The FIA confirmed yesterday that it is officially investigating the circumstances surrounding Fernando Alonso’s victory in last year’s Singapore Grand Prix. The sport’s governing body is looking into the possibility that Renault intentionally created a Safety Car period to manipulate the race result. If the team is found guilty, Renault will face a very severe penalty because it would represent a serious breach of several sporting regulations.

Controversy has returned to Formula One.

Renault was very competitive at Singapore twelve months ago. The slow bumpy corners of the street circuit played to their strengths and Alonso was looking very good for a podium. However, it all went wrong in qualifying when Fernando developed a fuel pickup problem and he was forced to miss Q2. He lined up the grid in fifteenth position feeling very frustrated.

Rather than fuel the car heavy, Alonso’s engineers adopted a very aggressive race strategy. They went for a two-stopper like everyone else but chose one with very short opening stint. This gave the Spaniard a light car at the start and he quickly moved through the field, but he had to pit as early as lap 12. The stop dropped Fernando to the very back with little chance of a strong recovery.

Then the Safety Car intervened.

On lap 13 Alonso’s teammate lost the rear end of his Renault exiting turn 17 and clipped the outside wall. The unforgiving concrete shattered the right side suspension and spun Nelson Piquet heavily into the inside barrier. The impact threw debris across the circuit and the Safety Car was scrambled whilst Piquet’s damaged car was removed.

The yellow flags bunched up the field and since the pitlane was closed under the 2008 regulations, it handed Alonso a decisive advantage. Fernando moved into the lead when everyone around him made their pitstops and he stayed there until the race finished.

Piquet’s mistake gifted Alonso the victory. It was very ironic.

At the time the situation may have looked a little suspicious but Nelson Piquet made a lot of clumsy mistakes last year and most people simply brushed this off as another one.

However, this weekend a Brazilian TV station reported that Piquet was instructed to crash by Renault management in order to benefit Alonso. The TV station claims to have seen evidence that supports their accusation.

Whilst unlikely, it isn’t impossible that Renault staged the incident.

The timing of Piquet’s accident was uncanny. There were 61 laps in the Singapore Grand Prix and Nelsinho’s mistake occurred on the very one that helped Alonso the most. If Piquet had spun into the wall two laps earlier it would not have given Fernando enough time to pit, and if he had spun two laps later he would have handed the win to Nico Rosberg instead.

It could not have worked out any better for Renault from a timing perspective.

Adding to speculation that Piquet was asked to crash is that his retirement was the result of a basic beginner’s error. Nelsinho was simply too fast going through the corner and lost the back end on the exit. Whilst the rookie was easily capable of such a fundamental mistake (he spun on the warm up lap before the race) it was a rather pathetic way to exit a Grand Prix.

It’s also worth noting that Piquet stayed in the car after the accident ensuring the Medical Car was despatched. If it was his intention to bring out the Safety Car he certainly made sure it was going to happen.

The accident might also explain why Piquet was unexpectedly given a contract extension for 2009 despite a string of poor results. It could have been a payment or part of a deal from Renault for playing by their rules, because Nelsinho would not have acted unfairly or dangerously without some kind of tangible reward.

At this stage it’s still a conspiracy theory.

Despite the FIA investigation, it seems hard to believe that any driver would intentionally risk a serious injury to benefit their teammate. Any accident in an F1 car is very scary because there are plenty of things that can go wrong, even at low speed. I can’t imagine Piquet subjecting himself to that on purpose, especially to benefit a team that doesn’t treat him all that well.

Michael Schumacher proved at Monaco in 2006 that simply parking a car to block the circuit is too obvious. If Schuey bent his Ferrari against the armco barriers he would have got away with his misdemeanour, so Renault might have had that in mind in Singapore.

Having said that, Piquet could easily have thrown debris around the place in much a safer manner.

It’s also implausible that Renault would expect to get away with such a heinous crime. The FIA has access to all radio traffic and telemetry data, so any instruction to Piquet or any hint that he was doing something out of the ordinary would be easily picked up.

In addition to that, it’s fanciful of Renault to think that Piquet wouldn’t spill the beans himself one day, knowing that he wasn’t entirely happy within the team.

It’s very difficult to comprehend that, in the era of 100 million dollar fines, a team would blatantly cheat by risking safety.

It will be very interesting to see what evidence exists, if any, to give weight to the story.

Knowing how suspicious their situation might look, Renault would not have instructed Piquet to crash over the radio. That’s just too obvious. They know the FIA has access to all communication with drivers, as do trackside spectators via their Kangaroo TV sets, so the team would have made some other sort of pre-arranged deal.

Any hardcore evidence would have to be something along the lines of a written deal between Piquet and Renault. It is almost certain the ‘evidence’ has come from Nelsinho himself who clearly holds a grudge against his former team. Piquet has spoken quite bitterly about Renault, Flavio Briatore, and even Romain Grosjean via twitter. He’s still very angry about the treatment he received this year so would have motivation for leaking the story.

The FIA is right to investigate the claims, and in hindsight they would have been wise to do so immediately after the race. There is some suggestion the FIA’s probe is being driven by Max Mosley simply to dish out some pain to Flavio Briatore. That seems unlikely but there is no doubt Max would like to see Briatore brought to justice.

Renault, in its previous guise as Benetton, has been caught cheating twice before. On both occasions the team narrowly avoided being disqualified from the championship.

In 1994 traction control was banned from F1 for the first time. However, there was still some suspicion around a number of teams and the FIA asked Benetton, Ferrari, and McLaren to supply copies of their electronic coding. Benetton initially refused the request and delayed handing over their information to the FIA for as long as possible. When they did provide their electronic details to the FIA it was incomplete and had to be re-examined, leading to more unnecessary delays. After a second thorough investigation the FIA concluded that Benetton was illegally running Traction Control.

The team said they only used the system in testing and the drivers were unable to turn it on themselves, but the FIA’s computer boffins later proved this was not true.

The matter was sent to the World Council.

Despite the lies, the way Benetton handled the case, and Michael Schumacher’s phenomenal starts in the B194, the World Council eventually let Flavio’s team off the hook because there was not enough evidence to prove they had actually used the system during a race.

Later in the year, Benetton was caught tampering with the standardised fuel rig. They had removed filters to increase the flow rate and were caught out when their modified system malfunctioned on Verstappen’s car at Hockenheim and burst into flames.

Again, Benetton fronted up before the World Council but was let off this time on a legal technicality. Benetton pleaded guilty, and by doing so the World Council could only decide a punishment, rather than establish fault. This meant the FIA’s lawyers were unable to present all of their damming evidence against the team.

In both cases Benetton probably escaped punishment because of their position in the championship. The 1994 season was a terrible year for F1 after the deaths of Roland Ratzenburger and Ayrton Senna, so it would have been a disaster had the leading team being kicked out of the championship.

Flavio Briatore is not in such a privileged position anymore.

Any penalty handed out by the FIA will be very harsh but will not change the race results. If Alonso was disqualified from the Grand Prix it would promote Nico Rosberg into the winners circle, and would have a flow on effect on the 2008 championship standings and prize money.  Modifying the results of a race that finished twelve months on is not really an option for the FIA, so they would likely hand out a massive fine and a multiple race ban instead.

Renault’s long term commitment to F1 is supposedly wavering at the moment and there were recent suggestions that indicated they would be happy to leave the sport along with Honda and BMW. A massive sanction for race fixing might be enough to push them over the edge.

The likely outcome of the FIA’s investigation is that no hard evidence will be found to support a conspiracy theory, and that Flavio Briatore will be able to argue against anything that does pop up. However, if it does become clear that Renault instructed Nelson Piquet to intentionally crash, the penalty could be huge and might be enough to drive the company out of Formula One.

It could be that Piquet’s sacking might actually cost Flavio Briatore his own job.

Now that would be ironic.

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