The stories that there is an investigation going on into Renault F1 emerged on Sunday in Spa, but it is now clear that the FIA had already been interviewing team members in the course of the Belgian Grand Prix weekend. It is believed that the investigation may be broader than originally thought. Among those interviewed were Fernando Alonso and the team’s executive engineer Pat Symonds. It is not clear whether team boss Flavio Briatore was questioned or not, but it is hard to imagine that he would not be included, as he is always to be found on the pitwall and likes to involve himself in the race management of the team.
It is believed that the FIA is using an independent investigation agency and there is speculation that this may be Quest, a London-based corporate intelligence, investigations and risk mitigation company, which is headed by Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington, a former Commissioner of Police of the Metropolitan Police. The company has a specific group which specialises in the sports industry and gained a reputation with its 2006 investigation of transfers in British soccer, carried out on behalf of the Football Association.
It is interesting to note that Renault has said nothing at all about the stories. The only indication thus far has come from Bernie Ecclestone, who says that Briatore is saying he knows nothing of the allegations. The publicity is obviously not something that is good for the car company, but it is clear that it cannot deny that the investigation is taking place and thus will have to wait for the findings. In its past dealings with the FIA, Renault has adopted a policy of admitting everything and throwing itself at the mercy of the federation. This was a tactic used in 1994 (when the team was known as Benetton) and was accused of having removed a filter from its refuelling machine. The FIA ruled that the filter had been removed by “a junior member” of the team. It worked again in 2007 when the team was found to have data from McLaren in its computers. It also worked a few weeks ago when Renault was fighting a ban after being found to have knowingly sent Alonso out of the pitlane without a wheel being properly attached.
However, admitting to race fixing is simply not an option.
The problem for investigators is to find incontrovertible evidence that the race was fixed. This may not be possible unless someone involved admits it, or if there are any recordings of conversations relating to the alleged scheme. Nelson Piquet Jr may claim he was coerced into crashing the car by the team, but he is likely to be viewed as a disgruntled ex-employee, unless he recorded conversations. Having said that Piquet must know that this scandal will definitely end his F1 career (one way or the other) and thus it might be wise to say nothing, unless he is already resigned to the fact that he will not get another chance. In that case, his only possible salvation is that the allegations are proven and he emerges from the scandal as a whistleblower and hero of the piece.
The evidence available to investigators will come from data that the FIA probably already has from the black box in Piquet’s car. This will include steering and accelerator inputs, these might indicate whether the car was spun deliberately, when compared to previous laps, but they are unlikely to prove conclusively that it was a deliberate act. There is also the radio traffic between the car and the pit which may reveal conversations that support the theory. Clearly there is not going to be a recording of someone at Renault saying “Nelson. It is time to crash”, but there might be remarks which seem out of place, such as Piquet asking what lap he is on, at a time when that information was not obviously important for his race.
The investigation will almost certainly take into account the circumstances at the time.
When the F1 circus arrived in Singapore, Renault F1 had not won a race for almost two years. The pressure was on Renault F1 to justify the cost of the sport and there were many rumours that Renault boss Carlos Ghosn was going to stop the programme. Singapore was a big new event with a great opportunity to make an impact in Asia. In qualifying Alonso was only 15th, with Piquet 16th. The track offered no real opportunities for overtaking and so winning from that position was virtually impossible, no matter how fast the car was. Alonso started the race with fuel for only 12 laps. He made up some places and was 11th when he pitted but, of course, this dropped him to 20th place as a result of the stop. Piquet then crashed on lap 14 and the pitlane was closed, the only team getting its cars into pitlane before the Safety Car was deployed being Red Bull Racing. Two drivers (Nico Rosberg and Robert Kubica) had to pit when the pitlane was closed because they did not have the fuel to go further. Most of the others pitted when the pitlane was declared open. The result was that Alonso emerged in fifth place, behind Rosberg, Jarno Trulli, Giancarlo Fisichella and Kubica. Trulli and Fisichella pitted later and Rosberg and Kubica were penalised and so Alonso took the lead on lap 34 and was able to remain ahead all the way to the finish. It should perhaps be mentioned that the pit stops ruined Felipe Massa’s race and, one might argue, could ultimately be blamed for him losing the World Championship as he was leading before the Safety Car and finished out of the points in 13th.
All of this, however, is still just circumstantial evidence. In the McLaren case in 2007 this was all that was needed for the $100m fine. The team might have gone on fighting that but decided that the best way to minimise the damage was to give up the fight when faced with the possibility of having its 2008 season disrupted as well.
The interviewing process will, nonetheless, be important in the current case. Getting someone to confess to something that would possibly result in a lifetime ban from F1 is not a simple task. Much depends on the skill of the person asking the questions and the pressures on the people being questioned. If, for example, someone involved felt that he was going to be taking the blame while others got away with it, he might feel that this was not fair and try to reach some kind of bargain with the interviewer to save his own skin by implicating others.
Lack of evidence does not prove innocence and the team knows this first hand as back in 1994 when it was called Benetton it was found to have software in Michael Schumacher’s car at the ill-fated San Marino Grand Prix that included a “launch control” feature which could be activated with a lap-top computer using a hidden “option 13″ on a list of 10 options. The FIA investigation at the time concluded that although the system was there, it could not be proven that it had been used. The FIA’s response at the time was to fine the team $100,000 for failing to supply the governing body with access to its systems within the time limits demanded. Those involved may not have been found guilty but it is fair to say that their involvement was not forgotten in F1 circles.
The real danger for the team, however, is possibly not the investigation but rather the bad publicity that is being generated and the effect this will have at Renault World Headquarters in Boulogne-Billancourt, where F1 has been a subject of much debate in recent times. The company has been saying for a long time that F1 is good for Renault as long as it produces positive results. These have been few and far between in 2009. This kind of negative story, following the unsecured wheel punishment in Hungary, Nelson Piquet’s damning remarks about team boss Flavio Briatore and another year without wins could all combine to push Renault to decide that it has had enough. It is committed to stay in F1 until the end of 2012 but the team can be given away or sold.
If there is a confession the damage could be massive and, might even, include bans for the team, Briatore and Alonso.