Formula 1 has had many iconic rivalries over the years, with varying degrees of respect and controversy between the drivers.
The latest pair to be vying for the drivers’ title is Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari and Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes, and their title battle has inevitably been tainted after what had been for a while, was a friendly rivalry.
Their clash under the safety car in Baku will go down as one of the defining moments of the V6-hybrid era. But that is far from the first time that two competitors have got tangled up in an altercation like this, so here’s a look at F1’s most controversial crashes ever!
#5 Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna (Japan 1990)
The former had joined Ferrari for 1990 and the Scuderia had a much more competitive car for that season. Senna had a 9-point advantage headed into the final round in Japan though, ensuring that the Brazilian would win his second championship if Prost failed to finish.
Senna was still simmering after 1989, and his mood wasn’t helped when pole position was moved to the dirty side of the grid after he was fastest in qualifying. At the start, Prost predictably got the jump on the McLaren man off the line, but when the pack funnelled down into Turn 1, something extraordinary happened.
Senna didn’t brake for the first corner, which was required to get around it successfully, and impaled himself into the Ferrari’s sidepod. That sent them both flying into the gravel trap and out of the race, giving Ayrton his revenge in the most spectacular way.
This clip from the Documentary film, Senna (which you should definitely check out if you haven't already) shows what happened:
This was not their most controversial incidents though, far from it...
#4 Michael Schumacher & Jacques Villeneuve (Europe 1997)
The drama began even before the race started, with the two title rivals and Villeneuve’s Williams teammate Heinz-Harald Frentzen all setting identical times to the thousandth of a second in F1’s closest ever qualifying session.
That is a phenomenon that hadn’t occurred before, nor has it since. Due to the lap times of the top 3 being the same, the order in which they set them determined the starting grid and inevitably, Schumacher and Villeneuve were on the front row.
On race day, Villeneuve started from pole but failed to make it count as Schumacher took the lead early on. The German retained the lead for most of the first two-thirds of the race but Jacques was catching the Ferrari.
On Lap 48, he attempted to overtake Schumacher and momentarily got ahead before Michael did something that has gone down in infamy. Schumacher swerved violently right into the Williams’ side-pod, broke his suspension and retired. It was a desperate tactical gamble that didn’t pay off, as Villeneuve’s car was still race-worthy.
Villeneuve ended up getting third place and secured his sole F1 title. The FIA later gave Schumacher one of the most severe penalties they have ever handed out, disqualification from not just the race, but the whole ’97 season. This was undoubtedly the lowest point in the German’s otherwise stellar career.
If you want to hear what happened from Villeneuve's perspective, and for more info on the 1997 F1 season, check this out from the F1 YouTube channel:
But this wasn’t the first time that Schumacher had garnered controversy in a title fight…
#3 Lewis Hamilton & Nico Rosberg (Spain 2016)
In that season they enjoyed a healthy partnership, but when the carrot of a driver’s title was dangled in front of them, they did everything possible to prevent the other from winning.
In 2014, Mercedes had by far the best Grand Prix car in the field and this irreparably damaged their friendship. In their 3 years together at the top, they had multiple collisions and seemingly endless spats on team radio and in the media, but the bitterness came to a head in Barcelona in 2016.
Rosberg had won the opening four races and Hamilton was desperate to make up ground in his bid for a third successive drivers’ championship. Lewis started from pole but it was Nico that went into Turn 1 first.
An incorrect engine setting, however, made the German’s run around the long Turn 3 slow and Hamilton saw his chance to overtake at a circuit where it is very difficult to do so. He saw a gap on the right and went for it but Rosberg squeezed the Brit onto the grass.
This caused Hamilton to lose control and he was powerless to prevent his silver arrow from spearing into Rosberg and taking both of them out of the race on the first lap.
Like Senna and Prost in 1989, opinion remains polarised as to who was at fault for this one. Some blame Nico for being too aggressive in his defence, while others (such as Niki Lauda) point the finger at Hamilton for going for a gap that was always going to close.
One thing is for sure though, they didn’t learn their lesson as they would come to blows once more, 4 races later in Austria.
#2 Michael Schumacher & Damon Hill (Australia 1994)
Wind the clock back 3 years from his Jerez crash, and Schumacher was driving for Benetton and went into the last race of 1994 ahead of his sole remaining rival for the championship, Damon Hill. Hill had closed Schumacher’s early season advantage after the tragic passing of Williams teammate Ayrton Senna at Imola.
Michael had claimed pole position for the race and he led in the early stages, with Hill not far behind but unable to challenge. Like 1997 the gap was just a single point, so all the Williams man had to do was finish in front of Schumacher and on Lap 36, the Englishman saw an opportunity.
Schumacher made an uncharacteristic mistake and ran wide, hitting the wall on the tight street circuit. This possibly damaged his car but we'll never know because what happened next is still infamous in F1 to this day.
Hill didn't see Schumacher’s excursion, he only saw the Benetton coming back onto the track and he attempted to get past the German. Schumacher wasn't having any of it though and collided with Damon, taking himself out of the race.
Hill tried to continue but his suspension was too damaged and he was also forced to retire.
Unlike what would later occur in 1997, this incident wasn’t black and white, some say it was a racing incident, others say that Michael deliberately drove into Hill. But the history books will always say that on that day Schumacher won the first of his seven titles. Sport is a cruel mistress at times.
#1 Ayrton Senna & Alain Prost (Japan 1989)
Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost’s time as title rivals in the late eighties and early nineties is the benchmark for all battles to be judged against, as it’s undoubtedly one of the greatest ever.
The two were McLaren teammates for the second year in 1989 and were once again a cut above the rest in the championship standings. Senna had to win in Japan to keep his slim hopes of successfully defending his crown alive and hope that Prost had a poor Grand Prix.
Prost got a good start and overtook Senna into Turn 1, but the Brazilian remained in contention in P2. The Frenchman would mercilessly build up a lead for the first half of the race before Senna would begin to close after the pit-stops.
By Lap 40 of 53, the McLaren men were separated by a second and crossed swords once more. Prost was driving masterfully, preventing Senna from getting close enough to challenge.
However, the Brazilian wouldn’t be denied for much longer, and on Lap 46 he got a superb run out of 130R and went down the inside into the final chicane. Prost turned into the corner, however, and both McLarens were stranded in the run-off.
Senna got going again, albeit with a damaged front wing, while his teammate retired despite his car not being terminally damaged. Ayrton limped around for repairs and dropped to second place behind Alessandro Nannini, but overtook the Italian in the closing stages to keep the title race alive.
Or so he thought…
The race stewards judged Senna to have re-joined the track illegally and the punishment was a disqualification. Alain Prost left McLaren as an extremely controversial champion and Senna no doubt had revenge on his mind…
Honourable Mention: Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, Azerbaijan 2017
On Lap 12 of last weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, there was a series of safety cars due to the circuit being littered with debris, and at the second restart on Lap 19, Hamilton led Vettel into the final corner.
Hamilton was backing the field up to allow his teammate Valtteri Bottas to catch the back of the pack and this caught Vettel out, the German ploughing into the back of the Mercedes and damaging his front wing. Incensed, Vettel then took the law into his own hands and swerved to the side of Lewis before bumping into him in a fit of rage.
Perhaps Hamilton was driving unnecessarily slowly, but as the leader, it is his pace to set, and what speed he chooses to go at is completely up to him. What is for sure though is that Vettel has embarrassed himself, a four-time world champion should never behave in such a deplorable manner.
The Ferrari driver was lucky to escape without being disqualified from the race but Vettel was instead awarded a 10-second stop/go penalty but still finished ahead of Hamilton because the Mercedes driver's headrest came loose and had to be replaced in an unscheduled stop.
Can't make your mind up? Here's the video:
Did we miss what you think is the most controversial on-track incident in F1 history? Let us know in the comments below!