Hit parade

A second-generation Piquet created headlines in F1, albeit not in the manner of his father

Mention the name ‘Piquet’ to motor racing fans today and the majority of them will think first not of the three-time champion father, but of the son who delivered victory to fellow Renault driver Fernando Alonso by deliberately crashing and neutralising the 2008 Singapore GP. It was a helluva hit, superbly executed by the 24-year-old, and while it may have underlined the intrinsic safety of the modern F1 car, it also threw an uncomfortably bright spotlight on the increasing divergence that seems to be tolerated today between sport and motor racing.

Although the FIA, when eventually the plot was revealed, showed little mercy towards the participants, the major beneficiary of the scheme, surprise Singapore winner Alonso, remained squeaky clean. At least that is the official verdict, for the Spaniard has consistently denied having any advance knowledge of what was being planned and his reputation remains technically intact. But the Renault team’s principal, Flavio Briatore, received an indefinite ban from any management role in the sport (later, a French court took a more lenient view), while Pat Symonds, his senior engineer, was warned off for five years. And although Piquet was granted immunity from punishment in return for giving evidence to the FIA, his chances of ever returning to F1 stand at zero.

To summarise a complex affair, Renault started the 2008 season with a car that was no match for McLaren or Ferrari. When round 14 came up in Singapore, the R28 had just a single podium to its name courtesy of Piquet’s second place in Germany. Alonso was showing signs of losing interest, and the team’s paymasters in Paris were equally unenthused.

The dire situation called for extreme measures. When Piquet Jr’s car backed into the wall, it so happened that Alonso had just made an unusually early stop for fuel. The appearance of a Safety Car was manna from heaven, and if the angels were singing as Fernando took full advantage of his extraordinary luck to grab eventual victory, up in a murky corner of the media centre there were hacks who smelled a rat.

So whose idea was the crash?

“I don’t know exactly what happened in Singapore, because I wasn’t there,” says Piquet Sr. “One week later, when Nelson [Jr] called me, I asked him what happened when he shunted the car. He said it was all programmed and he had been told to do it. I was quite shocked: ‘How could you do something like that?’ I asked him. He said, ‘Look, you should know what the pressure is like here. They told me that if I wanted to be part of the team, I had to do what they want’.”

Later in the season, Nelson revealed to his old crew chief Charlie Whiting what his son had told him. Whiting’s first reaction was that he could not act unless someone made a formal complaint, which had not happened. “Then, in the middle of the [next] year, Briatore told Nelson that the next race would be his last. So I went to talk to him, then went to see Charlie again, and this time he said I should talk to [FIA president] Max [Mosley]. So when Briatore confirmed to me that it was going to be the end for Nelson, I went to see Max and told him the story.”

The scandal finally became public in Hungary, after Nelson had tipped off a journalist from Brazilian TV just before the start. He felt that his son had been shoddily treated by Renault, which was developing the car primarily for Alonso and not delivering the new bits that would allow him to show his ability.

But he was also well aware of the implications for his boy if they let the cat out of the bag. “I told Nelson he would never drive in F1 again, and either he could go easy, or we could get some money from Renault. And he said, ‘OK, let’s go and fight’.”

At Briatore’s urging, Renault F1 contended at first that the idea of the crash had come from Piquet Jr, although that seems unlikely in view of the fact that he had already negotiated a second year to his contract and had no incentive to ingratiate himself with his boss (who was also his personal manager). Renault F1 even initiated legal proceedings against the Piquet family. But the case effectively collapsed following the leak of a transcript of the FIA’s interrogation of Symonds, who refused to respond to most of the questions and managed to contradict himself in response to those that he did answer.

The Piquets suffered no such embarrassment under questioning.

As Nelson Sr has since told me, “When you are telling the truth, there is only one story to tell.”