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Crashgate Continues

F1 Sep 2008

As most followers of the sport know, Formula 1 has been embroiled in a variety of scandals and intrigue in the past few years, including the “Stepneygate” saga of 2007, which resulted in Ferrari Chief Mechanic Nigel Stepney’s ouster from the sport, and the “Liargate” brouhaha that surrounded Lewis Hamilton and Dave Ryan following the GP in Melbourne earlier this year, resulting in Ryan’s dismissal from McLaren, and Hamilton’s very public embarrassment.

This year’s sporting soap opera, which has earned the sobriquet of “Crashgate,” has risen to a new level of strangeness. Apparently a very disgruntled Nelson Piquet, Jr. (but if you recall his demeanor during any of his trackside interviews over the past year and a half, when was he not disgruntled?) has leveled charges against his former team (Renualt) and team boss and personal manager (Flavio Briatore) that he was ordered by the team to deliberately crash his car in last year’s Singapore GP to bring out a safetey car, in order to aid the strategy of the team’s Number One, Fernando Alonso. Deliberate ploy or not, Alonso benefited from the safety car deployment, and went on to win the race.

Thus far most of the drama has been taking place behind the scenes. Today, however, the FIA released the following statement:”Representatives of ING Renault F1 have been requested to appear before an extraordinary meeting of the FIA World Motor Sport Council in Paris on Monday, 21 September 2009. The team representatives have been called to answer charges, including a breach of Article 151c of the International Sporting Code, that the team conspired with its driver, Nelson Piquet Jr, to cause a deliberate crash at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix with the aim of causing the deployment of the safety car to the advantage of its other driver, Fernando Alonso.”

F1 2009 - Rd4 Bahrain GP - Practice

Apparently, key figures at Renault, including techincal director Pat Symonds, team prinicpal Briatore, and lead driver Alonso, were all interviewed by representatives of the FIA at Spa over the recent race weekend.

While it seems improbable that a team would order a driver to deliberately crash, simply because of the human risk involved, the FIA have found the allegations credible enough to warrant a formal inquiry. Where this all leads to is anyone’s guess.

There are two possible implications that stand out, however. First, of course, is the possible impact to Renault’s continued participation in the series. Rumors have been circulating for many months that Renault is on the verge of withdrawal from the sport. These stories have been given added fuel by the fact that Renault’s chief sponsor, ING, was impacted significantly by the recent worldwide financial meltdown.

If the current charges are proven to have merit, Renault would certainly receive an enormous penalty. If they didn’t receive a one year ban from the sport, they would likely be hit with a fine for many millions of euros (recall McLaren’s fine in 2007), and very likely either one of these measures would drive them out of the sport completely.

F1 Grand Prix of Great Britain - Qualifying

The second question is how any of this affects Fernando Alonso. Alonso was a player in the Stepneygate scenario. He allegedly made a threat to McLaren honcho Ron Dennis at the time that he would expose what he knew about McLaren’s use of technical data stolen from Ferrari if he wasn’t given official Number One status at the team. Alonso emerged from the scandal more or less unscathed, but throughout his turbulent year at McLaren he showed himself to be a savvy infighter, with an instinct to go for the jugular. On track, he drives like a pit bull, and it’s reasonable to assume that his off track style is much in the same vein.

That said, while it seems highly unlikely that he would have had any direct participation in Piquet’s throwing his car into the wall, the mere fact that he is involved in yet another scandal might cause the FIA to scrutinize his behavior more closely in the future. It would be a shame if this latest drama besmirched his career in any way, as he is widely regarded as the best all-around driver in the series.

As a side note, a third possible ramification from all of this is the complete termination of Nelson Piquet Jr.’s F1career. Although none of the current or future teams are known to have been queuing up to secure his services, if it turns out that he was the spark that ignited this mess, he would certainly be blacklisted in the future.

While whistleblowers have their value, they almost always become unemployable once the dust has settled.

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