As I begin to write this the members of the World Motorsport Council are already hearing the case against the Renault Formula One team in Paris. By the time I finish writing they may well have reached their decision. Such is the pace of life, and most of the gentlemen of the press type much faster than I ever could. But this is no time for defeatism: I will press on.
Two years ago when stories began to leak from Maranello that Nigel Stepney was suspected of theft and sabotage I felt that they could not be true. I thought that the affair must be some sort of histrionic tiff within the team and mainly hot air. I made no comment until the police raid on McLaren’s chief designer not only took me by surprise, but threw a new light on the earlier rumours I had ignored.
Another lost scoop
Several months ago I was told by a friend, who is a key figure in the Ferrari design department, that he was "sure” that Nelsinho Piquet’s crash in Singapore had been deliberate. I have known this man for 35 years and have always trusted him completely, and have been given countless insights into very secret matters which I am honour bound to keep private. But this talk of Renault deliberately organising a safety-car period to open up the opportunity of winning the race seemed like wild fantasy. Rather than taking it seriously I filed it away alongside other conspiracy-theory nonsense. I wondered if it merely reflected a growing atmosphere of paranoia that might have taken root in Maranello as a result of the difficulty of a season in which other teams had ignored what had seemed to be perfectly clear technical regulations, and had then defeated the challenge to their cars at the FIA’s International Court of Appeal. But I was wrong.
I still don’t know what evidence had led Ferrari people to this conclusion about Singapore. It must have been very solid to have created such certainty. But either not solid enough for the team itself to have complained to the FIA or obtained by them in a way that they could not make public…..
But now this is not a scoop. It is history. Nelsinho was increasingly worn down by his relationship with Flavio Briatore, who was both his team boss and his manager. I suspect that Nelsinho had been subjected to what can best be called ‘bullying’ from a man who is unaccustomed to being constrained by the norms of behaviour and courtesy that most ordinary mortals accept as a given.
Nelsinho told his father about the events in Singapore. Nelson Piquet approached Charlie Whiting ‘off the record’ to find out how Nelsinho would be treated if the facts became known. Whiting told him that the FIA could not react to mere rumour but would only investigate if they received evidence. I am sure that Whiting would have told Piquet that his son would be given immunity if he made a statement of what he knew. If any other evidence came to light and an FIA investigation was triggered Nelsinho would be certain to suffer penalties if he remained silent.
As the first half of this season unfolded Nelsinho seemed to be a haunted young man. Gone was the appropriate self-confidence of a young charger who had come into F1 after a very impressive run through the junior categories. There was also a press campaign against Nelsinho, asking when he would be dropped from the team. The question was being asked by the journalists who were close to the FOTA teams and supported their threat to start a breakaway series. Flavio Briatore was going to be the commercial director of the FOTA championship.
When Nelsinho was dropped by Renault, but still presumably paying a percentage to Flav’s management company, his prospects of another F1 drive were poor. Worse still his super-licence was at risk should the Singapore conspiracy become known. He made a statement to the FIA. His account of events has not been challenged by Renault, and we now simply wait for the WMC to rule on penalties.
A little bit of spin
It has been widely reported that Flavio and Pat Symmonds have left Renault to escape sanctions from the FIA. This is nonsense and it has to be said very clearly, so that everyone can understand, that the FIA has no power to impose any direct punishment on these two individuals. The FIA is not a Court of Law and can only punish those who hold FIA licences. Drivers hold licences, marshals and race officials hold licences, and the teams themselves hold licences. Team principals, designers, engineers, and mechanics do not.
Briatore and Symmonds have left Renault because the team know them to be guilty of organising this offence. It is the team that must be punished and they have ejected the individuals responsible to show that they have taken appropriate action to avoid any future misdemeanour’s. They hope to mitigate the punishment by being open about this.
It has been widely assumed that Renault is going to leave F1 at the end of this season. Briatore was said to be searching desperately for an engine contract to allow the team to continue. Whether this is true or not the WMC must impose an appropriate and proportionate penalty. It is totally dishonest for anyone to suggest that they should be motivated by any concern about Renault’s future in F1.
McLaren was fined a huge amount of money for sporting-corruption which had probably involved costly espionage. The sum was related to the market value of the material that was stolen from Ferrari. The WMC also took into consideration the fact that the team had denied everything and resisted the investigation throughout. Ron Dennis had behaved like an idiotic gangster in front of the hearings and had lied quite blatantly to the FIA president in an effort to avoid an enquiry. A single figure took the drop although most McLaren managers were probably aware of the offence. Dennis remained unrepentantly at the helm of the team until another infraction at the start of this season finally forced his departure.
Renault has admitted the offence and cleaned its house before the enquiry. The penalty will have to reflect the commercial gain that the team had won. I would expect the fine to equal the prize money gained from the win in Singapore and from the boosted end of season championship position gained as a result. That is simple economic justice. An additional penalty should be imposed as part of sporting justice and to indicate the seriousness of the crime. I would find it hard to accept that these should add up to anything like the total penalties that were correctly given to McLaren in 2007.
There is no evidence whatsoever that Fernando Alonso knew of the plan. Contrary to speculation, the light-fuel strategy would not have surprised him either. Renault was in the habit of starting Fernando on very little fuel in 2008. They were aware that, until Singapore, they did not have a car that could run at the front. I think it was Pat Symmonds’ habit to run Fernando light for three reasons. Firstly, Fernando himself is fiercely competitive and proud. He would rather show a great turn of speed than plod towards a midfield position. Next, Renault had to be kept on board. Their not-so-young Turk had to be convinced of the value of the race team. As he knew nothing about the sport he was most likely to be convinced by the sight of one of the cars running at the front or running fast at the back even if the podium was not finally reached. Finally, however hopeless this strategy seemed (and many times it dropped Fernando behind Nelsinho, who was always started on heavy fuel), there was always a chance that a lucky safety-car period would allow a brief glory-run to bring the car home at the front. Race after race the team waited for this lucky event. They came to Singapore with a transformed car capable of finishing near the front. When engine failure consigned Alonso to the tail end of the grid they would have been even more desperate for a good result. Start light again and pray for a safety car at the right moment was their usual approach. But this time why not make sure of that stroke of luck?
There was no need for Alonso to be told and his happy acknowledgement of the lucky timing of the safety car after the race spoke to me of his innocence.
As for Piquet it is enough to say that he was pressured by his boss until he reached breaking point. I had expected him to do well in F1. Before joining Renault he had seemed aloof to the point of arrogance, but I think now that this was a mask worn by a shy young man. He suffered the customary difficulty experienced by all Renault number two drivers. By the middle of last season he was scared of Briatore’s moods and tantrums and quite desperate to please. Finally he provided evidence against his team, and openly acknowledged his own part in the plot.
Nelsinho deserves the immunity he has been granted. Just as Alonso deserved the immunity he was given in 2007 when he was the only person within McLaren to provide evidence of the flow of stolen data, after the FIA wrote to all the team members requesting everyone to co-operate with the investigation. The drivers were the only team members who could receive sanctions from the FIA but Fernando was the only driver to reply honestly. Nelsinho has looked increasingly unsettled since last season. Like Alonso within McLaren he must have feared that the truth he knew would become public and destroy him. Like Fernando he finally took the only course open to him: honesty.
Flav is a businessman, but he came to motorsport from the world of fashion. This is a business where exaggerated personality and behaviour is perhaps the norm. He has never understood the technical aspects of the sport but has run his team as a business and has been very successful at doing just that. He speaks a very broken form of English and makes an effort to be outrageous and entertaining. Lack of clarity perhaps, but never a lack of words or an absence snappy quotes. This was a man who enjoyed life in the limelight. I have never met Flav but I have often referred to him as a clown, although he probably saw himself as half clown-entertainer and half Machiavellian ring-master. I saw no malice in the man. I was impressed when he managed to quit smoking after years of blatant disregard for the smoking ban that has long existed in the pits and pit-lane.
Flavio stopped smoking because he was concerned for his health after a cancer scare. It was probably as a result of this that his weight ballooned over the last three years. He has always been an effective but a difficult boss. He had the habit of employing two people for every key job and then letting them fight it out among themselves for supremacy. This must have made many of his staff uneasy much of the time. Perhaps it was something he learned from reading ‘The Art of War’ or some such work currently fashionable in management circles.
Anyway, without cigarettes and with health worries Flavio entered the economic downturn also lacking any certainty that Renault would continue to support his team. Probably they were demanding results. All this stress led to bullying of junior staff, and who more junior in Flav’s eyes than young Nelsinho? In Singapore the team expected to do well before the engine blew. The pressure led to the temptation to help their luck along. And that led to a sporting deceit that almost everyone in motorsport finds almost impossible to believe.
I think that the most telling story about Flav is one that I have told before. When Benetton were investigated for using launch-control, during the period when it was banned, the team was visited by the FIA while Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne were on holiday. Launch software existed in the cars. Like almost all the teams Benetton were still developing the system in testing as they were correctly confident that it would be an important technology in the future. I have been assured that it was never activated in the races.
Flav probably did not understand any of the technical issues but began horse-trading. He said that the team would never use the system again and reached an agreement with the FIA. Leaks of this meeting as well as tensions within the team led to the conclusion that the system had been used in races. Briatore’s approximate English and loquaciousness had scored this own-goal. The slur still lingers over the team’s first championship win and Byrne in particular is bitter about this. I am certain that Benetton was innocent of any wrong-doing but Flav talked himself into a hole even as he thought he was talking himself out of a corner. But this time he seems to have done more than simply talk his way to trouble.
It is hard for me to say anything about Pat. I knew him and worked with him 30 years ago. I liked him and enjoyed working with him although we were never close friends. He was certainly ambitious and projected this by being very protective of his image. As the design-engineer he would sit in his directors’ chair and never actually work on the car. That was the mechanic’s job. As the development driver I would help the mechanic myself and Pat’s refusal to compromise the dignity of his position was something of a puzzle to me. This was not Monaco but Snetterton on a cold winter morning, after all. There were only the three of us there and a lot of work to get through. Whatever this said about Pat, he did well, and followed his predecessor from Royale Racing into Formula One.
At Silverstone this summer I bumped into Pat in the paddock, very nearly literally. Pat seemed to be in a world of his own, looking drawn and stressed as he hurried into the Renault hospitality unit. We have not met for several years but I was surprised that he failed to speak to me, or even notice me standing there. On television Flavio has had the same rather haunted look for some time. I think that the breakaway series was the only possible escape. When that failed both these men knew that the sword which they had hung above themselves in Singapore was suspended by the merest thread. It showed in their faces and in their behaviour.
I regret to say that this whole plan was probably Pat Symmonds’ idea. Flavio Briatore would have applied the direct pressure to bring young Piquet on board just as Ron Dennis seems likely to have pressured Lewis Hamilton into withholding information in 2007 and dishonesty early this year. I just wish that none of these things had happened. But life goes on.