When Nelson Piquet was sacked by Renault's Formula One team last month, many predicted that it would not be the end of the story, a bitter saga that had rumbled on almost since the Brazilian arrived in F1 at the beginning of 2008.
Immediately it was evident that Piquet was not on the pace of his teammate, double world champion Fernando Alonso, and rumours were rife as early as April that his seat could be in danger. In the end it took until July of this year for Piquet to finally be dropped, after ten races in which he had scored not a single point.
Piquet's retention for 2009 was a surprise to some, after a year in which he had almost consistently failed to impress. He lucked into a podium at the German Grand Prix, but other than that had little to show for what was a disappointing season for the French team as a whole.
Come the Singapore Grand Prix, however, all that changed. Alonso looked set for an excellent grid position until a mechanical failure in qualifying confined him to 15th on the grid.
On a street circuit such as Singapore, with limited overtaking opportunity, it was perhaps expected that Renault would fill Alonso's car to the brim with fuel, in the hope that a long pit strategy would gain him a few positions. Instead, technical director Pat Symonds tried something radical—fuelling Alonso light for a three-stop strategy, in the hope that his nimbler car could make up places on track rather than in the pits.
After the first 12 laps of F1's inaugural night race, it looked as though the strategy had failed. Alonso had made up a few places on the first lap, but was set to lose them all as he approached the pit lane.
Two laps after Alonso stopped, however, teammate Piquet spun and crashed into the wall, bringing out the safety car. The instant closure of the pit lane meant that everyone had to circulate slowly for a few laps before being allowed to refuel, and brought Alonso right into contention as he rose to the head of the field.
In the end the Spaniard won the Singapore Grand Prix, ahead of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. Some questions were asked about the convenient timing of Piquet's crash, but most credible sources were willing to give Renault the benefit of the doubt. As the eminent F1 journalist Joe Saward said, it was hardly a stretch of the imagination to conclude that Piquet had made a genuine error, such was his reputation.
Piquet bounced back from his disappointing—though ultimately fortunate—Singapore exit to score fourth place in the next race in Japan, Alonso winning again, this time without the help of the safety car. And despite lacklustre showings in the last two races of the season—not making it beyond the first lap in his home race in Brazil—Piquet was retained for 2009.
However, this year was far from a fairytale for Piquet and he fell out of favour at Renault. After his exit from the team he began almost immediately to criticise his handling by top Renault figures, describing team principal Flavio Briatore as his "executioner."
Now, during the broadcast of the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, Brazilian TV network Globo reported that evidence had come to light suggesting that Piquet was ordered by Renault to crash in Singapore, thus helping Alonso to win the race. It is not hard to imagine where this evidence has come from.
Already reports have surfaced that the FIA may investigate the allegations, and if they are found to be grounded in reality the punishment for Renault could be extremely severe.
It is almost certain that Renault would be hauled over the coals in violation of Article 151(c) of the International Sporting Code, which concerns the bringing of motorsport into disrepute. McLaren were found guilty of violating this rule in 2007, and received a record $100 million fine as well as exclusion from the Constructors' Championship of that year.
Renault's future participation in F1 has been in doubt for several years, and rumours earlier this season suggested that the manufacturer was looking to sell the team to Briatore himself. A very public beating at the hands of the FIA would all but seal this decision for the French outfit.
At present it is difficult to know what action the FIA would take. Altering the results of a 2008 race so long after the event would be extremely problematic—Nico Rosberg might take his first victory, but it would be far from an ideal one.
Furthermore it is arguable that Piquet's accident triggered almost the entire field to pit under the safety car, and under this high-pressure environment the mistake was made at Ferrari that caused Felipe Massa to leave his pit box with his fuel hose still attached. The points lost by Massa that evening would prove to cost him the world championship. The situation, therefore, is much more complicated than a simple case of Renault unfairly gaining an advantage—lots of other people were affected by their alleged race-fixing, too.
Even simply declaring the results null and void, if such a thing is possible, would dramatically alter the shape of the 2008 world championship and award the title to Massa, Hamilton losing the six points he gained for third in that race.
In all probability, however, such drastic measures will not be taken, and an alternative solution will be found. Nonetheless, if these allegations are proven to be true, Renault face a very uncomfortable end to the season.
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