Saturday, October 10, 2009

I still can't believe it

So why we sit and marvel at the sight of Jenson Button doing his level best to piss away a world championship, I think I'm finally ready to address the story of the year so far in F1.

I still can't believe that Renault essentially copped to race fixing.

I'm probably the only one in the world who believes that F1 is about competition, and while rules might be aggressively bent, they would never be blatantly broken. And yes, that makes me an idiot.

In a sport with this much money flowing through it -- and make no mistake, the "budget capping" exercise will do little to reduce the flow of money, only slightly redirect into which pockets it ends up residing in -- it is probably surprising that this doesn't happen more often. Or maybe it does, and the surprise is that nobody admits it or gets caught doing it.

Keep in mind that if Piquet had not been abruptly terminated in mid-season, he probably would have never spoken about it to the media. If it ever came out, it would probably be in indirect terms buried in someone's memoirs in twenty years when nobody would be around to care any more.

The FIA moved quickly on this, as it had to. Any overt rumblings of out-and-out race fixing would have to be investigated, and if there was substance to the stories, the perpetrators punished.

So how were the various players punished?

Pat Simmonds got five years. This seems a reasonable punishment, and really his being associated with this scandal will put him to rest for longer than that. It does give him the possibility of building up his reputation again in another formula once the five years have passed.

Flavio Briatore -- he got a lifetime ban. This has a knock-on effect with his other dealings, in that the football organization he is an owner in says you can't be an owner if another sporting federation has kicked you out, which the FIA has. It also buries his driver management side-business. It makes him a persona non grata in motor racing, and will affect his life beyond this.

This I think is excessive. A charitable reading of the evidence might suggest that the idea was made in jest, with people not being sure if the idea was really a jest or not -- maybe a joke that got out of hand. When I read it, my impression was that it was Piquet and Simmonds who were the main protagonists. Briatore knew, was involved, did not do anything to object or prevent it from happening, and as team principal is ultimately responsible for what happened -- but life? Come on.

Nelson Piquet Jr got nothing, since he was granted immunity. And yes, he was in an impossible situation, since his agent was also the team principal. However the fact that he gleefully shared Renault's dirty laundry after being dismissed will give many other people pause before they hire him, which is worse than anything the FIA could have possibly done to him. I doubt we will ever see him in F1 again.

Team Renault got -- nothing.

Wait, that can't be right. We had better read the decision again. Section 68 says:
The WMSC considers Renault F1’s breaches relating to the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix to be of unparalleled severity. Renault F1’s breaches not only compromised the integrity of the sport but also endangered the lives of spectators, officials, other competitors and Nelson Piquet Jnr himself.
I don't think you can sugar coat that. This is about the worst thing a competitor can do in Formula One.
The WMSC considers that offences of this severity merit permanent disqualification from the FIA Formula One World Championship.
Permanent. Disqualification. Sounds severe. Also sounds appropriate. I mean, Renault has only called into question the integrity of the entire Formula One organization in general, and the FIA's ability to police it.

However, there's a However:
However, having regard to the points in mitigation mentioned above and in particular the steps taken by Renault F1 to identify and address the failings within its team and condemn the actions of the
individuals involved, the WMSC has decided to suspend Renault F1’s disqualification until the end of the 2011 season. The WMSC will only activate this disqualification if Renault F1 is found guilty of a comparable breach during that time.
Don't you love fine print?

Translation: Renault will only be permanently disqualified if they are convicted of doing the same thing. In other words, short of getting caught fixing another race in the next two years, there's no punishment.

So yeah, Renault got nothing.

This is completely ridiculous. When Schumacher drove into Villeneuve, he lost all his world championship points for the year. When BAR was caught fiddling with their cars in post-race scruitineering, they got banned for two races. When McLaren was caught with Ferrari developmental documentation, they got fined $100 million AND lost all their constructors points for the year.

But Renault commits an offense which the FIA states is about the worst thing you can do, they get -- nothing.

Now F1 is in a fragile state right now. Honda has gone, BMW is leaving, Toyota and Renault both are considered on the edge, and the FIA has a bunch of new teams who all signed up to run under a different set of rules from what will actually govern next year's series. The chances of next year becoming a Formula Farce with teams that can't compete or can't keep the required level of funding are very high.

And say what you want about Renault, they are an organization which can field a reasonable team and can build some very competitive engines as evidenced by their Red Bull customers. So kicking them out of F1 completely would have some very unpleasant knock-on effects for F1 as a whole.

Now I am not arguing that Renault should have been banned. I think a whopping great fine would have been appropriate plus docking them the manufacturer points for '08 (since that was the year of the offense) and '09 (since that will have an effect on how they conduct business in 2010).

But the FIA's attempt to have its cake and eat it too, in that it is seen as being able to quickly and effectively police the series under their control while not actually harming one of their important competitors -- I think this has backfired completely. How can one view this verdict as anything other than political?

I hope that the FIA can somehow figure out a way to hang this on Max Mosley's head so that some, if not all, of the stigma departs with him. But really, it is hard to take the FIA seriously after this.