Tuesday 14 December 2010

Whisper it, there's been an over-reaction to 'Crashgate'

Last week, 'Crashgate' had what hopefully was its last hurrah, with Nelson Piquet Jr and his father being awarded 'substantial damages' from Renault, who had accused the Piquets of lying over the affair.

'Crashgate' of course is what the media and others commonly refer to as the incident in the Singapore Grand Prix of 2008, wherein then-Renault driver Piquet, in a pre-arrangement his team, deliberately crashed his car to initiate a safety car period, to the end of helping team mate Alonso leapfrog several cars on the way to victory.  Whisper it, I can't help but think that there's been something of an over-reaction to the whole case.

The language of the apocalypse has been in plentiful supply in the 'Crashgate' reaction, making front pages as well as back. Simon Barnes in The Times declared it as 'the worst act of cheating in the history of sport', and most others weren't much milder in their assessment. And time doesn't seem to have been much of a healer, as the case's recent re-emergence in the media has shown, with ESPN F1 editor Martin Williamson calling it 'one of F1's most sordid affairs' and 'nobody...has come out of this with any credit'.

But was it as bad as is commonly accepted? Calling it the worst act of cheating in any sport ever is surely excessive (what, worse than East German mass doping of children in the 1970s? I'm sure the list of worse acts than Renault's in Crashgate is almost endless). Calling it a 'race fix', as many have, is also inappropriate as a race fix would surely have involved other teams, and pre-arrangement of the whole final race result. I instead see it as little more than a crude attempt to take advantage of an imperfect rule that existed in F1 at the time (i.e. the closure of the pit lane at the start of a safety car period, giving massive advantage to those who had already pitted). F1's equivalent of the professional foul in football, to use a rough analogy.

I also don't see much difference between this and Michael Schumacher crashing his car deliberately at the end of Monaco qualifying in 2006, in an apparent attempt to retain his pole position. Unlike in Crashgate, no one was banned from the sport on the back of this, and the only punishment was Schumi being moved to the back of the grid for the next day's race. The team boss in that affair is now FIA President! The only difference to my mind is what Schumi did was spur of the moment, while the Piquet/Renault incident was pre-meditated. But I don't draw much of a moral distinction on that basis. Plus Schumi's car came to rest much more in the 'line of fire' than did Piquet's.

Further, as Tony Dodgins pointed out at the time, such stunts in F1 aren't new. Eddie Irvine, typically blunt, summed it up: 'This [Singapore incident] is probably slightly on the wrong side of the cheating thing but in days past every team have done whatever they could to win – cheat, bend the rules, break the rules, sabotage opponents'. In America the wheezes used to bring out a 'full course yellow' when it suits are the stuff of legend.

Much of the ire in response to the Crashgate case has been because of the perceived risk to Piquet, other drivers, spectators and marshals from the accident. Without wishing to sound complacent about what is still a dangerous sport, I can't help but feel that the talk of potential danger in this incident is over-stated and verging on the hysterical. The accident was at low speed (compare it to the speed that Ayrton Senna deliberately crashed into Alain Prost at Suzuka in 1990) and the car came to rest well off the racing line. In modern F1 cars and on modern F1 circuits it would in all likelihood have taken a chain reaction of absolute freakishness for any driver or spectator to be endangered. The additional danger over and above the risks in any F1 race was minuscule in my view.

As for marshals, speaking as one I don't particularly feel affronted by this case of a driver crashing deliberately. Marshals volunteer knowing the risks to themselves, and generally don't put anything past drivers, particularly when it comes to making efforts at staying out of the scenery. I appreciate others will disagree though.

Don't get me wrong - Crashgate was a case of flagrant cheating. Yes it left a nasty taste in the mouth that people we'd previously respected would go to such egregious lengths to win. Yes Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds deserved punishment for their role in this. So too did Piquet though, who after all is ultimately responsible for his making the moral choice to spin his car into a wall deliberately and can count himself very lucky to get away scot-free from the whole thing (it also doesn't reflect well on him that he only 'fessed up after his dismissal from Renault almost a year later, when revenge against his former employers may have been on his mind). But let's not pretend Crashgate was more than it was.


  1. I recognize this is very old, and I generally agree with most of what you say in this article, even though I am not much of a Renault or Alonso fan. But I would like to point out that there is another way of looking at Piquet's situation, in that he joined the team expecting to get his big break, as an F1 debutant. Instead, he was made to play second fiddle to Alonso, was asked to crash deliberately, then fired from the team when he wasn't performing. All of that has got to amount to a pretty horrible F1 experience, which makes any desire for revenge entirely understandable. Admittedly, it would have been more honorable, and looked better, if he had come clean before or shortly after the incident, but I don't think his involvement really warrants punishment. It's not like he's ever getting hired again anyway.

    1. Hi, thanks very much for sharing your thoughts.

      To be brutal about this, I don't have a huge amount of sympathy for Nelson Piquet being in the predicament you outline. For one thing, when he signed for the Renault race seat he knew it would be alongside Fernando Alonso, and we all know the status Alonso that carries in that team. For another thing, in my view people get *way* too bogged down in this number one/number two thing. The days of the number 2 driver slot in F1 being a backwater, and of a number 2 getting much worse equipment with much worse preparation and reliability (e.g. Johnny Dumfries at Lotus, the various team mates of Nelson Piquet Snr at Brabham) are long in the past. Piquet nine times out of ten got the same equipment as Alonso with which to prove himself, and 10 times out of 10 Piquet didn't get near him. Which is why Renault ditched him, and were right to do so.

      And whatever the mitigating circumstances, it remains the case that Piquet chose to deliberately drive his car into a wall, and is ultimately responsible for his own behaviour. And because of this I felt he deserved punishment. As I said also, that he only fessed up after being sacked a year later didn't reflect well on him.