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.