The 8 Biggest Formula 1 Controversies In 2017, Explained
Crashes, conspiracy theories, and rule dodges have made this year no snooze.
A lot can happen in a year. On this day in 2016, the Formula 1 world was reeling from the sudden retirement of Nico Rosberg, Liberty Media was the sport's new owner, and teams and fans alike were gearing up for the return of, wide, low-slung, downforce-heavy cars. Since then, we've seen an exciting championship battle, numerous crashes, engine failures, and exchanges of unpleasantries between drivers. While heartbroken Tifosi may mourn the season as one their team (or number one driver) made a hash of, there is no denying that there was excitement to spare before the title fight was resolved, and Lewis Hamilton was crowned a four-time Formula 1 World Champion.
Whilst calendar 2017 is not over yet, it would take everything short of an intra-driver homicide to warrant modifying this list. Here are the eight moments we identify as the most inflammatory, debated, and hated of 2017 for Formula 1, in the order they occurred.
1. Bernie Ecclestone Dethroned
Bernie Ecclestone first dragged his finger across the pie of Formula 1 in 1958 when he failed to qualify for the Monaco Grand Prix in his purchased Connaught before plunging his finger through the crust in 1972, having taken over the Brabham team. Through his hobby of politicking, Ecclestone later gained the power to negotiate the sport's broadcasting rights, putting him on the ladder that would allow him to climb to a $3.2 billion net worth.
Ecclestone enjoyed almost six decades of relevancy in the sport, but after American media conglomerate Liberty Media took over earlier this year, he found his gilded rug swept from beneath his feet. Bitter about his deposition, Ecclestone stated that he "feels sorry for" the sport's new owners, comparing Liberty Media's plans for online streaming and improved fan offerings to "turning F1 into a fast-food joint," likening the Formula 1 he built to "a three-star Michelin restaurant."
Was Ecclestone an out-of-touch old man, or a wise businessman? His business history and recent involvement with the sport suggest both could be true.
2. Sebastian Vettel's Monaco Win
Kimi Räikkönen seized his first pole position since 2008 in Monaco, delighting fans who had long awaited more success for the Finn of few words. With the narrow Monegasque streets making passes difficult on drivers, the track position advantage was expected to give Kimi his first race win since 2013, but Sunday saw his teammate Sebastian Vettel usurp him for the top step of the podium, prompting the accusation that Vettel, who was fighting for the championship at the time, had team orders issued in his favor.
Vettel denied that the team had manipulated the race's results with team orders, and a lap time chart published by F1 Fanatic supported Vettel's claims. Though the two drivers were on even footing until Kimi pitted between laps 34 and 35, Sebastian, now in clean air, picked up almost two entire seconds between lap 33 and lap 38, and after exiting the pits on lap 40, he found himself ahead—and faster—for the remainder of the race.
3. Bumper Cars In Baku
The Azerbaijan Grand Prix stood out as the most chaotic of the season. Seven drivers failed to finish, Red Bull Racing took its first win of the season, Lance Stroll became the youngest rookie to finish on the podium, and of course, there was the incident between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton.
As part of the safety car restart at the end of lap 19, control of the race was relinquished by the safety car to Hamilton, who let off the throttle into a slow corner, with a feisty Vettel on his heels. Formula 1 cars, even without the use of brakes, will generate around 1 G of deceleration forces when the throttle is closed, due to aerodynamic drag, tires with high rolling resistance, and of course, engine braking. This slowdown caught an antsy Vettel off guard, causing a minor collision, which prompted a later-dismissed accusation of brake checking.
This alone would have been enough to cause arguments online for days, but Vettel's following actions ensured that the F1 world would have to weather a category 5 Scheißsturm, as the Germans say. Vettel pulled alongside Hamilton, cranked the wheel to the right, and gave the leading Mercedes a love tap strong enough to bounce his own car off the ground, if for a mere split second, in addition to a hand gesture we speculate to be finger-shaped. Hamilton could only wave his hand in befuddlement.
Stewards issued a ten-second stop-and-go penalty for what was described as "dangerous driving," an accusation which mystified Vettel. With Hamilton suffering from a loose headrest, for which he was forced to pit, Vettel threw away a surefire race win, though he still finished ahead of his championship rival.
As severe as it was, whether the stop-and-go penalty was punishment enough for causing an intentional impact with another car was contentious for weeks after the race. Some claimed that Vettel should have been ejected with a black flag, and the FIA even considered calling him before a sports court, though the possibility of further penalty was dropped when Vettel apologized.
4. Think I'll Pass, Magnussen
Tempers tend not to be put to as extreme a test when there are no points to fight for, but that did not stop Haas and Renault for going at each other during the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend. After the race start, Renault's Nico Hülkenberg shunted Haas' Romain Grosjean off the track at the first corner, a move for which Grosjean's teammate, Kevin Magnussen, sought to exact revenge.
When Nico attempted to overtake Kevin outside of the second corner on lap 61, the Haas man elbowed the Renault driver into the grass, before Hülkenberg's subsequent retirement for brake and transmission problems, which a Renault Sport F1 spokesperson confirmed to The Drive to be unrelated.
Hülkenberg described Magnussen's actions after the race as "nasty," and told NBC he considered him the "most unsporting driver of the whole grid once again. When it comes to racing, he's just nasty." When he confronted Magnussen with his dissatisfaction after the race, the Dane had some choice words for him.
Haas team principal Gunther Steiner defended his driver, calling Hülkenberg a "bully." The race stewards sided with the German, however, and awarded Magnussen a five-second time penalty, alongside two license penalty points.
5. Burning the Midseason Oil
The refueling ban and 100 kilograms per hour fuel flow rate limit introduced in 2014 alongside the hybrid V6s have forced engine suppliers to juice every joule from fuel to stay competitive, and when competitors began to catch Mercedes, the German giant had to get crafty with its engine development. Though its engine remains the standard to beat, with 50 percent thermal efficiency achieved in a dynamometer test over the summer, its lead over Ferrari has diminished since 2014.
In the name of winning, a loophole in the rules regarding oil consumption is suspected to have given Mercedes a small performance edge for the last four seasons. Between the Belgian and Italian Grands Prix, regulations on oil consumption were tightened from 1.2 liters per 100 kilometers raced to 900 milliliters. Engines introduced prior to the regulatory cinch would not be subject to this ruling, causing some to point their fingers at the team when a new spec debuted in Belgium.
Mercedes denied being reliant upon oil burning for its power advantage, though well-connected Dutch F1 commentator Olav Mol claimed the exact opposite. It's his word versus Mercedes'.
6. Singapore Slip-Up
For many, this race marked the end of their interest in the 2017 season of F1. Sebastian Vettel caused a collision after moving to cover off a fast-starting Max Verstappen, who had to leave space enough for Kimi Räikkönen on the inside of the track. Verstappen had no space to yield to Vettel, and when Räikkönen hooked his rear wheel over Verstappen's front, he lost control, spearing the side of Vettel's car. It is not known whether Verstappen's damage was terminal before Räikkönen, a passenger in his own car, collided once again with the Dutchman, with Fernando Alonso the recipient of collateral damage.
This marked the only time Ferrari has ever endured a double retirement on the first lap of a Grand Prix.
Vettel's fans were keen to defend him, citing similar defenses mounted by other drivers in the past, but nobody was having it. Niki Lauda, Verstappens junior and senior, and Jacques "Foolin' Around" Villeneuve all blamed Vettel for the accident.
The Scuderia never acknowledged its own driver's role and posted a comical tweet blaming Verstappen for the crash.
7. Say Halo To My Little Friend
Fatalities in open-wheel racing have become uncommon with the advances in safety technology, but motorsport, with its inherent danger, can never eliminate all risks. Henry Surtees and Justin Wilson, both killed in recent years by pieces of cars shaken loose in collisions, may not have been lost with improved cockpit protection. Jules Bianchi and Dan Wheldon, too, succumbed to head injuries sustained in severe crashes this decade, with Bianchi becoming the first F1 fatality since Ayrton Senna in 1994.
Multiple cockpit protection designs were trialed, and though it makes cars look worse, the "halo" was settled upon as the FIA as the best option. Though efforts to force the structure through for the 2017 season failed, the "halo" is mandatory in F1 and F2 next year. Opinions remain mixed, even amongst drivers.
8. I'm Not Your Budkowski, Guy
Marcin Budkowski is a name few are familiar with, but after resigning from a senior technical position within the FIA, where he was privy to every last trick in use by F1 teams, he was welcomed aboard Renault Sport F1, attracting the ire of competing teams. To ease the tempers of rival teams, Budkowski's "gardening leave" has been extended to April, ensuring he is to join after the 2018 season begins.
Gardening leave is a buffer period during which someone is unable to work in the industry they are departing, to prevent the dissemination of sensitive technical info. In the technological war that is F1, Budkowski's knowledge of every advantage in use by teams would prove beyond invaluable—borderline cheating, hence the incensed competition.
Budkowski is said to be joining Renault in an executive role, rather than a managerial or technical one, but nothing suggests the information he carries to be of no use to Renault in this position. At worst, he can point a lost team in the right direction, and at best... he might show his new team every step of the way to victory.