Renault could leave Formula 1 over the highly damaging 'race fix' cheating row that has plunged the top flight into fresh controversy as the 2009 season approaches its conclusion - that is the fear of the sport's influential ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone.

The FIA revealed at the weekend that 'an investigation is underway regarding alleged events at a previous world championship event' [see separate story - click here], with the strong paddock belief that - although unconfirmed by the governing body - the 'event' in question is the inaugural, floodlit Singapore Grand Prix last year, won by double F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso from 15th on the grid, following a timely safety car intervention brought out for a hefty crash involving his then Renault team-mate Nelsinho Piquet which had scattered debris across the track.

At the time, the Brazilian had claimed: "It was my mistake. We tried two extreme strategies with Fernando quite short and me quite long in the hope of getting a safety car. If I hadn't crashed, I would have been lucky with the safety car later in the race. We're always scraping the walls, and once you've touched the wall a little too much and lose control, that's it."

Alonso himself admitted that victory had 'seemed to be impossible' after an engine failure had dashed his hopes of a strong run in qualifying, and confessed that 'the first safety car helped me a lot'. Piquet crashed into the Marina Bay street circuit's unforgiving barriers just two laps after Alonso had made an unusually early first pit-stop, sending all of the Spaniard's rivals diving for the pits themselves as every other team had to suddenly and swiftly re-calculate their strategies - and vaulting the Oviedo native into the lead, from where he would never look back.

Now, however, Brazilian TV station Globo has reported that new evidence has come to light to the effect that the circumstances might not have been entirely coincidental, with suggestions that Piquet might have been ordered to crash by his team so that Alonso could take full advantage of his early first stop and take the pressure off a team desperate for results to justify its continued F1 presence. The son of former three-time world champion Nelson Piquet was sacked by the R?gie last month, prompting a vitriolic war of words in the media with Renault F1 managing director Flavio Briatore [see separate story - click here].

Claims that Renault could be the next manufacturer to quit F1 on the heels of Honda and now BMW have dogged the French marque for some time, and though Briatore has stringently and repeatedly denied them, Ecclestone fears this latest 'revelation' could be the straw that potentially breaks the camel's back for the company's board of directors, who were allegedly close to pulling the plug last year until Alonso's late-season victories in Singapore and Japan re-established the Enstone-based outfit's credibility. This year the team's best finish to-date has been just fifth.

"This is not the sort of thing we need at the moment," Formula One Management (FOM) chief executive Ecclestone told British newspaper The Times, adding that his QPR co-owner Briatore is 'well-and-truly upset' by the scandal. "I think it will p*ss off Renault for a start. Them leaving the sport is a danger, obviously. I mean, I hope that it isn't like that, but it's the sort of thing that might happen.

"What I know, I can't say, to be honest with you. All I know is that Flavio is insisting that he knows nothing about it. I think the FIA are looking into everything. They are trying to find out the reality. I suppose they would be upset if they found out that what people are assuming is true, is in fact true."

"It is not good for the sport," the 78-year-old went on, speaking to the Daily Mail. "It all seems very strange to me, but I do not know the truth. You hear of these things happening with jockeys and in football and it has led to all sorts of trouble. People seem to be spending money betting on F1 which is good, but they will not want to do that if they think something is wrong with the result."

It is not known how the new evidence has been unearthed, though the Mail reports that it came from Piquet and his father following the former's dismissal by Renault. Ecclestone contends that if the 24-year-old was the whistle-blower, it would likely signal the end of his hopes of returning to the grand prix grid one day. It has been noted that had Piquet's intention been to bring out the safety car, he need only have lightly tapped the barrier or even more simply blocked the race track, as Michael Schumacher so controversially did in qualifying at Monaco in 2005.

Whilst Renault refused to comment on the allegations, it is clear that Briatore's job is on the line, and if the FIA believes there is some substance behind the claims or genuine signs of foul play, it could call Renault before a meeting of the World Motor Sport Council (WMSC). If found guilty, a significant fine or even expulsion could be on the cards - and if Alonso was in on the alleged 'fix', the 21-time grand prix-winner could face hefty sanctions too.

Ferrari found itself accused of deliberately manipulating the result of the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix at the A1-Ring, when Rubens Barrichello was instructed by the Scuderia,/i> to move over for team-mate Michael Schumacher in the closing stages, and did so literally in sight of the chequered flag, embarrassing all concerned and bringing the sport into disrepute. That incident led to team orders being banned from F1, but if Piquet's accident does transpire to have been deliberately engineered, the Singapore incident is far more serious given the risk of injury to the driver, marshals and spectators from flying debris.

The latest blow to F1's credibility comes off the back of the McLaren-Mercedes 'Spygate' saga in 2007 and Melbourne 'lies' controversy earlier this year, both of which left the sport's reputation reeling.


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