Formula 1 starts 2010 with a headache
Former champion Niki Lauda did not mince his words last year when he said that Formula One’s Singapore Grand Prix race-fixing scandal demanded the heaviest of punishments to restore credibility.
A Times headline called Brazilian Nelson Piquet’s deliberate crash at the 2008 race “the worst act of cheating in the history of sport.”
Renault were handed a suspended permanent ban, with the authorities eager to keep them in the sport, while former team boss Flavio Briatore was barred for life and his engineeering head Pat Symonds for five years.
Piquet, the driver at the eye of the storm, walked away without sanction after being handed immunity for telling the governing FIA how he had obeyed orders to help team mate Fernando Alonso to win the race.
This week’s decision by a Paris court to overturn the bans on Briatore and Symonds leaves the sport’s reputation no stronger.
The worst act of cheating ever in the sport? The biggest let-off, more like.
Sure, Renault have suffered a huge blow to their reputation but their punishment was suspended and will be lifted altogether at the end of next year.
Briatore and Symonds lost their jobs. But it now looks like nobody will actually be punished by the governing body for what happened in Singapore. Piquet is free to race anywhere he can find a drive and Alonso, who was cleared of all involvement early on, has taken up his dream job at Ferrari.
If the latest message from Paris is that the FIA can only sanction member clubs and licence holders as well as its own officials then that poses an almighty headache for a governing body in a sport where safety is a constant concern and a deliberate crash could put lives at risk.
As the FIA observed in a statement on Tuesday: “The FIA’s ability to exclude those who intentionally put others’ lives at risk has never before been put into doubt.”
If the court verdict stands, then something must change in the sport and that is likely to mean issuing licences to senior team officials and technicians so that they can be held accountable.
The FIA hinted at this when it said that it would “consider appropriate actions to ensure that no persons who would engage, or who have engaged, in such dangerous activities or acts of intentional cheating will be allowed to participate in Formula One in the future”.
But what if certain drivers want Briatore to remain as their manager? And where does that leave Piquet, who appears to be the one who most obviously engaged in the “dangerous activities or acts of intentional cheating” that the FIA is so keen to stamp out?
The lawyers are going to be kept busy for months to come.
And Formula One starts another season overshadowed by controversy.
Britatore photo by Johannes Eisele, Nuerburgring F1 race track, July 11, 2009