Damon Hill has spoken out to defend Nelsinho Piquet as the Formula 1 world awaits with baited breath the pronouncement of the FIA World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) on the Renault 'Singapore-gate' scandal today - arguing that 'drivers [need] to be protected from undue pressure from their own teams'.

Piquet alleges that Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds - who last week both left their respective posts of managing director and executive director of engineering at the Enstone-based outfit - instructed him to deliberately crash out of last year's Singapore Grand Prix, the top flight's inaugural night race, to enable team-mate Fernando Alonso to triumph from a disadvantaged grid position following qualifying woes. The victory, some contend, quite likely prevented the R?gie from pulling the plug on its F1 project at season's end.

The potential ramifications from the Paris hearing extend as far as an outright exclusion from competition for Renault, and some suggest that Piquet himself should be banned for having initially gone along with the conspiracy and subsequently blowing the whistle on his former employers after he had been sacked [see separate story - click here]. Hill, however, calls for the Brazilian to be given an easier ride than has been the case of late - with the 24-year-old insisting that he felt compelled to comply with the order to save his seat.

"We have to be a bit careful, because nothing has been officially cleared up," the 1996 F1 World Champion warned, speaking exclusively to Crash.net Radio. "All we can do is sit back and watch things unfold, but it does look increasingly like [it was deliberate]. It wasn't a small accident, so if it was deliberate it was a very risky thing to do.

"Motor racing clearly is dangerous and you take risks every time you get in the car, but an enormous amount of energy and money is spent on trying to reduce risk both to the drivers and spectators, so to deliberately crash a car substantially is very disappointing to say the least. I'm absolutely staggered that a driver would even want to do that.

"Formula 1 is an extraordinary circus sometimes, though, and things change very quickly. If people feel that Piquet was put under undue pressure to do something in order to preserve his career - which is what seems to be being suggested - then he might be forgiven, being a young driver in Formula 1, although what he did was a grave mistake. I'm not forgiving or condoning that sort of behaviour or passing judgement, but if there was pressure put on him then I think people might take a slightly different view of Piquet as a driver.

"It's too early to judge that one, but I would say this - that it does point towards the need for drivers to be protected from undue pressure from their own teams. I think drivers in Formula 1 and in the sport in general need to know that they can compete and be protected from the commercial pressures, and go into the sport able to conduct themselves in the way they see fit."

Admitting to being 'surprised' that Briatore and Symonds departed the fray before the hearing - "I thought that they were going to defend themselves," he adds - Hill concurred with the general paddock consensus that there will be no way back for the former on this occasion, with the flamboyant Italian playboy having now over-stepped the mark once too often.

The 49-year-old was, however, more confident about the ongoing participation of Renault at the highest level - even if he cautioned that, following a number of serious blows to its credibility and global image in recent years, F1 has a number of bridges to rebuild.

"I think this has really ignited a lot of concern about the sport," Hill mused, "not from within so much as from outside. People really want to know there's something they can trust and there's something real in the sport, and it's absolutely right that that trust is not abused. I think this might have serious repercussions for the whole sport.

"We've had a series of incidents which some argue is good for the sport, because it creates interest and intrigue and so forth - but ultimately you have to have something at the heart of it which can be held up as being the goal, the ambition and the aspiration for everyone involved in the sport and also the fans.

"Renault have a Formula 1 team, but it is very much run as a separate entity and I would imagine that's run in trust for them with the understanding that their name and reputation is very much in the hands of those people that run the team. If the people that run the team are now leaving then that might be the end of the matter, but it's too early to say."

Something else that is 'too early to say' is in whose hands the 2009 F1 Drivers' World Championship crown is likely to end up, with Jenson Button having seemingly got his title challenge back on-track again with a strong performance to finish as runner-up to Brawn GP team-mate in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza last time out - but with four outings left to run, the 29-year-old cannot afford to rest on his laurels, countryman Hill insists.

"It's absolutely right to remember that there's a championship showdown coming up," stressed the 22-time grand prix-winner. "Anything can happen, of course, and often does, and it's going to be tight. Jenson cannot afford to slip up, but I think he's got a comfortable lead now with fewer races to come. It's still all to play for.

"I think [Button and Lewis Hamilton's success] just underlines yet again that this country represents itself on the world stage in motorsport exceptionally well - it has had a tradition of doing so for years. I just wish there was some better PR around it and that it was respected for the right reasons, because I truly believe that it is a sport and that it is a challenge which is worthy of recognition, and I truly believe that the person that wins grands prix and wins the world championship has achieved a very great height in sport. Let's hope that that is recognised and can be redeemed."



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