World famous, semi-retired Formula One commentator Murray Walker once said about the sport, “Anything happens in Grand Prix racing, and it usually does.” But you’d be forgiven for thinking he was talking about taking a bend at 180mph and hoping for the best.
The bare truth is the sport has always had a mildly debauched and on-the-fly image reportedly managed by conniving accountants and mechanics paying lip service to overpaid and oversexed racing drivers. What’s more, the impression we have of the sport hasn’t really changed since the open wheel Fiats and Bugattis of 1907. The antics of “playboys” like James Hunt, Juan Fangio and Jensen Button only seal the deal for the sport’s hedonistic image. But is that really fair? Well, to be honest, yes; the sport is a cut-throat multi-million dollar business with lots of national prestige involved, plus lots of rich people, and lots of living it up. It isn’t exactly Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
On and off the track the teams themselves play a dangerous game against each other to gain a psychological or technological advantage over their rivals; whether on race day or in the run-up, or by engineering accidents and throwing races. It’s just most of us don’t hear about it when we sit down to a 190-mile blitz of some high-performance engines. So let’s change the status quo; without further ado here are the 15 dirty secrets the F1 execs hoped you’d forgotten about.
15. State-sponsored racism
Sad but true, racism is an ongoing problem for any sport and despite stronger sentences in the UK for the handful of spectators who prove to be bigoted good-for-nothings some European countries are a little more lenient. The world of F1 is no exception. Most famously at the Spanish circuit in 2008 some F1 fans showed us how dumb some people can really be. A group of them stood up with blacked-up faces and taunted and abused Lewis Hamilton every time he pitted. As if it couldn’t be any worse they had “Hamilton’s Family” written on their t-shirts.
The apparent germ of this filthy onslaught comes from the long-standing rivalry between Hamilton and Spanish driver Fernando Alonso and an out-and-out simple-minded hatred of the first ever black F1 champion. The track abuse was only the tip of the iceberg as the shameful hate was picked up with glee by the Spanish press. Was anything done about it though? Seemingly not.
14. Flavio Briatore – Fraud
Before disgraced business magnate Flavio Briatore was offered a place as commercial director for Benetton in 1988 it was well-known to insiders that he had been convicted in Italy on several fraud charges in the earlier years of the decade. He was in fact convicted of multiple counts of fraud in the 1980s and received two prison sentences then, in 1986 was sentenced to three years for fraud and conspiracy for his role in an elaborate system of rigged gambling games using fake playing cards. The presiding judges described these as confidence tricks and outlined a secret scheme by which unsuspecting punters were “ensnared” by fixed games and fictional characters. Briatore and his fellow conspirators made a great deal of money from these scams.
Briatore’s ways weren’t wholly dedicated to scamming unsuspecting card players though. His dangerous antics as Renault’s team principal played out in the 2008 race fixing scandal between Fernando Alonso and Nelson Piquet Jr, the inception of which Briatore played a pivotal part. Let’s face it, a leopard rarely changes his spots especially when there’s money involved. Following stringent denials, Briatore eventually resigned shortly after the scandal quoting his reason for leaving as, “Just trying to save the team”, “It’s my duty. That’s the reason I’ve finished.” We’ll hear more from him later.
13. McLaren vs Ferrari – Espionage
Let’s turn our attention to the curious case of Trudy Coughlan, wife of Michael Coughlan, chief designer of McLaren’s Formula One racing team. In 2007 she appeared in a copy shop in deepest darkest Surrey with a raft of around 780 secret bits of paperwork (including technical information concerning F1 cars, plans and finances) from none other than Ferrari. Let’s be honest, no one would have known any different if the guy behind the desk wasn’t such a big fan of the sport and an avid supporter of the prancing horse. Naturally, one call to company’s Formula One sporting director Stefano Domenicali sealed the deal on a high-level investigation of a leak from inside the Ferrari camp and a serious accusation of industrial espionage, if not more than a little amateur. The end result was an indictment of McLaren, plentiful penalties left, right and centre and a record $100 million fine. It can’t have been a warm and cosy Christmas in the Coughlan household after that, but let’s face it every action has a consequence. After it had all blown over it was downhill fast for the team and presumably the guy who leaked the documents to the Coughlans.
12. The Mugging
In November 2010 F1 Supremo Ecclestone was mugged in front of his Brazilian girlfriend Fabiana Flosi. He was wrestled to the ground in front of his Knightsbridge penthouse and left with a black eye and £200,000 less in jewellery. One of several victims of the “Millionaire Muggers,” Ecclestone chose not to go down the route of victim support like the rest of us but seized the chance to make a little back on the escapade. He had his injured face photographed for an advert with Swiss luxury watchmaker Hublot.
By the oddest quirk of destiny, Hublot had at the start of the year agreed a deal with Formula One Management (FOM), the sport’s commercial rights holder to partner with F1. The company deny Ecclestone was paid for the advert, but it must have provided him with some fantastic rates of pay for advertising.
11. Doping Allegations
Now, we’ve all heard of drug-use in the fields of cycling, athletics and golf to name a few, but F1 has never really been afflicted by doping scandals. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been the odd space cowboy. According to Marc Sanson, former head of the French anti-doping council, F1 drivers have been known to take performance enhancing drugs before races. “For many years,” he is quoted as saying, “drivers have used tacrine, a product used in the treatment of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, in order to remember the circuits more easily.” But when it comes to drug abuse rife in the current sport, Sanson is less sure. What’s more, his comments back in 2013 were vehemently rebuked by former F1 doctor Gary Hartstein. In any case, the FIA is well known for its zero tolerance of banned substance use and runs an education service for drivers about the dangers of mixing high-speed driving with drugs.
10. Rascasse Gate, 2006
It was the final qualifying lap for the Monaco Grand Prix; if Fernando Alonso could finish his storming lap 0.064 ahead of Michael Schumacher he would reach pole – the vital position for the Circuit de Monaco. With the German’s chances of the position slipping from him by such a minuscule margin, his driving became “a touch too much”; he got it all wrong at Rascasse, locking up his front right tire and veering off across the exit of the right-hander. An innocent mistake you say but let’s not forget Alonso driving his last qualifier on a cert to see him at the front of the grid. But because of where Schumacher ended up, the qualifying session was called to a halt denying Alonso his pole-winning time. Coincidence or foul play? To this day the latter is denied but suspected by just about everyone in F1. In reality, only the most idiotic could avoid the conclusion that Schumacher had crashed deliberately to delay his rivals, yet he protested innocence. Ferrari’s anger at the stewards’ verdict – which saw him demoted to the back of the grid – put a downer on Schumacher’s final year in the sport.
9. BAR Honda’s fuel tank, 2005
FIA regulations are sometimes hard to interpret but on other occasions, it’s fun to interpret them the way it suits. In 2005, constructor team BAR (British American Racing) were brought in front of the headmaster to explain why their cars weighed 594.6kg when completely emptied, rather than the sport regulation minimum of 600kg. Having taken Jensen Button to the podium and Takuma Sato to fifth in the San Marino Grand Prix of that year, stewards waited with baited breath for an explanation.
None really came comprehensively, although when pressed the BAR team line was that their cars’ engines required a minimum of 6kg of fuel stored in a special collector to function. That the stewards’ inquiry accepted the verdict was a great relief to BAR but didn’t stop the FIA vetoing the result and requested BAR serve a year’s ban. Fortunately for BAR at a hearing in Paris, the FIA’s counter – although agreed upon by the Justices – did not result in a ban because a positive intent to cheat could not be proved. So let’s face it, why make something like that public? Until now.
8. Senna vs. Prost
Now, Hamilton and Alonso aren’t the only pair whose tiffs were unconvincingly covered up by the bosses. Take the curious case of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost back in 1989. With the Japanese Grand Prix approaching, Prost made no secret of the fact he thought the 29-year-old Italian’s driving tactics were a little suss. Come the race at Suzuka, Prost got the better start of the two, jettisoning the Brazilian’s pole position advantage. But by lap 46 Senna had caught the Frenchman and as he overtook at a chicane Prost deliberately turned his car into Senna’s, taking them both out. Although Senna was able to re-join the race, he was disqualified soon afterwards, leading him to believe there was a conspiracy to make Prost champion.
In 1990, Senna got his revenge as the pair collided yet again at Suzuka’s chicane. Running Prost off now ensured that Senna’s French rival couldn’t achieve a greater number of points and although speculation was rife the accident was still put down to just one of those things!
7. Max Mosley – The Cover Up
Hey, sex scandals happen; there’s probably one happening right now that we’ll only hear about in a year’s time. It doesn’t matter if someone is rich or poor there’s always a chem-sex party behind a closed door.
Of course, the key to responsible partying is, as always: know your boundaries and stick to them. But back in 2007 then FIA president Max Mosley had another mantra in mind: and according to the press, it was last heard in a bunker in Berlin 72 years ago. Mosley became entangled in a bizarre sex scandal which execs of the sport again tried to cover up. No luck though because the News of the World got hold of a video which “allegedly” showed president Max enjoying Nazi-themed fun with some prostitutes. Mosley successfully sued the paper but didn’t argue about the authenticity of the tape; he just didn’t like the label of a Nazi-themed sex party. So, maybe National Socialist Leitmotif would have been more appropriate… and $92,000 cheaper.
6. Bernie Ecclestone – The Sexist
Let’s climb right to the very top of the F1 ladder and talk about Bernie Ecclestone, the recently usurped CEO and President of Formula One Management. A former racer and team owner, billionaire Ecclestone is one of the most prominent and well-known faces in F1 with his shock of silver hair, round glasses and occasional black eyes. The former F1 Supremo worked hard to bring success and money to the sport but he hasn’t been without scandal and controversy. To some, his behaviour has demonised himself against women, to others he is a boy-done-good saviour of the sport and all sins are forgiven. Either way, there is no denying some of the opinions of this 87-year-old have landed him in hot water.
In 2005, Bernie showed us a glimpse of his brilliant mind when he suggested that “women should be dressed in white to match the appliances” and not satisfied with saying it once he said it again, causing just as much consternation. What’s more, in 2009, the Times quoted Ecclestone saying that “Hitler was a leader who could get things done”. Anyway, take from that what you will; we can only imagine what else he’s saying behind closed doors.
5. Twin Chassis Lotus 88 – Circumventing The Technicalities
Back in 1981, Lotus’s Colin Chapman, Peter Wright, Tony Rudd and Martin Ogilvie had a rather unique idea. According to Wikipedia, the twin-chassis design that supported their ongoing efforts to maximise the downforce produced by ground effects and could run a car to take corners faster than any other in the paddock. Chapman’s plan was simple: the inner chassis held the cockpit and was independently sprung from the outer one to take the pressures of ground effect, while the outer one was basically one big ground effect system from nose to tail. It was a clever idea and one that legendary designer Chapman argued fell within the strict technological guidelines of the F1 regulations, but rival teams did not agree with his optimistic naivety and protested. Lotus’ competitors were rightly incensed by the way in which Chapman was circumnavigating the regulations. Protests were lodged on the grounds that the twin chassis idea broke rules. Without much further discussion, the FIA banned the car and it never got the chance to race.
4. Crash Gate 2008
Here’s a little more on Briatore’s staggeringly dodgy career. One of the most unforgivable and frankly reckless controversies in recent history was called ‘Crashgate’. It was a secret that execs managed to contain for only a year until Nelson Piquet Jr announced to the world that his Renault managers had instructed him to crash during the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix. Despite the arrogance of the top order assuming the motives for the crash would never be found out it became common knowledge that the subsequent safety car period following the crash helped promote team-mate Fernando Alonso to first place and claim the win. It was only after German-born Brazilian Piquet Jr was dropped from Renault mid-way through 2009 that he revealed he had been asked to deliberately sabotage the race.
The team did not contest the charges; how could they? Renault F1’s managing director Flavio Briatore and the team’s executive director of engineering Pat Symonds left; the former given a lifetime ban from the sport, the latter banned for five years, although later overturned by a French court.
3. United States Grand Prix, 2005
A Max Mosley foul-up back in 2005 made F1 a laughing stock in the heartland of American road racing but so too damaged relations with hugely influential Michelin.
It was discovered only too late by main tire provider Michelin that the banked final turn of the Indianapolis circuit caused the side walls of its tires to collapse. Too late to do anything about and with seven teams relying on rubber, Mosley stepped up in absentia with masterminded idiocy and instructed drivers to take the corner at a snail’s pace. The better suggestion of constructing a makeshift chicane to bypass the corner was opposed although on what grounds no one is really sure, even after the Michelin-supplied teams offered to start from the back of the grid. In the end, Mosley’s terminal decision to bring the cars’ speed right down on the last bend was a sure sign that the sport was being governed by people who cared not one iota for the safety of the drivers, spectators or for that matter the techno partners.
2. Minimum Weight Rules
Against the rules, or just economical? This was the big question for execs in 1982 after a weight issue reared its head for constructors who realised that racing well against turbo-powered rivals was going to take more than a little tweak.
A lighter car even without a turbo was the answer, but how to cheat the weigh-in was the question. It came down to Lotus’s Colin Chapman (familiar?) who devised a reserve water tank which when full at the pre-race weigh-in would provide the correct regulation weight. During the race, the water could be dumped and afford the car the advantage and before post-race weigh-in could be as easily topped-up as a kettle.
Excellent results followed. However, when execs discovered the secret to their success their positions were disallowed. To some, this was an unfair judgement and politically motivated. The British teams boycotted the San Marino Grand Prix…and now you know why.
1. Schumacher Returns
Notwithstanding the controversy surrounding Rascasse-gate, Michael Schumacher is no stranger to on-track confrontation. The question is how much of it is team-led? We could be forgiven for thinking most of it is. With both drivers seeking the F1 crown at Adelaide in 1994, the German crashed into Damon Hill as the Englishman was overtaking, forcing the two of them to retire from the race. The race was won by Nigel Mansell but Schumacher won the championship… by a single point. Then again, in 1997 in Jerez, a repeat of the same manoeuvre against Jacques Villeneuve assured the cynical among us of Schumacher’s team’s tactical motivations. However this time the strategy backfired spectacularly as Villeneuve became F1 world champion and Schumacher was thrown out of the championship, discredited and sanctioned by the FIA.