Mark Hughes: Controversies that decided F1 titles & the champion too clean to get caught up

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Forty years ago Alan Jones clinched the world championship by driving his only title rival Nelson Piquet off the road at the first corner of the Canadian Grand Prix. Piquet had set pole in his Brabham so was partially ahead on the grid but Jones had got a better start from the outside front row and as they approached the right-handed kink that was turn one, he simply turned in as if Piquet wasn’t there, effectively daring Piquet to not concede. By the time Piquet realised that Jones really was just going to turn across him it was too late to avoid the accident. It triggered further accidents behind and the race was red-flagged. Piquet took the restart in the spare car, which had a super-powerful engine in it but one which was probably not going to last the race. Indeed Jones believed it was a special high-compression version of the DFV which would have needed illegal additives to keep it from detonating – and that this was how Piquet had set pole.

A few years ago I asked Charlie Whiting, who was then Piquet’s chief mechanic, if that was true. He smiled his mischievous smile and said, “I don’t think there was anything illegal about it. But that engine was very on the edge, let’s say. We knew it wasn’t going to do a race distance. So when we had to take the restart in the spare, we knew we weren’t going to finish.”

In the restarted race Jones led away and Piquet was down in third behind Didier Pironi’s Ligier. The Brabham then passed both the Ligier and the Williams, “as if we were parked,” as Jones put it. Shortly thereafter it blew its engine in a big cloud of smoke and Jones won the race and Williams’ first world championship.

Thirty years ago, Ayrton Senna clinched the world championship from his only rival Alain Prost by the simple expedient of not lifting off for the first corner of the Japanese Grand Prix and driving his McLaren straight into Prost’s Ferrari. Senna had been angered that, having set pole position, he had lost the advantage of that when the organisers decided to swap around which side of the grid was pole – thereby putting second-fastest Prost onto what Senna felt was the more advantageous side. Senna suspected that Prost had used his close relationship with the governing body President Jean-Marie Balestre to make that happen. Which may well have been true. Gerhard Berger tells a story about how Prost could get Balestre to do anything for him. He said he and Prost were once walking into the Monaco pits on the first day of practice and they encountered Balestre. Prost told the President that he had forgotten his helmet and was going to do the first session in his scooter helmet. “Yes, no problem Alain,” Balestre had responded, eager to help, before Prost broke up into a big grin and told him it was just a joke.

“His front right wheel touched the left wing of the McLaren at 200mph”

Senna was also still angered at how the previous year’s title had been decided in Prost’s favour by the Brazilian’s disqualification after their collision (caused by Prost) at the very same track. So as Prost got away better from the cleaner side of the grid here, just as Senna had expected, the Brazilian had no compunction about taking him out. He was ahead on points and knew if neither of them finished he was champion. Which is how it played out.

Twenty years ago Michael Schumacher clinched his first Ferrari world title after a magnificent flat-out battle with his only title rival Mika Hakkinen at Suzuka. There was no controversy about how it was clinched. But there’d been controversy a few races earlier at Spa when Schumacher had prevented Hakkinen from overtaking him along the Kemmel Straight by forcing him towards the grass at 200mph. Schumacher’s front right wheel actually touched the left hand wing endplate of Hakkinen’s McLaren. Hakkinen famously got his revenge a lap later, passing the Ferrari at the same place.

Ten years ago Sebastian Vettel took his and Red Bull’s first world title, clinching it with a straightforward victory drive in Abu Dhabi, with each of his title rivals (team-mate Mark Webber and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso) stuck behind the Renault of Vitaly Petrov. Again, there was no controversy about the title-clinching drive, unlike in 1980 and 1990. But there had been plenty a few races earlier when Vettel, fighting to overtake Webber for the lead of the Turkish Grand Prix, had got alongside and then began easing across on his rival. Webber, as he was quite entitled to do, had refused to budge and they’d collided heavily.

That same Istanbul Park track was the venue where Lewis Hamilton clinched his record-equalling seventh title this year. There was no controversy about either his victory drive or any of his preceding races. One might argue that was because there was no real competition, but it’s much more than that. Hamilton races cleanly. He can race very tough – just ask Nico Rosberg about Austin 2015 or Bahrain 2014. But he never crosses the line. “It was infuriating,” says Rosberg, “because he could take it right to the grey area, but not beyond. So he could always claim plausible deniability. That was actually just another one of the ways in which he was so good.”

If today’s sporting regulations were applied retrospectively to all the title fights of the past, the history books might read differently. But all of Hamilton’s seven championships would remain on the board. Since he began covering grand prix racing in 2000,


Mark Hughes has forged a reputation as the finest Formula 1 analyst of his generation Follow Mark on Twitter @SportmphMark