Flavio Briatore has brushed aside claims that Nelsinho Piquet was sacked by Renault due to a breakdown in relations between the pair – insisting the decision was based 'only on results'.
With rumours having swirled around the grand prix paddock for months, matters finally came to a head earlier this month when Piquet pre-empted his dismissal by announcing the split himself, accusing Briatore of being his 'executioner' and a man 'with no friends', who 'thinks only about money' and 'doesn't understand s**t about F1' [see separate story – click here
], and describing his stint at Renault as 'the worst period of my career'.
In the ensuing vitriolic war of words, Briatore subsequently hit back in stringently denying his former driver's contention that he was never treated equally within the team and arguing: “When a driver lacks results, he opens the book of excuses and begins. The fault is the weather, a spectator's sunglasses, a spin on the straight, this and that...”
With a new driver in the R29 for the European Grand Prix in Valencia this weekend in the shape of GP2 Series graduate Romain Grosjean, the famously outspoken Italian re-iterated his assertion that the sole factor in Piquet's departure was a lack of on-track results.
The young Brazilian had revealed that his contract stipulated he score 40 per cent of the points total of double F1 World Champion team-mate Fernando Alonso by mid-season in order to hang onto his drive, something he suggested he was never given the equipment to do. The 24-year-old failed to register so much as a single marker form ten starts, and out-qualified Alonso but once.
“For me it is only performance,” Briatore stressed, whilst refusing to comment upon whether he had any drivers under contract for next year already – remarking only that it is a 'work in progress' and quipping that 'we are just waiting for McLaren to line up their drivers and after we will decide what we're doing' – amidst continuous rumours that Alonso is Ferrari-bound in 2010.
“It was not a question of liking somebody or not liking somebody. The performance of Nelsinho was not what we expected. At the end of 2008 Nelson had three or four races that were good and there was no reason to change, but it was not only me – it was everybody that was disappointed about the 2009 results.
“It is only the result. What happens in this business is that people judge you on the result; everybody is very aware that the result is the fundamental, and we were not happy at all with the results. In the meantime, the fact that we didn't have any time to test a young driver, to see how good Romain is, there was only one way [which was] to put him in the car for the last seven races.
“It is a very strange situation at the moment in Formula 1. For a young driver it is very difficult now. We don't know how good the young drivers are as they don't have any mileage in testing, and this is something [on which] we have to work with FOTA (the Formula One Teams' Association) to put right. If not, it is very difficult for anybody to arrive in Formula 1. The only way to test is to put the driver in the car now.
“This is the reason. With seven races to go I think it was good to give the opportunity to Romain. He did very well in GP2 last year. He is very talented, so let's see. Obviously when [Lewis] Hamilton arrived from GP2 to Formula 1 his performances were completely outstanding, and we hope with Romain we have the same situation. At least we are trying.”
Renault are also clearly trying on-track too, as the fastest lap time by Alonso – a staggering eight tenths of a second out of reach of what anybody else was able to manage – at the end of the opening practice day in Valencia proved. Whilst it was a fan-pleasing performance from the Oviedo native on home turf, however, Briatore was quick to quell talk of the lap time being merely showboating to the partisan supporters – as he evoked podiums and even the top step of the podium over the remainder of the 2009 campaign.
“Like everybody, I believe, we are improving the car,” the 59-year-old explained. “We already had a good car in Budapest. Unfortunately, it was not only the tyre we had a problem with, [but also] the fuel pump. We believe we are very close, but it's very tight and it depends if you're a little bit lucky or not. We try to do our best performance here in Spain, not only because Fernando is Spanish but because the car is good, you know?
“The driver is doing the performance because he has a good car, because if the car is no good, whatever country you are in, I think the performance is not possible. Our car is pretty much in good shape at the moment, and we hope to do well here.
“We had a big step at the last race, but unfortunately we had the [wheel problem] and it was not possible for us to have a good result. We are continuing every race to add a little bit – it is not a big step every race. We have another development at the next race just for Monza, and obviously after that we are thinking about the new car and we will push very hard for 2010.
“What we are trying to do is have a podium in the next two or three races. That is our goal for this year, and maybe a victory as well. We are trying very hard to improve the car and we believe the car is much better in the last six or seven races, but for some reason we have not had any result. It is a frustrating situation, especially for the people working in the factory and for everybody at Renault, for us, for the sponsors. This is what happened this year. We are trying every race to do something, but everybody is doing the same...”
Looking to the future, finally, Briatore expressed his exasperation that – in the wake of BMW's shock withdrawal announcement late last month – people are still questioning Renault's continued commitment to the cause, with some surmising that the Régie
will be the next manufacturer to sprint for the exit door, possibly even at the end of 2009. He also re-iterated his belief that F1 needs to do more for its public, who he says have been treated pretty shabbily by the sport they love in recent years.
“I don't understand why this question is always put to Renault,” he railed against the 'quit' speculation. “Over the last five years, Renault is still racing and a lot of people are not anymore. There's no problem at all. From day one, we've never had this kind of discussion at Renault anyway. It has never happened. I don't know what will happen tomorrow. Normally we race until 2012. Why 2012? Renault wants to stay in Formula 1 for a long time. The Concorde Agreement is only signed until 2012, and then we will be looking for 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016.
“I believe the stopping of refuelling is not negative for the show. I believe it's positive as well, because it's more pleasure for the team to change tyres. Changing tyres takes between three and four seconds; now it's always seven or eight seconds because of the amount of fuel you put in the car takes that time.
“I also believe that in the last few months, few years, we have been working for stability but we never cared about the public, because in the end we never ever had a serious discussion [about how] to improve the racing. I think now is the time to sit together in FOTA to try and improve the racing. We need more energy, we need more fun, we need to change a lot.
“If you look at the last month, the only positive news has been [Michael] Schumacher coming back into Formula 1. Everybody was talking about Schumacher; it was very positive, because for the first time in the last six or eight months, we have been talking about sport. In the meantime, what we should have been doing is talking more sport and more races and more results, and not like it was before in the last period of Formula 1 – but now FOTA is together, it's a reality. When we're working together, we're working together with television, with the media, with everybody to improve their event.
“Again, when somebody has a new event, you think about the Cirque du Soleil arriving in any town and performing twice, three times a day. We arrive in one place, we perform once in five days and the rest of the time we are talking about politics in the paddock. We need to be more orientated around the race, not around politics. Now I hope all the teams will join FOTA for the future of Formula 1. The relationship with CVC is great, with Bernie [Ecclestone] and Max [Mosley] as well, so I believe that at the moment we have a strong base to think about the future of our business.
“The future of any business is coming through the consumer, and our consumer is the public, the television, it's the fans. We have [only] 50 per cent of the tickets sold here because there is no energy at the moment. We need to establish energy and the appeal of Formula 1, the image of Formula 1, but I'm pretty confident because this is something which is only possible if we do it together and everybody understands that, going in the same direction. I'm very optimistic for the future of Formula 1.”