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Archive for September, 2009

Piquet crash 2Buried deep in the sordid details of Formula One’s ‘Crashgate’ is a raft of questions left unanswered.

First, why would Nelson Piquet Junior, a fledgling driver, throw away any chance of a future in the sport by willingly crashing his car in an act that was illegal, highly dangerous, bound to draw widespread condemnation – and shred his employment prospects in the process?

Maybe the answer lies in the questionable ethics of his father, Nelson Snr, no saint to be sure. Maybe it was an acute case of pushy parent syndrome. Maybe it was spoilt brat disorder. Whatever the cause, NPJ believed that by telling all to the FIA, he would emerge unscathed from the affair.

The reward for his gullibility is the stamp of damaged goods for life. A career in Brazilian stock car racing may be as good as it gets from here on.

Second, why would an otherwise decent and honourable man, an out-an-out racer, Pat Symonds, stoop to the fraudulent demands of Flavio Briatore and orchestrate the crash that reduced NPJ’s car to a pile of carbon fibre shards at the exit to Turn 17 on the streets of Singapore?

And why would Renault agree to support Briatore’s libel action against NPJ and his father? Admittedly company bosses backtracked and eventually threw Briatore and Symonds to the wolves by ‘releasing’ them from their contracts, but at what cost to the Renault brand longer term?

It is widely known that NPJ’s seat in the sister car alongside Fernando Alonso was under threat as Briatore grew increasingly disenchanted with the young Brazilian’s performances.

NPJ, the son of a three-time world champion, was a desperate and disillusioned young man struggling with Formula One’s competitive and commercial pressures.

As a result of his crash, Alonso benefited from the safety car period precipitated by NPJ’s actions and sprayed champagne from the top step.

But did NPJ not think to consider the consequences of being party to the plot and then turning whistleblower in return for immunity? Whatever his motivations and we will probably never know, he emerges with little credit.

He claims his father was not aware of the dirty deed until after the fact. That probably explains Snr’s hostile reaction once the soiled linen was aired. No doubt Jnr was sworn to secrecy by Briatore.

The involvement of Symonds is the most astonishing aspect of the saga. What led Renault’s director of engineering to commit one of the worst acts of race-fixing in professional sport? An act that cost him his career and hitherto solid reputation.

A mechanic by trade, Symonds had made his way through the ranks of junior categories to one of the most pivotal team positions in Formula One.

He joined Toleman in the early 80s before the team morphed into Benetton and finally Renault. In the mid-90s he was Michael Schumacher’s race engineer while doubling as head of research and development. He succeeded Ross Brawn as Technical Director in 1997 and has been in the position of Executive Director of Engineering since 2001.

In Singapore, here was a brilliant tactician, a respected team leader, prepared to dispense with all trace of moral fibre to appease decision-makers above him, namely Briatore.

His dubious masterstroke, some say, is evidence of the corrupt depths to which Formula One has plumbed in pursuit of success.

Surely a man with Symonds’ technical nous realized that telemetry traces would confirm any doubt as to the authenticity of the crash. And surely a street-wise veteran would recognize that the incident would be shrouded in suspicion given the eventual outcome of the race. As it proved.

briatoreAs for Briatore, not only is he staring at a life ban from F1, but there is every prospect that his tenure as part owner of Queen’s Park Rangers (co-owner Bernard Charles Ecclestone), will come to an end.

Briatore presided over two world championships for Michael Schumacher at Benetton in the mid-1990s, and two more at Renault for Fernando Alonso in 2005-06.

There will be few Kleenex boxes wasted on Briatore’s demise in the Formula One paddock. He was brash, irrational, manipulative and ruthless. As team principle and, conflictingly, a driver manager, and a prime mover in the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA), he had influence. Too much for many tastes.

His repeated denials and despicable attack on NPJ’s personal life at the height of the fallout to ‘Crashgate’ was the last straw for many in the sport.

No doubt he was under enormous pressure from Renault to deliver results at a time when certain board members were questioning the extravagance of Formula One budgets amid plunging global road car sales.

It could be argued that Briatore was the author of his own downfall. By sacking NPJ in July this year, he must have feared that the driver, at the urging of his father, may reveal all.

The fact is that Briatore and Symonds set NPJ and the team on a course of wanton deception where lives would be put at risk for the benefit of a tarnished victory.

Renault, the parent, has some hard decisions to make. Irrespective of the outcome of the hearing into ‘Crashgate’ at the World Motor Sport Council in Paris this coming Monday, can Renault afford to remain in a sport while pots shots are taken at its reputation long after the findings are delivered?

Is the Renault team willing to face the very real prospect of civil action from the likes of Felipe Massa, who could justifiably claim that the actions of Briatore, Symonds and NPJ cost him a world title and a lot more besides? And what of the Singapore Grand Prix organisers, spectators, rival teams and sponsors? The rumblings have started.

Among the many victims of this sorry episode are the 400+ employees of the Renault team, particularly the hard-working souls on the shop floor at Endstone, Oxfordsire. These people had no knowledge of the conspiracy hatched by those at the helm, yet they may pay with their jobs.

The potentially lethal consequences of the actions of Briatore, Symonds and NPJ, were beyond control. Their crime was not only to cheat but also to endanger the lives of drivers, marshalls and spectators.

The last, hollow, word goes to the Renault team’s press officers, as evidence of one valedictory piece of manipulation from Briatore. The press release at the end of the Singapore race read thus …”The ING Renault F1 took its first victory of the season today as Fernando Alonso produced a brilliant tactical drive to win the Singapore Grand Prix.”

In the same press release, Briatore added: “This is an amazing victory for Renault. Today the car was extremely quick and although we had some luck when the safety car came out, we deserved this victory. It’s a very important result for Renault after two difficult seasons and that helps us to prepare for 2009 in the best way possible.”

Therein lies the motivation for one of the most brazen acts of skulduggery in sport.

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