Sorry guys. I had a little outing*

20 09 2009

First we had Spy-gate, then Spank-gate followed in quick succession by Lie-gate and Crash-gate. All of these incidents reflect astonishing collapses of professionalism that makes it difficult for F1 to be considered a “Sport”. I will analyse crash-gate with my own personal (and probably wrong) interpretations.

The first time I saw (on TV) Nelsinho Piquet was the inaugural AIGP at Brands Hatch with two wins and fastest lap. It was a magical moment, the kid looked seriously good and the female South African commentators were most complementary of his good looks and youthful charm on the victory podium. If I remember correctly Emerson Fittapaldi was the team Brazil manager, but also seemed the perfect mentor to the rising star.

Nelsinho’s Biography

Nelsinho Piquet was born in Germany, but until the age of 8 was raised by his Dutch mother in Monaco. He then was sent to live with his father in Brazil with the intention to learn the language and his mother felt to get a better quality of life. He certainly enjoyed access to huge opportunity to go motor-racing. At 16 he finished 5th in the Brazilian F3 championship have completed only half of the season and followed this up the next season with the championship and four race victories.

In 2003, with his father’s own team, he contested the British F3 championship and finished third despite five wins and three further podiums. That year he also tested in a Williams BMW F1 car.

In 2004 he won six F3 races and became the then youngest British F3 champion (at 19 years and 2 months). The next year he contested the GP2 championship (also in his father’s team), with one victory and three additional podiums. That year he tested the BAR Honda F1 car.

In 2006 Nelsinho fought closely with Lewis Hamilton for the GP2 crown, but it was the British driver who won. In 2007 he was a test driver for the Renault F1 team and in December of that year announced to be the driver for 2008 alongside twice former world champion Fernando Alonso.

During most of 2008 the Renault R28 was not particularly competitive. In part this was that the team stuck to letter of the rule on engine development. Not withstanding the shortcomings of the car it was not a good season for the young driver with a high number of accidents and that he was the only driver out-qualified by his team mate throughout the season.

He did show maturity at the German GP to secure 2nd position, although a fortunate strategy and the safety car contributed to the result. His overtake of his teammate during the final stages of the earlier French GP was another highlight.

In 2009 his nightmare F1 career was terminated when he was sacked by the team in mid-season having not scored a single point all season. In summary a hugely talented youngster with plenty of opportunity rose very rapidly in the motor-racing fraternity only to be crushed in the ultimate test of Formula One.

Singapore 2008 – what happened?

This event was sponsored by IMG, the main sponsor of the Renault F1 team. It was the first night race and Renault F1 team had sorted out what they could do to their engine under the new “no change” rules ensuring their cars were more competitive. An unfamiliar circuit to every driver and the novel night race conditions seemed to suit Fernando Alonso and in practice he was showing that Renault R28 was a font runner.

Renault F1’s new found competitiveness was dashed during qualifying when Fernando had a fuel pump issue, which relegated him to 15th position just ahead of Nelsinho. At this point in the season, we had Renault in serious contention for success with a competitive car. The circuit is narrow with no real overtaking opportunity beyond the start. Thereafter, it would take a pit stop to overtake or a safety car to shuffle the results.

While Renault had in the past used a light fuel load in final qualifying to get a good grid position such as Spain for Alonso’s home GP, these should be considered as publicity stunts (showboating). Having not made the top 10 grid positions Renault were free to use whatever strategy they wanted, so a light-fuel strategy makes even less sense. If there had been a safety car just after the start – they could have saved fuel, but the so would everyone else and they would have had to pitted early and lost many track positions (and indeed after his fuel stop Alonso was last). Could Renault be gambling that a Safety car would be coming out somewhere between lap 12 and 17 as they appear to have fuelled Fernando for a maximum of 15 laps?

These circumstances get even more suspicious when Pat Symonds instructs Alonso to pit on lap 12. Was Fernando essentially losing too much time relative to the leaders that even with a safety car it could ruin their success? Leaked transcripts of the team-radio do suggest that Fernando was getting held up and losing time. Fernado’s race engineer appears to have questioned the premature pit stop but Fernando does stop on lap 12 while still fuelled for a couple more laps. They fuelled him for a long second stint and swap the super-soft tyres with longer running soft tyres.

On lap 14 Nelsinho crashes at turn 17 and a Safety Car is deployed. Other drivers who had used a light fuel to get good starting positions were forced to pit under the safety car and incurred a drive-through penalty. Once the pitlane is opened (lap 17) for refueling most of the pack pit. Race leader Felipe Massa had a disastrous pit stop ruining any prospects of points let alone a win.

Rosberg and Kubica served their penalty for violating the closed pit lane promoting Alonso into the lead. Alonso maintains his lead despite a late Safety Car incident following Adrian Sutil’s crash at the same spot as Nelsinho. Nelsinho’s accident happened in a window of opportunity of no more than two or three laps when it could be used to Alonso’s advantage. It was also on part of the circuit where there were no cranes so a Safety Car was assured.

Could a team ask a driver to deliberately change the results?

Deliberately crashing into another driver has been practiced by drivers in the past including Senna, Schumacher and Prost in attempting to secure a world championship, so it is not quite as preposterous as it might at first seem. Anyone who has watched NASCAR must realize some of the spins to bring out the safety car were pre-mediated and probably to impact on a competitor.

Causing an accident and curtailing a qualifying has occurred with Michael Schumacher “parking” his car in a feign accident when he had set a good qualifying time to prevent Fernando from setting a better time during the Monaco GP 2006.

Earlier this year the McLaren team deliberately lied about an incident which promoted Lewis Hamilton and got another team disqualified from the results. This is as much race-fixing as asking a driver to bin a car for the team.

So you might ask then ask is this not hugely unsafe to ask a driver to deliberately crash and bring a safety car out? Formula One is remarkable safe, drivers like Robert Kubica (Canada) and Timo Glock have had huge accidents with very little injury. To be honest Nelsinho had also had a lot of experience in testing the safety of the Renault F1 car with his record of crashes.

Consequently I think safety was not really a major concern to driver or team. Again leaked transcripts, suggest it was only the engineer that was having any real worries about Nelsinho immediately following the contact.

The freak accidents of Henry Surtees and Felipe Massa have at least resulted in safety being re-evaluated. Deliberately crashing is now more serious since any accident has a potential to trigger collateral damage to other drivers, marshals and even spectators.

How have (or should have) Renault F1 respond?

Slightly surprisingly ’s allegations have got leaked and widely circulated. On the surface the FIA have said it was unfortunate and FOTA has complained that this is unfair to the accused team. In honesty, I am really not sure it is such an issue. It makes it clear what the allegation is about.

I do, however, find the leaks around the interviews the FIA had with critical members of the Renault team appalling as this really can pre-judge the case.

In essence Flavio Briatore claimed there was no crash, no meeting and they have done nothing wrong. In contrast Pat would not answer difficult questions nor recall details. During the period of investigation into Renault F1’s possession of Intellectual Property of McLaren the entire Renault factory admitted guilt and suffered from an epidemic of the a highly infectious form of collective amnesia. Sadly for Pat this conditions has continued and he could well be in the terminal stages of the illness.

While Pat quietly suffers this malady, Flavio seems to have opted with fighting fire with fire and claims that he and Renault will pursue legal action for false accusation and blackmail. Of course this is not fully true since he can only report the incident, it is for authorities to actually proceed with a criminal  case based on evidence. He also went into personal details about Nelsinho’s lifestyle in an attempt to create a rift between Nelsinho and his father (another sort of outing?).

Interestingly, Renault announced it would not contest Nelsinho’s allegations and that both Flavio and Pat have now left the company. This has been interpreted as guilt of misconduct and I assume the team is wanting FIA to look on the incident with some leniency.

Many people have assumed that this means Renault F1 wish to continue in the sport. I rather see it as crisis management. Renault conducted their own investigation and concluded that they could not defend themselves.

With the resignations of Flavio and Pat they are not under FIA authority to be present at the meeting tomorrow. Clearly Renault want the two top guys to take full responsibility and don’t actually want them to testify. What this allows is for the FIA to punish the team without the severity that McLaren received when they deliberately lied to the FIA during spygate. This at least provides the most protection for the rest of the Renault F1 employees. More importantly it gives the parent company the option of selling or staying on.

How much guilt should Nelsinho shoulder?

People are over-reacting to the dangers of the situation and forgetting how Senna, Prost and Schumacher all crashed into competitors. That is not to say it was not serious nor cheating – it is. Formula 1 has always had large doses of cheating. Eddie Irvine concluded that…

“This is probably slightly on the wrong side of the cheating thing but in days past every team have done whatever they could to win – cheat, bend the rules, break the rules, sabotage opponents”

http://www.metro.co.uk/sport/extra/article.html?Irvine:_Big_over-reaction_to_crashgate&in_article_id=739569&in_page_id=52

Briatore and Symonds sent Nelsinho out at the Monaco’s 2008 wet race deliberately on the wrong tyres to see if this could be a strategy for Alonso. Although it was admitted that it was a long shot and Nelsinho did have a crash was this not similarly dangerous? It also did not stop Flavio publicly humiliating Nelsinho in the press after the race.

Nelsinho has been seriously mismanaged, even, dare I say it been sacrificed on Alonso’s Altar. Those that say an F1 driver should be tough enough to cope – I think a similar situation occurred with Bourdais – he left the Toro Rosso team with little in the way of results and immediately won his first Superleague race in cars that are the most similar to current F1 cars. Formula 1 drivers are fragile as they need huge confidence to do what they do successfully. This is one of the reasons Lewis Hamilton is so successful, huge self-belief and rarely if ever admits to a racing fault (including last week’s Monza outing).

I believe Briatore destroyed Nelsinho’s self belief. He was vulnerable, since he had not delivered the goods on the track so the best he could offer was to help the team in other ways and specifically his team mate. Formula 1 team’s exercise huge influence on their drivers, hence Lewis Hamilton lied to get another team disqualified, Piquet crashing on team orders to gift the race to his team mate.

Ex F1 driver Johnny Herbert who has experienced Briatore first-hand has indicated in no uncertain terms his unpleasant character. If you think I exaggerate just read the interview with Johnny Herbert.

http://www.inthenews.co.uk/comment/sport/formula-one/herbert-briatore-should-be-banned-for-life-$1328498.htm

Herbert shares my view, what Piquet did was undeniably wrong but we need to understand what sort of pressure he was under. You have a driver more frightened of his manager/boss than of crashing a car – that says a lot. Since Nelsinho was asked to crash to bring the team a favourable result (and the parent company does not want to contest this allegation) it would be impossible for Renault to bring any charges against Nelsinho.

Could Nelsinho have said no?

I am fairly sure had he said so he would have been replaced in the next race or certainly in the next season. My own experience is that people do not put their jobs on-line. I have had two past incidents with my own employers practicing unethical standards. In both cases the great majority of my colleagues remained quiet.

While many people have questioned Nelsinho receiving immunity as a whistle-blower. I take it these people would rather that all the cheating remains undiscovered? Protection of whistle-blowers is necessary to keep the industry clean, since otherwise no-one would ever admit to the cheating that is  pandemic in the industry.

The real villain is Flavio and this guy should be banned from F1 and not be allowed to managed any current or future racing driver. Being a team boss and at the same time a manager of a driver provides too much hold over the driver.

Finally if you think Alonso is completely innocent in all of this contrast the following quotes from the guy…

“Alonso explained that his early pitstop was his idea” “I did think about running a one-stop strategy,”

“but all that fuel weight would have been too punishing for the brakes because there are no long straights here to keep them cool. Instead I chose a short, aggressive first stint and just waited to see what would happen.”

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/formula_1/article6837681.ece

Now compare what he said to the FIA during their interviews at Spa this year knowing there was controversial issues surrounding his race win.

“Alonso also said that he left strategy decisions to his engineers and that running a short first stint from outside the top ten was merely an attempt to do something different from the cars around him, which is consistent with Pat Symonds’ attitude to race strategy as he’s articulated it to me in the past.”

http://www.jamesallenonf1.com/2009/09/leaked-transcripts-put-alonso-in-the-clear-on-singapore-crash-plot/

So immediately after winning the Singapore GP he credited himself with the clever short first-stint fuel stop but when there is controversy he changes his tune to it being his engineers decisions. While Fernando has been summoned to the FIA meeting (as has Briatore) it is unlikely this inconsistency will be picked up but it is revealing.

Conclusion

Nelsinho’s “little outing” is set to reshape Formula 1. Not only has he outed Flavio Briatore, one of the biggest guys from F1 but it is likely the FIA will re-examine much of the structure of the Formula 1’s team management. Possibly this is a “good” outcome of the unhappy event. Personally, though Fernando should as a minimum have one less victory to his credit. I hope that the Renault F1 team do continue in the sport and are able to withstand whatever punishment is imposed by the FIA, since their problem was probably no more than a couple of bad apples which they have got rid of.

Nelsinho’s Formula 1 career is over, no matter what happens tomorrow, and I believe that much, but not all, of guilt lies with his team manager. While Nelsinho has called Briatore his “executioner” the little guy has done his share in the execution of his boss and for which the Formula 1 fraternity should be eternally grateful.

*These were the first words spoken by Nelsinho following his crash at Singapore GP 2008.

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