If you were a Formula 1 driver, what would you do to help your team? Would you be willing to concede to team orders? What if those team orders instructed you to intentionally crash in order to give your teammate a lasting advantage? For Nelson Piquet Jr. at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, crashing in the name of the team was a more than acceptable choice.
The 2008 Singapore Grand Prix was set to be a historic event no matter what. It was the very first race at the newly constructed Marina Bay Street Circuit, and it was the first-ever F1 race to be held at night, largely in order to accommodate international TV windows. As it is today, Singapore was placed near the end of the F1 calendar (in 2008 it was the 15th race of an 18-race schedule), making it a hugely important event, as it could easily define the remainder of the Championship.
For the Renault team, though, things were looking bleak. Drivers Fernando Alonso and Nelson Piquet Jr. had been unable to score a victory, and if the tides didn’t change soon, there were rumours that Renault was going to call it quits.
Unless, of course, something spectacular were to happen.
After qualifying, things still looked grim. Alonso and Piquet Jr. lined up in 15th and 16th place, respectively, and with Piquet spinning on the warm-up lap, it seemed as if Singapore would be yet another miserable slog. The tight street circuit also meant that Felipe Massa maintained his lead from pole position, followed by Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen — all in qualifying order. Without a big shake-up, it would likely stay that way.
Fernando Alonso made the first big strategic move of the race, pitting on lap 12 of the 61-lap event. No other drivers followed him, so he rejoined at the rear of the field with a light fuel load, ready to overtake the competition.
And then his teammate spun.
Piquet Jr. hit the turn 17 wall, his car coming to a stop on the track. This corner was, coincidentally, one of the few on the track that didn’t have a crane nearby, so the safety car was deployed while the clean-up crews arrived.
This turned out to be a massive boon for Alonso; as per 2008’s sporting regulations, the pit lane was to remain closed during a safety car period until all running cars had lined up behind the safety car. This meant that anyone who pitted during the safety car period would be forced to rejoin at the back of the field, as opposed to the more traditional regulations that would allow cars to stop during a safety car period and lose very little track time.
When the race restarted, Alonso didn’t lead right away, but he did gain significant track position because many of the leaders pitted and returned to the track blended in among much slower cars. However, the cars in front of Alonso were those that had stayed out — meaning that, eventually, they’d need to come into the pits for fuel. When that happened, Alonso secured the lead of the race and held it to the checkered flag thanks to the narrow track surface of the street circuit.
After the race, all seemed well. Piquet Jr. called his crash a “simple mistake” because the team asked him to push harder, and Renault itself expressed a restrained amazement that Alonso had been able to pull off such a “brilliant tactical drive.” As a result, stewards saw no reason to take any action against Piquet Jr. or Renault. A few sceptics noted that it was extremely convenient for Piquet Jr.’s crash to happen when and where it did, but no one had any proof — especially since some of the biggest sceptics came from Brazilian television station Rede Globo who were upset that Felipe Massa’s poor Singapore finish could have been the main reason behind his losing the 2008 Championship by a single point.
It wasn’t until a year later, in late August of 2009, that Rede Globo formally accused Renault of instructing Piquet Jr. to crash, forcing the FIA to investigate. On September 4, 2009, the FIA stated that it found Renault guilty of “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.” All parties involved were called to a meeting of the FIA World Motorsport Council on September 21.
Evidence supporting the FIA’s accusation largely came in the form of a leaked transcript in which Piquet Jr. confirmed that he was asked by Renault leads Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds to crash at a specific corner. Piquet Jr. alleged that he was in a “fragile and emotional state of mind” because he had no idea if he was going to be signed by Renault for a second season; Briatore allegedly forced Piquet Jr. to sign an option that prevented him from negotiating with other teams, then regularly brought Piquet into his office to parse out every single detail of his performance.
“When I was asked to crash my car and cause a safety car incident in order to help the team, I accepted because I hoped that it could improve my position within the team at this critical time in the race season,” Piquet said. “At no point was I told by anyone that by agreeing to cause an incident, I would be guaranteed a renewal of my contract or any other advantage. However, in the context, I thought that it would be helpful in achieving this goal. I therefore agreed to cause the incident.”
For his own part, Alonso stated that he had no knowledge of the potential crash, and he was absolved of any blame. The FIA also cleared Piquet Jr. of any fault.
But things were far from over. After Piquet’s transcripts leaked, Renault decided it was going to sue both Nelson Piquet Jr. and his father for “the making of false allegations and a related attempt to blackmail the team into allowing Mr. Piquet Jr to drive for the remainder of the 2009 season.” Piquet Jr. had been dropped by the team after the July 26, 2009 running of the Hungarian Grand Prix, to be replaced by Romain Grosjean.
However, Renault seemed to understand it was on shaky ground. After attempting to accuse Piquet Jr. of formulating the crash idea, both Pat Symonds and Flavio Briatore resigned from the team, perhaps in an effort to prevent the team from facing further punishment.
It wasn’t enough. During the September 21 meeting, Renault was disqualifies from the sport and suspended for two years; if Renault repeated a similar incident to that of the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, it would be banned entirely from the sport. Briatore was issued a lifetime ban from any FIA-sanctioned event and was also banned from managing drivers — the FIA refused to issue super licenses to any driver who worked with Briatore in the future. Symonds, for his part, was given a five-year ban from FIA events. The punishments were handed out due to Symonds’ admission that he had been involved in orchestrating Piquet Jr.’s crash, whereas Briatore had adamantly denied the allegations. Briatore’s lifetime ban remains one of the harshest penalties ever issued by the FIA.
The scandal rocked F1, which had been subject to two other scandals in a short period of time: one being industrial espionage between teams, the other being Hamilton lying to race stewards at the 2009 Australian Grand Prix. Further, Renault’s launch of four electric vehicles was interrupted by constant questions about the Crashgate affair. In the aftermath, multiple teams and drivers spoke out against Renault, Briatore and Symonds appealed their bans, and Piquet Jr. won a libel case against Renault.
The scandal ultimately killed Piquet Jr.’s F1 hopes; while he was never a particularly impressive driver at Renault, no team wanted to touch him after Crashgate, forcing him to move to NASCAR and later Formula E. Symonds returned to F1 as a consultant for Virgin Racing in 2011 and now serves as F1’s Chief Technical Officer. And this year, Briatore returned to F1 as an ambassador for the sport. Alonso, for his own part, seemed to suffer no fallout from the incident.
Perhaps even stranger is the fact that very little — if anything — happened within the sport of F1 to prevent this from happening again. The series seemed to sweep Crashgate under the rug, ultimately allowing its key players back into the sport without censure. In fact, Piquet Jr. received the worst punishment of all, despite being absolved of guilt; because he only came forward with allegations about the Singapore Grand Prix after he had been cut from the Renault team halfway through 2009, he received a reputation as something of a fair-weather driver. And as we approach this year’s Singapore Grand Prix, it’s worth remembering that far more goes on behind the scenes in F1 than we can ever know.
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