F1 2009: Year of controversy (Part 1)

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

A late start left no time to get the Malaysian race finished
A late start left no time to get the Malaysian race finished

Formula 1 seems to have become incapable of getting through a season without some kind of scandal.

But even after 2007’s spying investigations and the Mosley scandal last year, somehow 2009 even manage to trump these for controversy. Here’s the first of a two-part look back at the controversies that spoiled the F1 season.


When Bernie Ecclestone suggested changing the points system to favour the driver who won the most races – dubbed the ‘medals’ system – it was met with a chorus of disapproval from pretty much everyone. Except the FIA.

The sports’ governing body rushed to introduce the new concept for 2009, ignoring FOTA’s more reasonable suggestion to retain the points system, but give more points for race wins.

The ‘medals’ system was doomed never to become a reality – not in 2009 nor, as Ecclestone hoped, in 2010. Depending on who you ask, there are two explanations why.

Either the FIA were so eager to put one over FOTA they overlooked their own rules which prevented them from making such a change. Alternatively, the whole thing was a ruse to distract people from other controversial developments.

Whichever is true, F1’s reputation was not well served by having the sport’s big players publicly disputing how the game should be played mere moments before kick-off.

To cap it all, although the FIA intended to drop the medals system for 2010 an error in the original version of the 2010 rules meant it was originally left in. This was later corrected and there’s been no serious discussion of the medals system since.


Hamilton?s disqualification

Hamilton was disqualified from third place at Melbourne
Hamilton was disqualified from third place at Melbourne

Lewis Hamilton had wrung an impressive performance out of the McLaren MP4-24 in the car’s first race. From 18th on the grid he was running fourth late in the race when the safety car was deployed. When Jarno Trulli skidded off at the last corner it promoted him to an unlikely podium finish.

That’s the version of events we would remember had it not been for some catastrophically bad decision-making at McLaren – which they then compounded by lying – a lack of guidance from the stewards and, some might add, the FIA’s zeal for going after the silver team and its former principal Ron Dennis.

Unsure what to do about Trulli, Hamilton radioed his team to ask what to do. They incorrectly told him to let the Toyota past.

After the race the stewards investigated Trulli for passing Hamilton. McLaren, fearing a punishment, repeatedly denied they had allowed Trulli past. The radio transcripts utterly undermined their position.

McLaren reacted by suspending sporting director Dave Ryan, who then left the company, and Dennis moved to concentrate on the road car division. The FIA chose not to punish them further, having already disqualified Hamilton from the race.

Much of the coverage afterwards focussed on McLaren’s mistake, the lies and the damage to the world champion’s reputation. Not nearly enough attention was drawn to how easily it might have been avoided with the kind of clear rules and effective stewarding commonly seen in far less prestigious racing series.

McLaren believed from their experience at Belgium last year they were not allowed to contact race control for guidance. But later in the season Red Bull were allowed to do just that. What teams are expected to do in the future is anyone’s guess, and there’s nothing to stop a repeat of the situation happening again.

Hamilton’s disqualification

Twilight races

Evening light proved hazardous for drivers at Melbourne
Evening light proved hazardous for drivers at Melbourne

In an effort to improve viewing figures for F1 races in Europe, Ecclestone began putting the promoters of F1’s more distant races under pressure to hold them at times better suited to European TV schedules.

The Australian Grand Prix promoters agreed to run their event as a ‘twilight’ race, with the chequered flag falling shortly before sunset. After the Grand Prix, unhappy drivers complained about having to finish the race in poor visibility:

I think twilight racing is not the way to go. In Melbourne it was obvious that it just increases the danger so much. The visibility is so difficult, you can?t even see the edges of the track in some corners. I was driving into the sun and that?s not what racing is about. So I really hope they reconsider that.
Nico Rosberg

But that was nothing compared to the problems they faced at Malaysia. The locals had warned Ecclestone that a ‘twilight’ start risked the race being disrupted by one of the region’s notoriously heavy rain storms.

And that’s exactly what happened. The clouds opened, the track flooded, and for the first time in 18 years half-points were awarded because too little of the race’s scheduled distance had been completed.

Hopefully they won’t be foolish enough too make the same gamble next year.

Twilight races

Double diffusers

Timo Glock's Toyota - diffuser highlighted (click to enlarge)
Timo Glock's Toyota - diffuser highlighted (click to enlarge)

Shortly after the first of the 2009-specification cars rolled out onto the track at the beginning of the year, a row began over the legality of the diffusers used by two models: the Williams FW30 and the Toyota TF109.

Eventually a third double-diffuser car appeared – the Brawn BGP 001 – which had the most devastatingly effective implementation of the design. But teams who had started the season without the devices protested to the FIA that they were illegal.

It took until after the third race of the year for the FIA to rule in favour of the ‘double diffusers’, opening the way for other designers to duplicate the innovation on their cars.

Whether or not the rules actually forbade the designs is a moot point. There was no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ about the designs – this was the kind of judgement call that inevitably has to be made with technical rules.

But the row was allowed to drag on for far longer than it should have. It later emerged Ross Brawn had warned the teams last year that parts of the aerodynamic rules could be exploited, but the opportunity to clear up the rules had been missed.

To Brawn’s credit, it was more than the double diffusers that won them the titles – witness Williams and Toyota’s inferior finishing positions in the championship.

Maming matters worse, the decision to make the diffusers legal undermined the efforts made to allow F1 cars to race more closely, as they considerably increased their reliance on downforce and sensitivity to aerodynamic disturbance.

Double diffusers

These rows were bad enough but the biggest controversies of the season were still to come. Tomorrow we’ll look back on double-diffusers and the the budget cap furore which threatened to split F1 in two.