Monday, September 21, 2009

The ramifications of the Singapore race fixing verdict

Andrew Benson The decision to give Renault only a suspended sentence for the team's attempt to fix last year's Singapore Grand Prix seems lenient at first glance.

And, all in all, Renault probably will be breathing a sigh of relief, even if they know they will be disqualified for two years if they commit a similar offence in the future.
As their employers, Renault could have been held responsible for the actions of Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds, yet there has been no fine and no points deduction. Looked at in the context of what happened to McLaren in 2007's spy scandal, when the team were thrown out of the constructors' championship and fined $100m (then £49.2m) - Renault do appear to have got off lightly.
But governing body the FIA has obviously concluded that it would have been wrong to punish Renault for something that it seems it knew nothing about, even if one has to question the culture of a team in which this sort of shocking event could be considered.
Assuming Nelson Piquet Jr fulfilled his promise to tell the truth in return for immunity from prosecution, then the guilty parties in this case were not Renault but former team boss Flavio Briatore and engineering director Pat Symonds, who the Brazilian said proposed the plan.
They have been dealt with heavily by governing body the FIA, with Briatore banned for life from attending race tracks and Symonds excluded from any participation in F1 for five years. Although whether such bans are enforceable under law is another matter
There is, of course, the wider question of Renault's decision to hire Briatore as team boss in the first place.
The company's bosses knew full well his reputation when they took him on in 2000 when they bought and renamed the Benetton team. The Italian's combination of a mysterious past, uber-ruthless business ethic, and the ostentation with which he boasted of his wealth have long made some uncomfortable.
His actions in this affair merely serve to underline the air of amorality that has tended to follow him around.
It can be argued that a company with Renault's global presence should have been less eager to get into bed with such a man. But although Renault were ultimately responsible for Briatore's actions, that is not the same as saying they should be thrown out of the sport because of them.
And Renault, it should also be remembered, have been involved in F1 for more than 30 years, and until now have an unblemished record - which is more than can be said for many people or organisations who spend that long in such a politically charged environment.
In that context, this decision is certainly expedient.
In the wake of the decisions by Honda and BMW to quit F1, the sport could ill-afford to lose another manufacturer and engine supplier.
For that reason, F1 will breathe a sigh of relief that the FIA has not come down harder on Renault. Likewise, few will mourn Briatore's departure.
There has been more surprise expressed at Symonds's involvement. He is one of those super-clever and understated F1 technicians who always give the impression of being straight-laced and above board, even if at the same time they are extremely cagey about giving away any knowledge about the inner workings of their teams.
Those who remember the dark days of 1994, though, would not consider anyone who was with the then-Benetton team at the time whiter than white.
That leaves the drivers.
The FIA has concluded that Fernando Alonso was "not in any way involved in Renault F1's breach of the regulations".
Not everyone will share that view. Some, including it seems Piquet's eponymous father, believe the double world champion must have known of the plan.

This argument says that a driver as intelligent and involved as Alonso would have questioned the strategy devised for him by Renault's engineers for the race in Singapore, so would have had to be told why they had decided on it.
Others are not so sure. The strategy Renault adopted for the Spaniard was sellable without him needing to know about the crash. And if you were to try to pull off something like this without anyone finding out, you would surely want to cover yourself by having as few people in on it as possible.
Having questioned all parties, the FIA's own investigators came up with the second conclusion. And, at the risk of appearing naïve, I have to say I'm inclined to believe that, too.
This morning, I re-watched the tapes of the immediate aftermath of the Singapore Grand Prix, when Alonso is joined by Briatore in an ante-room on their way to the podium ceremony.
It is impossible to hear the entire contents of the brief exchange, but it was the Spaniard who brought up the subject of the safety car and he did so with a sense of what I at least read to be genuine surprise. Sort of: "Wow, that safety car was a lucky break, wasn't it?"
Piquet Jr was granted immunity for blowing the whistle on Renault, and it is perhaps surprising that the man whose actions have been questioned the least in all of this is the man at the centre of the whole thing.
F1 will not miss Piquet. One reason for that is that he did little in his season and a half in the sport to suggest that he deserved his place on the F1 grid. But more importantly, by his actions in Singapore, he has brought shame on himself and his sport.
Yes, he was young, and yes he felt vulnerable that he might lose his job. But possibly the single most shocking thing about this whole scandal is that a man whose job it was to drive grand prix cars was prepared to deliberately crash one at the request of his team.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said that "beggars belief". And it certainly feels as if F1, which is not exactly known for its saintly moral code, has plumbed new depths with this.
However shaky was Piquet's position at Renault, clearly the right action in the circumstances was to refuse the request of Briatore and Symonds.
Piquet, who issued an apologetic statement on Monday, clearly regrets what he did. It's just a shame he was not able to see things as clearly at the time.
Piquet must take responsibility for his actions, and it should be borne in mind that he was put in that position by the appalling ethics of his team bosses. But he was also there as a result of the entire culture of the sport.
There is a climate of fear within F1 - the teams fear the FIA, and the drivers fear their teams. Few people are prepared to speak out when something is wrong, or even express an honest opinion on a matter of controversy, for fear of repercussions from whichever entity it is that holds power over them.
Ultimately, that is what has led to this appalling turn of events and if the FIA wants to stop something similar happening in the future, then it must look much deeper than simply one team's ill-advised actions on the morning of one race last year.

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