The Contrarian: FIA Got Renault's Punishment Right

Dave HarrisCorrespondent ISeptember 23, 2009

VALENCIA, SPAIN - AUGUST 24:  Nelson Piquet Jnr of Brazil and Renault and David Coulthard of Great Britain and Red Bull Racing in action during the European Formula One Grand Prix at the Valencia Street Circuit on August 24, 2008, in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

At the FIA hearing into the alleged race-fixing incident at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, where it was found that—on the orders of his Team Principal, Flavio Briatore, and Chief Engineer, Pat Symonds—Nelson Piquet, Jr. deliberately crashed in order to generate a Safety Car period that benefited his teammate Fernando Alonso, who went on to win the race.

The result of the hearing was that Briatore and Symonds were banned from appearing at FIA-sanctioned events indefinitely and for five years respectively, and the Renault F1 Team was given a ban from Formula 1, suspended for two years.

Many commentators have derided the penalty imposed on Renault as being a mere slap on the wrist and compared it with the sanctions that McLaren had imposed on them following a hearing into industrial espionage that included a fine of $100 million. 

They suggested that a similar penalty should have been imposed on Renault, as the severity of the infringement was much worse, and included compromising the safety of Piquet, other drivers, and track workers by deliberately causing an accident.  Among them is Damon Hill, who described the outcome as “a crying shame for the sport” and implied that there were political motivations for lenient treatment of Renault.

Yet, imposing a severe penalty on Renault would have been wrong for several reasons.

Firstly, there was no evidence that the wider team were aware of the plan hatched between Briatore, Symonds and Piquet.  One other person, known as “Witness X” according to the BBC Sport website, was present when the possibility and details were mooted.

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Radio communications between team members during the race (as published in Autosport, 10th Sept.) show that the call to bring Alonso in early was a surprise to the pit crew, and Alonso’s chief mechanic questioned Symonds on the strategy.  After the verdict was announced, and in response to the apparent leniency afforded Renault, Max Mosley noted that “because Renault have demonstrated that they had absolutely no moral responsibility for what took place it would be wrong in the circumstances to impose an immediate penalty."

Secondly, even though the FIA hearing found that Renault were not specifically responsible for the incident, and that it was limited to a very small group of employees, the suspended ban sends a very clear and legal message to the team that no matter whether a link to the wider team can be found, should something similar happen in future the ban would take immediate effect.  This links Renault’s liability into ensuring there is no recurrence.

Renault themselves issued a statement saying that "Renault F1 had no reason to believe that the conspirators were capable of this kind of behaviour. Clearly the conspirators acted against the interests of Renault F1 and the sport generally.

"If they had applied their minds to their actions, they could not have thought that their actions benefited Renault F1. The acts of the conspirators were so outside what they were employed to do and so contrary to Renault F1's interests, they ought not to be attributed to Renault F1. This is truly a case where the conspirators were on a frolic of their own."

There are therefore clear legal grounds to ensure that any penalty can be proven to be proportionate to the people on whom that penalty is imposed, and the FIA’s decision meets that criterion.

There are also pragmatic reasons for not immediately implementing a ban on Renault—given the negative publicity, there are already rumours that the team would be withdrawing from the sport, and with doubts hanging over Toyota’s long-term involvement and BMW pulling out maintaining such a high profile manufacturer is key to the development of the sport, especially since it is a company that supplies engines to other teams.

Similarly, reviewing the result of the race would be detrimental to other teams as well—how would you account for Felipe Massa’s pit mishap that cost him a points finish? 

If you annulled the result of the race that would change the World Championship picture, handing the title to Massa—given the already mounting perception issues with F1 that have emerged in recent years, would the FIA really want to overturn the result of last year’s World Championship?  Indeed, there is a precedent to set there, with Michael Schumacher’s points being annulled in 1997 after his deliberate collision with Jacques Villeneuve at Jerez, but no other changes to points awarded as a result (and Schumacher kept his wins that season).

So, why should Renault be penalised any further?  Clearly the evidence shows no link between Renault and culpability in the conspiracy.  No.  The FIA have provided an appropriate level of sanction for the offense, and hit hardest those—Briatore and Symonds—who are primarily the culprits.

That is justice.