Flavio Briatore is about to leave Formula 1. In the last few hours, the Renault gate, the scandal that erupted after the statements of Nelsinho Piquet, is overwhelming him: Renault is considering replacing him and he is considering, for the first time, resigning. After handing over the minutes Nelsinho gave to the FIA stewards, some even also released the minutes of technical director Pat Symonds, who was called in by the Brazilian for complicity. Symonds' words are a collection of reticence and awfully complicate Briatore's position. Just to give you an example: did you know he was going to crash on lap 14?
"I don't want to answer that question".
Piquet said that you pointed out a specific place where he was to have the crash. Is it true?
"I don't want to answer that question".
Also, Symonds was promised immunity by the FIA, according to a vaguely inquisitorial ritual. The argument that the stewards gave to Symonds and Piquet was essentially the following: if you help us get Briatore convicted, we will protect you whatever you have done. This is to make Mosely's political will clear (in a world where Mosley's political will is the only relevant). In other words, Briatore is on a ticking clock. Only a miracle can save him and it will certainly take more than the recording of the radio conversations immediately after the crash, where he is heard shouting, furious:
"Fucking hell, my every fucking disgrace, fucking... he's not a driver".
The Renault team manager had been one of the brave captains of the team's revolt against the FIA in recent months. The old Max - who never liked Briatore - was doomed with that but now it is time for revenge. However, Mosley knows that to be successful again this time, he must get Briatore's resignation immediately. Before the Paris ruling. On that occasion, a face-to-face confrontation could prove too heavy for a resigning president. The decision to postpone the discussion in Paris for a couple of days (no longer on Monday, 21 September, but on Wednesday, 23 September 2009) must be read in this sense; if you arrived in Paris with the Italian team manager in place, someone could play to impose the Renault-Briatore identity and also ask for the exclusion from the World Championship of the manufacturer, which, besides the superficial statements, could not be very appreciated by the new powerful people. From there, to demand explanations on the role of controller played by the FIA, the step is short. On Wednesday, 16 September 2009, the breaking news came late in the morning. Flavio Briatore leaves Renault. And with him, the team's sports manager, Pat Symonds, the chief engineer, leaves. Also: the French team, in its statement, makes it known that on Monday, 21 September 2009, before the World Council in Paris, it will not defend itself against the accusations of the FIA, linked to the alleged false crash of Nelsinho Piquet, that the Brazilian driver himself called deliberate in his testimony, to favor the triumph of his teammate Alonso in the Singapore Grand Prix on September 28th, 2008. Briatore, the main suspect, who steps aside; Symonds who follows him, but especially Renault who anticipates his surrender by giving the silent treatment which, in the absence of further comments (the team specifies that it will not make comments until the end of the trial), amounts to an admission of guilt. A sensational move. The illusions that are wasted, many claim that with this initiative Renault avoids heavy sanctions (some hypothesize the team's banishment or at least the exclusion from one or more World Championships), others (the minority) insist that a punishment by the FIA will come all the same, but that they still not manage to hide a substance, the end of an era (the Briatore era, in Formula 1 since 1989) and a huge damage to the image of the French company, it was confessed, probably, with its announced silence.
The trial has yet to take place, but perhaps, in the light of what has happened, the sentence has already arrived, to the point of suggesting a cancelation of the sitting of the World Council (scheduled again for Monday 21 and not Wednesday 23 as stated by Max Mosley, the president of the FIA), especially in the event that Renault decides not to present itself. An unlikely event but a possible one: at the end of the day, a judgment must be issued and the French team will want to learn it directly. Where there seems to be no doubt is with the fact that Mosley, provoking the resignation of Briatore, who makes no statement noting that he did not resign nor that he was fired, but simply left for the sake of the team, managed to consume his own revenge, one month from the definitive abandonment of the FIA throne. The president (Todt or Vaatanen the successors) had not liked the war carried forward by the FOTA, the Association of Teams in which Briatore and Dennis (another executive who stepped aside) always had a prominent role immediately behind the chairman Montezemolo: and at the first occasion he responded with the same poison. In June, the big Formula 1 teams (when Mosley announced he would not run again) were singing victory, he remained atop and was able to launch the last hit. It would appear, in the light of the statements, that Renault had it coming and it is questionable how the FIA intends to consider a Singapore Grand Prix to be completely falsified. The accounts (6 points for Hamilton, 0 for Massa) are soon made: without that race, the World Championship would have gone in favor of the Brazilian driver of Ferrari. Nelsinho Piquet, in Singapore in 2008, could have hurt somebody. A spring, or a tyre, could have detached itself from his single-seater; undertaking any unpredictable trajectory and provoking an even more serious crash. The possibility, as we have seen in this wretched season, was not that remote. So much so that at the Singapore court they would be considering whether to open a criminal investigation. In short, in terms of security, the Crashgate is likely to create other devastating effects. While it is true that the checkmate of Flavio Briatore was the main objective of Max Mosley (The Almighty President of the FIA), it is also true that many now want justice to be done thoroughly, and that, in this affair, Renault will be therefore severely punished. And so, on next Monday, in Paris, the French team risks a lot, even the banishment from the races, contrary to the sort of tacit agreement concluded with Mosley (Briatore in exchange for redemption). Niki Lauda summarizes:
"It's the worst thing that ever happened in Formula 1. The FIA will have to very severely punish Renault to restore credibility to the sport".
Indeed, it is difficult to blame them. Just reading the minutes released by Nelsinho Piquet is enough to understand what we are talking about. The driver, fired by his team manager and agent Flavio Briatore, decides to denounce the team which would have convinced him to voluntarily go off track to favor Fernando Alonso. Pressed by questions from the stewards, Nelsinho says:
"During the meeting (the one where he was told where to go off track, ed) no one worried about the implications that the crash-strategy would have on the safety of me, the public or the other drivers. The only comment that was made from this point of view was by Symonds. He told me: be careful".
And it is precisely because of this last sentence that Renault could ask to be pardoned. Also, because the French team will appear before the court as a repeat offender: in Hungary, the team committed a lightness in terms of safety and the FIA called them back formally. The position of Flavio Briatore remains also complicated because, in addition to the criminal trial in Singapore, he risks being banished from F1, as well as a huge lawsuit against Renault (who in the meantime could appoint Alain Prost in his place) in case Felipe Massa or Ferrari decide to go to court to get justice for the world championship title faded because of that race. At the moment, the relations are still good (Briatore would have said that he has resigned to save the team, and the general manager of the group, Patrick Pelata, seems to believe him: "Flavio felt morally responsible for the mistakes made") but we have to see how long it will last. And while the first rumors of an incoming withdrawing of Renault from F1 begin, some critical voices are also becoming to be raised about the FIA's actions: the main evidence (telemetry and conversations) of the trial had been in the hands of the stewards for a year.
Why did it take the driver's confession to get to the truth? Anyway, Flavio Briatore's Formula 1 career could end here. The now former Renault team manager will be tried on Monday morning at 9:30 a.m. by the FIA World Council. He is being charged for having forced Nelsinho Piquet to voluntarily crash, in Singapore in 2008, to facilitate the win of Fernando Alonso. The trial position of Briatore, who is accused by the main protagonists of this story, is extremely weak. The result could be devastating: Mosley will have no choice but to choose the penalty to inflict, and that could also be banishment. It also gives the impression that the FIA's attack on the Italian manager wants to be total. And in this sense the convocation of Fernando Alonso has to be contextualized. The subject of his hearing should not be so much about his alleged responsibilities in the Crashgate (only timidly evoked by Nelson Piquet) as about the relationship which links the Spanish driver to Briatore. The FIA is investigating, in short, the conflict of interest of Flavio Briatore, who has been acting both as a driver's attorney (among them also Nelsinho) and as a team manager for years. Alonso personally risks very little (also for reasons, so to speak, extra judicial: he is very close to one of the main sponsors of F1, the Santander Bank, and no one, these days, would mistreat a sponsor of the kind). This greatly facilitates Ferrari's plans: the Spaniard, whose transfer to Maranello has been confirmed in recent days by Renault's leaders, will race next year in place of Kimi Raïkkönen.
However, Renault's position is different. In theory, the maximum penalty, that is to say banishment, would still be possible for the French team, but the pact between the top leaders of the French company and the FIA provided for the sacrifice of Flavio Briatore in exchange for clemency. Which means that the most likely outcome is a million-dollar fine. Nelsinho Piquet is the one who is not really in danger, apart from being ridiculous. The driver got immunity as long as he framed Flavio Briatore. Mission accomplished. And, in fact, at the end of a kangaroo court, celebrated first on the English blogs, then in the newspapers and only finally in the old and glossy courtrooms of the FIA, the Formula 1 of Max Mosley gets rid of Flavio Briatore with a stroke of cleaver. Friend Max and friend Bernie - who here in F1 are all friends, until they kill you - eliminate their friend Flavio, saving without shame or sense of ridicule all the other protagonists of the most serious scandal in the history of the sport. The ruling on the Crashgate is soon summarized. In Singapore in 2008, Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds sent Nelsinho Piquet to crash into a wall to make Fernando Alonso win. For this sports fraud, Briatore has been removed from everything and forever: he will never be able to work in a team again, to set foot in a paddock again and, this is the real surprise, he will never be able to assist a driver as a prosecutor again. Pat Symonds, as a result of a partial collaboration, was sentenced to only five years of banishment. However, Nelsinho is acquitted, just like Alonso. Renault is also acquitted, even with a ridiculous formula. Mosley explains, managing to stay serious:
"We also banished the team, but as it has worked we suspended the banishment until 2011. Meanwhile, we accept a significant financial contribution to our business for the track safety".
In short: a fine with pleasure.
"F1 comes out well, we've eliminated the bad stems".
By all means, the impression is that Briatore knew something about that crash, that he is guilty, even if it is not what Piquet claimed. But, you only have to dig a little bit to realize that, more than a sentence, it was an execution. In a serious system, the principle of strict liability would have led to the conviction of Renault; in a serious system, Piquet Jr. would not have got away with a paternal caress, nor would he have been left in a position to declare, immediately after the trial:
"I hope to soon have another opportunity in F1".
In a serious system, someone would ask Mr. Alonso how it is possible that a champion of his caliber did not notice anything. However, the darkness fell with a ferocity never seen against Briatore. Dumped by Renault who showed up here in Paris with the result of an internal investigation that blamed everything on him and Symonds, the Italian manager paid the bill for the summer campaign against the dominance of Mosley and Ecclestone (the story of the alternative championship). Now, while Briatore will try to convince the British that the conviction does not create an incompatibility with the ownership of Queens Park Rangers (the football team that Briatore purchased along with his friend Ecclestone), Formula 1, as always, will try to return to its precarious normality. Ferrari will finally be able to embrace its forbidden dream, Fernando Alonso; Renault will be able to return to a French directed team, with the almost obvious arrival of Alain Prost; Jean Todt will be able to continue his campaign for the FIA presidency. And Max Mosley can keep playing his games and consuming his vendettas. He still has a month left before retiring, and at Toyota – designated by many as the next target – someone is sweating cold. Here it is, contained in the 60 pages that forced Briatore out from F1, the X-ray of the Singapore blow. Mosley's stewards got it from the radio conversations between the two cars and the Renault pit. From their hearing, it is perfectly understood what Piquet defines as the Crash strategy: according to the opinion of the FIA, Pat Symonds and Flavio Briatore knew that, on lap 14, Nelson Piquet Jr. would have gone off, so they could change the strategy of Fernando Alonso during the race (from three to only two pit stops, the first one immediately before the crash) and take, like this, the lead of the race. That is how it went that night at the pits. Pat Symonds has to change the strategy during the race. He knows that the conversations are recorded and thus his words are interpreted by the stewards as a setup. The Grand Prix has just started and he already feels desperate. Alonso is behind Nakajima.
"While we’re behind Nakajima we’re fucked, we’re not going anywhere".
Symonds yells via radio.
An engineer answers.
Says Symonds. Thirty seconds later, he declares:
"I can tell you now: we are not three-stopping".
Another minute goes by, then he says:
"Don't worry about fuel because I'm going to get him out of this traffic…".
On lap 12 (Alonso had still two laps of range), Briatore intervenes:
"No way we’re overtaking Nakajima with these tyres".
"Well, and I don't want to lose one more second, I make him stop at the end of lap 12".
An engineer, who was evidently not told about the Crash strategy, intervenes:
"But do you still not think that this is a bit too early?"
"No, no it's going to be all right".
"We have nothing to lose".
The evening of Symonds (and Briatore?) is troubled by Piquet Jr's anxieties. Who is very restless:
"What lap are we in? What lap are we in?"
The Brazilian asks. An engineer answers:
"He just asked: 'What lap are we in?"
"Yeah, tell him that he's about to complete lap eight".
"Ok, but he already knows it…".
"No, just tell him, tell him he's about to complete lap eight".
"You've just completed lap eight, you've just completed lap eight".
"Ok, but now we better count the laps because I can't see (the pit board, ed)".
On lap 12, Alonso just got back in the race, with the tank full of fuel. An engineer asks Symonds if it is not the time that Nelsinho now tries to overtake Barrichello.
"Wait just a moment".
Thirty seconds go by and Symonds gives his ok:
"Ok right, you've got to push him really bloody hard now, if he doesn't get past Barrichello now, he's going nowhere, he's got to get past Barrichello this lap".
"Tell him, push".
"You've got to push him really bloody hard now".
Moments later, the crash happens. And Piquet Jr. says:
"Sorry guys, I lost the control".
"Is he all right?"
"Ask him if he's all right".
"Yeah, I'm ok, I'm ok... I hit my head in the back a bit but I'm ok".
"Fucking hell, my every fucking disgrace, fucking... he's not a driver”.
In the disappointment of the pits, real or simulated, Symonds betrays and identifies, first and in an instant, the exact corner where the crash took place:
"Tell Alonso to be careful in turn 17".
Then, the joy of an engineer can be feel:
"Safety car, Safety car, Fernando, Safety car".
Rightly says Max Mosley, the near former, but always stainless, FIA president:
"It's sad seeing Briatore end like this after twenty years of Formula 1".
But it is also sad to see that he is the one to pay for all. Only culprit, because he is the only one truly punished by the Paris ruling. Banished from Formula 1. Banished for life, where banished is not a random word, because in this strange justice on four wheels the banished are only certain principals, those who deny, do not repent, do not broaden the ranks of the defendants. While the other principals are also a little innocent, if maybe they contradict themselves in the interrogations or do not answer, making it clear that something wrong is there, and, like Symonds, the chief engineer, they are punished with a banishment of only five years, until they become, like Nelsinho Piquet, innocent of everything. Or at least not guilty because they have immunity, if they turn into whistle-blowers, if they did their duty, not because by going to crash on purpose they have falsified a race and made the teammate win, but because saying everything - it does not matter if it is with months of delay - they have had the real bad guys caught, those who were behind and pulled the strings. The credits go to them. Pending a new spy with an attached impunity and yet another trial. A strange justice. Where the concept of liability, subjective or objective, does not appear at all. Briatore was the manager of Renault. He persisted in denying, says now the enemy Mosley, who had sworn it to him and with his justice with double standards (give me the guilty and I will save you) managed to drive him from his profanity world, questioned, along with his power, by those teams, Briatore was one of the most stubborn, who always said no to his strange ideas. In fact, the agreements between the defendants and the FIA taken on the eve of the trial were different. Flavio Briatore was supposed to get away with the dismissal of the team and was instead banished from everything, even from the paddock. This is the backstory that emerges the day after the ruling that put an end to Briatore's sporting career and that is why the anger of the former team manager of Renault rises with the passing of hours. What will Flavio do now? How will he react? The impression is that he does not know that well either. His anger is so great, but the possibilities for maneuver seem very limited. The idea is to bring Max Mosley and the FIA before the civil court in Paris. There, Flavio Briatore will be able to produce all the evidence in his defense. The move may be much less defensive than it appears. If he is right, on that occasion, he would collapse one of the cornerstones of Max Mosley's power empire: that is to say, a ridiculous and controllable system of internal justice. According to the advice of the lawyers, the appeal could be the precise passage in which the World Council announces that it will withdraw the license of anyone who has links with Flavio Briatore, that is to say the mechanism that has made absolute and in a certain sense monstrous the banishment of a manager who from now on will no longer even be able to be the prosecutor of the drivers. But Briatore's intention, it seems, is to take revenge on the other traitors, Bernie Ecclestone over everyone.
Flavio Briatore has done a lot of business with Bernie Ecclestone in recent years (not only the purchase of Queens Park Rangers, England's second division team) and it is not unlikely that in the course of this activity he has had the opportunity to know some secrets of the English businessman. Secrets that could now turn out to be useful. Renault itself could also end up in the final count. Briatore did not like the final reversal, that unconditional surrender (with an internal inquiry of the expected results) which was the main instrument used by Mosley to impose his sanction. Without considering that in the records of the trial, in addition to Symonds' confession which arrived by letter after the interrogation and which says:
"When Nelsinho suggested the idea of doing the Crash strategy, I should have told him no; what I did, I did it only as a distorted sense of love for the team".
There is also the confession of a secret witness (the investigators call him witness X) who would have unearthed some relevant evidence from within the team. There is no doubt that Briatore will have to act quickly before his empire begins to collapse. On Tuesday, 22 September 2009, while Max Mosley said he was very sad about the way in which Flavio Briatore's 20-year career ended, the Football Association demanded the records of the trial to the FIA: there is an internal regulation establishing a kind of incompatibility between management positions and a conviction imposed by a different Federation. In short, the internal position within QPR is really at risk.
"I'm going to win eventually, and you'll see, then we're going to have a great celebration".
Wednesday, 23 September 2009, Flavio Briatore comes to his senses. Having passed the initial shock, metabolized the unpleasant feeling of being betrayed by his own world, the Italian manager recovers the same old spirit and promises a battle. Obviously in his own way:
"It will be a properly organized celebration, and we will invite everyone who has been close to me during this difficult time".
That he is back to his old self, Briatore, it can be seen in the details. For example, by the courtesy with which he recalls all the reporters who left hundreds of phone calls on his mobile phone in these recent frantic days.
"It's only a question of education because I don't want to say absolutely nothing. I don't make statements. I will only speak at the appropriate time, if I'm still allowed to speak…".
Insisting is useless, as it is useless to try to explain some details about what his strategy will be:
"Look at the ruling that the FIA posted on Tuesday. It's not about me".
It is easy to imagine the content of the appeal: the unreliability of the sporting trial conceded; the impartiality of the court; the non-authenticity of the evidence; the total lack of balance of the ruling. The starting point is that apart from the accusation of Nelsinho Piquet (who is a former employee dismissed, therefore a witness to which important evidence must be found), there is no one who has expressly said:
"Flavio Briatore knew".