The greatest motorsport controversies (of the past 2 decades)
With less than 2 months left from these 20 years, it's time to sum up the forces that shaped the racing world.
This article is part of the "(of the past 2 decades)" series I decided to write for myself (and for you - if you are patient enough to read through them), recapping what was going on in the world from 2000 to 2020. This time I turn the attention on the world of motorsports to highlight some of the most delightful or most embarassing events. It’s always sad to discuss crashes, especially fatal ones – which still occur in motorsports, so I decided not to include any. Partly to leave the memory of gone racers alone, partly because fans often come up with wrong and misleading narratives about deadly accidents. Oh, this part also includes bikes, so car nuts please don't get mad when you see two-wheelers.
10) The departure of the Safari Rally from the WRC calendar
While there were a few debatable rule changes in the world of rallying, luckily there were no big dramas to talk about. We saw great sportsmen emerge, they fought fantastic battles, driving through beautiful sceneries. However in 2002 the WRC visited the African continent for the last time, meaning an era came to an end. FIA removed the Kenyan rally because it put a great financial stress on manufacturers.
The Safari rally was not just simply any rally – stages were extra long, super dusty and very difficult. Teams had to build custom cars that could withstand the heat, then blast through water streams, bumps, cow herds and rocks and still remain quick. Unlike European events that are more like sprint races with only seconds deciding on the win, the Safari Rally was more about reliability and was the last link between rally raid and rallying. Would rallying be much different if development programs weren't about aero packs and high-tech stuff, but the durability of your intercooler? Who knows? It was introduced by Jean Todt (former co-driver in the event in the '70s) that it will return for the 2020 season, albeit in a much curtailed form.
Why it's controversial: The most challenging event ousted.
9) Romano Fenati’s brake grab
During the 2018 San Marino Grand Prix, Moto2 rookie Romano Fenati rode next to competing rider Stefano Manzi at around 200 km/h and pulled the brake lever on Manzi’s bike. Moto2 may not be the top category of bike racing, but it’s close enough. His licence was revoked for the season and his contract was immediately terminated, but now he’s back in Moto3.
Why he did it? The incident fuelled heated debates in the motor racing press whether top riders such as Rossi show bad example to the youngsters or Fenati was just simply born without brain, but the key takeaway is that extremely dangerous behaviour must be expelled from racetracks. In other disciplines this action would have carried a police investigation over attempted murder. Are we too protective about participants of motorsport events to not let that happen?
Why it's controversial: It’s an utter disappointment if you believe in the spirit of competition.
8) Allan McNish’s Le Mans crash
From the pre-face you can guess, that this particular crash in the 2011 24 hours race of Le Mans was a lucky one with no major injuries. And indeed, it was probably the luckiest crash to be witnessed in the last 20 years, as everyone escaped unhurt.
Le Mans was often criticized for ever-increasing pace of the top LMP cars and that the rest of the pack just can’t follow. To make matters even worse, there are the gentleman drivers, who sometimes even lack the skills of the professionals. So to sum up, the LMS races are accidents waiting to happen. Can – or should – the FIA and organizers do something about it? Hard to come up with a perfect solution, a lots of improvements were made since this particular crash to increase safety on and around the track and to try and resolve the issue of traffic, but this case is probably also the best example of why motorsports will never be totally risk-free.
Why it’s controversial: To quote drivers: speed is not the issue in racing. Speed difference is.
7) Kawasaki Superbike team’s drug smuggling
The ominous truck with bikes, drugs and guns amongst its cargo.
In 2011, after the Assen round of the Superbike championship the lorry of the Kawasaki Racing Team – then run by Paul Bird Motorsport - was stopped for a routine inspection crossing the British border. Huge amount of drugs and weapons were found on board. Riders were not involved in the smuggling, but team personnel were. Later, Kawasaki terminated their contract with the former factory team and created a new one that has won all but 2 championship titles ever since.
It’s not the case itself that is important - the goal is not to showcase it in a tabloid way. But the phenomenon must be noted, that the glamour and expensive toys involved in motor racing can attract a lot of shady business. Many speculate that this was not a one-off case, but just a small fish caught from the ocean. From time to time it’s important to remind ourselves that our choices do matter when it comes to keeping the sport clean of criminals. Everybody should be more alert who they keep hanging around in their pit boxes.
Why it’s controversial: A reminder that there are bad guys in motorsports too.
6) 2003 Brazilian GP
One of the most beautiful moments in motor racing - exchanging the winner's trophy without any grief.
There were many great wet races in the history of Formula 1, and this Brazilian Grand Prix has every right to be named amongst the most thrilling ones. Drivers were dropping out in massive numbers in the third corner: Schumacher, Panis, Button – some previously thought of as rain-specialists. This left the others some chance and bewildered from the opportunity they were pushing the boundaries as far as they could, meaning they dropped out even more. This lead to a race-ending crash, as Mark Webber’s Jaguar collided with the wall in the last corner and then due to poor visibility and seeing no sign of any warning flag, Fernando Alonso’s Renault hit the debris. After a not-so-immediate red flag, the decision was made to finish the race as it was, but the question arose: who should be declared winner? Originally Kimi Räikkönen stood on top of the podium with Giancarlo Fisichella being second, but everybody seemed confused as this was not the actual order they witnessed at the end of lap 54, which was thought to be the last timed lap. After the FIA looked into their data deeper it was clear that the results must be modified after the podium ceremony, awarding Fisichella the actual win. The trophies were exchanged at the beginning of the San Marino GP in a very friendly manner. A gold for Eddie Jordan’s team? Everybody is happy about that.
Why it’s controversial: Slow jury decision, slow team reactions, but maybe a good race in the end?
5) The Dakar leaves Africa
Remember when Mitsubishi was cool? If you don't, it means it's been far too long without a good race in Africa.
One day before the start of the 2008 Dakar Rally in Portugal, the organizers cancelled the race citing a possible terror threat in Northern Africa. No major motor racing event was held on the continent ever since.
The reason there are so much gossips around this topic is that A.S.O. – the owner of the Dakar brand after the founder Thierry Sabine’s death - isn’t a classic motorsport race organizer. In fact their main profile is cycling races, they do the Tour de France, the Paris - Roubaix and other French road cycling events. No wonder they often receive harsh criticism for moving the Dakar Rally to South America and from 2020 to the Arabian Peninsula. The FIA tried to resurrect the official rally-raid championship many times, and a smaller French crew even organizes a race through the original North African territories called the Africa Eco Race (they even finish in the city of Dakar), but these events just have no promotional value to lure in manufacturers. Only the Dakar has, so whatever A.S.O. does to it has huge impact on what people think about this discipline. Was their fear of a terrorist attack real and was leaving Africa a good solution? We can’t know for sure.
Why it's controversial: Isn't it a spit in the eye for the heritage of the race?
4) The Corvette vs. Porsche Laguna Seca finish
In the last 10 minutes of the 2009 Laguna Seca ALMS (American Le Mans Series) race, the class leading GT2 Porsche of Jörg Bergmeister was caught by Jan Magnussen’s (father of Formula-1 driver Kevin Magnussen) Corvette and hell broke loose. They passed each other for a few laps and it was obvious that the Corvette is faster. In the last corner he was able to accelerate quicker, went next to Bergmeister’s Porsche and collided through the finish line only to finish second. Bergmeister won the race and the championship.
For independent spectators it isn’t really controversial, it’s just an epic battle great to rewatch from time to time. For the teams and their core fans however it may be a different story. It’s one of the greatest rivalry in endurance racing with 2 professional drivers who are greatly representative of their brands - Bergmeister has been with Porsche since like forever and the same goes for Magnussen's contract with GM. If you are a Porsche fan you will probably see a Corvette driver too aggressive. If you cheer for Corvette, you will see Bergmeister pushing Magnussen to the wall. The race stewards however concluded no action was required, it’s a simple racing accident.
Why it’s controversial: Greatest and most lasting motorsport rivalry to unfold in the GT racing scene since Porsche vs. Ferrari.
3) 2007: The Lewis Hamilton – Fernando Alonso year
Usually the championship podium is a representative sum of the year. But this one was far more complicated.
First of all, the year kicked off with a spygate, in which McLaren was accused of stealing confidential information from Ferrari about technical specifications through former engineer Nigel Stepney. The accusations turned out to be true and later that year McLaren was disqualified from the Constructor’s Championship. That wasn’t their only concern though – as they swapped their drivers for that year for defending world champion Fernando Alonso and a young rookie – Lewis Hamilton.
Alonso thought he will be the number one driver in the team – Hamilton thought otherwise, control was quickly lost by team principals, their drivers were competing against each other using any possible means. Alonso went so far that after the qualifying of the Hungarian GP (where they had a pretty nasty clash in the pit lane), he asked McLaren to sabotage Hamilton's race. They weren’t just 2 of the 4 drivers winning multiple championships in the last 20 years (Alonso, Schumacher, Hamilton, Vettel). They were classic arch-rivals: the seasoned and cunning Spanish matador versus the cheeky British motorsport hope. Many compare their rivalry to the Senna – Prost years, which in some ways was a very similar situation. Then in the last race in Brazil Kimi Räikkönen used an opportunity to steal the Championship from them by one sole point. Well done, Kimi?
Why it’s controversial: It shaped the field of Formula 1 in a major way.
2) Balance of performance in everything
There probably were a few boring racing series dominated by a single make. But BoP isn't the solution.
When does racing starts? For the audiences who pay expensive entry fees it starts after scrutineering. They visit the tracks or turn on the TV to watch as many action in as little time as possible. For the teams it may start months or even years ahead of actually rolling out to the course. Lots of development work and dedication is needed to prepare the best car, but various teams may end up with vastly differing results, with vastly differing speed.
In Le Mans the balance is adjusted even after qualifying, which is ridiculous. Ford lost a lot of pace this year.
Now this leads to a conflict of interest, as the fans wouldn't like to watch races where the field is dominated by the fastest car of the hardest working (or simply richest) team. That leads to no takeovers and predictable results. Lazier (or poorer) teams saw an opportunity in this recurring pattern and lobbied for the introduction of balancing everyone's cars to the same speed. Now don't get this wrong: there are probably BoP (balance of performance) rules out there that work as intended, but the core theory behind such regulations of the sporting books is this: let's penalize the better cars with ballast or loss of power, so the slower ones can catch them, causing more crashes to great avail of Average Joe. But then why do we have one-make racing series (such as the Porsche Supercup or the Formula Renault series) if the teams are disincetivized to try and bring out even more of their technology? And even if that contradiction is somehow resolved, the BoP rules are just too easy to cheat and happened on numerous occasions that a team was driving slowly deliberately to try and get the least amount of ballast, so they can stomp the field on the following race. It's touring car racing that suffered the most due to balancing performance, but it has made it's entry into GT car racing and even to Le Mans where it wasn't really welcomed by everybody.
Why it's controversial: It's just not compatible with the idea of racing.
1) That Singapore GP
Flavio Briatore and Nelson Piquet Jr. - not the best clinging names in motorsport ever since.
2008. Though the year is not important, as there weren’t any other memorable Singapore GPs anyways, and this one isn’t memorable for the right reason either. It is a story of human greed, conspiracy and cheating – not something the participants could be proud of. It was the first race Renault had a chance to win that year, and after an early pit stop of Fernando Alonso, his teammate, Nelson Piquet Jr. crashed into the wall. And in this context crashing into the wall means that he did so in purpose, threatening his own, the marshals and other drivers life to trigger a safety car period. The safety car period indeed happened and due to the weird pit lane rules that year, everyone was in a huge disadvantage compared to Alonso. The Ferrari team was in such a hurry to try and keep Felipe Massa in contention for the lead, that they released him early, pulling out the fuel hose and almost setting the whole pit area on fire. Total chaos set in, but Fernando Alonso was able to profit from it and win the race in the end.
Around a year later Piquet Jr. was dropped from the Renault team due to poor performance and as a revenge he came out with the story. The strategy was the idea of Pat Symonds and Flavio Briatore, they ordered Piquet to deliberately crash, who fulfilled the team’s request. But a lots of questions may arise: was the pressure from sponsors too high? What caused people with multiple decades of experience in motorsport to ask for such a stupid thing? Why didn’t Piquet thought of refusing the team’s idea? Was the team’s other driver aware what they asked of his teammate in his favour? And again: is it enough to settle such behaviour with a simple FIA investigation instead of charging these people as part of a public prosecution? Lots of questions, no clear answers, but what happened on that Singapore GP clearly remains the shame of modern motorsports.
Why it’s controversial: Motorsport is risky, but it shouldn’t be about causing unnecessary risks.
Honorable (?) mentions:
Steward decisions interfering with racing, Rossi vs. all his rivals, The Max Mosley scandal, Tobaco and alcohol advert bans, Robert Kubica’s rally crash, The IndyCar - ChampCar divide and reunification