First on the road

September 8, 2008

I think it is fairly clear that, of all the elements which contribute to the global popularity of motor racing, post-race amendments to the results are not one of them.  Yesterday’s Belgian Grand Prix was just one such example of this – a race full of thrills, tension and intrigue rendered completely meaningless by officialdom.  Of course, rules are rules in any sport, and they need to be applied lest the entire activity is to become a pointless and noisy demonstration-only run.  In my opinion, Lewis Hamilton’s impetuousness is what has cost him here.  With two full laps to run on a wet track, he could have passed Raikkonen at more or less any corner he pleased, such is his dominance in adverse conditions.  Whilst he undisputably let Raikkonen back past again after his abortive manouvre at the chicane, he seemed to do so in a way which allowed him extra momentum for a pass into the next corner.  In so doing, I believe, he gave officialdom the stick with which to beat him.  Nevertheless, in this case it seems like the stewards’ actions were at best over-zealous and disproportionate, at worst capricious to a point where conspiratorial rumblings are unavoidable.   People from inside the sport have been queueing up to voice their disapproval of the actions of Messrs. Nicholas Deschaux, Surinder Thatti and Yves Bacquelaine, so I don’t really feel the need to add much to the invective currently spilling around the media.

What I will say, however, is that none of the triumverate – Deschaux, Thatti and Bacquelaine – is or was a world class racing driver.  If the job of the stewards now is to simply apply the letter of the law regardless of context or of circumstance, surely the stewards could easily be replaced by a computer program.  What Formula 1 needs is an ex-F1 driver – and a good one – to be party to the discussions and decisions of racing incidents.  If Lewis Hamilton loses his appeal – and as the beneficiary of the decision in this case is both Ferrari AND a closer battle at the top of the drivers’ championship, I would not bet against it – and goes on to lose the World crown by 6 points or less, he has three pen pushers to thank for negating a drive of some skill, bravery and flamboyance.  Whatever sport you choose to follow, such an eventuality can never be right.

Far be it from me to be cynical, but the amount of result amendments and disqualifications in Formula 1 really started to pick up towards the late 1970s and early 1980s, corresponding with the rapid growth in mass media interest and regular TV coverage.  Formula 1 became slave to the concept of “The Show”, and the stewards’ intervention could always be relied upon to add some extra spice to proceedings.  I’ve decided to take a look at six of the most famous post-race shenanigans in motor racing’s premier category.

1999 Malaysian Grand Prix

For a few days, this was the most brutal stewarding decision of them all, as the Ferrari pair of Eddie Irvine and Michael Schumacher were both disqualified from first and second places in the race for having illegal barge boards.  Mika Hakkinen, who had finished a distant third, was elevated by this to both the race win and the World Championship.  However, for once, Ferrari had officialdom on its side.  The team successfully demonstrated that the stewards at the meeting had measured the silhouette of the board incorrectly, and Irvine and Schumacher were reinstated, Irvine going on to contest a World Championship decider with Hakkinen in Japan a fortnight later.  This time, Hakkinen won the race and title on merit.  The right driver won in the right way, on the track.  Are you listening, Belgium?

1997 Japanese Grand Prix

This one still sticks in my craw.  Again, rules are rules.  But rules are still rules at the start of the season, not just when it looks like the World Championship title battle might be getting too one-sided.  Jacques Villeneuve was disqualified from the penultimate meeting of the 1997 season for a yellow flag infraction in free practice.  Villeneuve, who was under a suspended ban for failing to slow down under yellow flags after a similar incident in Monza, was spotted by eagle-eyed stewards – possibly wearing red caps.  Villeneuve raced under appeal to fifth place, losing even the 2 points gained from this afterwards as the FIA upheld the stewards’ decision.  Handily this meant that Michael Schumacher – who won the race – was able to close down the Canadian’s 9 point championship lead, the German taking a 1 point advantage to Jerez in late October.  On that day, Villeneuve won and Schumacher cheated.  All rejoiced.

1994 British Grand Prix

In a baffling and bewildering move, Michael Schumacher blasted off the line on the formation lap, repeatedly overtaking pole-sitter Damon Hill.  After the first start was aborted, the German repeated his move on the second formation lap.  For this he received a 5-second stop and go penalty – itself strange, as 10 seconds is the standard measure here – which his Benetton Team seemingly failed to heed in time.  Chaos reigned as the World Championship leader was black flagged, all of which served only as a reminder to Schumacher to serve the time penalty, rather than coming into the pits and getting out of the car.  Despite an overwhelming sense of the rules having been totally suspended for the day, Schumacher went on to finish 2nd behind Damon Hill.  Afterwards, the stewards threw the book at him, awarding a two race ban for his troubles.  Meanwhile, the FIA’s chief race steward that day, Roland Bunseryde, was demoted to rather less vexing duties.  As an epilogue to all this madness, Schumacher was disqualified again – this time from first place – in the race before his ban commenced.  On that occasion it was for an over-worn plank on the car’s floor and the beneficiary was again Damon Hill.

1989 Japanese Grand Prix

The most fractious inter-team squabble of them all came to a head in one of the most famous ever Grand Prix.  At Suzuka in 1989, Ayrton Senna simply had to beat his McLaren rival Alain Prost or the Frenchman would win his third world crown.  With six laps to the flag, Senna made a lurid, brilliant opportunistic dive for the lead going into the chicane.  Prost, totally fed up with Senna and the McLaren team by this stage, obviously decided that enough was enough.  Declining to give Senna the room, Prost closed the door, and the two cars slithered up the escape road.  Prost looked at Senna, unbuckled and walked away.  Senna kept the clutch in and, following a push from the marshals, rejoined the track, following the escape road rather than doubling back to take the chicane he had missed.  Big mistake.  Sometimes, things are just going against you.  The FIA had clearly been upset with some of Senna’s antics, and were perhaps looking for an excuse to punish him for them.  This was all they needed.  The Brazilian won the race that day, but coming out onto the podium, he was nowhere to be seen, the race having been awarded to Benetton’s Alessandro Nannini.  At his appeal shortly afterwards, Senna was severely reprimanded for his overall conduct, and warned against future adventures.  I do perhaps wonder if the same thing is about to happen to Lewis Hamilton.

1982 Brazilian Grand Prix

Disqualifications were a race-by-race occurence in the early 1980s, as the FISA-FOCA wars between the haves (i.e. Turbo-powered teams) and the have-nots raged.  This one was perhaps the apex of the absurd Water-Cooled Brakes fiasco.  In summary, the FOCA, Cosworth-powered, teams spotted a loophole in the laws whereby they were allowed to top their cars up with coolants before they were officially weighed.  As such, the teams all merrily filled enormous water tanks, allowing their cars to come up to legal weight in the pits but race hugely underweight on the track, having literally pissed all their water away in the early laps.  As solutions go, it was not particularly sporting nor particularly elegant, but it did rather neatly make for a level playing field.  The Turbo teams, having invested heavily in their new-fangled engines with the express intention of not having to compete on a level playing field, were not happy.  After being soundly beaten by the normally-aspirated pair of Nelson Piquet (Brabham) and Keke Rosberg (Williams) at Rio, Renault made a fuss.  The top pair were summarily disqualified from the meeting, promoting Renault’s Alain Prost to the win.  And John Watson, Nigel Mansell, Michele Alboreto and Manfred Winkelhock to positions 2-5 in their normally aspirated McLaren, Lotus, Tyrrell and ATS.  Come the end of the season, Rosberg and Watson battled it out all the way to the finale in Las Vegas, but only, as Rosberg would later point out, because Watson had been allowed to keep his 6 points from Rio although his car was just as illegal as the Finn’s.  Renault not having been beaten by McLaren that day, though, they had not bothered to protest their car…

1976 British Grand Prix

1976 was, at the time, the closest ever finish to a World Championship season.  James Hunt beat Niki Lauda – who had dominated the early season running before his near-fatal brush with the scenery at Nürburgring – by the slim margin of 1 point.  It was close, too, off the track, each driver coming off best in one controversial decision.  Hunt had been disqualified for a too-wide McLaren after winning the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama, whilst the Ferrari team filled their boots.  Come France, however, Lauda’s red car blew its engine and Hunt won.  Momentum broken, Hunt received an extra fillip the week before his home race at Brands Hatch, as the FIA overturned his Spanish disqualification.  Hunt looked to have broken his hoodoo and went into the British Grand Prix hungry for more.  He got as far as the first corner, before Brands’ traditional mass startline accident got the better of him, his M23 taken out by Lauda’s Ferrari teammate Clay Regazzoni.  The rules of the day stated that that was that for Hunt, but in the face of a baying mob of a crowd, starting to turn ugly in the baking heat of the British summer of 1976, the officials agreed to allow Hunt to take the restart and sort it all out later.  Hunt and Lauda raced off on their own that day, Lauda leading just over half way before Hunt passed him up the hill on lap 46, carrying on for the win.  A win which was duly taken away again afterwards.

Looking at all of these examples, I have to say they have one unifying factor.  That is, that regardless of their specific ins and outs, the right man – the deserving winner – always prevailed in the end, be it the end of the race or the end of the year.  Maybe there is some good news for Lewis Hamilton after all.

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