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The Petrolhead Corner

Busted! Caught Cheating at Racing – Part 3

And they thought they could get away with it…

| By Robin Nooy | 10 min read |

Here it is, the bonus chapter in this diptych-turned-tryptic Petrolhead Corner episode covering cheaters and frauds in racing. So far we’ve seen cheating with fuel capacity, illegal ballast in water-tanks, turbocharging, bribery and even espionage. For this final chapter, we once again uncover the facts of one the most infamous F1 scandals, and a story on Audi illegally swapping parts between cars during a World Rally Championship stage. 

Sporting events and cheating often go hand-in-hand; the desire to win is so strong that it can blur ethical considerations. Doping scandals in cycling, biting down on your opponent’s ear during a boxing match, overlooking the hands ball rule during a football match or, as we’ve now seen, tampering with the rules in racing, cheating will always be part of a competitive environment. The question is, do you manage to get away with it or end up caught red-handed?

Rally – swapping parts between cars

The art of rally racing is to go as fast as possible in extreme conditions and varying terrains. Whether it’s tarmac, snow, gravel or rocky roads, the goal remains the same; put in faster times than your rivals, and win! The stresses on the car vary from stage to stage and surface to surface, resulting in a car breaking down regularly as it is pushed to the limit. This is part of the sport and very much a factor to be reckoned with every single stage of the race.

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The beast, the Audi Sport Quattro S1 E2 – source: Reinhold Möller for Wikimedia

During the mid-1980s, the Audi team dominated the scene after introducing its all-wheel-drive “Quattro” cars in Group B rallying. The Quattro became an absolute legend in all guises, from the Audi Sport Quattro A2 Group B to the wild winged monsters like the Audi Sport Quattro S1 and S1 ‘Pikes Peak’. Prior to Audi’s efforts with all-wheel-drive, the rally world was dominated by rear-wheel-drive cars. Subsequently, all manufacturers switched to all-wheel drive in an attempt to keep up with and beat Audi. Behind the wheel of the German cars were drivers like Hannu Mikkola, Stig Blomqvist, Walter Rhörl and one female driver, Michèle Mouton.

Michèle Mouton was able to bring the fight to the boys and even compete for the occasional win. In 1985 she competed in the Rallye Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) in Africa as part of the World Rally Championship for drivers (not manufacturers) that year. Rally events in Africa were always extra gruelling on cars due to the extreme conditions, as evidenced by the 1972 Rallye Côte d’Ivoire, where 45 cars started and none managed to reach the finish line.

After one of the stages, Michèle Mouton suffered a technical issue with her Audi Sport Quattro S1 and her #2 car was seen belching white smoke. Despite this, she lined up for the next stage with another Audi Quattro following. Michèle Mouton’s #2 car abandoned the route to assess if the issue could be fixed, something that was allowed to a certain extent at the time. The #11 support car joined her, and eventually, Michèle managed to get her car going, seemingly running like clockwork again. Audi stated that a faulty oil pump was the culprit, which was swapped from the #11 support car. Suspicions rose and several of Audi’s competitors believed the team had swapped every single body panel between the two cars to send off Michèle Mouton in the healthy #11 car, now dressed as her own #2 car. 

Even though this was never proven, and Audi was never penalised or even formally investigated, images from the event following the miraculous comeback revealed a different windshield (something to do with the anti-fog system going off according to Audi) and even hood-mounted fog lights that seem to jump between the two cars! Michèle eventually withdrew from the rally as she claimed her car was falling apart and deemed it unsafe to continue. This was another surprise as her original #2 car featured a specially strengthened chassis which the #11 car didn’t. 

Petrolicious included it in its “6 Unbelievable Rule-Bending Stories from Rally” article.

Formula 1 – Crashing on purpose, Senna vs. Prost

When cars take corners at breakneck speed, racing only inches from each other, crashes are inevitable. And yes, Formula 1 has had its fair share of horrific crashes, freak mishaps, and sadly even lethal accidents over the years. But Formula 1 has also seen drivers crashing on purpose, whether on one’s own or deliberately turning into a rival driver. 

The most famous example perhaps is the clash between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost during the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka in 1989 and 1990. In 1989 the two men were teammates, both contenders for the title. During that season the relationship between the two rivals turned sour, which culminated in a crash in the closing stages of the Japanese Grand Prix. Senna attempted a late overtake, surprising Prost. Prost turned in to the chicane, the two men collided and came to a stop. Prost immediately got out but Senna urged marshals to push-start his car and continue the race. After the race, Senna would be disqualified for missing the chicane which granted Prost the championship.

A year later, with Alain Prost now at Ferrari and the two men competing for the title once again, it was déjà vu at Suzuka. Senna was leading the championship and could clinch it at the Japanese Grand Prix if his title rival failed to score any points. In interviews leading up to the race, Senna mentioned that he wouldn’t yield if Prost attempted an overtake. Senna put his car in pole position, with Prost lining up beside him in second. At the start, despite being in pole, Prost had the upper hand and jumped into the lead. Senna would have none of it and rammed the Frenchman. Both men spun off, ended up in the gravel and were out. Senna kept his word and as such became the 1990 driver’s champion. Later Senna admitted that the way the 1989 and 1990 seasons ended tarnished both titles. Eventually, both men buried the hatchet after finishing on the podium together at the 1993 South African Grand Prix.

Formula 1 – Crashing on purpose, Schumacher vs. the Williams team

Fast-forward a few years and we have similar incidents between Michael Schumacher on one end, and Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve on the other. During the 1994 season title hunt, both Damon Hill, driving for Williams, and Michael Schumacher in the Benetton were title-candidates. At the season finale in Adelaide, Australia, the German driver was in the lead with just a single point over Damon Hill. Both men took off at the start and left pole position man Nigel Mansell in the second Williams behind. 

Hill shadowed Schumacher for the first half of the race until the German driver made a rare error and opened the door. Damon Hill immediately took the opportunity and tried to pass Schumacher on the inside in one of the slower 90-degree corners the Aussie track is known for. Schumacher turned in regardless, and hit his rival, ended up almost flipping his Benetton and crashing out in the process. Damon Hill could venture on but his car seemed too badly damaged and he also had to give up. The crash was labelled as a racing incident and thus Michael Schumacher had his first-ever title in yet another very tumultuous and sadly tragic season (both Ayrton Senna and Ronald Ratzenberger had fatal crashes during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix weekend at the Imola track). Some drivers and insiders claim that Schumacher’s move was a deliberate one, to take out his rival or at least not let him past in the most aggressive way possible. Since he wasn’t penalised for it, it isn’t technically cheating but still a remarkable incident.

To make Schumacher’s case a little worse, and I am by no means chastising him for his actions as the man is truly an F1 legend, he pulled the same trick on another championship rival three years later. This time around, the tables were turned and Schumacher was the trailing man behind Villeneuve in the championship standings. The title was up for grabs by both men in the final Grand Prix of the year, at Jerez (Spain). Leading Villeneuve for most of the race, Schumacher seemed in control. Three quarters into the race he began to struggle and Villeneuve was ready to pounce. Prior to the race, the Williams team, including Villeneuve himself, reminded everyone about the clash at the 1994 season finale in a not so subtle way. When Villeneuve finally found a gap and sent his Williams to the inside of Schumacher’s Ferrari, disaster struck yet again, as the German turned into Villeneuve, damaging both cars. Schumacher ended up in the gravel and was out. Villeneuve limped on with a damaged car but was able to finish the race, yielding to the McLaren boys and crossing the line in third place, enough to win the championship.

Formula 1 – Crashing on purpose, Renault’s “master” plan

The most recent and renowned incident, where a team thought it could manipulate the outcome of a race by deliberately crashing one of its cars, took place during the 2008 Singaporean Grand Prix. In 2008 the Renault team was struggling for wins as Ferrari and McLaren dominated the season. The entire season was split between Ferrari with 8 wins, McLaren with 6 wins, Toro Rosso winning at a very wet Monza, BMW-Sauber picking up a win, and surprise back-to-back wins for Renault at Singapore and Japan.

The Singapore track is the stage of one of the biggest scandals in Formula 1’s history, even eclipsing the 2007 Spygate scandal we covered last week. The biggest difference is the fact that the personal safety of one of the drivers was put at risk. During qualifying, Fernando Alonso and Nelson Piquet Jr. got their Renault cars ranked in a disappointing 15th and 16th place. With little fuel in his car and in an attempt to make up a few places in the opening stint of the race, Alonso was the first to pit. Pitting on lap 12, he rejoined the race somewhere at the back of the pack. Three laps later, his teammate Piquet crashed his car into a wall. Since Singapore is a street circuit if you crash anywhere you pretty much end up on the track at all times. As unfortunate as his crash was, Nelson Piquet Jr. managed to crash in a place where there was no crane readily available, so clearing the track of debris would take a while. A safety-car period saw most drivers pitting for tyres and fuel and ending up behind Alonso as he had already pitted. 

After regaining the lead in the later stage of the race, Alonso eventually managed to win. The misfortune of his teammate helped him to victory, and a few eyebrows were raised but the season went on without too much of a fuss.

A year later, after the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, Nelson Piquet Jr. was sacked by Renault. Furious with this decision, especially as it was in the middle of the season with no chance of scoring a seat with another team, Piquet Jr. blew the whistle on the 2008 Singaporean win. He claimed he was ordered to crash his car in that spot on purpose. After weeks of speculation throughout the paddock, Renault was officially charged with conspiracy and cheating. Vigorously denying all claims at first, just days before the final hearing the team made a statement not contesting the outcome of the procedures and announcing that managing director Flavio Briatore and executive director of engineering Pat Symonds had both quit.

Renault was eventually disqualified from F1 and was banned from competition for two years. Fernando Alonso kept his race win as he had no part in all this and was just a bystander. Briatore was banned indefinitely while Symonds received a five-year ban. Although both sentences were eventually overturned, the men had already agreed not to work in Formula 1 ever again as part of a later settlement with the FIA.

2 responses

  1. I’ll never forget Schumacher taking out Villeneuve in that race.

    25 years later and I’ve never watched another F1 race.

    I was disgusted by his obvious cheating, but i was incensed that the FIA didn’t do anything about it.

  2. To an extent I can understand but definitely not condone the cheating in the case of the water ballast. You can’t build a good enough car and the way F1 is financed you need points desperately to continue. The driver cheating is entirely different, you could write a book just about Schumacher’s cheats, Senna seemed not to give in to often though. These two were both talented drivers at the top of their game that just didn’t seem to accept that you can’t win them all. They were prepared to cheat on a televised sport where they were going to get caught. Smith, Warner and Bancroft did the same in cricket. It seems to be a thing in sport and they can convince themselves that a win through cheating is worth having .

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