Mark McArdie/ Wikimedia Commons
Mark McArdie/ Wikimedia Commons

Formula One’s history of underhanded tactics has been overstated

Formula 1 (F1) is a sport of small margins, evidenced by only 0.044 seconds separating Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel during qualifying for the British Grand Prix. With such fine distinctions between teams there are often suspicions of underhanded tactics being used, whether it be different fuel mixes or aerodynamic parts. Therefore, it was little surprise that Hamilton and his team boss Toto Wolff, charged by emotion after a difficult race, accused Ferrari of “interesting tactics” in the post-race interview (Hamilton had collided with Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen on the first lap). These comments showed the cracks beginning to emerge in a Mercedes season where they face a difficult challenge from Ferrari for the championship, yet they also showed Mercedes in a poor light, as bad losers. Both Wolff and Hamilton retracted their statements shortly afterwards- they were ridiculous after all- and yet it begs the question of how common underhanded tactics are in F1.

During the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, Renault driver Nelson Piquet Jr. crashed deliberately during the race

Past Formula 1 seasons have been marred by this kind of controversy. For instance, during the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, Renault driver Nelson Piquet Jr. crashed deliberately during the race. This allowed his teammate Fernando Alonso to gain an advantage and win the race. A year later Piquet Jr. came forward revealing this and the Renault team spiralled into disaster. The team’s managing director Flavio Briatore and its director of engineering, Pat Symonds were both charged by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) for fixing the race, and they did not contest these charges. Briatore has not returned to F1 since. Retrospectively this incident became known as Crashgate and created an air of mistrust for years after in the sport. However, in recent years this is perhaps the only notable incident of this kind.

To find underhanded tactics in the way of Hamilton’s accusation you have to look back quite a way. In 1989 McLaren Honda was by far the dominant car, and the team’s two drivers, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, were the best of their generation. The rivalry between these two is seen as the most intense in F1 history. Recent rivalries, like that between Schumacher and Alonso or Hamilton and Rosberg, pale in comparison. At Suzuka in 1989 Senna and Prost collided, with Senna continuing but later being disqualified from the race, handing Prost the championship. Senna was heavily fined by the FIA and accused its president, Jean-Marie Balestre, of favouring his French compatriot Alain Prost.

The rivalry between Prost and Senna both inspired future generations and defined their era of F1

The next year the two were again fighting for the championship at Suzuka, with Prost now driving for Ferrari. This time the roles were reversed, as if Prost did not finish then Senna was world champion. Senna was in pole position at the race start, but believed the side assigned to pole was worse than the grid position that Prost- in second place- started from. Due to his complaints not being heeded he said beforehand that he would not concede space to Prost in the first corner. The result was as expected, at 160mph Senna ploughed into the side of Prost, winning the world championship. Senna later admitted this was premeditated and a direct retaliation for his perceived vilification the previous year.

The rivalry between Prost and Senna both inspired future generations and defined their era of F1, from Senna’s first win in 1985 to Prost’s retirement in 1993. It serves as a reminder, even today, of how far great drivers can push each other, and how far great drivers are prepared to go to win. Senna was Hamilton’s inspiration as a driver, so perhaps he had Senna in the back of his mind when he accused Ferrari of underhanded tactics. Such incidents are memorable, yet Hamilton will know as well as any how rare they really are, and he should not let himself get distracted from his title fight by creating a narrative of him against the world.

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