The first heads have rolled in Formula 1's 'Singapore-gate' scandal, with Renault confirming that its F1 managing director Flavio Briatore and executive director of engineering Pat Symonds are no longer with the team – and agreeing 'not [to] dispute the recent allegations made by the FIA' regarding the top flight's inaugural night race twelve months ago.
is due to face the governing body's World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) on Monday (21 September) charged with bringing F1 into disrepute over allegations of 'race-fixing' by ordering former driver Nelsinho Piquet to crash out of last year's Singapore Grand Prix to prompt a safety car period that was instrumental in team-mate Fernando Alonso's entirely unexpected triumph in the sister R28. If found guilty, Renault could face sanctions extending as far as an outright ban from the sport, or at the very least – as McLaren-Mercedes discovered over the espionage row two years ago – a hefty fine.
'The ING Renault F1 Team will not dispute the recent allegations made by the FIA concerning the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix,' read a team statement. 'It also wishes to state that its managing director, Flavio Briatore and its executive director of engineering, Pat Symonds, have left the team.
'Before attending the hearing before the FIA World Motor Sport Council in Paris on 21 September 2009, the team will not make any further comment.'
Only hours before the announcement was made, it was being surmised in some quarters of the grand prix paddock that Renault may have to offer up Briatore as a sacrificial lamb if it was to have any chance of coming out of the WMSC reunion still with a place in F1. The FIA had accumulated a substantial degree of evidence against the flamboyant Italian, who it would appear has ultimately been unable to convince the parent company in France of his innocence.
It had been widely presumed that the governing body was gunning for Briatore's head, particularly in leaving him in an exposed position by offering immunity from prosecution to Symonds should the Englishman disclose everything he knew of the incident [see separate story – click here
] – but now both men have been led to the guillotine by their employer. A similar guarantee of protection from punishment had already been afforded to Piquet.
Further suspicions that there was no smoke without fire were aroused when Symonds refused to either answer or deny a number of key questions and allegations when interrogated by FIA investigators over the weekend of the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps – most notably regarding the issue of whether or not Piquet had indeed been instructed by both himself and Briatore to crash – ostensibly tipping the scales firmly into the 'guilty' position. The 53-year-old is described by The Times
as having left the interviews 'a broken man', facing a choice between betraying his team and saving his own skin. Now, it seems, he has opted for the neutral option.
“It certainly looks damning,” FIA President Max Mosley had acknowledged, quoted by the Daily Mail
, “but one thing I have learned is that there are always two sides to every story. We must see what evidence Renault have for us.”
Piquet's evidence, from a leaked statement that he gave to the governing body on 17 August and published by The Times
, claimed that the 2006 GP2 Series championship runner-up has been told by Symonds and Briatore to deliberately crash his car at a certain part of the circuit where, due to the lack of cranes and removing equipment, he would have the highest probability of causing a safety car period.