The most controversial F1 deciders: 1990 Japan, 1994 Australia & more

The controversial contest between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton for the 2021 Formula 1 world championship has got many wondering what will happen in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix showdown this weekend.

Autosport has already picked out the top 10 F1 title deciders and the race could be a candidate for that list…

But the tension is also reminiscent of the darker days in F1 history, when the title has been decided or marred by controversial clashes. Here are the times things went bad, with some non-F1 misdemeanours too.

Lorenzo Bandini leads Graham Hill at the 1964 Mexican GP

Lorenzo Bandini leads Graham Hill at the 1964 Mexican GP

Photo by: Motorsport Images

5. 1964 Mexican GP – Hill vs Bandini
Where: Mexico City
Who: Graham Hill and Lorenzo Bandini
Champion: John Surtees

Given the lack of footage, this one is hard to call. But there’s no doubt that a clash between one title contender and the team-mate of another had an influence on the outcome of the world championship.

Three drivers were in contention for the 1964 crown at the Mexico City finale, BRM’s Graham Hill, Ferrari’s John Surtees and Lotus’s Jim Clark.

Injection problems hampered Surtees in practice and early in the race, while Clark streaked into the lead from pole. Once up to temperature, Surtees’s V8 cleared and he began a charge.

He soon caught the fight for third between his team-mate Lorenzo Bandini and Hill. Eventually, Bandini and Hill made contact, the BRM being knocked out of contention (though Hill would finish 11th).

Surtees later claimed he could see that something was going to happen given the ferocity of the battle, but who exactly was to blame remains a matter of debate.

Either way, Clark was still well out in front and heading for the title when an oil line broke.

Dan Gurney swept into the lead on the penultimate lap, then Bandini helped once more by moving aside for his team leader. Surtees thus finished second to beat Hill to the crown by a single point.

Alain Prost, McLaren, Ayrton Senna, McLaren

Alain Prost, McLaren, Ayrton Senna, McLaren

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

4. 1989 Japanese GP – Prost vs Senna
Where: Suzuka
Who: Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna
Champion: Alain Prost

This wasn’t a final-round showdown – the Australian GP would follow two weeks later – but it was critical for Ayrton Senna to beat Alain Prost to victory at Suzuka to remain in the title hunt at the Adelaide finale.

The two McLaren-Hondas dominated qualifying, with Senna outpacing his bitter rival Prost by an extraordinary 1.730 seconds to claim pole position. Prost opted for a lower-downforce set-up for the race, and made the best start, with Senna only just holding off the Ferrari of Gerhard Berger for second place.

Prost was four seconds in front when he made his pitstop. Senna was in two laps later, and his service took two seconds longer. Now came the charge. By the end of lap 40 the Brazilian was within half a second of the Frenchman, but then Prost rallied and eked the gap out again. Senna closed once more, and on lap 47 – with six to go – he made the move.

Prost’s lower downforce gave him a straightline-speed advantage, so Senna’s only realistic shot at passing was to be super-late on the brakes into the chicane. Down the inside he went, only for Prost to close the door – too late. The two McLarens came to a halt in an undignified tangle, facing the escape road. Prost, his car stalled, climbed out and stalked away. Senna beckoned for a push start and continued on his way, but crucially this was by continuing down the escape road rather than taking the chicane.

Senna pitted the following lap to replace a damaged front wing, promoting Alessandro Nannini to the lead, but he passed the Benetton at the chicane with two laps remaining to take the victory he needed. Later, Senna was excluded for bypassing the chicane on lap 47. McLaren’s appeal failed, and Prost was champion as he headed to Ferrari.

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The 1994 F1 season was already controversial, even before Schumacher and Hill's final-round clash

The 1994 F1 season was already controversial, even before Schumacher and Hill's final-round clash

Photo by: Sutton Images

3. 1994 Australian GP – Schumacher vs Hill
Where: Adelaide
Who: Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill
Champion: Michael Schumacher

The 1994 season had already been mired in controversy and tragedy, from Senna’s death in the San Marino GP to Michael Schumacher’s exclusion from the British GP and two-race ban. Following a stunning performance in the wet Japanese GP, Damon Hill had narrowed the gap to championship leader Schumacher to one point as the teams arrived in Adelaide for the final round.

Following Senna’s death, the Williams-Renault team had partnered Hill with F1 new boy David Coulthard and, on four occasions, its 1992 world champion Mansell. In Adelaide, it was Mansell who rose to the occasion by claiming pole position, pipping Schumacher’s Benetton-Ford by 0.018s, with Hill third.

Thanks to that one-point gap, the title was effectively going to be won by whomever of Schumacher and Hill finished ahead. Mansell’s bootful of revs at the start sent his Williams slewing sideways, Schumacher and Hill both beat him away, and Mansell compounded his lurid getaway with an off-track moment on the opening lap.

The race settled down, with Schumacher leading and Hill in hot pursuit. By the 30-lap mark, the Benetton star’s advantage was oscillating around two seconds. But on the 36th tour, Schumacher hit the wall at the East Terrace turn. He quickly continued on his way, and Hill tried to pass the damaged Benetton at the following corner.

Schumacher turned in on the Williams, launching himself up onto two wheels and into the barriers, while Hill was forced to retire in the pits with left-front suspension damage.

Schumacher was champion, while Mansell ended his Williams career with victory after passing Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari.

The controversial collision between Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve at the 1997 European GP. Schumacher was judged to have deliberately turned in on his rival Villeneuve, and subsequently was excluded from the entire championship as a result

The controversial collision between Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve at the 1997 European GP. Schumacher was judged to have deliberately turned in on his rival Villeneuve, and subsequently was excluded from the entire championship as a result

Photo by: Motorsport Images

2. 1997 European GP – Schumacher vs Villeneuve
Where: Jerez
Who: Michael Schumacher vs Jacques Villeneuve
Champion: Jacques Villeneuve

Just like 1994, it was final-race controversy between Schumacher, now driving for Ferrari, and the lead Williams-Renault pilot, in this case Jacques Villeneuve.

The Williams was renowned as the more competitive proposition, yet some stunning performances from Schumacher and some wobbles from Villeneuve meant the German was one point ahead of the Canadian as they headed to Jerez. It was effectively a winner-takes-all decider.

The first raising of eyebrows came in qualifying, where somehow the leading trio all recorded exactly the same time to a thousandth of a second. By dint of setting the time first, Villeneuve claimed pole from Schumacher and the second Williams of Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

Schumacher made a better start and took the lead from Villeneuve. They made two rounds of pitstops, and each time the Ferrari emerged still in front of the Williams.

On lap 48, just past two-thirds distance, Villeneuve launched an attack. He got down the inside of Schumacher into the Dry Sack hairpin.

Knowing that he could not afford to lose to Villeneuve, Schumacher turned in, his front-right wheel hit Villeneuve’s left sidepod, and the Ferrari was launched into the gravel trap. Schumacher sat there spinning his rear wheels, trying to gain traction to rejoin, but had to give up and climb out.

Villeneuve still needed points to claim the title, and luckily for him the Williams’s damage was not severe. He led until the final lap, when he allowed the McLarens of Mika Hakkinen and Coulthard ahead. It was the Finn’s first GP win, while third place for Villeneuve meant he was champion.

Schumacher, with suspicions still lingering over his actions in 1994, was excluded from the entire world championship.

Start action, Alain Prost, Ferrari 641 leads Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4/5B Honda

Start action, Alain Prost, Ferrari 641 leads Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4/5B Honda

Photo by: Sutton Images

1. 1990 Japanese GP – Prost vs Senna
Where: Suzuka
Who: Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost
Champion: Ayrton Senna

As in 1989, the Suzuka drama was the penultimate round, but this time the boot was on the other foot. Prost, now at Ferrari, needed to win to stand any chance of defeating Senna and McLaren to the crown at the Adelaide finale.

Once again Senna was on pole, with Prost alongside him. Senna, still smarting from Prost’s ‘professional foul’ of 1989, argued that pole should be moved to the outside, on the racing line, but FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre – who Senna had wrongly accused of manipulating the stewards in his exclusion 12 months earlier – vetoed his request.

Sure enough, Prost got a better launch than Senna, who was on the dirty, dusty inside line. Undeterred, Senna made what appeared to be a hugely optimistic lunge down the inside of the Ferrari at the first corner. His left-front made contact with the right-rear of Prost at high speed, and the two cars careered into the gravel trap and out of the race.

“We were both off and it was a shit end of championship,” said Senna a year later, while admitting that his intention was to beat Prost into the first turn, even if it caused a collision. “It was not good for me and not good for Formula 1.” How right he was.

Once again a Senna/Prost controversy resulted in a Benetton victory, Nelson Piquet leading Roberto Moreno to a 1-2, but only after the second McLaren-Honda of Gerhard Berger spun off on lap two, and Nigel Mansell’s Ferrari succumbed to driveshaft failure.

The wrecked cars of Alain Prost, Ferrari 641 and Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4/5B Honda

The wrecked cars of Alain Prost, Ferrari 641 and Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4/5B Honda

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Outside F1

The 1996 Formula 3000 showdown at Hockenheim was decided after the race. Kenny Brack was three points behind Jorg Muller, so needed to beat the German on his home turf. The Swede was leading the race when Muller tried to pass into the third chicane.

Brack squeezed Muller, the two collided, and Muller was launched over Brack’s car and out of the race. Brack continued, ignoring black flags and being stripped of his ‘victory’. And by the way, Muller’s team boss was a certain Helmut Marko…

Steve Soper clashes with John Cleland

Steve Soper clashes with John Cleland

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Over in the world of tin-tops, the 1992 British Touring Car Championship decider at Silverstone came down to a fight between Tim Harvey in his Vic Lee-run BMW and Vauxhall star John Cleland, with the late Will Hoy in with an outside shot with his Toyota.

Harvey had Steve Soper as his team-mate and, on the penultimate lap, Soper allowed Harvey past in their three-car battle for fourth place. Cleland then saw a chink of light inside Soper at Brooklands, and squeezed down the inside, but contact was made with the uncompromising Soper, launching the Vauxhall onto two wheels as Cleland made the pass.

Into Luffield, Soper took to the grass and harpooned Cleland, putting both out of the race. Fourth place for Harvey meant he was champion, as Andy Rouse took the chequered flag in his Toyota.

The sensation of the 1999 German Super Touring fight at the Nurburgring finale came on the very last lap. It was a battle between the Abt Audi of Christian Abt and the Holzer-run Opel of Uwe Alzen.

Into the final tour, Abt led Alzen and was looking good for the crown, while Alzen was being shadowed by the rear-gunning sister Opel of Roland Asch, who had ignored a black flag for an earlier misdemeanour.

The trio were following the second Abt Audi of Kris Nissen, who had been delayed earlier in the race and was close to going a lap down. Into the chicane for the final time, Nissen let Abt through but closed the door on Alzen, the collision severely damaging the Opel’s suspension.

Asch took to the grass in avoidance, and then rammed Abt off the road and into the gravel at the final turn. Somehow, Alzen got across the line and was champion. But Asch’s unsporting behaviour led to a decision to back-date the result by eliminating the final lap, and it was Abt who was eventually crowned.

Nine years earlier, a certain youngster named Michael Schumacher had been drafted into the Mercedes line-up for the DTM finale at Hockenheim. He turned right across the grass into the opening turn and smashed into BMW’s leading title contender Johnny Cecotto, and it was Audi veteran Hans Stuck who claimed the crown.

Sebastien Buemi and Lucas di Grassi clash at the 2015-2016 London ePrix

Sebastien Buemi and Lucas di Grassi clash at the 2015-2016 London ePrix

Over in the world of electric motorsport, the Formula E decider at Battersea Park in the summer of 2016 seemed to be over too soon… except it wasn’t.

A late run of form had taken Lucas di Grassi into title contention, and the Abt-run Audi (does that sound familiar?) driver was level on points with e.dams Renault ace Sebastien Buemi going into the final race. If neither scored, di Grassi would take the title on a countback.

The Brazilian clattered into the Swiss at Turn 3 on the opening lap, and both appeared to be out of contention.

Indeed, Buemi took half the race to rejoin, before setting fastest lap and claiming the points he required to inch back ahead of di Grassi in the standings and be crowned champion.

Sebastian Buemi and the e.dams Renault team

Sebastian Buemi and the e.dams Renault team

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

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