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SEPTEMBER 24, 2009

Was it really that bad?


The blame for the Renault race-fixing affair has been laid firmly upon the doorsteps of Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds. The former's refusal to accept any wrongdoing has seen him effectively banned from all FIA motor racing series and there will now follow a series of investigations into his dealings in other areas, most notably his ownership of Queens Park Rangers Football Club which he owns in part with Bernie Ecclestone. Lord Mawhinney of the English Football Association (FA) is pressing the FIA for further information into their findings at the extraordinary meeting of the World Motorsport Council (WMC) to ensure that Briatore passes the none too stringent ˜fit and proper persons™ test laid out by the FA for ownership of an English Football League club. Given that former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra passed, Briatore should be okay, but it highlights the severity of the fallout he will face following the sorry episode centred around the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix. Symonds faces a similar complete ban on his activities within motor racing, but only for five years, having admitted his own wrong-doing in the scandal.

Many have proclaimed the saga to be one of the worst cases of cheating in sporting history. I feel that this is somewhat wide of the mark and the FIA would appear to agree having only served up a two year suspended ban upon the ING Renault F1 outfit. The FIA have also been consistent in showing leniency to those who confess to their sins. McLaren were slapped with an unprecedented and hefty punishment following the ˜spygate™ saga having failed to admit to their wrongdoing. It would appear that Renault™s stance of always admitting wholly to their actions is certainly the correct path to take when dealing with the FIA and other teams should take note.

The gain for Renault in encouraging Nelson Piquet Jnr to deliberately crash was a high points finish in the Singapore Grand Prix. They knew Alonso had a quick car but qualification issues hampered his aspirations of making an impact upon the event. With pressure mounting on the team to deliver results, they took this ghastly option of cheating. Yet when compared to other famous sporting scandals at least Renault acted for sporting reasons. I™m in no way attempting to condone the events that took place, but they were not motivated by the allure of a stray bookmaker, as so often happens in other sporting arenas. Many a football match has been thrown to satisfy the demands of bookmakers as those involved seek to line their own pockets. Hansie Cronje, the disgraced, late South African cricket captain was a man at the very top of his profession. His head was turned by the offerings of bookmakers as he dragged the name of the entire cricket community through the mire in the late 1990s. He was seeking to satisfy the demands of others who were not involved in cricket for a financial gain. This recent example, I feel, is far worse than the crime Renault has committed.

Renault sought to improve its own standing. They sought a race victory and delivered it. In a bizarre way their tactic is also a feather in the cap of the FIA safety commissioners. It was deemed to be a safe tactic. It didn™t appear to have even crossed the minds of those involved that this could be in any way dangerous to the driver, other drivers, or the spectators. I interviewed Sir Stirling Moss recently and he expressed his view that Formula 1 can be broken down into two eras; the dangerous era of Juan Manuel Fangio and the safe era of Michael Schumacher. The dangers of motor sport are still inherent, witness the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994, but Formula 1 is still largely a safe activity for those involved today. It would have been utterly unfeasible for this tactic of deliberately inciting an accident to have been implemented even 25 years ago. Such are the safety standards today that Piquet thought nothing of slinging his Formula 1 car into a wall. His father wouldn™t have dared! And quite rightly.

Whilst the episode has cast a shadow over Formula 1, it is unlikely to be an event that is repeated again. It is also unlikely to be remembered as one of the most damning episodes in sporting history. Match-fixing probes in other sports are far more common and football, cricket, rugby, snooker et al will always be far more likely and willing victims of the bookmakers net than Formula 1. To draw a parallel, the Renault saga is comparable to the ˜bloodgate™ saga that has gripped English rugby this summer, whereby a player bit into a fake blood capsule so that he could be substituted in the final throws of an important fixture for a more able team-mate at that stage of the game. No bookmakers were involved. The club, Harlequins, simply wanted to progress in the tournament in which they were playing. Renault simply wanted to progress in the tournament in which they were playing “ the FIA Formula 1 World Championship. Neither team has been excluded from competition as a result of their actions, but those involved have been banished. It would appear that the sporting world agrees on certain aspects and has sent out a cautionary note to others who are seeking to advance through ungainly methods.

Those caught fraternising with bookmakers, however, have been shunned by the sporting world and had scorn heaped upon their personalities. Cricketers such as Cronje and the former Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin were never allowed back into the sport after either deliberately under performing themselves or preying upon vulnerable characters at their disposal to under perform. Briatore has been shown similar treatment by the FIA for encouraging one of his staff to deliberately under perform. This is where Piquet has perhaps been somewhat fortunate. He was granted immunity from punishment by the FIA in return for his total honesty, whereas Herschelle Gibbs, a young player at the time under Cronje who listened to his influential captain, was banned from plying his trade for six months. For Piquet, however, the future is very unclear. He has expressed a determination to bounce back and prove himself in Formula 1. Slots on the grid are few and far between and often teams look for a driver who is a commercially viable asset. Piquet, for now at least, is most certainly not. This coupled with some poor form behind the wheel of a Renault should ensure that he will kept away from the sport for at least the foreseeable future.

So who is the real victim in all of this? Piquet? Renault? The fans of the sport? In truth everyone has become a victim of this affair. The fans were robbed of a fair and proper result, Piquet was robbed of his innocence and Renault was robbed of its image by Briatore and Symonds. Perhaps the real winner, however, was Lewis Hamilton. Felipe Massa had his Singapore Grand Prix destroyed by the actions of Renault. Hamilton went on to be crowned 2008 World Champion by a single point. It could all have been so different¦ But this is the beauty of sport. Even when it™s predictable it™s exciting and the actions of Renault also assisted in creating one of the most wonderful and tense sporting occasions in history as Hamilton cruised past Timo Glock on the penultimate bend of the final lap of the final race at Interlagos to pip Massa to the title. It was drama until the last and the 2008 season will live long in the memory for many, many reasons.