Piquet’s Singapore Sling — yet another F1 scandal

Up until now, I have refrained from writing about the latest scandal to envelop F1 — allegations that Nelsinho Piquet’s crash at last year’s Singapore Grand Prix was engineered in order to fix the race so that Alonso could win. Now that Renault have been summoned to an extraordinary meeting of the WMSC (sound familiar?), it seems as though there is some substance to the allegations. At least there is enough of a suspicion that the FIA feels the need to take the situation very seriously.

Suspicion about the result has hung around since immediately after the race. Fernando Alonso’s strategy was unusual, though by no means unheard of. He was filled very light at the beginning so that he could pit a few laps before everyone else and hope for a Safety Car within those few laps to make up the places. How convenient, it was widely noted, that the Safety Car Alonso badly needed was brought out as a result of his team mate Piquet slinging his car into the wall.

Up until this week, though, I had always suspected that if there was any conspiracy on Renault’s part, it was to tell Piquet in the heat of the moment to push hard in the hope that he might crash. The way the situation is framed now, it seems as though the allegation is that the whole thing was premeditated. The thinking appears to be that the plan was formulated by Renault personnel and discussed with Piquet before the race began.

If these allegations are true, they should be taken very seriously indeed. It would surely be the biggest scandal ever to have hit Formula 1 (and that is saying something). This is no little sex game. It is not mere pilfering of intellectual property. The concern here isn’t even just about race fixing, though that is a serious charge in itself.

When you talk about deliberately crashing a car, that is a major safety issue. First of all there is the safety of the driver who is being asked to crash a car into a wall. Despite the high safety standards for drivers today, it is obvious to see how this plan could have had terrible consequences.

Then there is the safety of other drivers. Even though Piquet’s crash happened when there were no other drivers near him, this is not really the point. (Update: Actually, looking at the replay, there are other drivers near him, and indeed he is overtaken while the crash is still happening.) His crash left debris spread across the track. A driver could easily pick up a puncture and end up in his own serious accident.

This year we have also had bad experiences of debris causing serious injury to Felipe Massa and the death of Henry Surtees. In Hungary, the spring from Rubens Barrichello’s car was bouncing around for four seconds until it hit Massa’s helmet with disastrous consequences. How would anyone setting out to deliberately crash their car know that there won’t be any knock-on effects to the safety of other drivers?

That is before we even consider the safety of the spectators. In the video we can see that they are actually sitting very close to Piquet’s accident right next to the circuit. If shards of debris made their way into the crowd, we could be looking at injuries there too.

Comparisons with rugby union’s “bloodgate” scandal understate the nature of these allegations. Piquet’s crash could have involved real blood.

Yes, motorsport is dangerous. Everyone knows that. But everyone takes part under the assumption that safety comes first, and that no-one is deliberately setting out to cause danger. Let us be clear. If it is true that Piquet was instructed to deliberately crash the car, we could easily be looking at manslaughter charges rather than just race fixing charges.

That is why I find it so difficult to believe that the Renault team or anyone else involved in motorsport would actually consider concocting such a scheme. The allegations against Renault are very serious and as such there needs to be cast-iron evidence if any action is to be taken.

It seems unbelievable that Renault would leave behind any trace of their plan in the form of, for instance, their radio transmissions (although that didn’t stop McLaren from inexplicably trying to pretend they didn’t exist back in Australia this year). A secret code phrase is not inconceivable though.

I can easily envisage such a code phrase being something like “Fernando has been in for his stop”. It is, after all, not unusual for a driver to be told how his team mate is doing, and that simple piece of information would have told Piquet all he needed to know. I imagine the FIA will be studying the radio recordings of the Singapore race and other races to see if there is anything unusual at all about the Singapore transmissions in the run-up to Piquet’s crash.

Then comes the question of where exactly the new evidence has come from. The assumption seems to be that it has come from camp Piquet (either Jr or Sr). It is easy to see what Piquet’s agenda might be. The clear mission just now is to discredit Flavio Briatore — that is clear from Piquet’s incredible statement after he was sacked by Renault.

One thing makes me doubt that Piquet is the whistleblower is that this whole thing would show him up to be the sort of dummy would go along with such a dangerous scheme for his own short-term gain. If the allegations are true, Piquet is just as liable as the Renault team. If he thinks he will save his career by blowing the whistle, he really is a few marbles short.

The only way this calculation can work is that Piquet thought that his career was ruined anyway (which I suppose is likely), and he has nothing to lose and at least can bring Briatore down with him. Otherwise, Piquet’s only hope will be that he is looked upon favourably for being the whistleblower. But I think anyone who is happy to deliberately crash their car in a premeditated scheme ought to be set for a lengthy racing ban.

Amid all this, it is worth asking the question: is Renault the sort of team that would do this sort of thing. A certain constituency would say that it is in the nature of competitive drivers and teams to exploit loopholes in the regulations, and that creative interpretations of the rulebook are to be expected and, in some cases, celebrated.

The Benetton / Renault team which has been run by Flavio Briatore for most of the past twenty years has certainly seen its fair share of scandals over the years. This was particularly the case while Michael Schumacher was driving for them. In 1994 it seemed as though Benetton were never far away from trouble.

But the team has been reticent in pushing the regulations in recent years, probably having learnt its lesson from previous controversies. That was particularly noticeable when Renault stuck to the spirit of the engine freeze principle, while every other engine manufacturer upgraded their engine in the guise of improving reliability.

There was a smaller spygate-style scandal when team members were found to be in possession of McLaren intellectual property. But overall, the picture is mixed. Most of the team’s biggest examples of cheating happened fifteen years ago. As such, it is difficult to say if Renault is the sort of team that would willingly manipulate events in the manner which is alleged.

The FIA will want to consider the facts of the incident in question though. Or will they? It is interesting to consider if this might be Max Mosley’s parting shot. Given the political shenanigans from earlier this year, it is probably fair to say that Flavio Briatore is not Max Mosley’s favourite person. Is this another invention of (or inflation by) the FIA, as with the Stepneygate issue of two years ago?

Some people will always suspect the FIA’s motives, particularly why Max Mosley is in charge. Checkpoint 10 goes as far as to “blame the rules” for Renault’s alleged actions. I agree to an extent. The FIA’s rulebook is famously convoluted, and it was the ridiculous Safety Car rules that led to this situation in the first place. I draw the line at saying that such actions should be “commended” though — as I say, there could have been far more serious implications than mere race-fixing.

Joe Saward has a good overview which I would highly recommend reading.

14 comments

  1. Superb post as usual Duncan.
    I can’t believe this is true for various reasons.
    First one is that we are talking of risking a pilot health (Piquet) just for winning a race. Even in the most desperate case, telling one pilot to crash is horrible, a violation of the basic ethics of sport and life. However, we are talking about a sport with “relaxed” ethics, aren’t we?
    Second, Renault wasn’t that desperate last year. The proof is that Alonso managed to score a win in the following race.
    Third, there was no reason for Piquet to take part in such a “plan”. What were his benefits?. Besides, will Reanult make such a blackmail-prone move with a pilot that was clearly bound to leave the team?
    Fourth, Piquet may as well crashed because he is a bad pilot. He kept doing it thorough the season.
    Finally, the fact that he talked about this incident after being fired. Sorry, but I can’t help to think that this is simply rabid vengeance…

  2. Thanks Ponzonha. The points you bring up are all correct. I may have an issue with your second point. I think Renault were desperate to win a race, with their future apparently at risk. They were not to know how good they would be at Fuji, and I think they were set on winning at Singapore. That explains why Alonso was so visibly angry when his car broke down during qualifying.

    However, the seriousness of the allegations means that I have to assume that Renault and everyone is innocent until solid evidence proves otherwise.

  3. Of course the did not know how good they were going to be at Fuji, but I think their second part of the season promised a couple of podiums, which might as well saved the season.
    And BTW, given the nature of the accusation, How are they going to defend? There will always be doubt about it.

    [Forgot to mention that Alonso will drive a F1 car in his (my) hometown, the cars are 100m away from my home. I hope to catch a glimpse of him driving]

  4. That’s what I think too Ponzonha – if Piquet did have dirt on Renault like that, why would they fire him? Although, on second thoughts, that might explain how he got a drive for this year….

    It’s just too farfetched a theory for me. How much would it cost Renault to replace a totalled F1 car? Surely more than the gamble of ten points?

  5. > How would anyone setting out to
    > deliberately crash their car know that
    > there won’t be any knock-on effects
    > to the safety of other drivers?

    Yes. And imagine if a “Massa spring” (if you’ll forgive the expression”) had hit some middle-aged schoolmarm in the crowd. Of course the car wouldn’t have been going 200mph after a ‘slow speed’ urban corner, but then our schoolteacher wouldn’t have been wearing at $10,000 helmet, either.

    Imagine the scandal if word of this crime, at the first F1 race in Singapore, got out. I can’t imagine a bigger international incident not involving abject murder. Bernie Ecclestone would go to prison. Other men with bad haircuts would go to prison too, as a matter of principle. Bernie’s *daughters* would go to prison.

    This is all about Mosley being pissy. This is his last chance to get even with Briatore or Renault for God-knows-what. Maybe it’s got something to do with French more generally. But his reputation at the end of his career couldn’t be any lower, so he’s going to wound as many souls as he can on the way to the grave.

  6. Hi Duncan

    I still cant believe that Renault could do something like this to win a race. Ok, I admit that Flavio seems to be the guy who loves dirt tricks, but Pat Symonds surely not. He seems to be the man who has the F1 heritage flowing through his veins, he wouldn´t pactuate with such a maquiavelic plan…

    Another point is ABOUT EVIDENCES: When Reginaldo Leme told about Renault case on TV last Sunday, there was something that was lost in translation in all this mess: The man said that FIA ALREADY collected strong testimonies from Renault´s engineers that incriminates Flavio Briatore.

    So, I don’t think that FIA will conduct their investigations backed only in telemetry data. Could be have another people (supposing that was our Piquetzinho the main source!) inside the team that opened its mouth…

  7. I personally think that the “putting spectators and other drivers in danger” aspect of this scandal is being exaggerated. Piquet’s crash was pretty similar to his other crashes in 2008–so much so that no one was really surprised when he crashed. Hell, even on the formation lap he spun and barely kept the car out of the wall. Yet, I don’t remember anybody bringing Piquet’s driving into question safety-wise. If his crashes were as dangerous as you make it sound here, shouldn’t he have been disciplined or reprimanded for it last year? There is a precedent for this–Yuji Ide’s superlicense getting revoked.

    Basically, what I’m saying is that Piquet’s intent shouldn’t change the way we look at the crash. Either it was a reckless crash that put spectators and other drivers at risk, or it was a fairly harmless shunt that was inconvenient, but didn’t really pose a danger to anyone other than Piquet. I think it was firmly in the second category, and based on the lack of any outcry or controversy after the race last year, I think most people did also.
    Now, we hear that it might have been deliberate, and suddenly you are analyzing every way that it was unsafe? *All* of his crashes could have hurt spectators and other drivers, but they were acceptable just because his intent was not to crash? This truly does not make sense to me.

  8. Thanks for the comments everyone.

    Cridland, I’ve not heard the theory about Max Mosley having something against French people. Is the accent not suitable enough for a prison scenario? 😉

    Brendan, It is true that Piquet had a lot of crashes in his F1 career. But I think surely the difference is obvious when the crash is deliberately caused rather than accidental.

    Even Yuji Ide’s crash was accidental, but it would have been reckless to keep him in the car because he was such a poor driver. I think everyone understands the rationale behind that. Piquet isn’t a dangerously bad driver like Ide when he is performing with noble intent, but it is certainly reckless to head out and deliberately cause a crash. Normally we call crashes accidents, but in this allegation there was no accident — there was intent.

    Like I say, I don’t believe that Piquet or the Renault team is guilty — we have to see the clear evidence first before judging. But to have drivers deliberately causing crashes is surely something that should not be tolerated in the slightest, and anyone who goes out intending to throw their car in the wall and spread debris across the circuit ought to have the book thrown at them.

  9. > I don’t remember anybody bringing
    > Piquet’s driving into question
    > safety-wise.

    Well, *I* did! And lots of friends did. The danger was what made all those months of flying gravel pathetic instead of just laughable.

    > Either it was a reckless crash that put
    > spectators and other drivers at risk,
    > or it was a fairly harmless shunt

    Says who? I don’t believe that for a minute! Every incident occurs in a continuum of bad outcomes. There’s a whole range of bad maneuvers that stand to be judged as more or less evil… I think the Massa release during refueling was a such a hideous, dangerous mistake that the failure borders on criminal negligence.

    > that was inconvenient, but didn’t
    > really pose a danger to anyone
    > other than Piquet.

    Did Barricello’s flying spring pose a danger to anyone? No? Could you make a case to convince Massa’s ophthalmologist? Wanna let a western-style lawyer answer that argument, or a p****d-off Asian civic official?

    > they were acceptable just because his
    > intent was not to crash?

    Not at all acceptable. Accidental crashes get all sorts of attention, much of it punitive. Piquet’s intention is of *pivotal* importance to me. If the crash is proven to have been deliberate, I’ll give up interest in the sport and erase all the races I have on file… Time to get seriously into pop music again, like I did in the 70’s after Donahue died.

    …But it ain’t likely. The FIA is apparently alleging that —

    – Piquet crashed because he was told to;

    – Into a concrete wall;

    – A few feet from the bayfront crowd, perhaps the densest population on the circuit;

    – In order to benefit a stable-mate who’s famously disinterested in team play;

    – In close traffic with at least three other drivers in a tight urban corner;

    – A quarter of the way through a very long race (lap 16/61);

    – Moving the brusque partner, no contender for the championship, to just fifth position;

    – In the first race at the setting, with no historical data by which to compose strategic patterns;

    – After the partner’s own car had failed out on the track during quali the day before.

    Right?

    No. Didn’t happen. Did not.

  10. I got to see FA driving a F1 car in my hometown!
    It was fantastic, but I have to say that the best way to watch a F1 car is on TV, it is so fast that I can only recall a yellow-and-orange shadow. However, there is one thing that TV can’t show, and it is the noise, the powerful vibration that the magnificent machine creates and that makes your stomach tremble. That is a great sensation.

  11. Last night I watched Singapore again, and this was a *dynamic* race… Again, on an untested circuit track. If that crash had gone down in the final laps, the accusation would be easier to believe. But as early as it was, there was no reason to think it would even have put Alonso in the points.

    Several times during the race you hear announcers stressing the apparent irony: ‘Piquet’s accident cleared the way for Alonso’. But that’s the kind of witless, off-the-cuff silliness that announcers are expected to give us during a live event. Those of us who know the sport take it for what it’s worth and then forget it. Who would you think could take it seriously? Well….

    We hear often that most of the FIA is composed of people who know little about racing or even automobiles… Owners of holiday motoring clubs in Madagascar and the like. Perhaps they adore Mr. Mosley because twice a year he brings them and the missus to Paris and takes them out to dinner in exchange for their support. (OK, in the spring he brings out the FIA delegate and his wife, and in autumn he brings out the delegate and his mistress.) What other kind of organization could sustain and investigation as inane as this?