What a horrible day this is for Formula 1. I always thought the day that Renault Team Principal Flavio Briatore, a man I have absolutely no time for whatsoever, left the sport would be a day when I'd hang out the bunting and have a party. The circumstances of his departure, however, are very bad news for the sport.
Next Monday, the Renault team will face a World Motor Sport Council hearing to determine whether allegations made by Nelson Piquet Jr, the driver Renault sacked earlier this Summer, were true. Piquet had told the FIA that he had deliberately crashed his car during the Singapore Grand Prix on the orders of Briatore and the Engineering Director Pat Symonds in order to give an advantage to his team-mate Fernando Alonso, who went on to grab a surprise victory. Because Alonso had stopped by the time Piquet's crash brought the safety car out, he was in last place behind it, but everyone else still had to stop, which effectively gave him the race.
This morning, the team put this statement out saying that they wouldn't dispute the allegations and that both Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds had left the team. It's an announcement that has shocked and saddened those of us who love the sport. It's not quite an admission of guilt, but it does suggest that they were not able to find a way of defending themselves against the compelling evidence against them.
We know exactly what that evidence is because it's been widely published in the press. I can't believe I'm linking to the Daily Fail in a non negative way, but they've put it all up on their website. I have to say that the FIA should hang their heads in shame for allowing what is effectively the case for the prosecution to be leaked and published in the press. If that happened in an actual criminal court case, it could result in the defendant getting off and would certainly be contempt of court. Surely it can't be too much to ask, even in the soap opera world of Formula One, for investigations to be conducted with some sort of decorum, or at least the basic standards of confidentiality and security.
That evidence included the telemetry from Nelson Piquet's car, which indicated that he was accelerating after he lost control, a counter-intuitive reaction. While this could allow the conclusion to be drawn that the crash had been deliberate, it was the evidence given to the FIA by Pat Symonds who refused to answer a number of the critical questions put to him which added weight to suspicions of collusion.
Nelson Piquet Jr has come in for huge criticism for his actions both in causing the crash and for blowing the whistle. There is no doubt that what he did was very wrong, but we have to look further at the pressure he was under. from the statement he made on his sacking outlining his treatment at the hands of Flavio Briatore and his statement he made to the FIA we can put it all a bit in context. If half of what he writes is true, there is no doubt in my mind that he was being bullied by Flavio Briatore. Nelson had the added pressure of having a triple world champion as a father and was desperate to prove himself in that world. It seems that right from the start at Renault he was put under immense strain to deliver results and wasn't given the support that he needed to do that. By Singapore, three quarters of the way through the season, his contract had not been renewed for this season and the conversations in which he says he was ordered to crash took place in a climate of uncertainty about his future.
It's very easy for us to say that we would have told Flavio to get lost, but everybody reacts to bullying in the workplace in different ways. Piquet's confidence was clearly non existent and he was in a fragile state emotionally, not an easy thing to deal with in the macho Formula 1 world. Briatore, by his own admission, seemed to be controlling areas of Piquet's life which were none of his business. It was very difficult for this young man to make his own way and exert influence on his own life. A sensitive young man like Piquet had no chance of standing up to a larger than life figure like Briatore. In that frankly abusive set up, would you have been able to stand up for yourself? Imagine how desperate he must have been to deliberately take action which could, if it had gone wrong, killed him or somebody else - not even at the point of the crash, but I can imagine that the enormity of what he had to do consumed him throughout the race. He could easily have lost concentration earlier and inadvertently injured himself or somebody else.
Whatever his motivations in subsequently going to the FIA about to tell them that he had been ordered to crash in Singapore, it's probably a good thing that he did. If people are going to demand that their drivers crash out of races, then the sport is well rid of them. It beggars belief that any manager would put pressure on a driver to take action that could in the short term endanger the driver's life or that of any person who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong term or in the long term put the jobs of everyone who worked for them in jeopardy unnecessarily.
What should happen now, though, to Renault? Presumably the parent company has completed an internal investigation and judged that Briatore and Symonds should leave to show that they had taken action and presumably to save the team being potentially being thrown out of the sport. Now that the All New Lotus has been given BMW's grid slot and the BMW team has been saved, Max and Bernie have more than enough cars to make up their grid, thank you very much. Renault's presence is less necessary on the grid for 2010 than it may have been a few weeks ago. The FIA could well decide to kick them out. There have been rumours all season that they were going to withdraw anyway, but I doubt they would want to leave in such ignominious circumstances. Distancing themselves from Symonds and Briatore could be an exercise in pre withdrawal rehabilitation for Renault, but they had signed the Concorde Agreement which committed them for 3 years, so we can only assume that they intended to stay.
Is it the case that Renault should only be punished lightly because they have dealt with the trouble makers? I'm not so sure. The team has to be accountable for the actions of its employees otherwise an unscruplous team could unofficially encourage its managers to do all sorts and then fire some sacrificial lambs if they got caught. I would expect that they would get some punishment from the FIA. For a transgression which did not endanger life, McLaren got a $100 million fine and were excluded from the championship for 2007. Surely the potential dangers of a deliberate crash are worse than that? On the other hand, the economic situation is pretty rubbish compared to 2007, especially for car manufacturers and there's an argument that the jobs of hundreds of people should not be put at risk for the irresponsible actions of three.
We know that Pat Symonds has been offered immunity by the FIA but we don't know whether he has accepted this. It concerns me that of the three people in the room, two of them have been offered immunity. There is a strong argument that Piquet should not face further action - he was not the person with the power in that situation, but Symonds? If it had been up to me, I'd have thrown the book at both of them.
Nelson Piquet Jr will find it very hard to secure employment in F1 in the future - which is a shame. I'd have loved to have seen what a decent manager like Ross Brawn or Stefano Domenicali could do with him. Presumably the only way back in for him is for his father to invest in a team and effectively buy him a seat. From there, he could prove himself in his own right. He certainly had a good track record in other series before F1, so he's clearly capable. I hope that whatever his future holds that he finds something that fulfils him and gets him out of the onerous shadow of his father.
The other intriguing question is what effect this will have on the mooted move to Ferrari of Renault's double world champion Fernando Alonso. I don't think that he knew anything about it. If he did, I can't imagine that he would have said to Pat Symonds that it was the safety car that won the race for him on the way up to the podium. He's just not that brazen and I think he'd be horrified to win a race under those circumstances. That said, will Ferrari want a driver from a tainted team? They already have too many drivers as both Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonnen are contracted to the end of next year. Massa looks like he's on his way back to full health and Kimi is on fire at the moment. It was a pleasure to see the often random and monosyllabic Finn talking in paragraphs in the post race press conference on Sunday. He certainly seems to be having a spell of good form after a while when it's been hard to see his motivation. He's had several podiums and his recent win in Spa shows that he's in spirited mood. He's such a character that I really don't want to see him without a drive for next year and he certainly shouldn't, as also speculated, go to McLaren to play second fiddle to Lewis Hamilton. Only misery lies in that course of action.
As for the sport itself, it's horrible that this has happened, but I don't think there will be any long term damage. It may lead to closer investigation of accidents by the FIA given the crucial and damning telemetry from this one - but on its own, without Piquet speaking up or Symonds' evidence, it would be hard to build a case in isolation. For what it's worth, I think it was a one-off. We'll see what the FIA does on Monday and then I hope we can move on.
And please let the off track drama be over now - all I want to see is a fight to the wire as the Brawn boys determine which one of them wins the Drivers' Championship!