Much has been written about Nelson Piquet Jr’s deliberate accident at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, which, lest anyone has forgotten, precipitated a safety car period, which in turn created a situation that handed the race on a plate to Piquet’s Renault team-mate Fernando Alonso.
It was, by general consent, an appalling happening, and draconian punishments were forecast and – in some cases, anyway – duly handed down. Flavio Briatore was banned from motor racing for life, and Pat Symonds for five years; Renault, the company, got away with a suspended ban (i.e. nothing) and Piquet himself – said by many to have been the instigator of the idea – got not even that, having been granted immunity for turning in his ex-colleagues when the moment suited him (i.e. when he had been fired, and had a powerful thirst for revenge to slake).
“The worst example of cheating I’ve ever known,” commented Stirling Moss at the time, and few would take issue with him. What Piquet et al did that day was to cause an accident with the intention of gaining from it, right?
Right. And all sorts of things – some of them a touch hysterical, in my opinion – were said about the danger, the risk involved, both to Piquet and to other drivers, marshals and so on. I’m not attempting to play down the gravity of the offence, but the incident occurred at the exit of a slow corner, and the Renault finished up flush with the inside wall, well off the line. It was not nothing, by any means, but nor – to my eyes, anyway – was it quite the potential catastrophe described by some.
Now let’s go back a couple of years before the Singapore incident, to Monaco in 2006, to the dying seconds of the final qualifying session. Michael Schumacher had the all-important pole position, but feared that Alonso, out on the circuit and going for it, was going to beat him. Therefore, in the most cack-handed manner imaginable, Schumacher contrived to ‘have an accident’ at Rascasse, thereby blocking the track, so as to thwart Alonso.
Why cack-handed? Well, for a start because it wasn’t even vaguely believable. Michael came into the corner off the pace, and off his normal line. He then put the brakes on hard, locked up – and stopped, a couple of feet from the barrier. As Keke Rosberg said at the time, “Jesus, he could at least have knocked the nose off…” The Ferrari was completely undamaged.
Outrage in the paddock was extreme, and the stewards announced that they would investigate. Who knows why, but it was late that evening before they concluded that Schumacher should be… not banned for life or for five years or even for one race. No, he would start from the back of the grid. Wow! Was that hard-hitting or what? On race day he duly came through to fifth place, and four points.
Now, was what Michael did greatly different from what happened in Singapore? Was not the intention the same in both cases – namely, deliberately to ‘have an accident’ in the hope of benefiting from it? All right, Schumacher didn’t actually hit anything, but his car was in the middle of the road, engine dead, and a carambolage could have occurred behind it.
Perhaps his sin wasn’t as great as Piquet’s, but still he cheated with thoughts of gain in mind (and not for the first time, either). Of course the argument was that Michael’s action wasn’t planned, wasn’t preconceived. Probably so, but it didn’t keep him from spotting an opportunity, and deciding instantly to act upon it. And the discrepancy in the punishments handed out for the two ‘crimes’ seems to me more than a touch absurd.
None argued Schumacher’s case more trenchantly than Jean Todt, but he was then of course a Ferrari man, doing right by his team and thinking of nothing else. Now he is the president of the FIA, and the hope must be that now the interests of ‘the sport’ are uppermost in his mind. On the face of it, sundry announcements made in the wake of December’s World Motor Sport Council meeting give cause for optimism – not least those proposing fundamental changes in the way FIA stewards conduct themselves at a Grand Prix. A most encouraging start to the new regime in Paris, I thought.