Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Flavio Briatore gets a long overdue fit of Piquet

Nobody who follows Formula One can be particularly surprised that poor Nelson Piquet Jr has been fired by Renault. Speculation about his future at Renault has dogged him almost since he started racing for the team in 2008.

The manner of the announcement is, however, surprising. Rather than a terse statement from Renault saying that Nelson is leaving but look at their nice shiny new driver, the news has been made public by a very well crafted tirade at his former boss from Nelson himself.

If half of what he says is true, and I believe it's more than that, then it's hardly surprising that Piquet did not flourish at Renault. He describes Briatore as his executioner. It sounds like the environment was thoroughly poisonous, with him being threatened with sacking 15 minutes before races or qualifying sessions. I remember as a child I was always falling over and scraping my knees. In an attempt to make me a bit less clumsy, I was told that if I came home with another plaster on my knee, I'd get spanked. That made me so nervous that going home with the plaster was almost inevitable.

Piquet is not the first number two driver to have suffered from Flavio's aggressive management style: to name but a few, Heikki Kovaleinen, said by Ron Dennis to have been systematically taken apart by Flavio Briatore's management, Jos Verstappen and Johnny Herbert. Flavio was quoted as saying after Heikki's debut race that he hoped the real Heikki would turn up next time. Hardly the way to build confidence.

Michael Schumacher no doubt got better treatment when he joined Benetton in 1991because, firstly, he was the number one driver and, secondly, he had a separate manager, Willi Weber, who would have agressively advocated for him if there had been any funny business from Briatore. For both Kovaleinen and Piquet, Briatore was both their manager and their team owner, a clear conflict of interest which left them vulnerable. Perhaps this is a warning to up and coming drivers to make sure that they have a separate manager to protect their interests.

If you look at Piquet's results in his career, last year in the races he finished, he was in the points more than half the time. I'll grant that his one podium was more down to good luck than anything else, but he had an uncompetitive car. He hasn't shone this year, but he says this is because he has not had the upgrades to the car that Alonso has had. It's plausible given that the difference between the cars at the front and back of the grid has become much smaller. It's now only a second or a second and a half where it used to be 10 or 20 times that.

For this year he says that he was allowed to do much less testing and in less favourable conditions than Alonso. You could argue that this was because they got better feedback from Alonso, but if you're being bullied, are you really going to be able to turn round and tell your bully that the car that his team has designed is not very good?

Piquet had a solid history in the feeder formulae, as he says, and in a more nurturing environment, he may have flourished. I'd love to have seen what Ross Brawn might have done with him, for example, or Stefano Domenicali.

Commentators such as James Allen think that unless his father buys either the Sauber team as is rumoured, or one of the new entrants, that Piquet's F1 career is over. That would be a great shame. He's an obviously talented, very personable guy and I hope to see him back in the Paddock soon.

It may not be the done thing to speak out about bullies in the macho environment of F1, but I'm glad he did, because it needs saying.

I did have a cheeky thought, though - clearly F1's problems are down to the fact that it's run by men. Maybe we should kill two birds with one stone by sending Harriet Harman to sort it out....

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