Formula 1 Mythbusters: Part Two

We recently put some myths from Formula One’s golden era to the test. We’re back for part two, this time putting five more recent, more outlandish myths under the the Champagne + Slicks microscope to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Andrea de Crasheris

What’s the story? Andrea de Cesaris was nicknamed ‘de Crasheris’ because he crashed all the time. In 1981 he crashed out of every single race.

Is it true? He crashed a lot, but it has been greatly exaggerated.

De Cesaris’s name never seems to come up without some bright spark replying ‘De Crasheris LOL’. It’s become an accepted part of F1 folklore that he was a bumbling fool who couldn’t get into a car without immediately crashing.

His 1981 season comes under the most scrutiny, with even the usually respectable New York Times claiming that de Cesaris managed to “destroy 18 car chassis”

Motorsport Magazine gives the real story: “His 1981 season in particular has been inflated wildly and the myth that he crashed in every Grand Prix is simply untrue. The facts are as follows: In the 14 races he competed in, he retired due to accidents or accident damage seven times. One of those was due to a puncture and the other was a legacy of Villeneuve’s famous carnage trigger at Woodcote.”

It wasn’t a great season by any means (he scored 1 point to Watson’s 27…), but nor was it a comical crash-fest.

Certainly there were lots of crashes in the early part of his career, but there was also lots of pace. It’s easy to forget that this is the guy who put an unfancied Alfa Romeo on pole, scored five podiums, and nearly finished second at the 1991 Belgian GP for Jordan.

Benetton’s illegal traction control

What’s the story? The Benetton B194 had illegal traction control during the 1994 season.

Did it happen? The FIA found hidden launch/traction control software on the B194, but couldn’t prove they used it during races.

Rumours circulated early in the season that Benetton were using banned driver aids. Williams’ Jonathan Williams recalled how he attended a Madgewick F3000 test at Pembrey that was also attended by Benetton. A Madgewick mechanic—who went on to become an engineer for championship winning F1 teams—pointed at the B194 and said to Williams: “Just look at the tire marks and listen”.

Around the same time, Senna became suspicious something was up with the Benetton. After spinning out of the Pacific GP, he stood trackside listening for tell-tale signs of traction control. He walked away certain Schumacher’s car was running the system.

“Senna himself was convinced that there was something different about Schumacher’s car,” former Williams team manager Ian Harrison told Autosport. “Whether there was or not I don’t know, but Senna was utterly sure there was.”

Similarly, Nigel Roebuck told Motorsport Magazine‘s podcast how a senior Williams figure told him that Senna believed the two Benettons were entirely different, “with the one leading behaving differently from the one that wasn’t leading.”

Jos Verstappen was driving that other car. He later said that he thought Schumacher’s car was running Traction Control.

“I know that his car was different from mine…. There were electronic driver aids. It was never mentioned, but I am convinced. I know enough now,” said Verstappen.

The FIA did discover a ‘launch control’ system in the B194’s software—complete with hidden menu options to activate via laptop—but Benetton were adamant it was never used during races and could not be activated by the driver.

The FIA could not prove it had been used, and so Benetton escaped punishment. We may never know the truth, but given second hand B194’s have been sold advertised with traction control, it’s pretty clear it was a fundamental part of the car.

Further, the counter arguments against TC don’t really stack up. Willem Toet, Benetton’s Aerodynamics Head at the time, told Ibrar Malik’s 1994: The Untold Story of a Tragic and Controversial Season that Senna most likely mistook Schumacher’s left foot-braking for something more sinister.

“I think it was the use of left-foot braking combined with the throttle which would have made the strange noise,” Toet said. Does it really seem possible in 1994 that Senna couldn’t identify left foot braking?

For the record, Schumacher addressed the rumours in 1998, commenting that he “would never use an illegal system”, adding that “we didn’t have anything illegal, but there was so much talk it became like the truth.”

The Tamburello Sniper

What’s the story? Senna was assassinated, and the true cause of his death has been covered up.

Did it happen? I mean, it’s impossible to disprove, but it’s also impossible to disprove Santa Claus’s existence. Conspiracy nonsense, basically.

Senna’s death has attracted endless discussion, from legitimate questions about the investigation through to downright lunatic conspiracy theories fuelled by the freak circumstances, missing onboard footage, years of investigation and ultimate uncertainty over the cause of the crash.

While Italian courts found that the crash was caused by steering column failure, other explanations remain in the mix.

Patrick Head thinks Senna probably made an error, something Senna’s teammate Damon Hill agrees with. Meanwhile, FW16 designer Adrian Newey acknowledged that the steering column was broken, but questioned “whether [it] failed in the accident or [caused] the accident”. He believes the crash was most likely caused by the car bottoming out after picking up a tyre puncture (possibly from debris from the start line crash).

Conspiracists have filled the gaps in with various theories, with one absurd diatribe (surely a pisstake) simultaneously claiming that bottoming out couldn’t have caused the crash because “it’s never caused a crash to anyone, anywhere!”, and that Senna was shot at 200mp/h by a “hidden sniper in the dense trees”. Yes, because that’s happened so many times before…

Telemetry shows Senna was braking all the way to impact, immediately disproving the theory he had been fatally shot in the head (not to mention that a 200mp/h headshot would be near impossible).

The most investigated accident in the history of the sport, there is zero evidence to suggest that Senna’s death was caused by anything other than steering column failure, bottoming out, or driver error (or a combination of two or more of the above).

Hamilton gets by (with a little help from his friends)

What’s the story? Timo Glock deliberately slowed to let Lewis Hamilton by at the final corner of the 2008 Brazilian GP, allowing his friend to finish 5th and win the WDC by one point.

Is it true? No. Glock was just struggling for grip.

After Hamilton dramatically overtook a ‘slowing’ Glock at the last corner of the last lap, some cynics jumped to the conclusion that Glock was doing his old GP2 friend a favour.

Yet Toyota’s race strategy and Glock’s lap times explain exactly how Hamilton was able to pass so easily when he did.

On lap 63, light rain began to fall and the field dived into the pits for intermediates—all except for the Toyota pairing of Glock and Trulli who chose to stay out on dries. Glock benefitted, rising from 7th to 4th (ahead of Hamilton), but by the penultimate lap his times had ballooned out to 1:28. By the last lap, his cold tyres struggling for grip on the damp surface, he crawled around in 1:44 (similar time to the also struggling Trulli), making him a sitting duck for the rapidly closing Vettel and Hamilton on their intermediates. See it here for yourself on the official Formula 1 YouTube channel.

“I had no chance to resist the guys on wet tyres because they were just so much quicker,” Glock said. “I had to stay off the racing line because there was so much tyre rubber on it, which becomes incredibly slippery in the wet. I don’t know how anyone can think that I just pulled over.”

So there you have it. Glock had been struggling for grip for several laps and had only been ahead of Hamilton in the first place because of a Toyota strategy call. Logic dictates that if Glock had wanted to help Hamilton he wouldn’t have done it by staying out ahead of him!

Hugo Chávez’s Victory

What’s the story? After Pastor Maldonado won the 2012 Spanish GP, Williams deliberately set fire to their pit garage to destroy evidence of ‘special’ Pirelli tyres arranged by Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chávez.

Did it happen? No. It was Pastor’s day.

After Maldonado’s shock win at Barcelona and the dramatic fire that engulfed the Williams garage post-race, some drew a link between the two events to conclude that Chávez (backer of Williams via state-owned oil company PDVSA) had somehow ‘paid’ to help Williams win to aid his re-election chances.

The thing is, Maldonado’s win wasn’t a total bolt out of the blue. The FW34 was quick, and Maldonado was a fast but erratic driver who also qualified third at Valencia and Spa (before penalties), and fourth at Abu Dhabi. While his Sunday afternoons often ended early, at Barcelona he put in a career-best drive (helped by a penalty to pole-sitter Hamilton) to win.

As for the fire, it was started by a KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) fault—the same system that caused fire scares or electrical faults at Red Bull and BMW in 2008, and again at Williams in 2013.

When you break it down, all that happened is a fast driver in a fast car won a race before a fire caused by a fault that had happened several times before. Nothing to see here, folks.

Scott Russell

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