Saturday, 19 September 2009

Race-fixing controversy rocks Formula One to its core

When the 2009 Concorde agreement was signed back in early August, I wrote that the political bickering that has been going on between the FIA and FOTA may have been settled for now, but the next round of off-track politics and controversies is never too far away in Formula 1. As we head off to Singapore for the last part of the 2009 season with a superb fight for the title in our hands, it is action off the track that is not just making the headlines once more, but is threatening to shake the very foundations of the sport.


The scene of crime here is the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, Formula 1's inaugural night race that took place at the Marina Bay street circuit. Renault's double World Champion Fernando Alonso won that race, and it was a special one as it was Renault's first Grand Prix victory in almost two years.

Alonso started from 15th on the grid, with his team mate Nelson Piquet Jr. starting on 16th. Alonso was on a short first stint, with only about 14 laps of fuel on board. However, he was made to make his first stop two laps earlier by his team on lap 12. That was a gamble because Alonso came out of the pits to find himself right at the back of the field. Renault was gambling on a safety car incident that could then benefit Alonso. That was not a wild gamble, because being a street circuit and the first ever night race in Formula 1, a safety car incident was very much possible.

Two laps later, on lap 14, Renault's other driver Piquet Jr. had a big accident when he spun and crashed into the barriers on the exit of turn 17. The safety car came out to slow down the field while the debris was being cleared off the track. While the safety car was out, most of the front runners made their first pit stops. This played into Alonso's advantage, as he gradually moved up to the front of the pack while the others pitted. When the safety car came in, Alonso had taken the race lead and he went on to win the race. What also helped the Spaniard is that original race leader Felipe Massa had a troublesome pit stop due to some mistakes by the Ferrari pit crew.

It was a chaotic race with an unlikely winner, but everyone just took all the chaos as racing incidents and no one even contemplated of questioning Renault's victory that night, up until now.


Nelson Piquet Jr. was dropped by his Renault team after this year's Hungarian Grand Prix to be replaced by Romain Grosjean. Renault said that after one and a half seasons with the team, Piquet Jr. has failed to perform time and again and as a result they had no other option but to replace him. Piquet Jr. was clearly bitter about this and was openly critical of team boss Flavio Briatore not giving him the chance to show his full potential.

Few weeks later, in the days leading up to the Belgian Grand Prix, Piquet Jr. backed by his father Nelson Piquet, dropped the bombshell. Piquet Jr. testified to the FIA that his crash at last year's Singapore Grand Prix was caused by him deliberately, as it was part of a plot masterminded by him, team principal Flavio Briatore and Renault's director of engineering Pat Symonds. Piquet Jr. said that they had a meeting just before the race, where they agreed that the Brazilian would crash on a specific lap (lap 14 in this case) to prompt the deployment of the safety car, so that it helps Fernando Alonso win the race. In return for playing his part, Piquet Jr. would be guaranteed a race seat with Renault for 2009.


During the Belgian Grand Prix weekend, the FIA said in a press release that in light of new information being uncovered, the governing body is launching an investigation into events that took place at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix. It was only during the week after the Belgian Grand Prix that news finally started to come in to the media that the incident under investigation by the FIA is in fact a race-fixing allegation against Renault.

The FIA then said that they will be looking at telemetry data from Piquet Jr.'s car and also the Renault team radio transcripts for that race. The governing body also decided to employ an external investigation agency, Quest, to help them in the probe. It was also announced that Renault will be asked to appear before an extraordinary hearing of the FIA's World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) on 21 September 2009 to defend their case. After this hearing, which ironically takes place in the week leading up to the 2009 Singapore Grand Prix, the WMSC will announce what sort of sanction they will impose upon Renault.

In the week before the Italian Grand Prix, the FIA said that due to making them aware of the incident and cooperating them with the investigation, Nelson Piquet Jr. will be given full immunity. During the race weekend at Monza, it was further announced that Renault's director of engineering Pat Symonds will also be given full immunity as he may hold information critical to the investigation. So it looked like that Piquet Jr. and Symonds, in spite of being two of the three men behind this alleged race-fixing, will walk free while Flavio Briatore becomes the only man to take the brunt. However, this soap opera like incident was far from over.


The main protagonists in this incident is clearly Piquet Jr., Symonds and Briatore. When questioned by the FIA during the Belgian Grand Prix weekend, both Symonds and Briatore vehemently denied the allegations. Later on, during the Italian Grand Prix weekend, the two Renault chiefs announced that they were taking legal actions against Piquet Jr. and his father Piquet Sr. in the High Court of Paris for making false allegations. They said that Piquet Jr. is just bitter for being sacked by the team midway through his contract, and is hence intending to take the team down with him.

However, when some crucial documents were inadvertently leaked to the media, it was revealed that Pat Symonds had later on agreed to a meeting taking place between himself, Briatore and Piquet Jr. before the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, although Symonds said that the idea of a deliberate crash originally came from Piquet Jr. All this time, Briatore still continued to deny all allegations against himself.

This week, in the days after the Italian Grand Prix, rumours started to mount that Briatore and Symonds may not see out the end of the week in their roles at Renault. On Wednesday 16 September 2009, Renault released a press statement saying that Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds have left the ING Renault F1 team. The press release also said that Renault will not be contesting the allegations made by the FIA concerning the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix. At this stage, it is not clear whether Symonds and Briatore resigned or were sacked by Renault, although Briatore later told the media that he left to save the team.

Nelson Piquet Sr. originally said that Fernando Alonso knew about this plan all along but has intentionally kept quiet. However, he later traced back on that stance when the FIA said that after interviews with Alonso, the governing body is satisfied that the Spaniard did not have any knowledge of the incident concerned. Alonso's innocence is believable, because looking back at the footage of the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, it can be seen that Alonso did express his surprise - while talking to Briatore after the race and before going up to the podium - of the safety car coming out at the right time that allowed him the chance to win.

Yesterday, Piquet Sr. dropped another bombshell when he told the media that the FIA officials were made aware of the allegations last year by the Brazilian himself. The three times former World Champion said that he talked to FIA race director Charlie Whiting at the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix about the allegations. This was then carried on to the FIA president Max Mosley. However, Mosley told Piquet Sr. back then that since they have no hard evidence, the FIA cannot begin any investigation without an official sworn testimony from Piquet Jr. who was one of the men behind the plot.


All eyes will be on Paris this Monday as Renault appears before the FIA World Motor Sport Council to find out their fate. Although the departure of Briatore and Symonds, along with the decision to not contest the allegations, sound like an admission of guilt, Renault will be hoping that the WMSC takes a lenient stance on them for the sake of the sport and the 600 or so Renault employees.

Formula 1 has already lost one major manufacturer team last year (Honda), and will be losing another one at the end of this season (BMW). The last thing anyone needs, after all the politics and controversy that has already tainted this sport this season, is to lose yet another manufacturer team. Formula 1 needs the big names and the big manufacturer teams to survive. After almost three bad seasons, Renault's future hangs in the balance regardless of this race-fixing allegation. If they are imposed with a huge penalty, the bosses at Boulogne-Billancourt may decide to pull the plug on their Formula 1 operations, and that is if Renault are not banned from the World Championship outright.

The allegations are huge, and the implications are massive. This is not like a simple match-fixing scandal in other sports such as football, cricket or rugby. In this case, a plan was made for a deliberate crash during a race, and the driver involved could have been injured or even worse dead; other drivers around him at the time could have been injured from debris flying off his car; the race marshals could have been injured or worse dead; and last but not the least the spectators' lives could have been in danger. However, the whole plot was masterminded by three men, and all three of them have now left the team. What is remaining, besides the integrity of the sport, is the livelihoods of all the Renault employees and Formula 1 in general. Renault do not need Formula 1 for their survival. They are a big car manufacturer, and in times of this recession, they have got enough on their plate to worry about. The worry for us is however, that Formula 1 cannot afford to continue losing the big manufacturers. Surely there are lots of new independent teams coming in, but this is a very expensive sport, and it needs the big teams to survive in the long run.

As time goes by, it looks more and more likely that the race-fixing allegations are true. However, we will all be hoping that the WMSC takes a lenient view on Renault because the team in general and its employees were not behind this scandal and thus should not have to take the fall for it. The answer to all our questions probably will be known on Monday. Until then, drive safely everyone!

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