F1 Controversies: The Race Where a Driver Crashed on Purpose
Renault cheated in order to win the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix - but how did it happen?
Welcome to F1 Controversies, a DriveTribe series where we take a look at some of the most controversial moments in Formula One history. This article is the second in the series, and will be discussing the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix where Renault's Nelson Piquet Jr crashed intentionally to help his teammate win...
The Singapore Grand Prix has been on the Formula One calendar since 2008 and has quickly become a fan-favourite due to the tricky nature of the circuit and all the drama we have seen over the years. Some of the best drivers in the world have been caught out by the ninety-degree right handers, and the intense heat during the race; but the first race saw one of the most controversial Formula One moments we have seen in years after just 14 laps of green-flag action.
Our story starts with Renault, who seemed to be competitive during the Friday and Saturday practice sessions with their R28 car. Fernando Alonso topped the second and third session, with teammate Nelson Piquet Jr finishing the final session in fourth place. However, an engine issue in qualifying saw Fernando Alonso qualify fifteenth, with Piquet alongside him in sixteenth.
A common strategy for fast drivers that don't qualify as high as the should is to fit a set of Hard tyres and go as far into the race as possible to ensure they are the last person to pit. In 2008, refuelling was also allowed, which meant that drivers would start the race on Hard Tyres and a heavy fuel load to make it a good distance into the race. This strategy is still used today (minus the fuel usage) in order to avoid excessive tyre wear in traffic. Soft tyres tend to be a lot more difficult to drive with when in traffic as they start to wear a lot faster, so fast drivers would rather overtake everybody through the pitstops and use the soft tyres and light fuel load at the end of the race!
Everyone was surprised to see that Fernando Alonso hadn't opted for this strategy when the grid lined up ahead of the five red lights; and had instead opted to start on a light fuel load with a softer set of tyres. It is also important to note that on the warmup lap that sees the drivers go from their garage to the grid, Nelson Piquet would spin his Renault R28 at Turn 17, which would be the same corner that he would crash at on Lap 14.
As the five lights went out to start the first ever Singapore Grand Prix, all attention was on the fight between the Ferraris and the McLarens at the front of the field; people had written off any chance of Fernando winning the race after the unlucky engine issue that had occurred during Saturday's qualifying session, but this would soon change.
Alonso would be the first driver to stop on Lap 12 of the race, where he changed tyres and added a lot of fuel to his car to start his middle stint. The Spaniard would leave the pitlane at the very back of the pack, with the commentators saying "It will be a long middle stint for him" - little did they know, Renault had a plan...
Two laps later, Nelson Piquet had crashed heavily into the wall at Turn 17; the rear end of his car had been destroyed, but the impact itself was not as serious as the aftermath had made it look. Piquet made what seemed to be a 'rookie error' by applying the throttle too early at the exit of Turn 17 and spinning his car into the wall - a medical car was still deployed to make sure he was okay, and the safety car would also be deployed a lap later.
The most crucial part of the race was the safety car period, where three drivers (including Fernando Alonso) were able to stop before the drivers were all bunched up again. You see, the 2008 regulations are different to the strategies we see in F1 today as the pitlane is automatically closed when the safety car is deployed. Much like Lewis Hamilton's illegal pitstop at the 2020 Italian Grand Prix, any driver that pits when the pitlane is closed receives a 10-second stop and go penalty. This requires the driver to stop in his pitbox for 10 seconds without his car being touched by mechanics, and will cost around 30 seconds overall. There were a handful of drivers that were forced to take the penalty as they fuelled their cars to stop on Lap 14, but the majority of the field had to wait. Renault had planned for this and pitted Alonso on Lap 12; and both Red Bulls pitted anticipating a safety car after Piquet hit the wall.
The pitlane was opened again on Lap 16, where all the lead drivers came in for their pitstop. Race-leader Felipe Massa would have another pitlane incident where he famously drove off after seeing the green light, taking his fuel-hose with him and knocking a mechanic off his feet. This would cost Massa a lot of time, and drop him to the back of the field where he managed to climb his way back up to finish in thirteenth place in a damaged Ferrari.
Once the entire field had made their stops, Fernando had moved up to fifth place in the safety car queue. However, the crucial detail is that two of the drivers in front of him had not made a pitstop yet, and the other two drivers both had penalties for serving their pitstops when the pitlane was closed - this meant that Alonso had the provisional lead.
Singapore is one of the most difficult tracks to master! Image: Red Bull Content Pool.
As the race reached half-distance, Fernando Alonso had taken the lead and was starting to pull away from those behind him. He still needed to make another pitstop (as did the others, as the race was a two-stop strategy), but he had already created a gap big enough to maintain the lead with 20 laps to go. His lead was destroyed when another safety car was deployed with 12 laps to go, but he soon pulled away from Nico Rosberg's Williams to claim an unlikely, but impressive win.
For a long time, many people didn't know about the plan that Renault had made from the start. While it did seem incredibly lucky, many people didn't put two-and-two together to realise that his teammate crashing wasn't a coincidence. To everybody in the paddock, the win wouldn't have happened if there wasn't a fuel problem in qualifying that forced the Renault team into an aggressive strategy that worked out perfectly with a well-timed safety car.
Nelson Piquet was interviewed during the race after returning to the paddock, where he clearly tried to avoid talking about the well-timed safety car after his teammate's pitstop - here is that interview:
Interviewer: Nelson, first of all I'm glad to see that you're okay, it was a big bump; what caused it? Did you just lose the back end?
Piquet: We were running a very long first stint, the car was touching the floor a lot more than we expected, so the car was really undriveable. I was trying to catch Rubens in front, but I just touched the wall slightly and flew to the other side of the track.
Interviewer: Ironically, your teammate's strategy could work out in this case, and your team could be on for a very good result here?
Piquet: I saw Fernando is around the top 10 now, I don't know how it is - we were both on different strategies. But, unfortunately my start wasn't very good; we didn't expect the car to touch [the floor] that much, and I had to really concentrate on the straights to keep the car straight. It was really bumpy, and the car was touching the floor. And yeah, the tyre degradation was higher and it was much worse than we expected.
How the Plan Fell Apart
Renault's somehow-convincing plan finally fell apart over a year later. The 2008 season would end with another victory in Japan for Fernando Alonso two weeks after the Singapore Grand Prix, and Alonso would finish fifth in the championship, with Piquet finishing in 12th. While finishing twelfth in the championship was not a great result when compared to his two-time world championship winning teammate, Renault had faith in Nelson Piquet and signed him for an extra year to compete in the 2009 season.
In 2009, Fernando Alonso would score points in five of the first ten races, while his teammate would earn zero. Yes, the Renault car was not a championship-winning machine during the 2008 and 2009 period, but Renault had started to lose patience with Piquet and announced only a week into the summer break that Piquet would lose his seat, and would be replaced by Romain Grosjean for the rest of the season.
After the summer break had finished and the European Grand Prix had been completed (with Grosjean driving as Alonso's teammate); a Brazilian television station would report that Nelson Piquet had been asked to crash intentionally as part of a plan to help Fernando Alonso win the Singapore Grand Prix last season. The FIA proceeded to launch in investigation into an event that had happened over a year ago, with Nelson Piquet making a statement to the FIA that team managing director, Flavio Briatore and Renault's executive director of engineering, Pat Symonds had asked the Brazilian to crash at Turn 17.
Piquet was not punished by the FIA for the incident as he came forward to tell the truth, nor was Alonso as he was never made aware of the plan. Though Piquet was sceptical, wondering why Alonso would think that using an opposite strategy to normal was a good idea; but Renault and Alonso insisted that the two-time world champion was unaware of the plot.
Nelson Piquet had kept the incident a secret for over a year, but used the information to take revenge on the Renault team after they dropped him mid-season. This was a first for Formula One, and has been the only case of confirmed cheating that we have seen since.
Renault lost their main title sponsors, ING and Mutua Madrileña, as they didn't want to be associated with a cheating Formula One team, while Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds had both left the team at the same time. Symonds accused Nelson Piquet of being the person to come up with the idea of crashing to bring out the safety car and a huge law suit was started between the ex-F1 driver and Renault. The plan had quickly fallen apart for Renault, but they were still allowed to keep the victory as Alonso had supposedly not contributed to the plan.
What was the final punishment? Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds were both banned from FIA events for different time periods. Briatore was banned for life while Pat Symonds was only banned for 5 years - though these decisions were eventually reversed...
Obviously the idea of purposely crashing one of your drivers out of a race is a ridiculous plan, but it makes me wonder how Renault thought they would get away with it in the first place. Looking back on the incident, the race seemed to go a little too well for the French team, and I'm surprised nobody picked up on the idea of them sabotaging the race to suit their needs. Don't forget, Nelson Piquet crashed a Formula One car, a car that is capable of travelling at speeds of 200mph with a body made of one of the lightest and delicate materials in the world. The consequences that could have happened if Piquet hurt himself in that accident would have been enormous, and I am glad that this was not the case.
I find myself conflicted as to whether I believe Alonso should have kept the victory or not. While I don't believe he would have won should Piquet have not crashed, his performance after that crash was magnificent, and he showed his skill by creating a massive lead. The commentators seemed to agree, thinking that this was one of his best performances in a difficult year for Renault.
Formula One has improved a lot when it comes to cheating over the recent years. While there have been rumours about a suspicious power unit that Ferrari produced in 2019 (that I doubt we will ever know the real answer to), we have not seen anything as serious as the Singapore Grand Prix of 2008 since that day. What did you think of the incident? Be sure to let me know in the comments below.
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