He may have been described as 'unemployable' by BBC F1
commentator Martin Brundle, but Nelsinho Piquet remains 'a great driver' with 'a huge talent', argues the Briton's former Formula 1 team-mate Mark Blundell as D-Day approaches in the Renault 'Singapore-gate' scandal.
On Monday (21 September), the FIA World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) will hear evidence as it endeavours to deliver a verdict on whether or not the French manufacturer is guilty of the charge of which it stands accused – instructing Piquet to deliberately crash out of the sport's inaugural night race just under a year ago to enable team-mate Fernando Alonso to triumph from a disadvantaged grid slot following engine woes in qualifying.
Should Renault indeed be deemed to have conspired to manipulate the outcome of the grand prix, the potential ramifications range as far as expulsion from the world championship altogether – and Blundell admits the whole situation is baffling and unlike anything he has ever come across before.
“Until we understand what the facts are from both sides, it's difficult to make an assessment,” he reflected, speaking exclusively to Crash.net Radio
, “but it's difficult also when you see two key people leave the team before the hearing. At this point, it doesn't look very good for Renault. It's such a big accusation being made, and the outcome of it is going to be pretty dramatic. Whether there's any factual truth to it or not we'll have to wait and see, but as things progress I'm sure the truth will come out.
“I hope it's not as bad as what people think, and I hope the perception of Formula 1 isn't dented too much – because at this time, we really don't need that kind of thing. F1 in general over the last couple of years has taken a beating, and we need to make sure we get on top of that and that everyone watches it for the right reasons – and the right reasons are that we see outstanding racing on Sunday afternoons. As soon as we can get back to that, all the better.”
The 'two key people' to whom Blundell alludes are, of course, Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds, both of whom parted company with Renault earlier in the week, leaving the Enstone-based outfit heading back to Singapore next weekend without a managing director or executive director of engineering. The former Brabham, Ligier, Tyrrell and McLaren star confessed that their departure – either jumping or being pushed before the time comes to face the music in front of the WMSC – was not what he had been expecting.
“It does surprise me,” the Englishman revealed, “because immediately it signals that there's an element of guilt there. We have to be careful and see what the facts are, but it is quite difficult to understand why they've walked out of the situation and not put themselves in a position to be questioned on it. We've seen certain individuals in the past – Mike Coughlan, Nigel Stepney – be reprimanded for things that have gone on, and maybe that might be the case with these guys, but this is a whole different ball game. Let's wait and see what happens from the hearing; maybe we'll understand more next week.
“At the end of the day the charge is against the Renault team. Obviously key people were instrumental in what went on there on a day-to-day basis; whether they were instrumental in what's been said from Nelson Piquet Jnr and whether that accusation is true or not, we're yet to really find out. That's what everyone's waiting for, the challenging question – was it true or was it not?”
That is, indeed, the crux of the matter, and if it does transpire to be true, the secondary question arises as to why Piquet actually went ahead and complied with his employers' demands, knowing that to do so would endanger lives – not least his own.
“That's very difficult to swallow,” Blundell opined. “You can't just go and crash a Formula 1 car; if you sit yourself in a road car and point at a wall and say 'right, I'm going to drive into it', there's something called self-preservation built into you so that you don't actually do it. It's not an easy thing to do, so I'm yet to be convinced on both sides of the story.
“I think it's very difficult for Nelson Piquet Jnr, because many people will be wary of what might go on if things don't go according to plan as he sees them. We'll see. He's still a great driver, he has a huge talent – untapped in many ways – and we don't really understand what the pressures were that he was driving under. Saying that, to follow through on something like that, if that is the case – and I stress we're still yet to see whether it is the case – is quite difficult to understand.”
The 43-year-old acknowledged that the outcome of the WMSC reunion could also be pivotal to Renault's future and ongoing commitment to F1, with many musing that the Régie
barely needs an excuse to walk away from competition – but if the team does remain, Blundell poured cold water on the notion of Prodrive chairman David Richards stepping into Briatore's shoes at its helm.
“Difficult to understand why that would happen,” he pondered, “but nothing ever surprises me in the world of Formula 1. Commercially it just wouldn't stack up in my mind, but then who am I to say? As I say, Formula 1 is a world unto itself, so let's see what happens.”
Turning his attentions back towards the on-track action, finally, Blundell concluded that he would 'love to see Jenson Button win' the world championship to make it back-to-back British drivers' titles at the highest level – refuting the suggestion that his compatriot has suffered from nerves and failed to cope well with the pressure of leading the standings over the summer and stressing that the Brawn GP ace remains firmly in pole position to clinch the coveted crown at season's end.
“It would be great to have a UK champion following on from Lewis Hamilton's victorious world championship last year,” he underlined. “I really do hope that will be the case, but there's a long way to go yet. There are still a few races and they're key races. As we are at this point, Rubens Barrichello is the biggest opposition to Jenson; they're both in the same machinery and anything can happen.
“I don't think Jenson quite got everything together as he wanted it [during the summer], and he's one of those guys who looks like he needs everything in-place to turn in the ultimate result. Once he gets back to that, you'll probably see Jenson winning another grand prix before the season is out, but he's doing a great job at the moment – he keeps knocking in the points – and that's all that matters.
“Unless something significant happens with Brawn, then Red Bull probably are out of the title chase, but I cannot emphasise to you more that anything can happen in F1. You can't put anything in writing now, because come the end of the season there will be a whole different thing to talk about.”
As to reigning champion Hamilton, finally – the man who is now certain to relinquish his title come Abu Dhabi at the beginning of November – Blundell was unequivocal, recognising that McLaren-Mercedes' talisman driver has endured far from the easiest of years, but convinced that it has only strengthened him and that the 24-year-old will bounce back in style.
“It's been a character-building year and he's had his ups and his downs,” reflected the former ITV-F1
pundit, “but he's come out the other end of it and is showing us still what he can do behind the wheel of a racing car, and that's the main thing. There are more world championships left in Lewis Hamilton.”TO LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW IN FULL: CLICK HERE