Who’d want to be a Formula 1 race steward, eh? Charged with keeping a field of racing drivers in line, whatever decision you make you’re bound to anger somebody. Oh, and best stay clear of social media.
Whether you agreed with Sebastian Vettel‘s five-second penalty in the 2019 Canadian Grand Prix or not, it’s likely you felt the deflation we did when it became clear the race between Vettel and Lewis Hamilton had effectively been called off.
It left us with the uncomfortable scene of a race winner crossing the finish line in second, something that appears not to have sat easy with many fans across the world.
But it’s not the first time the end race result wasn’t as it first appeared. Here, we take a look at five times the race result was altered by steward’s intervention.
2017 UNITED STATES GRAND PRIX
Lewis Hamilton had cruised to a ten-second victory over title rival Sebastian Vettel at the Circuit of the Americas in 2017 to set himself up for a fourth world championship, but all eyes were on the last lap fight for third.
Max Verstappen had started the race from sixteenth after incurring engine change grid penalties, but a charging drive put him in contention for a remarkable podium finish.
On fresher and faster tyres, he was all over Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen for third on the final lap of the race, clearing the Finn with a sublime, ballsy dive down the inside of Turn 17, going on to reach the checkered flag four seconds clear of Kimi.
However, just as Verstappen was preparing to step onto the podium, he was informed he had picked up a five-second penalty for having overtaken Raikkonen outside of track limits – dropping him to fourth place.
An awkward exchange saw Verstappen hand back his third place baseball cap while ‘true’ podium winner Räikkönen stood somewhat bashfully in the corner of the room.
Replays showed Verstappen had placed all four wheels – albeit marginally – across the white line inside the apex of the corner. The move was brave, hold-your-breath stuff but he had, to put it simply, cut the corner.
The post-race penalty saw race stewards come under intense scrutiny from fans and media, prompting the question: should a blind eye be turned to technically illegal moves if they reach a certain level of remarkable?
2008 BELGIAN GRAND PRIX
In a season littered with major talking points, the 2008 Belgian Grand Prix controversy would rumble on for months, perhaps only settling into its place in history once the championship had been decided in the very final seconds of the season.
The race was seemingly done and dusted with three laps to go. Lewis Hamilton, then racing for McLaren, looked set to trail Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen home at Spa, extending his championship lead over third place Felipe Massa.
But the Ardennes Forest often springs a surprise and in 2008 it came in the form of late-race rain; with just two-and-a-half laps to go, the heavens opened.
On dry tyres, Hamilton took just half-a-lap to close on Räikkönen and launch an attack around the outside at the bus-stop chicane before starting the penultimate lap. Kimi locked his inside tyre and squeezed Hamilton to the outside of the corner, leaving the Brit no option but to cut the second part of the chicane.
Hamilton emerged ahead but addressed his corner-cutting immediately, breathing off the throttle and allowing Kimi to retake the lead as they crossed the start/finish line. But Hamilton bit back straight away, scything down the inside at turn one.
The lap that followed was pure drama! As the rain intensified Räikkönen would go off track first, at the ultra-quick Pouhon corner, only for Hamilton to go off at the next, rejoining the circuit behind Kimi…who was facing backwards!
Hamilton took the lead again while Kimi straightened himself but it would all be for nought for the then reigning champion; he would crash out before the end of the lap.
Hamilton tip-toed around the final lap to score a sensational victory ahead of championship rival Massa. But there were the rumblings of controversy coming from the stewards’ office…
Hamilton took the podium with Massa and third place Nick Heidfeld to celebrate a well-earned victory but a couple of hours after the race, Hamilton was awarded a twenty-five second penalty for cutting the chicane in his fight with Räikkönen.
The penalty dropped him to third and caused uproar with fans who had enjoyed the race of the season. McLaren appealed the decision but with no success; the penalty stood and Hamilton went to the next race with just a two point advantage in the drivers’ standings.
2003 BRAZILIAN GRAND PRIX
Chaos. Utter chaos. There’s no other word to describe the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix.
The race took place in abysmal conditions with rain falling constantly; the treacherous track surface saw no less that ten drivers crash out of the race, including the mighty Michael Schumacher.
Rubens Barrichello looked set for an emotional home victory but a fuel pump issue saw his Ferrari falter on lap forty-seven, leaving the Brazilian to watch from an embankment, the rain doing little to hide his tears.
David Coulthard inherited the lead of the race before he dived for the pit-lane on lap fifty-two. His team-mate Kimi Räikkönen then took over at the front before slipping wide, allowing the Jordan Grand Prix car of Giancarlo Fisichella through to first place.
The race was then red-flagged owing to a hefty crash for Fernando Alonso who had hit debris from Mark Webber‘s Jaguar, the Australian having crashed heavily moments before.
The race had been stopped but confusion reigned. Who had won? The race result was due to be taken from two laps before the red flag was shown. But had Coulthard been leading? Or Räikkönen? Or was Fisichella ahead?
While the steward’s hastily deliberated, Fisichella’s Jordan burst into flames in the pit-lane. And just to add to the the drama, Fernando Alonso was classified third, but the Spaniard was in the back of an ambulance!
Eventually Kimi Räikkönen was declared the winner, much to the consternation of Fisichella, who believed he had won his first grand prix and team-boss Eddie Jordan who thought his team had won for the first time since 1999.
But the chaos didn’t stop there; some days later, the result was revised, with Fisichella finally being awarded the victory. In a ceremony at the next race in San Marino the Italian received his winner’s trophy from Räikkönen and one of the most bizarre races in Formula 1’s history was finally settled.
1989 JAPANESE GRAND PRIX
It remains perhaps the most notorious race in grand prix history as well as one of the most controversial steward rulings.
With a championship on the line Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost‘s strained relationship as McLaren team-mates was already near boiling point and it was about to reach a level that would echo throughout Formula 1 for decades to come.
Prost had led from the start, stalked all the way by Senna, who had to claim victory in Suzuka to keep his championship hopes alive. Senna’s attack came on lap forty-six of fifty-three at the Casio Triangle chicane.
What happened then sparks debate between Prost and Senna camps to this day; Prost made for an early apex to the right-hander but with Senna fully committed to an overtake, the pair collided.
The iconic scene of both Marlboro-McLarens tangled together and stranded played out across the world as Prost jumped from his stricken car.
Senna however, restarted his McLaren, complete with broken nosecone. The Japanese marshals gave Senna a helping hand, pushing him down an escape road before the Brazilian set about pitting for a new nose and hunting down now race-leader Alessandro Nannini.
Just two laps after his pit-stop Senna claimed the lead from Nannini at the same spot he had clashed with Prost, going on to win the race and keep his title hopes alive.
But the controversy was just beginning: a delay to the podium raised suspicions that politics was going to play a part in the eventual outcome. And indeed they did; at the behest of FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre, the stewards deemed Senna to have cut the chicane when rejoining to circuit following the clash with Prost.
Senna was therefore disqualified from the race, handing the victory to Nannini and a third championship to Prost. The arguments rumbled on for months and set the legendary Prost/Senna rivalry to new and destructive levels.
1976 BRITISH GRAND PRIX
Not since Peter Collins, driving for Ferrari in 1958, had a English driver won the British Grand Prix. So thousands of spectators filled the grandstands and lined the grass embankments of Brand Hatch in the hope of seeing James Hunt take a memorable victory.
Hunt had taken victory in the previous race in France but it was title rival Niki Lauda who started from pole-position in front of the British crowd.
At turn one Lauda touched with his team-mate Clay Regazzoni and sent the Swiss driver into a spin, collecting Hunt’s McLaren.
The race was red-flagged as Regazzoni and Hunt rejoined the track but with the McLaren in need of repair, Hunt didn’t complete the full lap, instead cutting into the rear of the paddock from the Cooper straight.
Because he wasn’t technically on track when the red flag was shown, Hunt was excluded from taking part in the restart. The crowd, basking in the hottest summer for 350-years, were livid. They began to chant Hunt’s name and crowd the barriers.
Fearing real unrest in the crowd, the stewards relented, allowing Hunt to take part in the restarted race, which he duly won before the stewards, at the behest of the Ferrari, Tyrrell and Fittipaldi teams, disqualified again.
The arguments and McLaren’s official protest would rage for two months before finally being quashed; the disqualification stood and Niki Lauda won the 1976 British Grand Prix.
So you see, controversial penalties in Formula 1 is nothing new. Agree with the stewards or not, they haven’t half provided some talking points over the years.