F1 has a great tradition of making mountains out of relative molehills. We could write books of several volume on the missteps over the years that have caused races to be cancelled, curtailed or variously mis-treated. But with the current situation seeing race after race fall by the wayside, we thought we would go through some of the most farcical moments of the last two decades.
F1’s five biggest fails
2009 Malaysian Grand Prix
Anyone who had ever been to the tropics knew that it rained every evening, especially in Spring. So when the long-running and, until then, successful Malaysian Grand Prix was moved from the normal midday start time, to a more European-friendly, late afternoon slot, it rang some alarm bells. But when Sunday’s race came it was bone dry and all seemed well. The radar screens begged to differ though, and as Jenson Button fought his way back from an awful start, in which Williams’s Nico Rosberg had leapt from fourth to lead at the first corner, the clouds were gathering. On lap 19 the rain began to fall, and as it always does in Malaysia, once it started it was only going to get heavier. But to begin with the rain stuck mostly to one part of the track, so while the drivers dove for wets, a lot of the track was still dry. On lap 31 though the rain covered the whole lap, drivers who had switched back to inters thinking it was going to stay part-dry part-wet pitted again for full wets. But so hard was the rain that cars began to spin off the circuit like tops. The race managed to limp on for two more laps as cars aquaplaned off and what had been a beautiful bright day suddenly turned to night with the heavy storm. Drivers began to radio that they could barely see, the Safety Car came out and proceeded to pull away from the leader due its superior traction in the wet.
It was all over on lap 33, but the drivers were forced to sit on the grid in their cars while organisers tried to work out what was to happen, leading to Felipe Massa’s famous interaction with engineer Rob Smedley demanding his ‘white visor’. For that radio clip alone the 2009 Malaysian GP was probably worth it, but in every other way it was a disaster. Eventually the idea of restarting was abandoned as rain continued to fall, half points were awarded and the organisers announced they were negotiating with Bernie Ecclstone about the future start time for the race.
2005 US Grand Prix
This one was far too obvious to put first, the story of the 2005 United States Grand Prix is so convoluted, so full of completely boneheaded decisions and moments where it could easily have been saved, that it’s impossible to sum it up properly here.
To put it shortly, the US GP had been run at Indianapolis, home of the famous Indy 500, for eight years with relatively little incident. It mostly used a specially-built infield circuit inside the famous oval, but the final corner of the F1 track was turn one of the oval, putting Formula 1 cars on a banking for the first time in decades. In 2005 the pressures put on the cars only at Indy proved too much for the Michelin tyres. Ralf Schumacher suffered a monster shunt in his Toyota in practice after his Michelin failed, which meant he had to sit out the rest of the weekend. Schumacher had suffered a near-identical crash, at the same place the season before while racing for Williams. In 2004 he had fractured his back and missed six races, so to suffer the same crash again sent some shockwaves through the paddock. Michelin flew a different type of tyre in overnight to replace the ones that had failed, only to find the new batch suffered the same issue. Michelin advised that it was not safe to race in the current conditions. The new tyres were blocked from use anyway by then Race Director Charlie Whiting. Whiting also ruled out adding a chicane to the circuit as that would cause the track to lose its homologation and the race would have to run as a non-championship event.
Despite this, everyone involved assumed someone would come up with some kind of compromise. So, all 20 cars lined up on the grid as normal, still shod in the same Michelin tyres. As Whiting turned the lights green for the parade lap teams and drivers still assumed a last-minute solution would be found, and the fans were non-the wiser for what was about to happen. When every single Michelin car entered the pits rather than lining up on the grid the drivers were told to stay in their cars, as teams were sure a solution would be found (Kimi Raikkonen, in absolute disgust at the situation, left his car and stormed off). Then, to everyone’s shock, especially the 130,000 fans in the grandstands, the six cars on the grid set off. Formula 1 had sealed the fate of the 2005 United States Grand Prix as one of the most farcical in history. The two Ferraris of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello had just the lackluster Jordans (in the process of sliding out of existence) and Minardis to fight, so tooled around at the front for a perfunctory 1-2 finish. On the podium Schumacher and Barrichello took their trophies and quickly departed, embarrassed to be stood there, but rookie Tiago Monteiro, clinching his first (and only) podium finish in F1, celebrated hard with his team, wildly mis-judging the mood – as fans voiced their disgust with boos and missiles. Thousands of fans went straight to the ticket office and demanded their money back and the situation was so bad the police were called.
F1 would race twice more at Indy, in 2006 and 2007, but it was never as well attended, and F1 would not return to the US until the Circuit of the Americas was completed in 2012. It has never returned to Indianapolis.
2003 Brazilian Grand Prix
The 2003 Brazillian Grand Prix was one of the most exciting Grands Prix of all time. Heavy rain fell throughout causing a river to from across turn three (the left hander after the Senna S). This caught out many of the leading runners, including Michael Schumacher and ended with just 10 cars running by lap 54. Then Mark Webber lost control of his Jaguar on the way up the long drag to the start line and had a significant shunt. Webber was OK, but debris was strewn across the track. The Safety Car was called, but not before Fernando Alonso, not seeing the yellow flags, steamed into the scene of the accident, driving straight into one of the Jag’s wheels and having a monster shunt of his own, the car spearing across the track, hitting both walls and completely covering the track with debris. The race was over and no one knew what was going on.
Giancarlo Fisichella had taken the lead just before the accidents in his Jordan, after Kimi Raikkonen, who had been leading, pitted for fresh tyres. As if it hadn’t been a crazy enough race, Fisichella came into parc ferme, exited his car and it promptly self-combusted. Fisichella left to celebrate with his team, his first ever F1 victory and the team’s first for several years, only for the FIA to tell him that he hadn’t won. The countback system used by F1 had decided Kimi Räikkonen had actually won and Fisichella was forced to stand on the second step of the podium, the third was empty as Alonso was in hospital following his crash. It seemed like the strangest end to a Grand Prix you could imagine. But then Charlie Whiting launched an investigation into the situation, the countback was revised and Fishichella declared the real winner.
Before the next round, in San Marino, Räikkonen and Fisichella held a rather awkward ceremony to hand over the trophy to its rightful owner. What should have been the happiest moment in Fisichella’s career ended up being the strangest.
2016 Australian Grand Prix – elimination qualifying
Formula 1 has spent most of the last two decades worrying about how to make the ‘show’ better. New versions of qualifying have been one of the major ways of tinkering, to make the Saturday’s entertainment more exciting and mix up the order. Of course, with each version the final grid has pretty much remained exactly the same – the best team at the front, everyone else behind. They tried aggregate qualifying, adding two sessions together, they tried one-shot single-lap qualifying, and eventually they found today’s knockout system, which has been in place since 2006 and has been largely a success. But in 2016, the decade anniversary of the current system, F1 decided to make the show ‘better’.
Qualifying would still have three sessions, and the winner would still be drawn from only the final session, but now every 90 seconds, the slowest car would be knocked out. It sounded fun on paper, in reality it was a calamitous mess. Cars were left on track not entirely sure if they should be there, and by the end of the session so many had been knocked out there was no real point the leaders going for times. Leaving the chequered flag waver pretty much the only person doing anything on the circuit. The teams hated it, the fans hated it. So the FIA immediately said they would try it again. Once everyone got used to it it would be better – it wasn’t. The idea was dropped after round two and never seen again.
2020 Australian Grand Prix
The reason we wrote this list: the 2020 Australian Grand Prix never happened, but still manage to descend into farce. The global COVID-19 pandemic was really starting to bite, with Italy a major epicentre by March 2020. As teams prepared in Melbourne for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, the paddock was already on edge, having spent several weeks wondering if the Italian teams would even make it to the race. They did, albeit with many questioning why, and it seemed like everything was going to go ahead as expected. Then a member of the McLaren team tested positive for COVID-19 and questions again began to be asked as to how the race could go ahead. McLaren proceeded to withdraw, quite reasonably citing the safety of its team members, but officials said the race was still going to happen. By now it was Thursday.
Overnight rumours swirled that the race was going to be cancelled – some outlets went out with stories saying it was definitely off, some hedged their bets, everyone waited for some word from Formula 1, none came.
On Friday morning spectators began to turn up for day one of the weekend, and the two-seater Formula 1 car could be heard running laps of the track, it’s high-revving V8 engine echoing around the streets of Melbourne but still failing to drown out the murmurings of discontent and confusion. In the meantime, Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Räikkonen had criticised the decision to go ahead, the Australian Basketball season had been cancelled due to the pandemic and finally the state government of Victoria (where Melbourne is) said spectators would not be allowed to attend if the race went ahead. Finally, barely a few hours before the event, Formula 1 cancelled the race, at which point it emerged that only Racing Point, Red Bull and sister team AlphaTauri would have been willing to race anyway. Then a further 14 McLaren team members went into quarantine. The Australian Grand Prix never happened, but it was still bonkers.
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.
Which was F1's biggest fail?
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