Formula 1 Mythbusters: Part One

Senna was killed by a sniper. Williams burned their own garage down after winning the 2012 Spanish GP. Benetton had illegal traction control during the 1994 season.

Formula 1 history is paved with myths and legends, ranging from true stories through to downright unhinged conspiracy theories.

In this two part series we put ten widely repeated claims under the Champagne + Slicks microscope to separate the spurious from the legitimate. No #fakenews here!

In part one we look at five tales from the 60s, 70s and 80s, from the story of an unusual BMW engine treatment through to Bernie Ecclestone’s rumoured involvement in one of the crimes of the century.

Stay tuned for part two where we look at some of the more recent (and more outlandish…) claims.

Alan Jones Austria 1977

Happy Birthday Alan Jones!

What’s the story? When Alan Jones won the 1977 Austian Grand Prix, race organisers didn’t have the Australian national anthem on hand, so a drunk played ‘Happy Birthday’ on trumpet instead.

Did it happen? Yeah, sort of. Just not how AJ tells it.

AJ loves spinning this yarn about the race organisers who were so unprepared for his maiden F1 victory that they had to summon a drunk with a trumpet to save their blushes.

“Certainly the organisers obviously didn’t expect it to happen because they didn’t have the Australian national anthem,” Jones told “[Instead] a drunk played ‘Happy Birthday’ on a trumpet – of which there were plenty in Austria…”

There’s just one problem.

The Australian national anthem in 1977 was ‘God Save the Queen’ (‘Advance Australia Fair’ was only adopted in 1984), which the race organisers definitely would have had, especially considering James Hunt was the reigning world champion at the time!

Footage of the podium celebrations give some credence to Jones’s story. Listen closely and you can hear a trumpet, although there’s no sign of ‘Happy Birthday’ (although perhaps it was played at a later time?) and no word on the trumpet player’s blood alcohol level…

The Great Train Robbery

Bernie and the Great Train Robbery

What’s the story? Bernie Ecclestone masterminded—or was at least involved in—the Great Train Robbery of 1963, during which £2.6 million was stolen from a Royal Mail train.

Is it true? Almost definitely not. But Bernie’s happy for you to think it might be.

The ruthless, enigmatic Ecclestone has never shied away from shady dealings. Witness his support for Vladimir Putin, his admiration of Hitler‘s “ability to get things done”, the bribery charges he settled, or the £10m payment he made to get HMRC off his back.

His questionable ethics, friendship with Roy James (the ex-racing driver and robbery getaway driver who Ecclestone later gave a job) and opaque wealth have led some to wonder if he was involved in the Great Train Robbery, with rumours persisting that he organised it.

The Independent asked Bernie about his involvement during a 2005 interview. Bernie replied in that way that only he can, saying no but with enough cheek and brashness to make you think twice: “There wasn’t enough money on that train,” he said. “I could have done something better than that.”

René Arnoux Brazil 1985

René Arnoux’s mysterious Ferrari sacking

What’s the story? René Arnoux was sacked by Ferrari one race into 1985 season because he was caught ‘dancing with the white lady’.

Is it true? There is no evidence to substantiate the rumour.

Ever since Arnoux was dropped by Ferrari after the 1985 Brazilian Grand Prix, rumours have swirled about the reasons for his dismissal (I won’t go into detail of these potentially libelous claims, but a quick Google search will fill in the blanks…).

Autosport’s Nigel Roebuck is one of the few journalists to have even hinted at the rumours, writing in May 2000 that while he “does know why he [Arnoux] was kicked out of Ferrari”, explaining why is “very difficult, for a variety of reasons, some of which are delicate.”

“The year before, teamed with Alboreto, he was invariably outpaced, and did not respond well to that.”

“A few days after the Brazilian race in ’85, Arnoux had a meeting with Enzo Ferrari, and it not go well – in fact, René stormed out.”

“Soon afterwards, it was announced that he had asked to be released from the contract, following problems with leg muscles which had required surgery the previous winter.”

Tellingly, Roebuck added that the “This ‘official explanation’ was plainly economic with the truth, let’s say, and fooled no one.”

And that, folks, is the most you’re ever going to hear about this one.

Henri Toivonen Portugal 1985

Toivonen’s Formula 1 beating Estoril lap

What’s the story? At the 1986 Rallye de Portugal, Henri Toivonen lapped Estoril in his Lancia Delta S4 rally car in a time that would have qualified him sixth at the Portuguese Grand Prix.

Did it happen? Not exactly (but the real story is amazing).

Group B rally cars monstered 600 horsepower through four wheels and could rocket from 0 to 100km/h in two seconds, but did Toivonen really drive his Lancia around Estoril quick enough to qualify sixth at the 1985 Portuguese Grand Prix?

It’s one hell of a story, but the details don’t add up. For starters, the full Estoril layout wasn’t used during the ’86 event. Not to mention that even after endless web sleuthing no one has ever been able to produce any lap times to verify the claim.

The real story is impressive enough, though. According to Rallyworld 1986/1987, Toivonen took Jonathan Palmer around the full circuit for some laps in the pouring rain one evening during the rally, clocking times good enough for the “front half of the grid for the ‘wet’ 1985 Portuguese Formula One race”.

Similarly, Ninni Russo, Lancia team manager at the time, told that the team also tested on the full circuit a few weeks before the rally. According to Russo, Toivonen lapped as fast as the “the first ten of the F1 cars from their test at Estoril two or three weeks before.”

Nelson Piquet Brabham-BMW

BMW’s urine-soaked scrapyard engines

What’s the story? During the 1980s, BMW F1 engineers sourced engine blocks from scrap yards and left them outside in the cold for weeks— even urinating on them—because engines prepared this way could better handle the stresses of Formula 1.

Did it happen? Mostly no.

The way this story is told you’d think that BMW engineers were routinely raiding Munich scrapyards for clapped out 3-series engines, leaving them outside for weeks, and hosing them down with piss.

In 2009, Racecar magazine asked Ulrich Baretsky—who worked on BMW’s F1 program in the 1980s—about the scrapyard engine story: “It wasn’t true”, he recalled, “but Paul Rosche (BMW Technical Director) became curious, so we tried it.”

An old road car engine block was sourced, built up into a Formula 1 engine, and put on the dyno to see what would happen. “It didn’t even get warm before it blew up,” Baretzky told the publication.

So no, BMW engineers weren’t scouring German scrapyards for engine blocks. As for leaving them outside or urinating on them, it’s impossible to prove it didn’t happen at least once, but it certainly wasn’t part of BMW’s engine program…

Keep following Champagne + Slicks for Part Two of Formula 1 Mythbusters

Scott Russell

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