Top 15 Scandals and Controversies in Formula 1 History

No matter what professional sport you watch or follow, it is likely that at some time a scandal or controversy has sprung up around a player or team. Michael Phelps smoking pot, Tiger Woods sending dirty texts to women other than his wife and MLB players like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds linked to steroid use – these are just a few of the many scandals and controversies that affect the professional sporting world. One sport which seems to have some sort of major controversy or scandal almost every year is Formula 1. With such intense pressure on drivers and teams, both on and off the track, it likely doesn’t surprise many that this sport sees a fair share of tabloid topping stories.

If anything, this season’s Formula 1 campaign has been headlined by an ongoing battle within Mercedes. Team drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg appear to be anything but teammates and this past Belgian Grand Prix appears to suggest that we may not see much more cooperation between the pair on the track. Rosberg’s contact on Hamilton, resulting in a punctured tire for the English driver, was reportedly accidental. Replays suggest, however, that there may have been more intent in the crash on Rosberg’s part than is being admitted. Of course, such on-track occurrences remind us of other controversial events and figures in Formula 1 history. Rosberg’s maneuver is reminiscent of other controversial moves undertaken by the likes of Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna.

The following list looks at 15 of the biggest scandals and controversies to hit Formula 1 over the years. From drivers behaving badly to sex scandals, racism and espionage cases, Formula 1 has had its share of storylines which could fuel a series of Hollywood films. For some, it’s all part of the color and intrigue of the world of Formula 1 racing. For others, these events are a huge distraction which taint the sport and take away from pure race-track experience. In any event, they are part of the sport’s history, interwoven with the great drivers and constructors who battle it out year after year on tracks across the world.

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15 Racism in Spain, 2008/09

via dailymail.co.uk

It seems like every sport, at one time or another, becomes entangled with the nasty issue of racism. As most saw in 2008 and 2009, even Formula 1 is not immune to the stupidity and ignorance of some fans. In 2008 in Spain, British driver Lewis Hamilton was greeted by spectators in black-face who taunted and abused the driver every time he pitted during testing. In 2009, at the Spanish Grand Prix, Hamilton yet again faced the same scenario. Other team drivers came to his defense but fans can’t help but feel these situations were paid a little lip-service by officials before being swept under the rug. Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone dismissed the situation as nothing more than a joke – but we’ll have more on him later.

14 Monaco Grand Prix, 2006

via racing-pistons.blogspot.com

Michael Schumacher is a divisive figure when it comes to talking about the greats of Formula 1. The seven time champion knew how to drive and knew how to win. His stats support the fact he was a great driver. However, there are many who would contest that a lot of his greatness was down to plain cheating. Heading into the 2006 Monaco GP, the German trailed Renault’s Fernando Alonso by 15 points. There was much riding on qualifying and who would get the pole. In qualifying, Alonso was fast and Schumacher dealt with this by stopping his car on one of the corners known as La Rascasse – slowing up everyone else behind him and ensuring Alonso didn’t get a better qualifying time. Schumacher explained that he tried to back up and the car stalled. Video didn’t really support this explanation and the stewards didn’t buy it either, taking the pole away from the German.

13 The Belgian Grand Prix, 1981

via crankandpiston.com

Leading up to the start of the Belgian Grand Prix in 1981, the race at Zolder was marred by an accident where one of the team mechanics was fatally injured after being hit by a car. Right before the race was to start, team mechanics staged a protest at the unsafe conditions, many joined by their respective drivers. Officials hurried the protest along and rushed the drivers to their cars. Having sat for such a long time, some cars had overheated or stalled. Mechanic Dave Luckett jumped onto the track to help restart the car of Riccardo Patrese. While he was on the track, organizers started the race and disaster occurred. Cars flew past the stalled car of Patrese until his own teammate, Siegfried Stohr, unsighted, crashed into the back of Patrese, striking Luckett in the process. Luckett survived with only broken bones and Formula 1 escaped from what could have been a major revolt from team drivers and mechanics.

12 Michelin Tires, 2003

via autoguide.com

Almost every aspect of racing in Formula 1 falls under strict rules and regulations. Fuel, aerodynamics, weight, engines – it is all heavily regulated and watched by officials. Tires are another aspect of F1 for which there are strict rules. In 2003, Michelin was one of the tire suppliers for the teams undertaking that season’s campaign. Regulations stated that tires on all cars must be a certain size and not exceed a certain width. Everything seemed fine until rivals Bridgestone discovered that the Michelins expanded over the course of a race, affording more grip as they became wider. Bridgestone blew the story wide open and officials forced Michelin to revise their tires right before the Italian Grand Prix. At Monza, Bridgestone had the last laugh as their tires played a role in handing Ferrari the Driver and Constructor’s Championships.

11 The US Grand Prix, 2005

via nytimes.com

Not done beating on Michelin, we come to the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis in 2005. This was the nail in the coffin for Michelin’s relationship with Formula 1. In 2005, rules stipulated that tires must last for an entire race. Unfortunately, Michelin had no tires that could survive a whole race at Indianapolis thanks to a banked turn that caused the tire to collapse. Michelin and the seven teams it equipped pleaded for a change in the course so they could race – to no avail as the FIA rejected it out of hand. As a result only three Bridgestone equipped teams took part in a GP which was a massive embarrassment to Michelin, Formula 1 and Indianapolis.

10 Bernie Ecclestone

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

It seems fitting that we break open the top 10 with Bernie Ecclestone, the CEO and President of Formula One Management. A former racer and team owner, Ecclestone is one of the key faces of F1 and, through the sale of television rights, is a major reason why F1 is so successful globally. Unfortunately, as well as helping to make F1 so prominent over the past decades, he has also brought a lot of scandal and controversy. Currently facing charges for bribery, Ecclestone has a long history of getting into trouble. In 2005, he enraged women everywhere when, in reference to Danica Patrick, he said that women should be dressed in white to match the appliances. After apologizing, Ecclestone made the same comment again – he apologized a second time. In 2009, the Times quoted Ecclestone as saying that Hitler was a leader who could get things done. Needless to say, these comments sparked significant outrage. Not done there, the F1 Supremo then stated in 2014 that he agreed with Vladimir Putin’s stance on homosexuality. Of course, none of this is helped by the fact Ecclestone looks like a villain from a 1960s Bond film.

9 The Max Mosley Sex Scandal

via mirror.co.uk

Since we just looked at scandals involving one F1 ‘higher-up, ’ let’s stay there for a bit. In 2007 then FIA president Max Mosley became entangled in a bizarre sex scandal. News of the World obtained a video which “allegedly” showed the former racer engaging in Nazi-themed acts with prostitutes in the bedroom. Mosley sued the paper and his lawyers argued that, even though the video shows military uniforms and German accents being used, there were only ‘regular’ S and M activities and not the ‘Nazi’ activities claimed by the paper – because that makes it only a little less strange, right? In any event, the judge found no ‘Nazi’ elements and awarded Mosley over $92,000 in damages. Mosley continued as FIA president until October, 2009.

8 The Staged Finish, Austria, 2002

via edition.cnn.com

There is no doubt that racing is a team sport. In Formula 1, the team leadership provides direction and orders to its drivers to maximize points and put the team in the best possible position. Of course, this often creates problems as team orders can create conflict between drivers and scandal after the race finishes. Perhaps one of the best examples of a team dictating race results came during the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix at the A1-Ring now known as Red Bull Ring. Entering the final stretch of the race, Ferrari’s Rubens Barrichello was leading. He looked set to win the race until team orders came instructing him to slow and let teammate Michael Schumacher overtake for the win and maximum points. Barrichello followed the orders and Schumacher won the race. It was not the first time this had happened and Schumacher was booed by the crowd during a bizarre podium ceremony that saw Ferrari fined $1 million. Having seen enough, the FIA created rules banning race orders that affect the outcome of a race.

7 BAR’s Missing Weight, 2005


In racing, every team has had a time when they interpret the rules a little differently or, perhaps, take advantage of regulations which aren’t so clear. At the San Marino Grand Prix in 2005, BAR’s Jenson Button and Takuma Sato finished 3rd and 5th respectively. Unfortunately for BAR, post-race weighing showed the empty BAR car weighed 594.6kg – instead of the regulation 600kg for empty cars. FIA stewards were given the explanation that the BAR cars required 6kg of fuel, held in a special reserve tank, to operate properly. The excuse was accepted only to be dismissed by the FIA later. BAR argued that the car had never been run with a weight below 600kg. After some back-and-forth and a hearing held by the FIA, BAR escaped a year-long ban and only had to sit out the next two rounds of racing.

6 The Hamilton/McLaren Cover-up, 2009

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The 2009 Australia Grand Prix will likely be more remembered for “liegate” than for the fact Jenson Button won the race. The scandal involved Champion Lewis Hamilton and his team, McLaren. Near the end of the race, Jarno Trulli went off the track while under caution and the safety car. Hamilton took the opportunity to pass and move into third. Audio recordings show that Hamilton asked his team if he should let Trulli retake third, which they agreed to. Trulli moved back into third but was penalized for passing while under caution. Post-race investigators were told by Hamilton that he had received no orders to allow Trulli to pass, indicating the move had been illegal. Further investigation brought out the truth. Trulli was reinstated to third place, Hamilton was disqualified and McLaren were stripped of their constructor points.

5 ‘Water’-Gate, 1982

via motorsportretro.com

No, this isn’t about a hotel, presidential campaign and shady president – but it does involve deception. During the 1982 season there was a split between turbocharged cars and those that still used naturally-aspirated engines. Teams with non-turbo cars, like Williams and Brabham, were concerned about being able to compete with the turbo racers and looked to even the odds. Their plan was to fiddle with the weight of the cars to get back some advantage on the track. At this time, non-turbo cars used ballast to bring them up to the weight of their turbocharged rivals. Williams and Brabham decided to use a reserve water-tank – said to be for brake cooling – which was dumped during the race to lighten the vehicle. Then, when the car finished the race, the tank would be refilled before the car was weighed. Nelson Piquet and Keke Rosberg finished 1st and 2nd in the Brazilian GP but had their results thrown out when the water-tank plan was uncovered. Things were made worse when a McLaren was bumped up into 2nd place even though it had used the exact same technique as the penalized racers.

4 ‘Crash’-Gate, 2009

via en.wikipedia.org

Heading into the 2008 Singapore grand Prix, Fernando Alonso’s poor qualification meant he was starting from 15th on the grid. For most, it meant the Spaniard was out of the hunt for a GP victory. Nonetheless, around lap 12 of the race, Alonso pitted for fuel and tires. It turned out to be a very ‘lucky’ pit stop as Alonso’s teammate, Nelson Piquet Jr., crashed soon after which forced the Safety car to come out. As good fortune would have it, Alonso got out of the pit and in front of the Safety car and caught up to the pack which was now bunched up. When the pit lane reopened and everyone went in for fuel and tires, Alonso kept going and won the race. A year later, the truth came out when Piquet Jr. reported that he was instructed to crash on a specific turn to help out Alonso. A number of Renault team members were handed lengthy bans as a result.

3 McLaren Spies on Ferrari, 2007

via sportswol.com

In racing, as in any sport, competitors are always looking for some way to gain the upper hand on the opposition. Usually it is by legal means but, occasionally, the rules get broken as one competitor looks for an advantage. In 2007, a Ferrari chief mechanic allegedly handed over a substantial amount of technical information concerning the team’s cars, plans and finances to McLaren. The plan might have worked if not for a mix of bad luck and stupidity. Firstly, McLaren’s chief designer Michael Coughlan had his wife drop the pile of documents off at a shop to be scanned onto a CD – stupid. It turned out the clerk responsible for transferring the images was a Ferrari fanatic who also googled the wife’s name to discover her link to McLaren – bad luck. It all went downhill from there with McLaren receiving all sorts of penalties and a record $100 million fine.

2 Michael Schumacher, 1994/97

via speedweek.com

Those critical of Michael Schumacher and his records often cite his on track behavior as a reason why he should not be considered the greatest driver of Formula 1. It is true that the German was involved in some rather underhanded tactics over his career, as witnessed in the 1994 and 1997 seasons. At the 1994 Australian Grand Prix, Schumacher smashed his car into Damon Hill’s Benetton opening the way for the Driver’s Championship. Hill argued it was on purpose while Schumacher, naturally, said it was unintentional. A few years later at Jerez, Schumacher’s car ‘unintentionally’ repeated the same maneuver on Jacques Villeneuve, failing to take out the Canadian at the expense of the Ferrari. Schumacher was disqualified from the championship following an FIA investigation.

1 Senna vs Prost, 1989/90

via news.bbc.co.uk

If ever the Hamilton-Rosberg rivalry reminds us of other team rivalry/scandal, it must be that of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. Heading into the Japanese GP in 1989, Prost had been vocal about his dislike of Senna’s tactics on the track. At the ’89 race at Suzuka, Prost turned his car into Senna’s on the first turn, taking them both out. Senna was able to recover and rejoin the race but was disqualified later, leading him to believe there was a conspiracy to make Prost champion. In 1990, Senna got his revenge on the same track at the same spot. All Senna had to do to get the title was ensure he wasn’t outscored by his now-Ferrari driving adversary. Heading into the first corner, the Brazilian ensured Prost would be unable to finish the race by running into him. Many questioned what had happened after seeing Senna drive straight into Prost’s car. Senna merely wrote it off as a normal racing incident.

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