When Formula One titles are decided with a crash
Vettel and Alonso go head to head for the world crown tomorrow but might a 'tactical shunt' prove decisive? It wouldn't be the first time, recalls Richard Rae
It may have occurred to Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel that if he and Ferrari's Fernando Alonso fail to finish tomorrow's Brazilian Grand Prix, he, Vettel, will be world champion. Though not in the sense that he would for a moment consider doing anything that might bring such a situation about, obviously. You know, such as driving into Alonso if the Spaniard happened to get ahead at that slow Interlagos first corner.
Because while team orders, changing gearboxes to fix the grid, inter-team espionage, secret extra fuel tanks, stopping in the middle of the track to prevent rivals completing a qualifying lap, cosying up to brutal and repressive regimes and plain bribery are just a few of the practices to have been exposed in Formula One recently, the concept of deliberately colliding with an opponent would surely be beyond the pale. That would be dangerous, as well as cheating, and even F1 people draw the line somewhere.
Or so you would have thought.
Five Grands Prix in which 'interesting' crashes have affected the outcome of the world championship
1) Suzuka 1989
By the end of the 1989 season, the fact Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna were McLaren team-mates did not stop the two best drivers in the sport hating each other's guts. That they were prepared to drive each other off the track first became apparent the previous year in Portugal, when Senna, seeing Prost begin to pull alongside him on the start/finish straight, calmly began to squeeze the Frenchman into the pit wall at close to 200mph.
Senna went on to win the championship, but in Japan the following year Prost needed only to finish ahead of the Brazilian to secure his third world title. With six laps remaining Senna, driving with characteristic brilliance, had worked his way onto his team-mate's tail and attempted to drive up the inside as they came to the chicane. Prost knew he was there and turned in anyway, taking both of them off, but Senna was pushed back into the race, continued and won, only to be disqualified for having got back on to the track by using an escape road.
"I did not open the door and that's it," said Prost years later. "I'd led from the start and I wanted to win it."
2) Suzuka 1990
Senna, furious after qualifying on pole only to be obliged by the FIA to line up on the dirty side of the grid, giving a clear advantage to Prost (now driving for Ferrari) said before the race that if Prost made it to the first corner ahead of him, he would make very sure "The Professor" did not get round.
And that is exactly what he did. Seeing Prost get away ahead before braking into the corner, Senna simply kept his foot down and slammed into the back of the Ferrari, taking them both out.
Prost called the move disgusting and Senna a man without value. Ferrari railed about "tactical crashes". Senna was later to give an interview in which he admitted his actions had been deliberate. "I was f***ed many times by the system," he said. "I told myself: 'Today is no way. Today it has to be my way. I don't care what happens, it has to be my way.'"
3) Adelaide 1994
Opinions are still divided on Michael Schumacher's Benetton, a car many in the sport believed to be using illegal computer aids, colliding with Damon Hill's Williams after the German damaged his suspension hitting the wall.
Schumacher maintains it was a racing accident: just about everybody else, with the exception of the race stewards, Murray Walker and several million Germans, thinks it wasn't. Though what happened in Jerez three years later (see below) might have changed a few minds.
Schumacher lead the world championship by a single point from Hill going into the race, and as he limped back towards the pits after his mistake, Hill, a driver whom Schumacher had earlier that season described as "second rate", appeared in his mirrors before diving down the inside of the Flinders Street corner. Schumacher turned in, the cars collided, and despite being shunted off, the Benetton damaged the Williams sufficiently to force Hill to retire.
Restrained in his comments at the time, Hill has since been rather more expansive on his then rival. "A lot of people are interested only in victory, not necessarily how it is obtained. I believe Michael has taken a slightly cynical approach to the sport which has been bad for it."
4) Jerez 1997
Opinion is also divided about Schumacher's actions at the season-ending European GP three years later, except this time even the Germans aren't on his side. Actually, even Schumacher referred to it as a "misjudgement" on his part rather than a "racing incident".
Like Alonso in 2012, Schumacher's Ferrari was not as quick as the car of his leading opponent, in this case the Williams driven by Jacques Villeneuve. Schumi wrestled it into contention though, and once again lead the championship by a point going into the final race. He led until lap 48 when Villeneuve, coming from a long way back and clearly visible, shot up his inside. Again Schumacher turned in, but this time the Gods of motor racing had had enough. As Martin Brundle put it when commentating: "You hit the wrong part of the car, my friend."
Schumacher ended up in the gravel, while Villeneuve went on to finish third and in so doing secure the championship. The Italian newspaper L'Unita said Schumacher had covered himself, Ferrari and the sport in shame, but while he was stripped of his second place in the championship, instead of being banned, was told to take part in an FIA Safe Driving campaign. Which, if nothing else, showed that somebody at the FIA had a sense of humour.
5. Singapore 2008
Remember Nelson Piquet Jr? No? The poor chap was toddling along minding his own business when on lap 14 he was instructed by his Renault team to simply drive into the barriers. Renault had worked out that deployment of a safety car would put his team-mate, one Fernando Alonso, who had started the race from 15th on the grid and had just pitted for fuel and a tyre change, in a very strong position. Whether they'd calculated the Spaniard would actually go on and win is a moot point, but Ferrari's Felipe Massa, who was leading when the safety car came out, was completely stuffed, finished the race 13th and went on to lose the title to Lewis Hamilton by a single point.
When, eventually, Piquet Jr told the FIA he had been told by team principal Flavio Briatore and director of engineering Pat Symonds to crash, Renault started legal action against both him and his father. Not long afterwards they admitted all charges and Briatore and Symonds left the team.
True to F1 form, Renault, who subsequently paid substantial libel damages to the Piquets, were not banned: the sentence was passed but suspended. "There is," said Sir Jackie Stewart, "something fundamentally rotten and wrong at the heart of Formula One." Piquet Jr is now racing in Nascar.
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