Most Controversial Decisions by F1 Stewards

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Sebastian Vettel
The judges have declared Sebastian Vettel... Guilty

The F1 stewards for good or for bad control a major portion of racing in Formula One. Whether a driver goes off limits in trying to take that position, or whether he maintains it, the stewards maintain a good watch guard over everything.

The position that they have, not all of their decisions are received in a good note by fans and drivers alike. Here we bring you some of the most controversial decisions by stewards in Formula One:

2019 Canadian Grand Prix

The most recent of the controversial decisions was taken at the 2019 Canadian Grand Prix with Sebastian Vettel. Vettel was leading the race defending his position very aggressively from Lewis Hamilton when a bit of oversteer on Turn 4 meant he had to cut the corner and go on to the grass. When he rejoined, Hamilton complained of being pushed off the road and the German was put under investigation. Replays showed what looked like a plain and obvious racing incident. However, the stewards decided the award the German a 5s time penalty. The pace of the Mercedes behind meant that Vettel lost the lead of the race despite not putting a foot wrong the entire weekend.

He was furious at the end of the race. From what it looked like, he was going to boycott the podium before his personal manager kicked in and convinced him. While going to the podium, he ensured he expressed his anger and swapped the 1-2 sign that was present in front of Hamilton’s car.

Not even a single former driver supported the stewards’ decision. Many labelled it as the “WORST” decision in Formula One. And it was rightfully so.

Mexican Grand Prix 2016

F1 stewards
Vettel looking overjoyed after getting the podium from Verstappen only to be stripped off and pushed back to fifth position following allegations of moving under braking.

In the present era, everything is closely monitored. So it is rare to see a driver going to the podium only to be demoted. Even his substitute was also dumped of it after spraying champagne and receiving the trophy. No, the fact that it happened on Mexico’s Grand Prix has nothing to do with tequila or the altitude’s effects. It was all because of the frantic last laps, at least behind both Mercedes, that were years ahead.

Sebastian Vettel opted for a different pitstop strategy than Max Verstappen. In one of his best displays of form this year, Vettel closed on the Dutch and starts to close in. It seems only a matter of time until the manoeuver, that comes at the end of the backstretch, came. Helped by the DRS, Vettel seizes the opportunity and jumped ahead. The Red Bull to return ahead after doing some lawn-mowing.

Read: 5 funniest memes summing up the Mexican Grand Prix.

The German voices his disapproval, waiting to have the third place back. It even got to the point of foul language directed towards race director Charlie Whiting. Verstappen kept his car ahead until the chequered flag. Daniel Ricciardo in the other Red Bull soon sized up the Ferrari. They traded paint, touch slightly in which seems not more than a hard but fair battle. Verstappen goes to the podium, only to be informed that he was demoted. A smug Vettel stepped onto the podium. But, hours after the GP ended, he was also punished. Ricciardo, who was nowhere near the podium, had won the jackpot.

Japanese Grand Prix 1989

This is not only history, but also legend, as was every title scrap between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. At 1988, their first year together at McLaren, the Brazilian was the better driver. But, in 1989, they went to Suzuka in different roles. Prost was leading and the only chance to keep the fight until Australian GP was beating the teammate.

Senna grabbed pole, with Prost right at his side. In a carbon-copy of last year, the Frenchman had the better start. Then the cat and mouse fight ensued. The red and white cars ran in formation, the 2 ahead, the 1 behind. That until lap 43, when, after the infamous 130R turn, Senna decided to have a go on the chicane braking. Prost only keeps his line and the touch is inevitable.

Both cars go to the runoff area, for Prost is game over. But Senna rejoined, and starts a dramatic chase of Alessandro Nannini, who inherited the lead. Three laps from the chequered, he tries to overtake the italian, this time with success. He wins the race and keep the title chase open… until the stewards decision. Later that day, the FIA commissaires, commanded by their french president, Jean-Marie Balestre, issue a DSQ. Senna loses the result for supposely shortcut the track while returning. It was the only thing he could do as reversing was forbidden. He appealed, but to no avail. The championship was decided in Japan, amidst critics.

Austrian Grand Prix 2002

F1 stewards

Such was Ferrari’s dominance in 2002  that one could believe in an intra-team battle between Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello. But one can hardly think about team orders in the sixth race of a season. But that happened once and stained Formula One history for ever.

Schumacher won four out of the five races until Zeltweg. He had a healthy lead which would only grow had he ended Austrian GP behind Barrichello. With the Brazilian starting on pole and leading for the most of the race, it was a very possible scenario.

Rubens was calm on the lead for more than 60 of the programmed 71 laps. Soon he started hearing radio orders to let Michael go by. In those times, it was not unusual to reproduce talks on the TV broadcasting. So the whole world was left waiting, as the German reeled him in and started to show his car’s nose.

As Barrichello stood ahead, it seemed that they would hold places until the chequered flag, with maybe a formation 1-2. Two laps from the end, he slowed on the main straight, to suggest that it wasn’t a painless decision. They ended split by 0.182s and no punition ensued shortly, because nothing on the rules forbid team orders. That would, however, change things from then on, as the negative repercussion made so much harm to the circus. Such behaviour would not be tolerated anymore.

Portuguese Grand Prix 1989

F1 stewards

The Formula One world would soon discover that the 1989 season would be a classic in terms of controversy. Everything started with the Portuguese Grand Prix, among the Ayrton Senna/Alain Prost fight. Senna was on pole, but Gerhard Berger in the Ferrari, had the better start. Nigel Mansell was third and reeling in the Brazilian’s car. He overtook Senna and later jumped ahead of the Austrian also.

The Briton overshot his pitbox and returned to the right place in reverse gear. Such a move is completely prohibited by safety standards. Soon the stewards intervened and applied the Ferrari driver the disqualification, with the black flag.

Not only Nigel didn’t respect the decision, but he insisted to stay on track and fight with Senna, which ended in tears for both. A collision caused by the Ferrari driver took both drivers out of the race on lap 48, and Berger sailed to an easy win. The Briton was later disallowed from racing in Spain. But the championship’s fate was almost sealed from then on.

Brazilian Grand Prix 2003

F1 stewards

Think about Interlagos and rain comes to mind. Be it on the first or the last part of the season, at some time the clouds will drop rivers on the asphalt and change the pecking order. So it shouldn’t be a surprise when it happened on 2003 Grand Prix at Interlagos – it started with cars lined up behind the safety car until lap 7, when the green flag was shown.

And with the wet track you expect some incidents, but the situation was under control until lap 54 of 71, when Mark Webber, with the Jaguar-Cosworth, started a pileup at the ladder of Café, that leads to the main straight. Even before the safety car returned, Fernando Alonso couldn’t avoid the stranded car, and the chaos ensued. Red flag was shown and, as evidences initially suggested, Kimi Räikkönen was taken to the podium as the winner, as he started lap 55 as the leader (and the classification would be stilled on the order two laps before). That being so, second place was Giancarlo Fisichella and third Alonso, who couldn’t attend the ceremony because he was receiving medical attention.

Much later that day, however, the timing system and the telemetry showed that Fisichella had started lap 56 before the shunt, so lap 54 should be taken into account, and he was the real winner. As it was too late to swap the trophies, a special ceremony was held the thursday before San Marino GP, at Imola.

Australian Grand Prix 1994

That season was already shadowed by the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna and the safety debate that ensued. On track, what should be a Michael Schumacher walkaway turned to be a duel against Damon Hill, Senna’s teammate at Williams, helped by subs like Nigel Mansell and David Coulthard, but also by some technical and rules issues faced the Benetton team. One of those the german DSQ at Spa-Francorchamps, the height of the wooden plank at the bottom of car supposedly smaller than allowed.

So they went to the very last round, at Adelaide, with Schumacher only one point ahead – whoever finished ahead would take the title. And, to make matters worse, Mansell was on pole, ahead of both, but the german had the better on the start, and Hill followed. As the only thing he could do was attack, the briton started to put pressure on his rival until lap 36, when the Benetton touched the wall, probably with terminal damage.

Somehow Michael Schumacher managed to return to the track, what’s more, ahead again, but with his mirrors full of the blue rival. It should be a formality to overtake but the german veered to the right and they collided, ending their race at the spot. Which would mean the end of the fight and Schumacher’s title. As it seemed done on purpose, not only Williams, but a good part of the circus waited (in vain) for a penalty, that never came. Hill would need to wait a bit more.

European Grand Prix 1997

F1 stewards

Another season ending GP, another title at stake, once more Michael Schumacher involved. At 1997, already a Ferrari driver, he dueled throughout the year with Jacques Villeneuve, mature enough to claim a crown that his father, Gilles, never had. Like three years before, the german arrived at Jerez de La Frontera (Spain) as the leader, one point ahead of the canadian, that needed to end ahead to become champion.

He made what was expected on qualifying, earning the pole position with Schumacher at his side, but lost the advantage at the start. A relentless pursue started, and it was clear that the Williams-Renault was the best package to have at the time. On lap 48, the canadian decided to have a go and jumped on the inside of the Dry Sack corner, inches ahead of the red car.

Suddenly a shunt ensued, which forced the Ferrari out and damaged the Williams, but not enough to force it to retire. If that happened, Schumacher would win again, but Villeneuve stayed on track and even let Mika Hakkinen go by, as it wouldn’t change the championship outcome (and that, in another controversy, was touted to be a part of a deal between Williams and McLaren). The german was considered guilty, as onboard images showed him veering the car on the Williams’s direction, and lost even the second place, as well as his 78 points.

Monaco Grand Prix 1984

Monaco was always a place for surprising results and enthralling races, even with a tight street track. In 1984, it could well be the case, as rain came to mix the cards and make the package count way less than talent itself. That Ayrton Senna and his modest Toleman were on the grid in 13th, while strongest cars were not was already a feat. But wouldn’t be the only that day.

Alain Prost made good use of the advantage he had for the pole position and even when he lost top spot to Nigel Mansell, lucky was at his side, the briton crashing the Lotus on the slippery surface. With Niki Lauda, the French’s teammate at McLaren, out, it seemed to be a formality for the french, his car was the class of the field even on a damp track.

That was not to count on two youngsters that decided to climb the peloton flying on the water. One was the yet unknown Senna, the other an equally gifted Stefan Bellof with his Tyrrell. The Toleman flew on the treacherous conditions. The red and white McLaren loomed closer each lap. On that Sunday, history was made. The Brazilian even overtook the experienced rival. Race director Jacky Ickx decided to end the party on lap 33 of the 77 programmed, with the red flag. The final classification was based on lap 31, so Prost ended up ahead. Some believed, the FIA and the F1 stewards favoured the French. But that became a double-edged sword, as only half points were awarded. Prost would lose the championship to Lauda by a mere 0.5 point.

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