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F1 returns to scene of the crime

Fernando Alonso is quizzed by the media in Singapore
Fernando Alonso is quizzed by the media in Singapore

By Sarah Holt
BBC Sport in Singapore

Formula 1 returned to night racing in Singapore with the shadows cast by the fall-out from last year's inaugural race lengthening over the Marina Bay street circuit.

This week Renault were handed a ban from the sport, suspended for two years, after being found guilty of fixing the 2008 race.

The ruling, by governing body the FIA, may have put a full stop on the "crash-gate" scandal but there was nevertheless a tangible sense of frustration among the F1 fraternity as they returned to the scene of the crime.

"It's not (just) another scandal," insisted BMW Sauber boss Mario Theissen. "It's serious. F1 has a good chance to become even stronger but only if all this comes to an end now."

After "lie-gate", when McLaren's world champion Lewis Hamilton was found guilty of lying to race stewards at the first race of the season in Australia, the sport hardly needed another controversy.

But when Renault sacked Nelson Piquet Jr in July following a string of poor performances, the Brazilian's revelation that he deliberately crashed in Singapore last year to help team-mate Fernando Alonso win the race revived the sense that F1 has serious problems to address.

"I'm running out of patience sticking up for this sport," sighed Red Bull driver Mark Webber. "I'm sure other people are as well.

Even if some questions remain unanswered, F1 is not in the habit of dwelling on the past for too long

"This stuff goes on and on and what can we do? We are fans of the sport, we want it to be taken seriously like most sports but at the moment we are off the back of a poor example and we're not proud of it."

While the damaging effects of "crash-gate" were discussed extensively under Singapore's darkening skies, many in F1 were unwilling to comment publicly on the punishment doled out by the FIA in Paris on Monday.

Along with Renault's suspended ban, former team boss Flavio Briatore was effectively banned for life, while their ex-engineering director Pat Symonds was excluded for five years.

When asked for their views in the drivers' media conference, Hamilton, Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen and Nico Rosberg of Williams were reluctant to say anything - as people often are when it comes to giving a verdict on the minefield of F1's political issues.

"It's not really our job to comment on it," said Hamilton, neatly skirting the issue, despite it being suggested to him that, as world champion, he had a responsibility to speak in defence of the sport.

It was left to BMW Sauber driver Robert Kubica to raise questions that others dared not; in particular a concern that the FIA knew about the plot last year but failed to act.

"The circumstances [of the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix] were strange at the time," the Pole said.

"The thing I'm surprised about is that if someone from the FIA knew about it last year and had some information on it why didn't they do something then?

Mark Webber and Flavio Briatore
Mark Webber is one of the drivers who worked with Briatore

"If you want to race in Formula 1 you have to accept that sometimes it is drifting a bit from the ideal view of F1 - that is how it is."

The FIA itself claims Piquet's father Nelson Sr alerted president Max Mosley to the possibility of a plot following last year's race but that, as his son was not willing to make a statement, the FIA could not proceed with an investigation without further evidence.

Even if some questions remain unanswered, F1 is not in the habit of dwelling on the past for too long.

One man in particular was keener than most to put the events of last year's race behind him.

"It's last week, the past, it is behind us and we move on," insisted Alonso, who warned the media melee he would stop answering questions in English if he was asked again about the events of 2008.

"It is clear that I was not involved in the accident. It has been difficult times for the team but it is settled and it is in the past for us."

Alonso, who added that he still counts his tainted victory in Singapore as a win, insists it is back to business as normal at Renault, who will now run without the support of their title sponsor, the Dutch bank ING, which has withdrawn its backing with immediate effect.

But although team insiders say there will be no operational changes at Renault as Bob Bell combines the role of team principal with his duties as technical director, it is hard to see how the team will not miss their figurehead, Briatore, and Symonds's tactical nous.

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As part of the sanctions against Briatore, any driver who is involved with him must now sever ties with the Italian or risk losing their F1 superlicence.

Briatore had a knack of putting the right people in the right places; and his charges on the F1 grid - Alonso, Webber, McLaren's Heikki Kovalainen and Piquet's replacement Romain Grosjean - are proof enough of that.

Webber, who has been managed by Briatore for 11 years, is now planning to go it alone.

"He's been sensational for me and I won't work with anyone else in the future if I can't work with him," said the Australian.

"I've not looked at the contract since I signed it that very first day, and there are not many people you can do that with. He was a good character for F1."

The Italian was also a key figure in the Formula 1 teams' association, Fota, and was central to its successful opposition to the FIA's plans to introduce a controversial budget cap and regulations changes in 2010.

However, despite Briatore's strong presence, Theissen says he will not be missed.

"He certainly has achieved a lot in the negotiations Fota versus FIA and FOM (Formula 1 Management) but this has been sorted out with the signing of the new Concorde Agreement," he explained.

Nelson Piquet Jr
Nelson Piquet Jr's future in Formula 1 is far from certain

"Apparently, Flavio ran the commercial development working group but there are many other capable people to take over this role."

The F1 future of Briatore's former charge Piquet Jr is now less certain following his revelations.

The 24-year-old, who can offer financial backing, has been linked with a move to one of the new teams joining the grid in 2010, but now he also brings with him substantial baggage.

"He got himself into a situation that he regrets," said Webber. "He has to live with that and I think it's difficult for him to come back."

The Singapore paddock was fretting with talk of another scandal to come before the season is out and perhaps that is why few wanted to judge Renault and the "crash-gate" plotters too harshly.

Justifying reasons and rulings in Formula 1 can be a complex business, not least because in this rollercoaster of a sport it is never certain what is around the next corner.



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see also
Renault suffer twin sponsor blow
24 Sep 09 |  Formula 1
Briatore ban too harsh - F1 boss
24 Sep 09 |  Formula 1
Button rejects cautious approach
24 Sep 09 |  Formula 1
Reeling Renault to continue in F1
24 Sep 09 |  Formula 1
Witness X sealed Briatore's fate
23 Sep 09 |  Formula 1
Renault handed suspended F1 ban
21 Sep 09 |  Formula 1
Piquet Jr 'sorry' for race-fixing
21 Sep 09 |  Formula 1
Renault blames Briatore & Symonds
17 Sep 09 |  Formula 1
Briatore out over Renault fix row
16 Sep 09 |  Formula 1
Renault to launch Piquet lawsuit
11 Sep 09 |  Formula 1
Alonso 'surprised' by fix claim
10 Sep 09 |  Formula 1
Piquet Jr dropped by Renault team
04 Aug 09 |  Formula 1


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