Ex-Lotus mechanic on ‘bending’ the rules
Outright cheating, of course, never happens in racing… but clever minds have thought up several ingenious ways of being ‘economical with the rules’. Adam Cooper points the finder
In 1988 Ben Johnson was first across the line in the 100 metres final at the Seoul Olympic Games. Those words are chosen carefully, for the Canadian sprinter did not go home with the gold medal. A drugs test proved positive, and he was kicked out of the results, his reputation forever tarnished.
There had been drug scandals at the Games before, but they had usually involved low-profile competitors in less celebrated sports. But the 100 metres was the blue riband event, the ultimate expression of human sporting achievement. After Seoul, the Olympics would never be viewed in the same way again; an innocence was lost.
Johnson was caught bang to rights, but what of previous years? How many medals had been won by cheats? It’s like delving into JFK conspiracy theories; the more you dig through the details, the more paranoid you become.
The same treatment can be applied to motor sport. Out there somewhere are team personnel and drivers who know about certain celebrated performances which were achieved by nefarious means. How many drivers have built careers on results gained in illegal cars? How many teams or manufacturers have furthered their interests by breaking the rules?
The surprising thing is that the history books record remarkably clear cut cases of cheating in Grands Prix, and considering that scrutineering was rather relaxed until about 20 years ago, perhaps that’s no surprise. It’s hard to unearth even rumours of any wrongdoings prior to the 1970s.
But it must have gone on. Consider the case of the great Jean Behra, who stunned his countrymen by winning the Reims GP for Goidini in 1952, beating the usually dominant Ferraris of Ascari and Farina on the ultra-fast track. It’s said that the Frenchman might just have been using an engine a little larger than the 2-litre capacity permitted by the F2 regs of the day…
The first time anyone came close to being kicked out of on an F1 race for a technical infringement was at the 1970 British GP, when Jochen Rindt passed an out-of-fuel Jack Brabham to win for Lotus. Scrutineers found that the Austrian’s rear wing was 1.5cms too high, something which would have clone him no harm around the twists and turns of Brands Hatch. The issue was complicated by the fact that the rear supports were mysteriously bent.
Colin Chapman appealed. The offending wing was measured and re-measured, taken apart and rebuilt, and later in the evening it was deemed to be legal. Lotus was effectively exonerated, and the trouble was soon forgotten. But was there more to the affair than met the eye?
“We knew it was going to be too high,” recalls one Lotus man. “When we put the car on the back of the truck for the parade lap after the race, our job was to put our knees into the stays to bend them and lower the wing.”
Jochen eventually won the title, posthumously, by just five points…
Was the Brands case just the tip of the iceberg?
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Had people been up to tricks for years, or did the start of the ’70s, with sponsorship raising the stakes, herald a new era of ‘anything goes’? One thing is certain; by the end of the decade, rule bending was rife in F1. Since very few examples were actually brought to justice, we have to tread rather carefully.
Inevitably engines are the chief source of speculation, and insiders have long suggested that one of the most popular World Champions of the decade won a title with a less than legal powerplant. For years we had 3-litre engine regulations, and for years there was the possibility of running a 3.3-litre motor or similar without anyone finding out. Easier still was using dodgy fuel with illegal additives like nitromethane.
Fuel first hit the headlines at Monza in 1976. The Italian scrutineers were extra vigilant that weekend, even disallowing the practice times of a Ferrari Clay Regazzoni’s when they found its wing was 10mm too far back. Since that session was wet, it hardly mattered, but they scored a real coup the following day when the McLarens of James Hunt and Jochen Mass and the Penske of John Watson lost their only dry qualifying times because fuel samples exceeded the permitted octane ratings.
All three eventually started from the back of the grid, and the whole affair was dismissed as an attempt by the Italians to upset Hunt’s title challenge. Later the FIA (then the CSI) admitted that its testing methods were inadequate.
Fuel became even more of an issue in the turbo era, as the engine builders and their suppliers pushed the limits. When Nelson Piquet won the 1983 championship after a surge late in the season, there was little doubt that fuel development had played a major part. Whatever was in the BT53’s tanks was never officially proved to be outside the rules, but runner-up Alain Prost has gone on record as saying that his rival used illegal fuel. Some sources say it even had its origins in World War II.
While power is always useful, the other great aid to speed is weight, or the lack thereof. These clays cars are weighed at random throughout qualifying, and the scope for trickery is limited. But up to 1983, checks came only at the end of a session. Until the flag, you could do pretty much what you wanted…
It’s impossible to say how many brilliant qualifying performances in the late ’70s and early ’80s were achieved by underweight cars. Some teams were quicker than others to cotton on to the possibilities, but weight-saving techniques soon became standard practice, as one former team insider recalls:
“Just before the end of practice it was very easy to top up the car with something like a lead seat, which could weigh anything up to 30kgs, or a rear wing which also was extremely heavy. We had an engine cover which took about six people to lift! Or you could put on the heavy wheels, which might even have water inside them.”
Of course, if your car did a quick time and then stopped on the circuit before the trick stuff was fitted for scrutineering, you could be in for trouble. On one famous occasion in Argentina some mechanics set off to their abandoned car with a heavy seat and successfully performed a swap but only after a contretemps with the local marshals.
Of course, drivers were only too happy to play the game; one former World Champion is known to have saved a few kilos by using a flimsy lightweight helmet in qualifying. Think about that for a minute…
Safety could also be compromised by running an empty extinguisher bottle. The Ligier of Andrea de Cesaris was found thus equipped at the 1984 French GP, ironically long after the FIA had introduced random weight checks.
None of this skulduggery was of much use in race trim until someone exploited a gaping loophole in the rules. Cars were weighed at the end of a race with their fluids topped up, ostensibly to make up for any natural consumption. In early 1982 the Brabham BT49 and Williams FW07C suddenly sprouted large water tanks whose contents were ostensibly for ‘brake cooling’ purposes. The liquid was dumped overboard at the first opportunity, allowing the cars to run for the entire distance underweight. In parc fermé they could legitimately be re-ballasted with a water top-up. Et voila!
Ferrari and Renault soon kicked up a fuss and protested. After a protracted debate topping-up was banned, and Nelson Piquet (Brabham) and Keke Rosberg (Williams) lost their first and second places at the Brazilian GP, handing victory to Alain Proses Renault. Ironically, the French team had by then developed its own water-cooling system…
Later that year Brabham came up with mid-race refuelling, which became standard F1 practice in 1983. With access to the cars in mid-race, teams now had the possibility of starting underweight and then getting up to the limit after the pit stops. That ended when refuelling was banned on safety grounds for 1984.
That same year saw Tyrrell receive what still stands as the harshest penalty in F1 history. When Martin Brundle’s car was checked after the Detroit GP, impurities were found in the water used in an injection system which the team replenished during the race. Also present was a quantity of lead balls, which were used as ballast.
So began a lengthy and messy case in which the team refuted all allegations brought by the FIA. At its conclusion Tyrrell was kicked out of the World Championship and had all its results annulled, an unprecedented penalty. Many felt the team had been unfairly targeted.
Later, the other teams unanimously voted not to change to a smaller fuel tank capacity for 1985; conveniently Uncle Ken, hitherto the only dissenter, had lost his right to vote…
The line between cheating and reading the rule book extra-carefully can sometimes be blurred. Acknowledged as the pacesetters when it came to rule ‘interpretation’, Brabham came up with a great piece of chassis engineering which got round the 1981 ban on sliding skirts. In the pits, the car met the 6cms ride height rule. At speed, a hydro-pneumatic suspension system ensured it sat clown and virtually sealed the gap to the road.
At the same time Cohn Chapman came up with the amazing twin-chassis Lotus 88, which represented a great piece of lateral thinking. Many observers thought it legitimate, but while the Brabham was deemed kosher, the Lotus was banned, and it never actually raced.
Where Brabham led, everyone else was soon following. Some less sophisticated systems even depended on unsubtle levers to lower the car, making a total mockery of the rules. Thankfully the unpoliceable ride-height regs were abandoned the following year.
Neither Lotus nor Brabham did anything to hide their inventions, which they felt obeyed the rules, and the same was true of Brabham’s own fan car of 1978, which won its only race before it was banned. In a similar vein Ferrari tried an outrageous twin-wing device at Long Beach in 1982, but it was protested by Tyrrell, and Gilles Villeneuve lost his third place.
But what do people get up to these days? Stringent scrutineering, not to mention close monitoring by other teams, ensures that there is very little opportunity to break or even bend the rules. McLaren’s mid-wing of 1995 was a clever recent piece of loophole spotting which proved legitimate, but there’s little scope for such innovations.
Fuel samples now have to match the specification previously lodged with the FIA by the teams’ suppliers. Sometimes, the ‘fingerprint’ doesn’t match; at the 1995 Brazilian GP Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill held onto their first and second places, although Benetton and Williams lost their constructors’ points. Last season the FIA penalised both Sauber (a fine in Hungary) and McLaren (exclusion of Mika Häkkinen at Spa). In all these cases it has been accepted that there was no deliberate intention to gain an advantage.
Despite the FIA’s regular checks, innuendo is still rife in the pitlane, especially in the area of electronics. Much speculation still surrounds the use traction control and other illicit driver aids.
It’s all a far ay from the innocent gamesmanship of the seventies. One final example: at the 1975 Swedish GP the organisers experimented with a light beam for timing purposes. The March pit was adjacent to said beam, and when works driver Vittorio Brambilla approached, team boss Robin Herd swept the Italian’s pit board across it. A lap time was thus registered prematurely, and Brambilla was duly awarded the first and only pole position of his F1 career.
Herd now cheerfully admits to this absurdly simple ruse. Meanwhile his former partner at March is now running the FIA…
Smokey – and they banned it!
Rallying has its fair share of cheating folklore, much of it connected with illicit servicing and repairs. The extreme example was an Ivory Coast event when Michele Mouton was seen to start in one Audi chassis, and finish in another! Such shenanigans have been made difficult by electronic devices which tell the FIA if a car has stopped on a stage, and when its bonnet has been opened.
Rallying saw the heaviest penalty in motorsport history when Toyota was caught with an illegal turbo system on the 1995 Catalunya Rally. The team was kicked out of the championship and banned for a further year. “No one can recall an incident in the past when there has been such blatant cheating,” said the FIA’s Max Mosley.
Toyota’s ingenious device to by-pass the air restrictor would have been less of a shock in NASCAR circles, where beating the rulemakers has long been part of the game. A few extra bhp can make a massive difference on an oval like Daytona, and every year teams get caught red-handed. NASCAR tends to hand out heavy fines and let drivers keep their victories, so that punters go home on the night knowing who won.
The most notorious car in NASCAR history was the ‘Seven-eighths’ machine fielded by maverick Smokey Yunick. Sadly, the legend doesn’t match up with the truth. It wasn’t a completely downsized car, but the car’s wheelbase had been tweaked and certain dimensions such as the gap between the top of the front wheelarch and the bonnet had shrunk.
The same Yanuck production is the source of another NASCAR myth. He is said to have got so fed up with inspectors looking for illegal extra fuel tanks that he once drove it away from scrutineering leaving the main fuel cell on the floor! Nice story, but Yunick said later it didn’t quite happen like that.
Unexpected results pepper stock car history, and it’s been suggested that on occasions drivers have been allowed a little horsepower leeway, perhaps to keep a sponsor happy. No result has attracted more speculation than the 1984 Firecracker 400 at Daytona. It was July 4th, President Reagan was there, and Richard Petty scored his 200th race win. While he raced for another eight seasons, ‘The King’ never reached 201. However, after years in the doldrums he found a sudden turn of speed and qualified second for his much-hyped last ride in the Daytona 500 in 1992 – a race sponsored by a certain STP. Draw your own conclusions…