Until recently we tended to think of Timo Glock's tyres — dry on a wet track — as being the reason why Felipe Massa lost the 2008 World Championship to Lewis Hamilton, but now there's a case to be made for suggesting the real culprit was Fernando Alonso's fuel hose in Singapore qualifying. After practice Alonso — fastest in two of three sessions — had expected to qualify his Renault in the first couple of rows. Had he not been halted out on the circuit in Q2, he would undoubtedly have been up there with the Massas and Hamiltons and Raikkonens — in which case there would have been no need of the skulduggery which followed. As it was, Alonso qualified only 15th, and it was at that point the plot took seed. For it to have any chance of success, Fernando's Renault needed to go to the grid with a minimal fuel load, so that he would then make a very early stop, after which Nelson Piquet Jr — before anyone else had stopped — would obligingly park his Renault against a wall, thus bringing out the safety car.
Deadlines being what they are, last month I wrote on this subject before the decisions from the World Motor Sport Council — the suspended penalty for Renault, the bans for Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds — had been announced. Fortunately there was time enough — just — to re-write part of the column, revealing the decisions from Paris in brief, but not to discuss what came later, most notably the content of Symonds's written statement to the WMSC. 'The idea for this incident,' Symonds wrote, 'was entirely conceived by Nelson Piquet Jr. It was he who first approached me with the idea. At the time I naively believed it was something he wanted to do for the good of the team. I was not aware of the position of his contract negotiations, although with the benefit of hindsight I now consider that he believed his actions would have a favourable effect on these negotiations.
'In mitigation I would like to acknowledge my role in this incident. I was the one who, when the idea was first suggested to me, should have dismissed it immediately. It is to my eternal regret and shame that I did not do so. I can only say that I did it out of a misguided devotion to my team, and not for any personal gain whatever. I consider the role I have played in bringing the team to where it is today to be my life's work. The last thing I ever wanted was to jeopardise that team and the many people to whom I had an overwhelming responsibility.'
Symonds went on to say that he had always 'tried to be an honest person', and no one who has known Pat these many years would dispute that. He got this wrong, knows it, and has acknowledged it, but I personally think it a tragedy that he has been brought down by it. Like Piquet, Symonds was offered immunity by the FIA; unlike Piquet, he chose not to accept it, and has paid the price. Symonds insisted, however, that the decision to send Alonso to the grid with little more than fumes was not originally anything to do with a plan for Piquet deliberately to crash, but rather with the intention that Fernando should run a short, light, first stint on Bridgestone's super-soft tyres so as to get them out of the way.
A similar strategy, Pat pointed out, was employed this year on Hamilton's McLaren in Melbourne, where he, too, qualified 15th. Be that as it may, we all know what happened in Singapore 12 months ago, and I have to say that I find Piquet's latest outburst of self-pity even more distasteful than those which went before. "Some people have suggested I should have been punished by the FIA," said the poor boy, "but in reality no one has been punished more than I have. I am at the beginning of my career, unlike the others who have been punished in this case. I am going to have to overcome many obstacles. I more or less have to start my career from scratch in Fl or whatever category I might race in." Diddums.
According to Symonds, the idea behind 'crash-gate' came from Piquet alone, but even if that were not the case the fact remains that he deliberately crashed his car in order to affect the outcome of the race, and to come out with a lot of excuses for his behaviour, to claim he was 'fragile' because of the delicate state of his negotiations with Briatore — and to suggest, finally, that it wouldn't have happened if he'd had his daddy with him in Singapore, is pathetically contemptible.
I think back now to something Jackie Stewart said as we anticipated the 2008 Fl season: "As far as Piquet Jr's concerned, I don't dislike the boy, but I think daddy's too rich and mummy's too adoring — he's spoiled, he gets anything he wants. Daddy flies a Citation 10 — and he'd travel from Brazil to watch him in an F3 race! Nelsinho expects everything to come his way... he's got a short attention span... I think life's been too easy..."
In the paddock there is remarkably little sympathy for him, not least among his fellow drivers. Robert Kubica put it inimitably well: "Normally, if you go to the police and say you killed someone but you know someone else who killed three people, you will still go to jail..." The attitude to the whole 'crash-gate' episode has been the same throughout motor racing.
At Goodwood Stirling Moss, literally stunned by the revelations, said he thought it the worst thing he had ever known in the sport. It reminded me, I must say, of a line from An Englishman Abroad, Alan Bennett's sublime play about a meeting in Moscow between the exiled spy Guy Burgess and the actress Coral Browne. When Burgess, desperately homesick, wonders about the possibilities of one day returning to England, the acerbic lady slaps him quickly down: "You pissed in our soup, darling — and we drank it..." There has been no hint from Piquet of the degree of remorse required by his actions — everything appears to have been someone else's responsibility — and most view his behaviour as cynical and self-serving: so long as he kept his Renault drive he was willing to keep his mouth shut; only when Briatore dropped him did his father call Max Mosley — who had been aware of the saga for some time — to press the `go' button, which of course saw the end (at least for the time being) of Flavio in Fl. QED.
Piquet, we now learn, is to test a NASCAR Toyota truck in the near future. It would surprise me if we were to see him in a Grand Prix car again, but there again the young man has always had substantial backing, and in Fl a fool and his money are soon popular. There is no shortage, God knows, of teams looking for 'drivers with a budget', but, that said, this one is very obviously no budding
Schumacher — were such the case, indeed, one suspects that memories of 'crash-gate' might fade more readily into the past. It is doubtful, though, that they ever will for one of Piquet's countrymen. When the safety car went out in Singapore, Massa's pole position Ferrari had gone away in the lead, and Felipe was looking set for another of his flawless lights-to-flag victories. As it was, he was obliged to join the scramble into the pits, and there — because of the unusual congestion — the team decided to play safe with its green light 'release' system, switching from automatic mode to manual. As it was, someone pressed the button too soon, and Massa accelerated away with the refuelling hose still connected.
Although he eventually rejoined, his night, in terms of scoring points, was done; five weeks later, it will be remembered, Felipe was again dominant at Interlagos — and lost the championship by a single point. One trusts all this has registered with the Paulistas. Much has been written and said — for and against — about the WMSC's decision to confine punishments in this lamentable episode to Briatore and Symonds. Renault per se got away with a suspended ban from Fl, which is to say scot-free, and that was widely anticipated for more than one reason. First, the company, having carried out its own investigation, lost no time in showing Flavio and Pat the door; second, in then offering no defence against the FIA's allegations, Renault tacitly admitted it was a fair cop. Always goes down very well with the governing body, that does, as Renault has found in the past.
The other reasons were perhaps rather more pragmatic. Suspension from the World Championship or a fine perhaps comparable with the $100,000,000 demanded from McLaren two years ago would, it is sure, have led to Renault's immediate withdrawal from Fl, and that was not to be risked. For one thing a great many jobs would have been lost, and, for another, let's bear in mind that Renault not only operates a team but — unlike McLaren — also manufactures engines and supplies them to others. That being so, it perhaps comes into the 'too big to fail' category, a phrase we have heard numberless times in reference to banks. ED
But this is not a time for anyone to be holier-than-thou. In the last couple of years we've had spy-gate, lie-gate and now crashgate, to say nothing of what went before, so it's fair to say that F1's unsullied virgin ship sailed a long time ago. Perhaps the rewards of winning — and the consequences of losing — have simply become too great.