The decision by the World Motor Sport Council to ban Flavio Briatore has ended the career of one of the most colourful personalities Grand Prix racing has ever seen. It was the inevitable conclusion of a cheating controversy that earned the sport unwelcome front-page media coverage.
Briatore’s record as a motivating leader and successful delegator is impressive, but he sometimes sailed close to the wind in the unconventional way he went about his business. His decision to ask Nelson Piquet to crash in Singapore last year was to prove a step too far.
In retrospect the ‘plot’ seems too simple to be true. At the end of a dire season Briatore needed a result to keep Renault, ING and Fernando Alonso happy. The car was fast in Singapore, but it failed in qualifying, stranding Alonso in 15th place. In an attempt to gain ground, director of engineering Pat Symonds agreed to fuel the Spaniard impossibly light, a ploy that would only work if a safety car subsequently came out. And Briatore and Symonds agreed to stack the odds in their favour by asking Piquet to create one.
After a troubled rookie season, and with his seat for 2009 not yet confirmed, the Brazilian foolishly agreed. His impact with the wall was probably more spectacular than Symonds had expected, and so too was the benefit for Alonso, who climbed into the lead.
While the media questioned what had happened, the FIA made no attempt to investigate. The impetus was to come from Nelson Piquet Sr, who was furious when he found out what his son had done. He even confided in his former Brabham mechanic, the FIA race director Charlie Whiting, at the Brazilian Grand Prix. Whiting, placed in an awkward position by this private declaration from his old pal, took no action. Days later, Piquet Jr was confirmed as a Renault driver for 2009.
That might have been the end of it, but in July Briatore took advantage of a performance clause in Piquet’s contract to oust him. Once again, it seemed that Briatore was trying to curry favour with Renault, since replacement Romain Grosjean had a French passport.
It proved to be his undoing. On the weekend of Piquet’s last race in Hungary an angry Nelson Sr brought up the Singapore affair with Whiting and Bernie Ecclestone. If he wanted to proceed, he was told, he should go straight to Max Mosley. Briatore soon found out and sent a threatening letter, but the Piquets ignored it.
Piquet Jr was invited to Paris and, after an informal chat with Alan Donnelly, the chairman of the stewards, he was questioned by representatives of the Qwest investigative firm and the FIA’s legal advisor, and offered immunity.
Amid total secrecy Alonso, Symonds and several Renault engineers were then summoned for interviews on the Thursday of the Belgian GP. Symonds appeared not to have been warned by Briatore that the affair might come to light. He declined to answer direct questions rather than offer untruths or implicate others, and he refused the offer of immunity. His stance convinced the FIA that it was on the right track.
Briatore continued to bluster over the following week, even persuading Renault’s management that it should back him in legal action against the Piquets. But the company‘s own internal investigation quickly got to the truth. Briatore and Symonds were despatched, and Renault said it would not contest the allegations. By working with the FIA, Renault was able to restrict the team’s punishment to a meaningless suspended sentence.
Briatore faces an indefinite ban from any involvement in FIA events or with FIA-licensed teams. Furthermore the FIA is attempting to break his management stranglehold on drivers such as Alonso, Mark Webber and Heikki Kovalainen by insisting that they won’t get superlicences if they continue to be associated with the Italian. The unfortunate Symonds, hitherto one of the most respected players in the paddock, faces a five-year ban – a sad end to a worthy career.