The biggest incidents of F1 cheating: Spygate, Crashgate and more
Formula 1 has seen numerous acts of cheating or flouting of the rules to gain an advantage over the years, but which ones are most memorable? Find out here.
Formula 1 is populated by drivers and teams alike who revel in the competitive aspect, and will do whatever it takes to win.
For the most part, the desire to become the best driver or to build the best car suffices - but there’s also the desire to put the limits of the regulations to their absolute extremities – and F1 is no exception.
Thus, teams will spend long periods of time assessing the rules and interpreting them in their own way and, sometimes, those interpretations fall over the line of what is considered legal.
On other occasions, there have been some significantly more flagrant rules breaches as teams seek to gain an advantage by delving into the unsavoury world of cheating.
Of course, cheating is only punished if one gets caught doing so, and thus teams in F1’s past have sought to cover up any morally obtuse actions to find their way onto the top step of the podium.
These can cover everything from what the driver does on track to technical innovations that produce an unfair advantage – and everything in between.
Here’s a look at the most memorable different cheats, exploits and rules breaches that teams and drivers have carried out to try and find an advantage.
Nigel Stepney (GBR) Ferrari Chief Mechanic. Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Brazilian Grand Prix, Practice Day, Interlagos, Brazil, 20 October 2006
Photo by: Sutton Images/Motorsport Images
Spygate – McLaren, 2007 season
You could pen a full documentary on the ‘Spygate’ scandal that rocked F1 in 2007. Chief mechanic Nigel Stepney was suspended by Ferrari, described by head of communications Luca Colajanni as a result of “irregularities discovered at the Ferrari factory”. Ferrari then took legal action against a McLaren employee, which later emerged to be chief designer Mike Coughlan.
Stepney had passed on a wealth of Ferrari documentation to Coughlan, believed to be almost 800 pages-worth of secrets, which Coughlan had given to his wife to take to a Woking photocopying shop. The photocopier tasked with the tree-butchering exercise blew the whistle to set the chain of events into motion – and although McLaren’s investigation found that no Ferrari documents “had been passed to any other members of the team or incorporated into our cars”, the FIA also did its due diligence.
The FIA found that McLaren had been in possession of the documents, but concurred that there was no evidence that Ferrari’s design secrets were incorporated into the design of the car.
But on the arrival of new evidence, McLaren was disqualified from the constructors’ championship and handed an eye-watering $100m fine. Although the drivers were free to fight it out for the drivers’ crown, the battle between Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton eventually contrived to help Kimi Raikkonen swoop in and claim the 2007 title.
Nelson Piquet Jr. (BRA) Renault R28 crashes into the wall. Formula One World Championship, Rd 15, Singapore Grand Prix, Race, Singapore, Sunday 28 September 2008
Photo by: Elliot Patching/Sutton Images/Motorsport Images
Crashgate – Renault, 2008 Singapore Grand Prix
When the Richard Nixon administration attempted to cover up its involvement in the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate building, it had no idea that the ‘–gate’ suffix would enter common parlance when describing scandalous acts.
After Spygate, F1 played host to Crashgate in the following 2008 season. The Renault team, buoyed by the return of Fernando Alonso, had started to enjoy improved performance over the course of the season, and looked good ahead of Singapore. But as Alonso was set to challenge for pole, his car suffered a fuel problem in Q2 and left the two-time champion stranded on-track, unable to set a time. Thus, he lined up 15th.
Alonso then made a pitstop on lap 12 to rejoin at the back of the field, but then team-mate Nelson Piquet Jr crashed into the wall at Turn 17 to bring out a safety car. With the pitlane closed, Alonso was able to shuffle up towards the pack at the front, and following pitstops and penalties for the drivers ahead, the Spanish driver sat in the lead – and claimed victory, which he credited to the fortuitous timing of the safety car.
But it had all been a carefully orchestrated move. Piquet, after being dropped by the team midway through 2009 owing to poor performances, went to the FIA with his testimony that Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds asked him to crash, bring out a safety car, and give Alonso the opportunity to secure victory. Alonso, however, was not considered to have been one of the conspirators in the crash.
Briatore and Symonds left Renault in September 2009, following the allegations, and it became apparent that Piquet’s allegations were true. Symonds confessed, receiving a five-year ban for his part in the ploy, while Briatore was handed a life-time ban from holding a position within an F1 team. Renault’s title sponsor ING also left the team.
Although Briatore and Symonds’ bans were later overturned, Briatore has not returned to F1 in an official capacity.
1982 Brazilian Grand Prix. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 19-21 March 1982. Nelson Piquet (Brabham BT49D-Ford Cosworth), disqualified
Photo by: LAT Images/Motorsport Images
Water-cooled brakes – Brabham and Williams, 1982 season
When the turbocharged era first hit Formula 1, the significant power advantage that the forced-induction powertrains brought (once reliability was dialled in) rose in popularity. But the naturally aspirated cars, owing to their lighter engines, had a weight advantage. F1 had mandated a minimum weight requirement, so the non-turbo cars could build their cars underweight and take it up to the limit with ballast.
The rules also specified that the cars should be weighed topped up with their usual fluids, coolants and the like, and so the likes of Brabham, Williams and McLaren – the leading naturally aspirated runners – hatched upon a plan.
Thus, they came up with the nebulous integration of water-cooled brakes. The cars’ water tanks were topped up for the start of the race, to be jettisoned in the general direction of the brakes to hence run the cars underweight through the race. Those tanks could then be topped up later ahead of the post-race inspection, meaning the cars were weighed at the right amount.
After Brabham’s Nelson Piquet and Williams’ Keke Rosberg finished first and second in 1982’s Brazilian Grand Prix, the cars were protested - and disqualified from the results after the FIA sought to put an end to the practice. John Watson, driving for McLaren, managed to assume second as his car was not protested against by the turbocharged teams. But with the lines drawn between turbo and non-turbo cars, the latter group elected not to attend the San Marino Grand Prix two rounds later.
Martin Brundle (Tyrrell 012 Ford), 1984 Belgium GP
Photo by: LAT Images/Motorsport Images
Running underweight – Tyrrell, 1984 season
Tyrrell had been a force to be reckoned with in the early 1970s but, as F1 budgets skyrocketed, the British team couldn’t keep up with its adversaries. With turbo engines becoming more commonplace in F1, Tyrrell opted to continue with the cheaper, naturally aspirated Cosworth DFY V8 powerplants. The turbo units could churn out around 1000bhp in qualifying trim, which meant that Tyrrell was barely on the same playing field as the rest of its main rivals.
With a little sprinkling of ‘ingenuity’, the Ockham-based team sought to redress the balance. The team’s 012 car was designed to run underweight, but after FISA closed the loophole where cars could top up with water after the race, Tyrrell had to get its cars up to weight during the race. Teams were also unable to fuel their cars either midway through the race, but could top up the water tank.
Tyrrell thus used their final pitstops to fill the car with a mix of water and lead shot, which would give them plenty of time running in the race with an underweight car. Teams reported that plenty of spilled lead shot would frequently litter the Tyrrell pitbox, and the team eventually got caught loading the cars with extra weight.
But that’s not all – the team also peppered that water mix with a range of aromatics – which the team used to spray the inlets to derive extra power from the engine. As the team was considered to have been taking on extra fuel during the pitstops, in addition to running underweight, Tyrrell’s full 1984 results were expunged and the team disqualified from the entire season. Drivers Martin Brundle and Stefan Bellof were also banned from competing in the final three races of the year.
2005 San Marino Grand Prix - Sunday Race, Imola, Italy. 24th April 2005 Jenson Button, BAR Honda 007
Photo by: LAT Images/Motorsport Images
Secret fuel tank – BAR, 2005 season
The BAR team had come off the back of its best ever season in F1 as 2005 beckoned. The second-best team throughout 2004, lead driver Jenson Button had his breakout year as BAR was rejuvenated under the management of Prodrive’s David Richards. Having poured its attention into 2004, however, BAR struggled for pace at the start of the following year with its new 007 chassis.
The team finally snared points at the San Marino Grand Prix, with Jenson Button taking third and Takuma Sato finishing fifth – but Button was disqualified after his car was found to be 5kg underweight in scrutineering. The stewards had found a secondary fuel compartment within the car and also drained that, which BAR contended was the minimum amount of fuel necessary to run the car. The stewards accepted that reasoning and the result - initially - stood.
But the FIA contested that and appealed the decision, and the International Court of Appeal agreed – stating that the car could not meet the 600kg minimum weight unless it was using fuel as ballast within the secret compartment. Having investigated BAR’s fuel consumption data too, it could not be determined if the car was of the correct weight throughout the entirety of the race.
For failing to seek clarification on the rules, BAR was handed a two-race ban from F1 – missing both the Spanish and Monaco grands prix. Regardless, the fiasco did not deter Honda from completing its buyout of the team in late 2005, having already purchased a 45% stake in the team the year prior and ending Prodrive’s management contract two years early.
1994 British Grand Prix. Silverstone, England. 8-10 July 1994. Michael Schumacher (Benetton B194 Ford) 2nd position. He was later disqualified for overtaking on the formation lap.
Photo by: LAT Images/Motorsport Images
Traction control, driver aids and refuelling trickery – Benetton, 1994 season
In 1993, the inclusion of driver aids and complex electronics had hit fever pitch – and the FIA sought to ban them for the 1994 season. The teams were stripped of tools such as active suspension, traction and launch control, along with anti-lock brakes. In-race refuelling was also re-introduced to the F1 equation.
Ayrton Senna, having moved to Williams, was convinced that Benetton had sidestepped the regulatory changes. His suspicions were aroused by the quick pitstops that Benetton had made during the Brazil season opener, along with the sound that the B194 was making out on track – having stayed trackside after crashing out on the first lap of the Pacific Grand Prix at Aida.
Following Senna’s death at Imola, the FIA asked three teams – Benetton, McLaren and Ferrari to supply their engine management system codes. Benetton received a fine for handing them over late, as Cosworth did not want to hand the FIA its programming for ‘commercial reasons’.
But later that year, the FIA had completed its analysis of Benetton’s software and found a smoking gun – known as option 13. This was Benetton’s launch control system, which could be armed to allow the driver to manage a start with a single action. Benetton argued that it was only used for testing purposes, and required a lengthy start-up process to get it to work, but the FIA found that it could be activated via a laptop plugged into the car. The driver would then have to enable it with a certain sequence of steering wheel inputs, much like a video game cheat code.
But the FIA found no evidence that it had been used in a race. Benetton had also been found to have been running its fuel pump without a filter, which allowed fuel into the car at a faster rate to save about a second in a pitstop. This was discovered after an investigation following Jos Verstappen’s refuelling fire at the 1994 German Grand Prix – although then-Benetton engineer Willem Toet has contended that the filter would have prevented the blaze from happening. The company in charge of the fuelling rigs, Intertechnique, had allegedly told teams to remove the filter – meaning Benetton was in the clear.
The team did cop the wrath of the stewards that year, however, as Michael Schumacher was disqualified for serving a stop-go penalty - for overtaking Damon Hill on the formation lap – too late, and then banned him for two races after his skid block had worn past the allowed level.
The controversial collision between Michael Schumacher, Ferrari F310B, and Jacques Villeneuve, Williams FW19 Renault. Schumacher was judged to have deliberately turned in on his rival Villeneuve, and subsequently was excluded from the entire championship as a result.
Photo by: Motorsport Images
“Deliberate” crashes – Michael Schumacher, 1994, 1997 and 2006
Michael Schumacher is undoubtedly one of the best drivers to have ever driven in F1, amassing seven world titles and 91 wins in his illustrious career. But he was not above playing within a grey area of the rules, resorting to using ‘robust’ tactics on the circuit to secure an advantage at crucial moments.
The first, arguably the most oblique of the three high-profile moves, was Schumacher’s collision with Damon Hill at Adelaide in 1994. Amid an already-controversial season, as denoted in the above entry, the Schumacher-Hill title battle at the finale was separated by a point. The leading Schumacher went off and clouted the wall side-on – perhaps damaging his suspension. With Hill diving down the inside at the next corner, Schumacher cut him off and the two collided, sending Schumacher partially airborne and into the wall.
Hill was gifted a broken wishbone by Schumacher’s contact, and despite technical director Patrick Head’s best efforts to bend it back into the shape, the title had slipped away from the Williams driver.
Schumacher then tried a similar move on Jacques Villeneuve three years later. As the two approached the Dry Sac corner at Jerez, Villeneuve made his move down the inside of the Ferrari driver – who turned his wheel and hit the Williams with a broadside strike on the sidepod. Schumacher then drifted into the gravel and was lodged there, leaving Villeneuve only needing to nurse the car home in the points to claim the title.
The Canadian duly did so – and Schumacher was taught a lesson by the FIA as he was disqualified from the season.
Nine years later, Schumacher was up to his old tricks in his battle with Fernando Alonso for the 2006 title.
Determined to keep Alonso off the front of the grid, Schumacher set a time good enough for pole and then parked his car at the Rascasse - bringing Alonso’s hot lap to an end. Schumacher contended that he’d simply locked up, but the FIA felt that it was a deliberate tactic to secure pole at a notoriously difficult circuit to overtake on and demoted him to the back of the grid. According to the stewards, his “lock-up” came as Schumacher was driving at under 10mph.
Hockenheimring, Hockenheim, Germany 25th July 2010 Felipe Massa, Ferrari F10, 2nd position, leads Fernando Alonso, Ferrari F10, 1st position
Photo by: LAT Images/Motorsport Images
Team orders – Ferrari, 2010 German GP
“Felipe, Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understood the message?”
Rob Smedley’s radio calls to Felipe Massa during his time as the Brazilian’s race engineer at Ferrari were somewhat famous, but his veiled instruction to let Alonso through at the 2010 German Grand Prix was possibly the most infamous of the lot.
Team orders had been banned in F1 since Ferrari (quelle surprise) ordered Rubens Barrichello to slow down at the 2002 Austrian GP to let Michael Schumacher past. Feeling that such actions would bring F1 into disrepute, the FIA put a lid on team orders.
Thus, teams had to conceal them with cryptic messages – usually disguised as a phrase that could apply to a car setting (eg. Multi-21). But when Smedley asked Massa to concede the place at Hockenheim to Alonso in 2010, the can of worms was once again opened. Ferrari was fined $100,000 for breaching sporting regulations – and was perhaps lucky to get away without any damage to any championship aspirations.
The FIA concluded after the season that the ban on overt team orders wasn’t working, and rescinded that decision for 2011.
Stirling Moss, Cooper T51 Climax, Jack Brabham, Cooper T51 Climax, and Harry Schell, Cooper T51 Climax, lead the field away at the start.
Photo by: LAT Images/Motorsport Images
Cutting corners – Harry Schell, 1959 United States Grand Prix
Harry Schell had been something of a bit-part player on the F1 grid during the 1950s, but after joining the works BRM team for 1958, the American driver had his best season in the championship – proving a consistent points scorer at the team.
After scoring five points with the team in 1959, Schell switched to a Cooper T51 for the final race of the year at Sebring – his home event. Without nearly as much media attention or cameras compared to contemporary F1, Schell’s impressive time to secure third on the grid - a 3m05.2s lap – nudged Ferrari’s Tony Brooks off the front row at the end of the session for an all-Cooper front row.
Ferrari was incensed to be knocked off the front row and after Schell’s deception became evident after the race was over, had reason to be even more upset. On his qualifying run, Schell found a shortcut, cut out the entire back straight, and slowly made his way back onto the circuit – presumably not to arouse suspicion. Despite slowing down and waiting until there was a break in traffic to rejoin, Schell cut a few seconds out of his time.
Perhaps karma struck after, as Schell’s clutch expired on the sixth lap. Regardless, it made today’s track limit complaints comparatively for the birds.
Pole man Sir Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12, and Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, arrive in Parc Ferme after Qualifying
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images
Red Bull touching wings – Max Verstappen, 2021 Brazilian Grand Prix
As the title tussle intensified between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton in 2021, it appeared the smallest thing triggered controversy and tension between the two.
But after qualifying for the Brazilian GP, Verstappen was summoned to the FIA stewards for a very unusual investigation.
Fan video footage, and subsequent TV recording, spotted Verstappen touched Hamilton’s Mercedes rear wing in parc ferme conditions immediately after qualifying at Interlagos.
While nothing untoward was reported, touching a rival’s car in parc ferme is against the rules and Verstappen’s Red Bull squad was slapped with a €50,000 fine for breaching Article 2.5.1 of the International Sporting Code.
Article 2.5.1 of the ISC reads: “Inside the Parc Fermé, only the officials assigned may enter. No operation, checking, tuning or repair is allowed unless authorised by the same officials or by the applicable regulations.”
While a harsh penalty in isolation, it came amid the backdrop of post-session checks that investigated the Mercedes’ DRS flap that failed during qualifying which resulted in Hamilton being excluded from qualifying and put to the back of the grid of the sprint race.
But all of that would pale into insignificance by how FIA race director Michael Masi would interpret the safety car rules a few weeks later at the Abu Dhabi finale…
Christian Horner, Team Principal, Red Bull Racing, in a press conference regarding the recent findings of the cost cap breach. The FIA have handed Red Bull a $7m fine and an aero testing reduction
Photo by: Carl Bingham / Motorsport Images
Bursting the cost cap – Red Bull, 2021 season
F1’s new cost cap was put to the test in its first year of implementation, with Red Bull guilty of an overspend of the $145 million limit for the 2021 season.
Due to the accounting reports submitted to the FIA in March 2022, the rule break only came to light later that year, with the FIA’s decision and penalties dished out in the tail end of the 2022 season – even after Max Verstappen had wrapped up the drivers’ title.
The FIA ruled that Red Bull had made 13 errors in its 2021 financial reporting, either through adjusted or excluded costs, which the team fiercely denied throughout.
Despite the denials by Red Bull, the team went into an Accepted Breach Agreement to reach a settlement that saw it given a $7 million fine and, more significantly, a 10% reduction of its aerodynamic testing time for the next 12 months.
Red Bull called the punishment too heavy for what it viewed as misunderstandings about the new cost cap rules, while some rival teams felt the penalties were too light.
However, with Red Bull dominating the 2023 F1 season it appeared the team has been able to manage the penalty while maintaining a performance advantage over its rivals, but it does still fear the impact of the reduction in aerodynamic testing time for its 2024 F1 car.
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