A major cheating scandal has erupted at the highest level of international auto racing. After an investigation by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the ING Renault Formula One Team announced it does not dispute the FIA’s charge that the team illegally conspired with its driver Nelson Piquet, Jr. to aid his teammate Fernando Alonso’s victory at last year’s Singapore Grand Prix by crashing intentionally during the race. Piquet crashed on lap fourteen of the race, ending his day and requiring deployment of a safety car (race cars stack up in order, with passing prohibited) while stewards cleaned up the course. Piquet’s crash was incredibly well-timed for his teammate Alonso and vaulted Alonso to a race lead that he would never relinquish. Alonso had mechanical problems during qualifying and started the race in fifteenth position on a narrow street circuit where overtaking is difficult. Piquet’s crash came immediately after Alonso had pitted for fuel, but before the rest of the field had done so, and as a result, Alonso promptly assumed the race lead as the other cars pitted in turn during the caution period. The perfect timing of Piquet’s crash for another Renault driver was suspicious from the start: Safety cars are somewhat rare in Formula One, but Piquet’s crash occurred where the stewards couldn’t quickly remove his car, and what is more, Alonso’s race strategy to pit so early was unusual—most cars starting at the back of the field load up on fuel and pit as late as possible, while Alonso did the opposite in the improbable hope of exactly what happened.
Nothing would have come of suspicions about Alonso’s victory, except that Renault fired Piquet as a driver this August, about a year after the race. Immediately following his dismissal, Piquet launched a public campaign against Renault managing director Flavio Briatore and then confessed to the FIA that he had crashed intentionally at Renault’s direction. Piquet claims, and Renault no longer denies, that Briatore and Renault director of engineering Pat Symonds approached him before the race about whether he would be willing to crash intentionally early in the race. Piquet explains that he “was in a very fragile and emotional state of mind . . . brought about by intense stress due to the fact that Mr. Briatore had refused to inform [him] of whether or not [his] driver’s contract would be renewed.” As a result of this developing scandal, Briatore and Symonds have resigned, and it isn’t clear what penalties the FIA will apply against Renault and the various parties involved. The FIA disqualified McLaren-Mercedes outright from the constructor’s championship and levied a $100 million penalty following a similarly appalling scandal two years ago.
The additional wrinkle here is that the scandal features an astounding conflict of interest at its heart. Briatore, while acting as managing director of Renault, served also as Piquet’s professional manager through a separate company. In other words, Briatore sat on both sides of the table in Piquet’s dealings with Renault. To be candid, Piquet has always struck me as an immature, unsympathetic character living a charmed life in no small part because his father is a three-time Formula One champion as a driver. But a driver’s seat in Formula One is incredibly difficult to secure, and it isn’t surprising that even Piquet may have felt overwhelming pressure to compromise himself (as well as risk serious injury) for someone serving as both his personal representative and his boss at the same time. Indeed, Briatore’s conflict of interest is not unusual in the incestuous world of Formula One. Briatore’s company actually has a similar arrangement with Piquet’s replacement, Romain Grosjean, as well as some type of management relationship with virtually every F1 driver employed by Renault during the last decade, including Alonso. As far as I know, neither the FIA nor the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association requires certification for driver’s managers or representatives anywhere comparable to the standards set by the unions for professional athletes in American sports leagues. It appears that the Renault scandal may finally prod the FIA or World Motor Sports Council to action on the issue.