying to work out what was going on.

The championship somehow continued, and came down to the wire at Adelaide where, running in the lead, Schumacher ran wide, hit a wall and damaged his car. Damon Hill, just a point behind his German rival in the championship, didn’t see this, and dived for the inside at the next corner. Schumacher turned in and the rest was a fitting end to catastrophe of a season. Schumacher retired on the spot, Hill in the pits, Schumacher was champion.

Team orders for Barrichello and Schumacher – 2002

At the start of the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, at what was then called the A1-ring, Michael Schumacher had won four of the first five races and was already building a commanding championship lead. He ran second in the race in the closing stages to his team-mate, Brazilian Rubens Barrichello, who had not won a race since the middle of the 2000 season. As he still ran second, and his nearest rival, his brother Ralf, was behind him, Schumacher was all set to increase his championship lead. The obvious choice here was to tell the drivers to hold station. I wouldn’t be writing this if that’s what had happened, so of course what actually happened was that Ferrari ordered Barrichello to let Schumcaher past with about eight laps to go.

According to various sources, what followed was a discussion, Barrichello telling Ferrari Team Principal Jean Todt (now the head of the FIA) that he wouldn’t yield, and Todt telling Barrichello that if he didn’t, he’d be sacked. It wasn’t until the very last lap the it was decided. Barrichello, clearly making a point, slammed on the brakes 100m before the line, Schumacher, immediately recognizing how bad this looked, tried to slow down more but passed his team-mate for the win. To say they were booed when they left their cars, and on the podium, would put it mildly. Barrichello tried to take the high ground in post-race interviews, after Schumacher had pushed Barrichello onto the top step of the world’s most awkward podium. The FIA took a dim view, and banned team orders. A ban which turned out to be completely unenforceable, as the famous line “Felipe, Fernando is faster than you” will attest.

Schumacher vs. Villeneuve at Jerez – 1997

I don’t want to cast any aspersions, but whether his own fault or not, Michael Schumacher’s name crops up a lot in this list. In 1997 it was all his own fault. At the final round of the season Schumacher needed to finish ahead of Canadian Williams driver Jacques Villeneuve (son of the aforementioned Gilles) to guarantee the championship title. Amazingly they and Williams second driver Heinz-Harald Frentzen all qualified with exactly the same time, down to the nearest hundredth. Villeneuve started on pole as he set it first, but he was overtaken into the first corner by Schumacher anyway. There followed 47 laps of Villeneuve following Schumacher, sometimes several seconds back, sometimes right on his tail.
Then on lap 48, Villeneuve made his move. He’d closed Schumacher down lap after lap until he was in striking distance. At the Dry Sack corner he spotted his chance, and went cleanly up the inside of Schumacher. Except Schumacher turned in. The Ferrari’s front left wheel collided with the Williams’s sidepod. Schumacher found himself in the gravel, his title dreams in potential tatters, while Villeneuve carried on.

It was all sound-tracked on UK television by a fit-to-burst Murray Walker and perhaps Martin Brundle’s finest bit of commentary “That didn't work Michael. You hit the wrong part of him, my friend”.

Had Villeneuve retired on the spot Schumacher was champion. But he carried on, his car clearly damaged, and limped across the line in third – enough to win the title.

Schumacher was fiercely criticised by all, including the media back home in Germany and Ferrari’s home country of Italy. The FIA took action, stripping him of his position in the 1997 standings, but he was allowed to keep all his race victories. Some say it wasn’t really a punishment given that he hadn’t won the title anyway.


Senna vs. Prost at Suzuka – 1990

Some in the comments will be apoplectic that I’ve chosen 1990, not 1989 here. In 1989 Prost and Senna clashed – as they had become prone to doing – and Prost won the championship after Senna was disqualified. All hell broke loose, McLaren chose to back Senna, and Prost left. People say Prost moved over (he did), and that the French head of the FIA favoured the French driver in disqualifying Senna. They might be right, but 1990 was more clear cut.

In 1990 they were no longer team-mates, but were just as close for the title race. At exactly the same track, 12 months after tempers came to a head the first time. Some point to this as just another example of Senna’s racing attitude, his unyielding will to win, to take “that gap”, the one from that quote about no longer being a racing driver. Others might look at this and see a man desperate to beat his bitter rival, to the point he was willing to put them both in danger.

Senna qualified on pole, and was furious to find out that pole position would start on the dirtier inside of the grid. He and team-mate Gerhard Berger protested and the FIA agreed, only for an injunction by FISA chairman Jean Marie Balestre (the same man who Senna believed had gifted Prost the 1989 championship) to change it back – pole had been on the same side the previous year and every year since 1987. Senna was incensed, and vowed that if Prost entered the first corner first they would not both exit it.

Prost got the better getaway from the cleaner side of the track, as Senna had feared, and easily led as they swept into the first corner but, as he lifted and turned in, Senna slammed into the back of the Ferrari, the collision at about 130mph sent the two cars off into the barriers. Senna was champion.


Hunt vs. Lauda at the British Grand Prix – 1976

James Hunt won the 1976 Formula 1 World Championship for two reasons. Firstly Niki Lauda suffered an horrific accident and terrible injuries at the Nürburgring before an heroic comeback. Secondly Hunt raced on when Lauda refused to in awful conditions at the Japanese Grand Prix. That’s the whole story right? Well, not entirely. One race before that fateful second lap at Bergwerk, there was an incident so incendiary it nearly sparked a full-blown riot.

It was a very hot summer and James Hunt qualified second on the grid for the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, alongside his championship rival. Hunt made a poor start and dropped back, while Clay Regazzoni stormed forward, attempting to take the lead from Lauda into Paddock Hill. They hit, breaking the rear wheel on Lauda’s car, and causing a multiple car accident, into which Hunt became caught. The race was red flagged as the track was strewn with debris. The officials said that no driver would be able to restart the race unless they had completed the first lap and were in their original car, which seemed straightforward as Hunt and Lauda had both made it around. But Hunt had taken a shortcut and come to the pits, and had not crossed the line. He was all set to be disqualified.
The crowd, stood on a hot bank waiting to see their hero, were not happy. Chants went up for Hunt, and it all started to get very, very restless. McLaren, thinking quickly, set about at least repairing Hunt’s car, so that he had his original car, even if he had not completed the first lap. Fearing the crowd was about to explode, and given the lifeline of a fully repaired McLaren M23 for Hunt to drive, the stewards allowed the Brit to race. And he won. And then the other teams protested.

The stewards threw the protest out, as then did the RAC, who had governed the race, and Ferrari went all the way to the FIA. Eventually, over two months after the race, Hunt was disqualified. Add the points he would have received for winning that race to his eventual tally of 69, and suddenly that wet day at Fuji looks very, very differently.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images. 

  • List

  • Formula 1

  • Michael Schumacher

  • Ayrton Senna

  • Alain Prost

  • Damon Hill

  • Jacques Villeneuve

  • Gilles Villeneuve

  • Didier Pironi

  • Fernando Alonso

  • Nelson Piquet Jr

  • Kimi Raikkonen

  • Rubens Barrichello

  • Ferrari

  • McLaren

  • James Hunt

  • Niki Lauda

  • Renault

  • Racing Point

  • RP20

  • F1 2020

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