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Crashgate: The Taint Upon 2008

Written by Sasha Macmillen, Edited by Harshi Vashee

Fernando Alonso has always maintained a reputation as a divisive character within the F1 community, as a driver especially prone to radio outbursts, chiefly during the McLaren-Honda era, as well as never being afraid to voice his true opinion in full. A few weeks ago, I covered the 2007 Spygate controversy and the impact that it made upon Fernando Alonso's reputation and his career. Now, I'm going to discuss an equally interesting case study in Crashgate, which surrounds the events of the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, a race in which Alonso found himself the winner.

The Renault F1 Team had won consecutive championships, in 2005 and 2006, with Fernando Alonso taking the drivers' crown in both years. However 2007 saw a sharp decline, failing to win a race and slipping to a distant third in the constructors' championship, baring in mind that McLaren were excluded from the standings. 2008 had been a huge struggle, with only one podium in the first 15 races, a far cry from the recent successes of the mid 2000s. Rumours were circulating that Renault were growing increasingly frustrated with their struggles and were considering quitting the sport. At the time, Fernando Alonso's teammate was Nelson Piquet Jr. Pat Symonds was the Executive Director of Engineering at Renault and Flavio Briatore, a close friend of Alonso's, was Managing Director of the team.

Fernando Alonso and Flavio Briatore on the Monaco podium together in 2006 (Image: Getty Images)

As Formula One rolled into Singapore, Renault were in desperate need to turn a corner. Four races remained in the season and the team were languishing down in fifth place, tied with Toyota, yet a huge 78 points behind BMW Sauber in P3(bare in mind this was with the old points scoring system). Renault endured a dismal qualifying, with Alonso lining up 15th and Piquet Jr. 16th.

An important aspect of what transpired in Singapore was that the 2008 Sporting Regulations surrounding the safety car stated that the pitlane would remain closed until all cars had bunched together under safety car conditions. This is unlike the years before and the present day, in which cars yet to pit can gain a huge advantage by pitting under safety car conditions.

On lap 12, Fernando Alonso made a pitstop for fresh tyres and fuel, the first to do so, dropping him to the back of the field. The following lap, his teammate hit the wall at turn 17, bringing out the safety car and causing the field to bunch. Alonso was the only one who pitted, and with the field bunched together, they all pitted and the Spaniard took the lead. During the pitlane chaos that ensued under safety car, Felipe Massa came a cropper of a technological error, as he was given the green light whilst the fuel hose was still attached to his car. This ruined his Singapore Grand Prix that he looked destined to win from pole, and some may argue that had Nelson Piquet not brought out the safety car, the pitlane chaos wouldn't have led to the error that cost Massa the victory.

Felipe Massa leaves with his fuel hose still attached, a team error that cost the Brazilian the win.

Fernando Alonso went on to win the race, with Nico Rosberg second and Lewis Hamilton recovering to third place, a crucial result in the context of the championship. Massa had lost a near-certain victory whilst his championship rival scored six valuable points. The acrimony that exists among many fans today is because of what was revealed in 2009 relating to the Singapore Grand Prix, and that it was essentially a fixed event.

Piquet Jr continued at Renault in 2009, before being dropped at the summer break. He did not hold back with his departure, as he criticised both his former team and Briatore heavily. Come the end of August, and reports were circulating in the Brazilian media that Piquet had been ordered to crash by Renault senior management. The FIA immediately opened an investigation, and within days Renault were charged with interfering with the outcome of the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix and conspiring with Nelson Piquet Jr. Renault were called to a meeting of the FIA World Motorsport Council, and declined to comment until the Paris hearing.

Flavio Briatore with his two drivers in 2009 (Image: Jose Manuel Ribeiro/Reuters)

Piquet Jr. would go on to disclose information to the FIA, and president Max Mosley saw no reason as to disregard its authenticity. Alonso was questioned, yet the FIA ultimately cleared him of any blame. After Piquet Jr.'s dealings with the FIA, Renault began legal action against the Brazilian, and The Times leaked further evidence from the Singapore race. Days later, both Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds left Renault.

Renault were subsequently disqualified from Formula One for two years, and if this offence had been committed again before 2011, they would have been banned from Formula One altogether. Briatore was banned indefinitely from any FIA-sanctioned event, although this was later overturned until only the end of 2013. Meanwhile, an understanding and compliant Pat Symonds received a five-year ban, also reduced in line with Briatore. Symonds returned to work in Formula One, and has worked as Formula One's Chief Technical Officer since March 2017. Briatore has not returned to Formula One since the scandal.

The lasting effects of the Crashgate scandal have been numerous. Felipe Massa's misfortune in the pitlane, costing him victory may not have occurred had it not been for the race being fixed. The points lost there are arguably what cost him the championship, and some may argue that the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix should have been voided. The Renault F1 Team lost many of its sponsors, and didn't return to F1 in full until 2016. Many will argue to this day, quite rightly, that Fernando Alonso has 31 career wins, not 32, because of what happened in Singapore. But perhaps most significantly, it influenced the result of the championship, and left a taint on the wonderful season of 2008.

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