Thoughts on the Renault punishments

Apologies I’m so late on this one. I have had a busy and tiring week.

On Monday, before the outcome of the WMSC meeting was known, I decided to think about what the outcome might be. Was there any punishment — even zero punishment — that I could not imagine the FIA handing out?

I couldn’t think of a scenario that was outside the realms of possibility. I suppose we are so used to the FIA Random Penalty Generator that you genuinely might as well have a lucky dip.

For the same reason, it is difficult to get too angry at the state of affairs. Because the other question I asked myself before the verdict was delivered was: is there any punishment that anger me? Honestly, I could not think of one.

This case is so complex, with so many factors, and there are a lot of ways to look at it. Particularly given that everyone involved in the conspiracy had already been dispensed with through natural business decisions, it’s difficult to see what further punishment is necessary. At the same time, there is an understandable need for the FIA to send some sort of message that this sort of behaviour will not be tolerated.

As it was, when the penalty was announced, I was certainly interested. But there was nothing to get too angry about. Many journalists felt that Renault got off lightly. I noticed a few in the media pointing out that just two years ago McLaren were hit with a ONE HUNDRED MEELION DOLLARS fine after one staff member’s wife went to a shop and photocopied the Haynes Ferrari manual.

Deliberately crashing a car is no mere intellectual property theft — it is a major safety issue. It goes without saying that someone could have been killed. So there does appear to be a mismatch between McLaren’s “espionage” fine, and this relatively light punishment for Renault.

That just further underlines the ridiculousness of the McLaren fine. It was the McLaren punishment, not the Renault punishment, that was wrong.

I am a believer in individual responsibility. I am not keen on the idea of an entire team being punished for the acts of one or two rogue individuals. If there are repeat instances, and there appears to be a culture of bad behaviour within a team (and by that I don’t just mean that the FIA President slightly dislikes the team boss), then you can go and punish the team. But for a one-off crime carried out by an individual, it is right to punish that individual.

In that sense, it is right for the FIA to focus on the individuals involved in this case, even if the media wanted to report on an embarrassing punishment for the Renault team. The fact is that there are hundreds of good people working for the F1 team, and countless people working for the manufacturers, who are just as badly let down as anyone else. Renault’s defence in the WMSC meeting was that it was as much a victim as anyone else, and it is an argument I have some sympathy with.

As one British politician might say, Renault have been tried in “the court of public opinion”. They have already been found guilty and paid the price. The penalty already handed out to Renault as a car manufacturer has been an unimaginable amount of bad publicity which could well have an impact on its sales. After all, even for people who know nothing about F1, they are bound to have heard something about this story and the one name they will remember in relation to it is “Renault”. Anyone buying a car just now may well have this influence their decision, even if it is subliminally.

For the Renault F1 team, not only have they lost two of the most important members of the team, they have also lost two of their most important sponsors, including their title sponsor. Okay, so ING only had four races left anyway, and going by previous history Mutua Madrileña will follow Alonso wherever he goes. But anyone thinking of inking a deal with Renault will be having second thoughts, and will almost certainly be able to pay less for the privilege of having their logos displayed.

In relation to this, I note that during the WMSC verdict, Max Mosley declared that this was nothing to do with Renault the company, only Renault the F1 team. Given that the team faces a permanent ban, suspended for two years, I wonder exactly how the “F1 team” is defined.

Perhaps there is already an official answer for the FIA (though knowing them there probably isn’t). But if, say, someone like David Richards came along and bought the Enstone-based team, is that still Renault F1? If there is a Brawn-style scenario, is that the same team? It today’s Renault team the same team that entered as Toleman and competed against Renault in 1981?

As for the three people implicated — Nelsinho Piquet, Pat Symonds and Flavio Briatore — I would be surprised and disappointed to see any of them involved in motorsport again. The punishments for Mr Briatore and Mr Symonds seem fair to me. Although Briatore’s lifetime ban is, on the face of it, draconian, if he was implicated as the WMSC appear to believe then I see no reason why he should be allowed to work in F1 again.

Reaction to this has been mixed. Different drivers have different views. I find it interesting that the drivers who are sceptical of Briatore’s involvement have all been closely involved with Briatore in the past and are sure to know his character and if he is capable of plotting such a scheme. Fisichella and Trulli have both driven for him, while Mark Webber is positively glowing about his experience being managed by Briatore.

Jarno Trulli’s comment is, in a way, a backhanded compliment: “Briatore knows little or nothing about strategy, it’s weird that he would be the one who paid the highest price.”

That is interesting when you consider that Pat Symonds still maintains that it was Nelsinho Piquet who came up with the idea to deliberately crash a car, something which is backed by the mysterious Witness X. F1 Wolf points out:

Graham Stoker questioned Mr. Piquet about this “discrepancy” during the hearing (about 19min25sec mark of the recording). Nelson Piquet replied in line with his previous statements and then Mr. Philips, his lawyer, came to Piquet’s defense ridiculing the possibility that 20 something guy, a junior driver in a team could have come up with such strategy. And that was it, no more questions on this topic.

Well, the question is not about who came up with the strategy. We know the strategy came from Mr. Symonds, nobody seems to dispute that. The question is, who came up with the idea to deliberately crash the car.

It seems very possible that Symonds may have mused that Alonso’s only chance to win the race was for a Safety Car to come out early in the race. Who is to say that Piquet did not at this point suggest crashing the car?

Whatever, I am disappointed in the fact that Piquet was given immunity. For me, he is the biggest criminal in this situation. Neither Symonds nor Briatore had the power to crash the car. Piquet was the driver. The steering wheel was in his hands; the throttle was underneath his foot. Piquet was the man with the power to say: “no”.

Caron Lindsay argues that Piquet deserves some sympathy because of the amount of pressure he was under. No doubt his situation was unusual, not least because his team boss also happened to be his manager.

But as I have pointed out in a previous article, Martin Brundle (another person who has driven for Briatore) is not convinced that Piquet was under an inordinate amount of pressure. Piquet’s main defence appears to be that he was worried he was going to lose his job. How many drivers has this applied to in the past? Even this year, Sébastien Bourdais was on the verge of losing his job all season until it finally happened, and he managed to avoid deliberately putting other people’s lives at risk.

I would also suggest that if Piquet can’t handle pressure, racing in Formula 1 is probably not the right profession for him. It seems as though Piquet is a fragile character, and you can’t criticise him for that. You can’t really help this sort of thing. But if you are in such a poor mental state that you decide it would be a good idea to crash, you can’t really have that in F1.

Maybe his heart wasn’t in it. Piquet is a proud name, and the events of the past few weeks have clearly been conducted in large part by Senior. It seems to me as though Piquet Jr was as much a victim of pushy parenting as anything else.

5 comments

  1. While agreeing with you about the ONE HUNDRED MEELION DOLLARS, I think you’re wrong about Briatore. Trulli’s comment was in no way backhanded… Unless you think the whole point of getting into F1 was is to have great strategy or great mechanical insight. But most people would say the purpose is to entertain by winning, and Flavio did that brilliantly.

    My sneakiest feeling is that every now and then Bernie thinks someone’s getting too big for his britches, so he has them taken out by sniper fire. This has been a bad year: Goodnight, Mr. Dennis. (Six championships? Eight? Can’t tell from Wikipedia.) Goodnight, Mr. Briatore (four championships.) If I were Frank Williams, I’d make sure my Christmas cards were in the post office on time this year.

  2. This is Bernie’s planet, right? So this morning I saw this headline at Autoevolution:

    Montezemolo: Massa’s Teammate Will Be Finnish or Spanish

    And that was after this one:

    Ecclestone Supports Todt for
    FIA Presidency

    And I though, maybe the whole thing was about getting a clean grab at Flav’s assets.

  3. I really like your ending comment about parenting. I’m sure Piquet, Sr., is a very proud and pushy character. A 3 time world champ who sees his son hanging onto his job by a thread must have been disheartening at best, humiliating at worst. I’m the pressure he placed on his son – and, correspondingly, the pressure Jr. placed on himself – has played a huge role in this matter.

    If you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen. More importantly, STAY OUT!

  4. This issue was a case in which 3 persons committed a crime, so I cannot find a reason to make guilty the whole team. And we cannot forget that Renault investigation has been the strongest prove to ban Flavio Briatore.

    On the other hand, this scandal is quite a lot different than McLaren’s one in 2007. I any case I found a joke the sentence for McLaren. They basically punished Dennis for lying to the FIA, not for the spying affair.

    My opinion on this, is Ron Denis paid a big fine to keep him out of “owing” something to Max, he just did not want to say to Max: “I was wrong and I lay to you” and Max put a high price for this, that finally have cost Ron to be in F1.

    Anyway, Max is leaving F1 with the heads of most of his personal enemies. I cannot imagine many people attending his burial when he finally dies, maybe a few… But just to be sure Max is in the coffin.