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Briatore and Symonds to face criminal charges?

17 September 2009

As the dust begins to settle from yesterday's bombshell that Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds have left their posts as respectively managing director and executive director of engineering at Renault F1 over the 'Singapore-gate' scandal, it is being debated whether the pair could now face criminal charges for endangering lives.

The French outfit is due to appear before the FIA World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) in Paris on 21 September charged with bringing the sport into disrepute by having committed 'a breach of Article 151c of the International Sporting Code, that the team conspired with its driver, Nelson Piquet Jr, to cause a deliberate crash at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix with the aim of causing the deployment of the safety car to the advantage of its other driver, Fernando Alonso'.

At the same time as it confirmed that its two key members had parted company with the team [see separate story – click here], Renault admitted that it 'will not dispute the recent allegations' of race-fixing, which some have interpreted as being tantamount to a confession of guilt. It is being surmised that the departure of Briatore and Symonds – who Piquet asserts instructed him to deliberately crash during Formula 1's inaugural night race just under twelve months ago, thereby necessitating a safety car period that allowed then team-mate Fernando Alonso to triumph from a disadvantaged grid position – was an offer of 'heads on the block' to the governing body in a bid to mitigate any punishment that might be meted out on Monday.

The sanctions open to the WMSC extend as far as full-scale expulsion from the sport, and FIA President Max Mosley – who will chair the reunion – has revealed that the evidence in this case is even more damning and serious than that against McLaren-Mercedes during the 2007 espionage controversy, that saw the Woking-based operation fined a sporting record £100 million and disqualified from that year's constructors' championship. As many as 700 employees stand to lose their jobs should Renault F1 be thrown out of competition.

Despite their split with the team, things look likely to be far from straightforward for Briatore and Symonds either. The former has himself initiated legal proceedings against Piquet and his father Nelson Piquet for what he claims were 'false allegations' against him and attempted blackmail to ensure that the young Brazilian kept his seat at the Enstone-based concern for the remainder of the 2009 campaign. The 24-year-old was unceremoniously sacked by Briatore in late July, prompting a bitterly vitriolic war of words between the two in the media spotlight.

Now, though, there are suggestions that both Briatore and Symonds may find themselves having to fend off a three-pronged legal attack. According to British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, Singapore could request extradition from a Commonwealth country should it consider the plot to have been an 'extradition crime', a category that includes 'acts done with the intention of endangering vehicles, vessels or aircraft' or 'malicious or wilful damage to property'. Though Piquet emerged thankfully unscathed from his hefty impact with the Marina Bay street circuit's concrete wall, the potential for injury or even worse – to driver or spectators – has not gone un-noted.

There are also possible litigious cases from Renault – for dragging the company's global name and image so publicly through the mud – and Ferrari. Felipe Massa had been leading the race when his compatriot Piquet crashed, but following the safety car intervention and a botched pit-stop, the São Paulista went on to take the chequered flag outside the points in 13th, before ultimately missing out on the drivers' world championship crown to McLaren rival Lewis Hamilton by just a single marker in the final reckoning.

“There is a clear causal link between the alleged cheating and the financial loss to Massa and his team,” reasoned specialist sports lawyer Stephen Hornsby. “As for Renault suing Briatore, that is possible too – but Renault are unlikely to want to keep the matter going for little reward.”

Meanwhile, F1's leading figures have been offering their views on the saga, with an overwhelming sentiment of shock that events have taken the turn that they have.

“I feel sorry for him actually,” Formula One Management (FOM) commercial rights chief executive Bernie Ecclestone told the BBC of his Queens Park Rangers co-director Briatore. “Obviously, I am surprised at what has happened, and I am taken by surprise that they've decided to walk away.”

“There is something fundamentally rotten at the heart of Formula 1,” three-time world champion Sir Jackie Stewart told the Daily Mirror. “Millions of fans are amazed, if not disgusted, at a sport which now goes from crisis to crisis with everyone blaming everyone else.”

“Suggesting they are not going to contest the allegations is in itself an admission,” opined BBC F1 pundit and former team owner Eddie Jordan. “I don't know what goes on in teams, and certainly in the Jordan team you would contemplate all sorts of things, but you certainly couldn't contemplate that.”

“The fact that Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds have left the team was the only solution to Renault,” added five-time grand prix-winner John Watson, speaking to the Daily Mail. “A company on the scale of Renault – a world-scale motor company – could not afford to have a scandal of this magnitude rattling around in the boardroom.

“There's no question about 'did they jump?' They were clearly pushed out – but had they not dropped Piquet, we would not know about this story. The integrity of that family is called into dispute.”


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