Bernie Ecclestone has courted further controversy by suggesting that the effective 'lifetime' ban handed down to disgraced former Renault F1 managing director Flavio Briatore for his leading role in the 'Singapore-gate' saga that has rocked the sport in recent weeks was a heavier sentence than that received by killers.
Ecclestone found himself under fire for his previous contention that Briatore had been penalised too harshly for having instructed Nelsinho Piquet to deliberately crash out of the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix in order to prompt a safety car period that allowed team-mate Fernando Alonso to triumph in the top flight's inaugural night race from a disadvantaged grid position. Now, it seems his latest remarks may also prove the catalyst for a media furore.
“He deserves a punishment, no doubt,” the Formula One Management (FOM) chief executive told German magazine Auto Motor und Sport
. “What I did not like was the term 'lifetime'. Not even if you kill someone today do you get life in prison. Fifty years would have sounded better; for Flavio that would have meant life.”
Ecclestone was similarly outspoken in revealing his 'surprise' that Piquet – who is now searching for a way to re-launch a career that he admits has been set right back to square one – felt so pressurised to go along with the conspiracy, which the young Brazilian subsequently blew the whistle on in denouncing his former employers to the FIA following his brusque mid-season dismissal back in the summer.
When pressed about whether – in the wake of both Singapore-gate and reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton infamously being caught lying to Australian Grand Prix stewards in Melbourne following the 2009 curtain-raiser Down Under – F1 drivers have become puppets of their teams, the sport's commercial rights-holder suggested that the recent scandals are merely a sign of the ever-changing times in which we live.
“There was an agreement and both drivers were under pressure,” he reasoned, “and they did what was asked of them. That is not to be compared with [what happened in] former times. At that time there was not the same pressure to win. If someone wanted to win back then, they would perhaps just cut a corner.
“In any sport people have always gone to the limit or even beyond to be successful. I am convinced that there are many more cases that have never been discovered, because the culprits have never been caught. This is not an F1-specific problem.
“What happened in F1 happens everywhere in life. Has it harmed F1? I don't know. The McLaren case (2007's spy row) was industrial espionage. It's quite possible that we have had such a case before, but no-one noticed it. It is only a case if it is blown up; then the affair is at the centre of attention.
“The FIA has a duty to react to police our sport, because it is unfair competition – and they must make judgments. They are perhaps not always comprehensible, but that is the nature of the beast. In football, the referee is the whipping boy. Sometimes he sends a player off, and when he later looks at the case, he regrets it.”
Ecclestone was asked, finally, about the decision made by both title sponsor ING and fellow backer Mutua Madrilena to desert Renault with immediate effect on the eve of the 2009 Singapore Grand Prix, ostensibly in a kneejerk reaction to the controversy. F1's supremo argues that the move was ill thought-out.
“I think that was an overreaction,” the 78-year-old asserted. “Their contracts expired at the end of the year anyway – that was as long as they had to wait. I would draw no conclusions about it from the reactions of the fans. Sure, we have read some critical comments from viewers, but do these individual opinions accurately represent the hundreds of millions of TV viewers that we have? I would not say that the incident led to fans losing interest in F1.”