When news first broke at the Belgian Grand Prix that the FIA was conducting an investigation into the events at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, the initial suspicion was that this was a case of a disgruntled former employee going out for revenge.
The matter then disappeared below the radar for several days, with neither Renault nor the Piquets making any further comment about it prior to the FIA World Motor Sport Council hearing in Paris on September 21. Yet that all changed in the build-up to the Italian Grand Prix when, on the Wednesday night before the race, AUTOSPORT revealed the first details about the case – and how it revolved around a pre-race meeting between Nelson Piquet Jr., Pat Symonds and Flavio Briatore.
That story resulted in the Renault controversy building up a huge news momentum, with leaked documents, claims and counterclaims from Renault, plus numerous press briefings at Monza dominating the weekend before it was capped off with the departure of Briatore and Symonds on Tuesday this week.
With the events having moved on so quickly, we pulled together all we know so far to shed some light on the affair.
HOW DID THE AFFAIR COME TO LIGHT?
By the Hungarian Grand Prix in August, Nelson Piquet Jr. knew that his contractual situation at the team was precarious. In fact, Briatore had informed the Brazilian driver shortly after the German GP that he wanted to terminate his race contract.
Piquet's father was locked in discussions with Briatore about a way forward – with his son having failed to score the points needed to avert Renault's ability to terminate his contract.
The Piquets had headed off dismissal after the German GP because the team had not totally fulfilled contract criteria that demanded an equal car at all events - with Alonso having got some latest developments at the Nurburgring. Rather than appear depressed about the situation, however, Piquet said he was staying out of matters – leaving it all for his father.
"There was a bit of a mess at the last race, I knew there was a big chance for me to be here - there was just conflict, and contracts, and a conflict of egos between a few people. But, it ended up with everything working well," he said ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix.
"The problem is that these days a contract in F1 doesn't mean much, and we have seen several cases already of drivers and teams breaking contracts, and it just stays that way. So, the only thing I can do is drive, do my best and leave my father to do his job and see what he can do.
"I always have to try and do my best, and now that I have a better chance now that I have the same car, and not only that - but it also looks like the car is quite quick. Then it is an easier chance to show something."
Piquet's Hungarian GP was a disappointment, however. He qualified 12th, with Alonso on pole position, and came home a lowly 14th. That day, however, the wheels for the Singapore controversy were firmly set in motion. Piquet Sr. contacted FIA president Max Mosley telling him that his son wanted to make a statement concerning an incident at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix.
Arrangements were duly made, and Piquet Jr. attended a meeting in Paris on the Thursday after the Hungarian Grand Prix. It was there he revealed in sworn testimony to Alan Donnelly, the chairman of the stewards, plus an FIA external adviser from investigations agency Quest, his version of events at Singapore.
WHAT DID PIQUET CLAIM?
Once at the FIA, Piquet made it clear that his crash at the Singapore Grand Prix had been caused deliberately as the result of a plan put to him by Symonds and Briatore.
His statement said: "During the Formula 1 Grand Prix of Singapore, held on 28 September 2008 and counting towards the 2008 FIA Formula One World Championship, I was asked by Mr. Flavio Briatore, who is both my manager and the Team Principal of the ING Renault F1 Team, and by Mr. Pat Symonds, the Technical Director of the Renault F1 Team, to deliberately crash my car in order to positively influence the performance of the ING Renault F1 Team at the event in question. I agreed to this proposal and caused my car to hit a wall and crash during lap thirteen/fourteen of the race.
"The proposal to deliberately cause an accident was made to me shortly before the race took place, when I was summoned by Mr. Briatore and Mr. Symonds in Mr. Briatore's office. Mr. Symonds, in the presence of Mr. Briatore, asked me if I would be willing to sacrifice my race for the team by "causing a safety car".
"Every F1 race driver knows that the safety car is deployed on a track when there is an accident which leads to the track being blocked either by debris or a stationary car, and where it is difficult to recover a damaged car, as was the case here." Piquet said that he agreed to deliberately crash his car because he was 'in a very fragile and emotional state of mind' following difficult contract talks with Briatore.
He added: "After the meeting with Mr. Symonds and Mr. Briatore, Mr. Symonds took me aside to a quiet corner and, using a map, pointed me to the exact corner of the track where I should crash.
"This corner was selected because the specific location of the track did not have any cranes that would allow a damaged car to be swiftly lifted off the track, nor did it have any side entrances to the track, which would allow a Safety Marshall [sic] to quickly move the damaged car away from the track. Therefore, it was felt that a crash in this specific position would be nearly certain to cause an obstruction on the track which would thus necessitate the deployment of a safety car in order to allow the track to be cleared and to ensure the safe continuation of the race.
"Mr. Symonds also told me which exact lap to cause the incident upon, so that a strategy could be deployed for my teammate Mr. Fernando Alonso to refuel at the pit shortly before the deployment of the safety car, which he indeed did during lap twelve.
"The key to this strategy resided in the fact that the near-knowledge that the safety car would be deployed in lap thirteen/fourteen allowed the Team to start Mr. Alonso's car with an aggressive fuel strategy using a light car containing enough fuel to arrive at lap twelve, but not much more. This would allow Mr. Alonso to overtake as many (heavier) cars as possible, knowing that those cars would have difficulty catching up with him later in the race due to the later deployment of the safety car. This strategy was successful and Mr. Alonso won the 2008 Formula 1 Grand Prix of Singapore.
"I intentionally caused the crash by letting go of control of the car just before the relevant corner. In order to make sure I would cause the incident during the correct lap, I asked my team several times via the radio to confirm the lap number, which I would not normally do. I was not injured during the accident, nor was anyone else." Piquet said that the matter was never discussed again after the race, and claimed that Briatore had discreetly said 'thank you' that Sunday night.
He also said that he told his family friend and advisor Felipe Vargas about the incident – and Vargas told Piquet Sr.
"After the race several journalists asked questions about the accident and asked me whether I had caused it on purpose, because they felt it was 'suspicious'," added Piquet. "In my own team, the engineer of my car questioned the nature of the incident because he found it unusual, and I replied that I had lost control of the car. I believe that a clever engineer would notice from the car's telemetry that I caused the incident on purpose as I continued accelerating, whereas a 'normal' reaction would be to brake as soon as possible."
Piquet was summoned again by the FIA to provide a secondary statement with more details of the incident, to provide clearer details of the timing of events in the build-up to the grand prix - as well as confirm his view on telemetry data that had been provided by the FIA Technical Department.
He clarified that the meeting where the crash plan was discussed took place between 4pm and 5pm on race day - and that it did not last very long.
"In the course of the meeting, Briatore said very little," claimed Piquet. "As the meeting drew to a close, Mr. Symonds told me that I should not speak about the plan with anyone else and said that he would give me further instructions shortly. I believe the meeting in Mr Briatore's office lasted no more than ten minutes."
After claiming that Symonds later told him where to crash on the track, Piquet provided further evidence about how he deliberately caused the accident.
"After ensuring I was on the designated lap of the race, I deliberately lost control of my car on the exit to turn 17. I did this by pressing hard and early on the throttle.
"As I felt the back end of the car drifting out, I continued to press hard on the throttle, in the knowledge that this would lead to my car making heavy contact with the concrete wall on the far side of the track and thereby cause a crash necessitating the deployment of the safety car."
He added: "Once the back end of the car had begun to drift out, the only way of recovering control of the car and avoiding a contact with the concrete wall would have been to back off on the throttle.
"However, I did not back off the throttle to any material extent. Rather, I pressed hard on the throttle beyond the moment at which the back end started to drift out and, indeed, right up to and beyond the point of impact with the concrete wall."
Piquet's first statement
Piquet's supplementary statement
WHAT DID THE FIA DO NEXT?
Following Piquet's two statements, Mosley then requested that the three stewards at the Belgian Grand Prix – Lars Osterlind, Vassilis Despotopoulos and Yves Bacquelaine – plus FIA observer Herbie Blash, be convened to conduct further investigations. The interviews with relevant Renault staff took place on August 27 and 28, where each individual was made aware of the nature of the investigation and what the allegations were prior to be asked questions.
Fernando Alonso was interviewed first – and he claimed he knew nothing of any meetings in the build-up to the race.
In the stewards' report, they wrote this about Alonso: "Renault's strategy of fueling him short represented an aggressive strategy but one that was reflective (to him at least) of the fact that he had qualified unexpectedly low on the grid and in these circumstances he would not have benefited from adopting a strategy similar to those ahead of him. He said the question of strategy was one which he largely left to his engineers."
Straight after Alonso was interviewed, Symonds was summoned to visit the stewards to give his version of events.
Symonds accepted that he attended the meeting in Briatore's office on the race morning with Piquet and his boss. He also said that he had discussed with Piquet the possibility of a deliberate crash in the race - but then refused to provide more details on events that day. His attitude to the questioning was highlighted in the transcript provided in the stewards' report.
FIA adviser: In your own words Mr. Symonds what do you recall being said to Nelson Piquet Jr at that meeting? This is shortly before the race.
Symonds: I don't really remember it.
FIA adviser: You don't remember?
FIA adviser: Nelson Piquet Jr. says that he was asked by you to cause a deliberate crash. Is that true?
Symonds: Nelson had spoken to me the day before and suggested that. That's all I'd really like to say.
FIA adviser: Mr. Symonds, were you aware that there was going to be crash at Lap 14?
Symonds: I don't want to answer that question.
FIA adviser: There is just one thing that I ought to ask you and put it to you so you can think about it at least. Mr. Piquet Jr. says that having had the initial meeting with you and Flavio Briatore you then met him individually with the map of the circuit. Do you remember that?
Symonds: I won't answer, rather not answer that. I don't recall it but it sounds like Nelson's talked a lot more about it.
FIA adviser: Mr. Piquet Jr. also says at that meeting you pointed out a specific place on the circuit where he was to have the accident and said it was because it was the furthest away from any of the safety or lifting equipment and gave the most likely chance of a safety car being deployed.
Symonds: I don't, I don't want to answer that question.
FIA adviser: [Referring to the pre-race meeting] Was it you that did the talking at that meeting Mr. Symonds?
Symonds: I'm sure it would have been both of us but I don't know for sure. Sorry that's a contradiction. I would imagine it would be both of us that would be normal. Actually probably more often it's Flavio that does the talking himself. I wouldn't necessarily always agree with what he's saying but the majority.
FIA adviser: Because just to be absolutely clear here what Nelson Piquet Jr. has said is that at that meeting it was you that asked him to have a crash deliberately?
Symonds: I can't answer you.
FIA adviser: Can I say that if Mr. Symonds you'd been put in the position where you were made to ask Mr. Piquet Jnr to crash it's much better, it would be much better for you in the long term to tell these stewards to hear that today?
Symonds: I fully understand that.
FIA adviser: Yes.
Symonds: I have no intention of lying to you. I have not lied to you but I have reserved my position just a little.
FIA adviser: And you're aware that the stewards may draw conclusions from your unwillingness to assist them in relation to what went on in that meeting?
Symonds: I would expect them to. I would absolutely expect that.
FIA adviser: I think I haven't got any further questions.
On the basis of that interview, the stewards came to the conclusion that there had been a discussion about the crash, and that "at the short meeting thereafter, Mr. Symonds had indeed indicated to NPJ [Piquet Jr] on what lap - and where on the circuit - he ought to crash in order to ensure that the safety car was deployed to the benefit of Mr Alonso."
"The stewards note," added their statement, "that had there been no substance to the allegations made by NPJ and put to Mr. Symonds, it would have been straightforward for Mr. Symonds to deny them."
Other more junior Renault engineers were interviewed to find out what they knew about the crash plan and, if they knew nothing, to explain the reasoning behind the unusual decision to only fuel Alonso to lap 14 of the race – as was his original strategy.
Following their conversations, the stewards concluded: "Renault believed it had nothing to lose in taking an aggressive approach. The other engineers also commented that the softer, option tires had been shown in practice to be good off the start but susceptible to rapid degradation and graining.
"This being the case, there had also been tire-related reasons to fuel Alonso light and get the weaker option tires out of the way on a comparatively short first stint."
It was also revealed that Piquet had been approached after the race by an engineer to ask if it had been deliberate.
"One engineer had put the evidence to NPJ shortly after the crash and asked whether the crash had been deliberate. NPJ had refuted that suggestion.
"On balance, the stewards have no reason to believe that the other engineers were aware in advance of the race of the alleged plan to cause a deliberate crash at Turn 17 on lap 14."
The stewards' report in full
Briatore was interviewed on the Friday morning at Spa. By that stage he was aware of the investigation into the events at Singapore, and he provided the stewards with a letter that he had written to Nelson Piquet's father on July 28 in which he accused the Brazilian of extortion relating to the crash claims.
"You can easily imagine that I can certainly not accept your contention that the Renault Team, myself, and your son entered into some sort of conspiracy that would not only have an impact on the result of the competition, but actually, that may put at risk the safety of all the contenders in the Grand Prix just to have Fernando Alonso obtaining a racing advantage," wrote Briatore.
"I am outraged that you could think that I myself, not mentioning your son and the other people in the Renault's Team, could have any part in such a strategy that may constitute a criminal offense.
"Secondly, I am forced to consider that your threat constitutes without doubt a blatant attempt of exerting blackmail against Renault F1 and myself to extort an illegitimate advantage by way of threats and outrageous lies on the basis of an alleged hearsay."
Briatore's letter to Piquet Sr
During the stewards' interview, Briatore revealed details about Piquet's contractual situation at the time of the Singapore GP - saying he had no offer for 2009 at that point, and the matter was not resolved until the Brazilian GP in November - albeit with a salary cut from $1.5 million to $1 million.
Briatore claimed that if the crash had been done deliberately it would have resulted in a better contract for him for 2009, not worse.
Furthermore, he told the stewards the crash had not been deliberate and had not been part of a plan. He said the pre-race meeting was not called to discuss a crash plan, but instead to encourage Piquet to focus on the race instead of his recent contract negotiations. He also denied knowledge that he said "thank you" to Piquet after the race, but then later admitted he may have said it, "as a joke, maybe."
A brief excerpt of Briatore's comments were provided by the stewards: "I never talk with Nelsinho. I never talk about to crashing the car, he's never coming to me tell me, 'Flavio Jesus Christ I crash the car, you won the race, can you renew my contract?' You know if somebody do you a favour like that I just you renew the contract."
WHY RADIO AND TELEMETRY EVIDENCE WAS IMPORTANT
The matter that shifted the Singapore case away from simply being one man's word against another's was the telemetry evidence.
The data, republished here, shows how after a brief hesitant back-off as he experienced wheel spin coming out of the corner, Piquet floored the throttle until he smashed into the wall at Turn 17. This compares with Alonso's very different approach to the corner.
Telemetry from the FIA dossier:
Piquet's Wheelspin Alonso's Wheelspin Piquet's Throttle
Piquet's Throttle Detail Piquet's Gyro
This evidence proved almost conclusively that Piquet had crashed deliberately – and even Symonds admitted in his interview with the stewards that the Brazilian's behavior had looked "unusual."
He told the stewards: "I'm not sure I've ever seen a deliberate crash so I [sic], it's very unusual data...when he has that much wheelspin it's counter-intuitive."
During the time of the interviews the stewards had not had a copy of the radio transcripts of the race – which also show some debate on the pit wall about pitting Alonso so early.
Read the full radio transcript
The stewards deemed that the radio traffic showed the race engineers were not aware of the crash plan, and they said: "It appears to the Stewards that Mr. Symonds' interventions could be interpreted as reflective of knowledge on his part that a safety car would be deployed on lap 14."
With the evidence having mounted up, it was clear that there was definitely a case to be answered.
WHAT REMAINS UNANSWERED?
While the departure of Symonds and Briatore from Renault points towards guilt regarding their involvement in the crash plans, there are still some holes in exactly what took place over the Singapore Grand Prix weekend.
In particular, Symonds was adamant in his interview with the stewards that the idea for the crash had come from Piquet – and not from himself or Briatore.
"Mr. Symonds said that it was NPJ who first suggested that a deliberate crash could be caused," he said. "The Stewards have not been able to put that allegation to NPJ prior to producing this report. Mr. Symonds declined to give any more detail on this subject, either at interview on 27 or on 28 August."
With neither Symonds nor Briatore now expected to appear at Monday's FIA hearing, it may well come down to Piquet to explain where the first idea for the crash came from.
The other intriguing aspect is how much Alonso knew – either before or after the race – about the events that took place. The FIA investigations suggest that he was totally in the dark about what Symonds, Briatore and Piquet had agreed, yet there have to be some doubts as to why he would accept such a radical strategy before the event – and, for someone of his intelligence, would not have quietly questioned the perfect timing of Piquet's crash afterwards.
The affair now moves to Paris, where the members of the WMSC will decide what punishment the Renault team must face for its involvement in the matter – before the team heads to Singapore for what will be an interesting return to the scene of the crime.