RENAULT’S future in Formula One hangs in the balance ahead of today’s extraordinary meeting of the World Motor Sport Council into the circumstances surrounding Nelson Piquet Jr’s crash during last year’s Singapore Grand Prix.
The team have already confirmed they will not dispute the charge of conspiring with Piquet Jr to cause a crash and that should work in their favour when it comes to the 26 members of the Council – motorsport’s most powerful body that includes FIA president Max Mosley and Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone – debating what sanction to impose.
When the WMSC hammered McLaren with a £50 million (€55m) fine and stripped the team of all constructors’ points for 2007 over the ‘spygate’ affair, the penalty was severe because the team had been found to have deliberately lied.
The departures from Renault of Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds as team principal and executive director respectively will also aid the team’s cause as the two men were pivotal to what unfolded on September 28, 2008.
Piquet Jr claims in sworn statements to the FIA that he was ordered to crash his car in a meeting with Briatore and Symonds a few hours prior to the sport’s first night race to aid the cause of team-mate Fernando Alonso.
In an allegedly separate briefing that followed shortly after, the 24-year-old states Symonds showed him a map of the circuit and told him at which point to crash.
With Alonso fuelled aggressively to take advantage of an early safety car incident, Piquet Jr spun into a concrete wall at turn 17 of lap 14, two laps after Alonso had made his first pit stop.
The safety car was duly forced into play as the accident occurred on a part of the track where no crane was on hand to winch away the Brazilian’s wrecked Renault.
Although the race still had 47 laps to run, the crash played into Alonso’s hands as the double world champion went on to win to give the team their first victory for almost two years at a time when there were strong rumours they were considering quitting the sport.
Piquet Jr’s father, three-times world champion Nelson Piquet Sr, claims he told race director Charlie Whiting of the plot at the end of last season.
However, with his son’s career in the balance and knowing he would have to give evidence, Piquet Sr opted not to take the matter any further until late July this year.
That is when, with Renault preparing to fire the Brazilian after his failure to score a point in 10 grands prix, Piquet Sr turned whistleblower and informed Mosley, sparking an investigation that involved members of the Quest agency.
Although Renault have acted, and effectively admitted the charge, the Council will take into account the grave nature of the offence, one Mosley has already noted is far more serious than ‘spygate’ as other drivers, marshals and spectators could have been hurt.
The Council have the power to permanently exclude Renault from the championship, although such a penalty will not be imposed in this case.
However, a fine such as that received by McLaren could force their hand and drive them out of F1 at a time when the car industry is still coping with the effects of the global recession.
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