Grand Prix
The Tyrrell Conspiracy


The date is June the 24th, 1984. The place is Detroit. The young British driver Martin Brundle has just capped a highly successful first half of the season for Tyrrell by coming home 2nd, only a second behind (an admittedly cruising) Nelson Piquet.

Several hours later, the scrutineers find several perceived irregularities with his Tyrrell. This mostly centres on the car's water ballast tank. This 13 litre reservoir contains water to be sprayed over the Cosworth DFY V8 engine, cooling it during a race. The light car is close to the weight limit, so Tyrrell have adopted a procedure whereby their cars pitted in the second half of the race, and the tank was refilled, thus meaning there would be enough water to keep the car above the minimum weight limit for the second half of the race. Not exactly a wonderful piece of transparency, but well within the purview of the regulations. The problem was the scrutineers found a quantity of lead balls in the water tank.

Tyrrell claimed they were additional ballast, sited there to make doubly sure the car was of legal weight. Again, theoretically legal, though something of a grey area. The rules stated the ballast must be in a place where it can be easily inspected, and it must be fixed so it can only be removed with tools. Ken Tyrrell argued that he had made no secret of the lead balls, and anyone wanting to see them could have simply asked, and that the process would require tools. It seemed like a typical Tyrrell wrangle with the rule book, and everyone waited for the typical back-and-forth over whether or not Brundle would keep his second place (the driver, in the meantime, broke several bones in practice at Fair Park the following race).

On July 18th, between the Dallas and British Grand Prix, Tyrrell was summoned to a FISA extraordinary meeting. There, he was told a sample of water from Brundle's water tank in Detroit contained 27.5% aromatics - in layman's terms, fuel, and excluded his team from the 1984 Formula One championship on four charges. FISA's press release on the matter stated Tyrrell were in violation of Article 152 of the sport's code: -

"The Tyrrell team: after having heard Mr Ken Tyrrell, given the analyses which resulted from the samples taken from Tyrrell No.3 at the Detroit Grand Prix, given the witnesses heard and from deep-seated convictions, for violation of the following articles of the F1 Technical Regulations:

Art. 6-14: any refuelling during the race is forbidden.
Art. 14.1.2: fuel not complying with the regulation.
Art. 6.9: fuel lines must have safety breakaway valves.
Art. 6.11: fuel lines must be capable of supporting a given pressure and temperature.
Art. 4.2: ballast may be used provided that it is secured in such a way that tools are necessary to remove it. It must be possible to affix seals to it.

The Tyrrell team entered for the FIA Formula One Championship is excluded from this Championship, and as a result its entry is cancelled. This decision takes immediate effect. The appeal before the FIA Court of Appeal does not suspend this decision."

The accusation was, in short, that the Tyrrell cars' water stops had instead seen performance-boosting fuel, which was then pumped into the engine, and/or lead ballast to increase the cars' weight to the legal limits. The team's points were removed, and they were to take no further part in the 1984 season. A furious Tyrrell obtained a court injunction to allow the cars to run at Brands Hatch, and began preparing his defence.

Interestingly, the first race of the year - at Rio - had seen Brundle finish 5th after the first of the water stops. Then, Jackie Oliver of Arrows (whose cars had finished 7th and 8th) had protested Brundle, claiming he had indeed taken on extra fuel in the stop. The Brazilian marshals had requested Tyrrell prove the fuel tank and the water tank had no connection, which Tyrrell happily did. Oliver's protest was thrown out, and Brundle kept his 5th place.

Tyrrell also contacted the research organisation which had carried out the analysis. They stated that the sample contained only 0.005% aromatics. The remaining hydrocarbons therefore were microscopic, most likely caused by accidental contamination at the race meeting itself (it was speculated it had been carried to the pits in an old fuel drum) - careless, but not exactly cheating; hydrocarbons in that quantity would have had no significant effect on the performance of the cars. It was obvious that FISA had misinterpreted the results of the tests, believing that a high percentage of the whole sample was hydrocarbons, rather than a high percentage of the tiny amount of aromatics within the sample were hydrocarbons, but the organisation stuck to their line, claiming that however minimal the traces, they were still illegal.

Disqualifying Brundle from 2nd at Detroit for this would have been harsh, but legally correct. The draconian nature of the punishment applying to the whole season was stranger, and FISA put the emphasis on proving the cars had been legal at all the other races - all but impossible to conclusively prove. Some instances were easy enough - Bellof had ran at Monaco without plans for a water stop as the cooling system was deemed unnecessary, though the tank was filled at the start of the race to keep the car at legal weight. His car was scrutinised after he finished 3rd, with no problems. The lead balls were also present in the tank at Dallas, where the German had crashed on the 9th lap long before his water stop.

Tyrrell contested that studying his cars' lap times proved they weren't lighter before their stops as lap-times almost universally got faster after the stops - the one exception being in Detroit, where the abrasive surface and general attrition caused everyone's times to slow, Brundle's no more dramatically than anyone else's - indeed, his slowed by a much lower factor as he chased Piquet home. This fall in lap times showed the cars were finishing the races lighter than they started, rather than - as FISA were claiming - vice versa. Apart from both drivers' habit of getting off the line superbly - a legacy of the more straightforward standing start capability of non-turbo engines, as unlike the other drivers they didn't have to worry about boost pressure - the Tyrrells had often been relatively anonymous in the early stages of most races, making up ground in the later stages as others kept an eye on greedy turbo engines' fuel consumption. And of course if the drivers were sandbagging to disguise this, there was no advantage to running light in the first place. The original FISA accusation made repeated reference to Brundle's stop at the French Grand Prix, four laps from the end, but Tyrrell used Longines data to prove the car lapped at around the same speed it had done for much of the race.

Considering Tyrrell were having to ballast their cars to meet the 540kg limit while most of the opposition were comfortably over, it made little sense for Tyrrell to intentionally try to illegally lower their weight further for the sake of a few kilograms. The team were allowed to race in the meantime pending their appeal, and Ken Tyrrell was quietly confident of getting the main charges overturned, if maybe losing the result from Detroit. However, when he arrived before the FISA Appeal Court in August to appeal after the Dutch Grand Prix, he found the charges had changed. The incorrect ballast and presence of hydrocarbons were still there, but now there was mention of a pair of holes in the bottom of the car, one or the other blocked off depending on circuit configuration: -

1. "It is sufficient for the tribunal to note that the presence of traces, however infinitesimal, of hydrocarbons which should not have been there, were found in the water."
2. The lead balls used for ballast (defined as 'unsecured mobile ballast' by reason of the fluidity of the lead balls): "contravened the regulations, notably because of the impossibility for the stewards to fix seals on the ballast and to affirm that the ballast remained permanently fixed throughout the duration of the event." Also, "in the absence of the guarantees required by Art. 4.2 of the Technical Regulations ('ballast may be used provided that it is secured in such a way that tools are necessary to remove it. It must be possible to fix seals to it.') the infraction is found to have been committed in a particularly serious fashion because of the impossibility of ensuring that the weight of the car really was that minimum weight throughout the event."
3. "Contrary to this mandatory regulation (Art. 3.3) holes were pierced in the flat bottom of the car for, according to Tyrrell, the evacuation of air or excess liquid in order to facilitate the replenishment of the tank in an extremely short time, although that evacuation could have been done without difficulty at another position."

The small circular holes technically broke the flat-bottom rules in place since the start of 1983, but had the simple function of allowing air pressure and excess water to escape during the water-spraying process. Ken Tyrrell produced statements from Patrick Head of Williams and John Barnard of McLaren stating these had no aerodynamic effect whatsoever, but FISA claimed that the holes had been used to void illegal fuel material - such as nitromethane or ultra-high octane fuel - during the pitstops.

It is worth considering at this point that after Detroit the Tyrrells' form dropped off badly, becoming backmarkers for most races, culminating in neither qualifying for the Austrian Grand Prix. However, a quirk evident in the 1983 season was that the slower circuits which favoured Cosworth cars (by putting more of an emphasis on handling and throttle response than horsepower) were largely weighted in the first half of the season, and the faster power circuits such as Hockenheim, the Osterreichring and Monza would always have seen them struggle.

Innuendo passed around the paddock that the decline in performance was due to Tyrrell belatedly making his cars legal, with the prime example being at Hockenheim, where the cars were 2-3 seconds slower than they had been in 1983, despite similar track conditions. However, one factor which had changed was the Goodyear tyres used - in 1983, they had been cross-plies developed for DFV/Y cars; in 1984, they were radials, tailored for the Akron company's turbo runners. It is also worth considering the drivers, both stand-ins for various reasons - Stefan Johansson's power-sliding style and Mike Thackwell's inexperience with the car compared to the smoothness of predecessors Alboreto and Sullivan likely being a contributory factor. The idea that Tyrrell had suddenly added a lot more ballast to the cars was then blown out of the water when Bellof's car was excluded from the Austrian Grand Prix meeting for being 3kg underweight - proving that Tyrrell wasn't suddenly paying closer attention, even if the timing was embarrassing.

The problem was that most of Ken Tyrrell's evidence was based on common sense, whereas the FISA Court were only interested in solid facts. The solid facts were that Tyrrell couldn't absolutely prove his cars had not been underweight at every single stage of the first eight races of the season, that they hadn't been voiding some sort of superfuel additive at pitstops, that they hadn't mixed lead with the water put in the cars at their pitstops. In short, his case relied on the Appeal Court not having made up their minds that he was guilty until proven innocent to begin with. They were unmoved, and upheld the exclusion. Tyrrell's entries for the Italian Grand Prix were rejected, and the team were tarred as cheats. They lost the substantial FOCA bonuses due for a very successful season (after the Dallas Grand Prix, the last race before the initial ban, the team sat 7th in the constructors' table) and De Longhi and Maredo's sponsorship, while Bellof's manager Willi Maurer attempted to sue Tyrrell for harm done to his client.

Many speculated that the unprecedented harsh punishment was due to FISA refusing to back down after their initial dramatic misreading of the sample results. However, it seems likely there was even more at work here. Going back to the FISA/FOCA wars, Ken Tyrrell had been one of the most outspoken of the FOCA 'specialist builders', rallying against the manufacturer teams Renault, Ferrari and Alfa Romeo - and, by extension, turbo engines. One by one his old FOCA friends had defected, linking up with manufacturers simply to remain competitive as it became clear turbo engines were the thing to have - Ecclestone's Brabham signed up with BMW, Chapman's Lotus with Renault themselves, Williams with Honda.

The smaller teams saw him as something of a pariah when he broke the FOCA boycott of the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix in order to fulfil a sponsorship agreement, promptly providing the cars that expanded the field which allowed the race to achieve championship status, and taking 3rd place to boot. He had spent an undignified period from then to the end of 1983 reeling off spurious protests - an ill-fated attempt to claim turbocharged engines were illegal in 1982, and then repeated grumbling about the water injection systems used by Ferrari and Renault in 1983 - while at the same time attempting to negotiate with Renault for an engine supply.

1984 had seen him put a lot more noses out of joint, as the nimble Tyrrells with their young, talented drivers showed numerous competitors up in the first half of the season. The likes of Arrows, RAM, Osella and ATS were playing the game by signing up for expensive turbos, only to be roundly beaten by the simple Tyrrells. More seriously, he was the only team owner to object to a revision to the fuel regulations. FISA's revised rules at the start of 1983 stated that for 1984 every car would have 220 litres of fuel, to be reduced to 195 litres for 1985. However, the turbo teams had been struggling to make 220l last a race, and were in favour of the limit staying stable for 1985. The teams needed to be unanimous for the change to be made, but Tyrrell - planning on running DFYs in 1985, and facing the prospect of being even more competitive - disagreed. Stalemate - until Tyrrell were excluded, at which point he ceased to be a Formula 1 team owner, if only temporarily. The remaining owners all agreed in his absence, and the 220l limit would be carried on into 1985.

Thus, while Barnard and Head helped as individuals, there was no rush for anyone to defend Tyrrell, who had clashed with just about every other team owner at some point in the past three years. Besides which, Formula 1 is a tough business. Two fewer cars meant two fewer to outqualify or overtake, and most of the smaller teams were more interested in whether the standings for the races so far would be updated to promote those who had finished behind the Tyrrells. The team no longer had much box-office value to save it either - the days of Stewart, Cevert, Peterson, Scheckter and Depaillier having long since gone, Tyrrell just being another midfielder now. Compare and contrast the punishment doled out to Tyrrell with the lack of action taken on widespread rumours Brabham ran with illegal fuel in 1983.

It remains one of the most ignominious disqualifications in the sport's history. While the debate as to whether the team were infringing the rules or not will always remain open due to it being just as impossible to conclusively prove it either way today as it was in 1984, there can be little doubt that FISA handled the affair in a truly shambolic fashion, from the preposterous punishment to the ignoring of evidence to the charges being changed at the appeal stage.