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Fernando Alonso celebrates his win at the 2008 Singapore GP (Feature Image Credit: Motorsport in the 2000s on Twitter)

A conspiracy revealed: the 2008 Singapore GP

One of the most controversial races in F1 history was witnessed at the Marina Bay circuit

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The 2008 Singapore Grand Prix will forever be remembered as a fixed race. Fernando Alonso won the race, but the victory was a conspiracy engineered by Renault. 

F1’s first night race in 2008 looked spectacular but is still tainted by events during the race (Image Credit: Motorsports in the 2000s on Twitter)

When F1 rocked up to Singapore in 2008 for F1’s first-ever night race, anticipation filled the air as much as the 1,500 light projectors. Carved into the streets of the Asian city, a 3.1-mile circuit had been created to test the drivers to their limits. Fans could watch in awe as the Singapore skyline lit up to showcase the sound of rasping, howling V8s.  Criminally understated in the build-up to the event, the race was a landmark in F1’s long history.

The championship battle of 2008 added to the excitement. Ferrari and McLaren were in the midst of a toxic rivalry. The previous year’s Spygate scandal was still very much raw for both teams, with loyalties key to the championship challenge. Title protagonists Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa battled hard across 2008. The latest controversy had only occurred two races before, at the Belgian Grand Prix.  Lewis Hamilton was given a 25-second penalty for cutting the final chicane while battling with Kimi Raikkonen. Hamilton lost the win, dropping him to third.

The title fight would see a huge swing in favour of Hamilton at Singapore. The British driver went on to be crowned World Champion after a dramatic final race at Interlagos.  After the events of the race, Massa finished at the back of the pack, one lap down. The win would be taken by Renault’s Fernando Alonso, pulling off a seemingly impossible win after qualifying P15 due to a car failure in Q2.

While Alonso counts this win like any other, for most of the grid, the result is still tainted. The fixing of the Singapore Grand Prix was not an opportunistic act.  Executed with precision, the conspiracy required very careful planning, and for the team to control as many elements as possible.

Qualifying
The R28 struggled in qualifying, with Alonso out in Q2 (Image Credit: Imago via Eurosport)

Second Renault driver Nelson Piquet Jr’s season had been frustrating. A lucky second place at the German Grand Prix thanks to a well-timed Safety Car was the highlight in an otherwise underwhelming season.

Singapore started in the same fashion, qualifying P16, unable to find more speed. Yet the Brazilian’s input would prove pivotal in the conspiracy coming to fruition.

Teammate Fernando Alonso meanwhile was also in the midst of a disappointing season. Leaving McLaren after a single fractious season, the once imperious Renault were now midfield runners.  The Spaniard’s best finish of P4 in the races before Singapore was in stark contrast to his race-winning McLaren of 2007.  Practice in Singapore gave the two-time World Champion hope, however. Finishing P1 in second and third practice, the R28 showed good pace at Marina Bay. Alonso and Renault felt confident and in contention for pole position.

However, qualifying delivered a blow to Alonso’s weekend. Mechanical failure caused his R28 to coast to a halt in Q2, before he had even set a lap time. This left Alonso P15 on the grid. With Piquet Jr behind in P16, Renault’s weekend looked to be over before it had even begun.

The Race
Felipe Massa leads the grid away at lights out (Image Credit: Yahoo Finance via PA Images)

As the Renaults prepared to leave the grid ahead for the formation lap, Alonso started on super soft tyres. This was a bold strategy and required the two-time World Champion to aggressively overtake the cars ahead of him.   As refuelling was part of F1 in 2008,  the Spaniard also started the race with a light fuel load.   Teammate Piquet spun at turn 23 on the formation lap but was able to take his grid spot of P16.

As the race started, Alonso struggled to take make up any ground, remaining stuck in P15. On lap 12, he pitted for new tyres and a heavier fuel load, the team opting to put the Spaniard on an alternative strategy. The early stop relegated Alonso to the back of the field, into what could have become a boring afternoon.

Meanwhile, at the front of the grid, it was Ferrari’s Felipe Massa that had stormed into the lead. Pulling clear of Hamilton’s McLaren in P2, the Brazilian looked in imperious form. Ferrari looked set for a comfortable and crucial victory, as the season headed towards its conclusion.

The crash
Nelson Piquet Jr’s crash at turn 17 during the 2008 Singapore GP is now infamous (Image Credit: formula1.com)

On lap 14, the second Renault of Nelson Piquet Jr crashed at turn 17.  As reported by Autosport in 2009, the Brazilian said he experienced “a lot of graining”, causing him to lose control of his R28:

“From the start of the race things were complicated and I had a lot of graining and the situation got worse and worse. The team asked me to push, which I tried to do and finally I lost the rear of my car. I hit the wall heavily but I’m OK. I am disappointed with my race but obviously very happy for the team this evening.”

Piquet Jr’s crash had suddenly changed Alonso’s race. Under 2008 regulations, the pit lane closed when the Safety Car was deployed.  This meant that those that did pit to refuel received a 10-second stop-and-go penalty. Once Piquet’s car had been recovered, all the front runners dived for the pit lane.  Alonso found himself in a net lead once the drivers in front of him served their penalties, or stopped to refuel.

Ferrari endured a nightmare stop for leader Massa. The refuelling rig stuck to his F2008, and he set off.  Released into the path of Adrian Sutil’s Force India and taking down his own mechanic, he stopped at the end of the pit lane.  The Ferrari mechanics dashed down the pit lane to remove the rig.  Massa rejoined last, and would finish in the lower places, out of the points.

Alonso and Renault now had track position, a better strategy, and the momentum to take the win. With 20 laps to go, Renault pitted Alonso for the second time,. He rejoined holding track position ahead of David Coulthard’s Red Bull. The Scot acted as a barrier between Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, who had missed an opportunity to take the victory. Rosberg would claim P2, with Hamilton in P3. After his win, autosport.com quotes Alonso:

“A first podium of the season and first victory as well and I am extremely happy. I cannot believe it right now, I think I need a couple of days to realise we won a race this year. It seems impossible all through the season to be close to the top guys and here suddenly we have been competitive from Friday. Obviously, we started at the back and the first safety car helped me a lot and I was able to win the race.”

The conspiracy revealed
Renault Team Principal Flavio Briatore and driver Nelson Piquet Jr’s relationship broke down following the Brazilan driver’s sacking (Image Credit: Eurosport via Reuters)

Despite the celebrations and the team crediting the Safety Car, Alonso’s victory had actually been a carefully calculated conspiracy plot. After the disastrous qualifying for the team, Renault’s leadership conspired to create a scenario for the Safety Car to be deployed once Piquet Jr had performed a staged crash.  Crucially this would take place after Alonso had stopped for fresh tyres. With track position, and the drivers forced to pit after the Safety Car had ended due to the pit lane being closed, Alonso would take the lead once the rest of the grid pitted.

A year later, the conspiracy came to light.  Piquet Jr had been sacked by Renault for poor performance, and contacted the FIA. He informed them via two statements that he had been instructed by his team to crash at turn 17 during the Singapore Grand Prix to bring out a Safety Car and aid Alonso. The allegations were aimed specifically at Team Principal Flavio Briatore, and Pat Symonds, Renault’s Executive Director of Engineering,  The ramifications for the sport were serious, and the FIA began investigating immediately.

The relationship breakdown between Renault and Piquet Jr was severe. Briatore announced Renault both denied the allegations and intended to take Piquet Jr to court over blackmail. Full immunity was offered to Piquet for coming forward with the allegations.  Symonds was also rumoured to have been offered immunity if he cooperated. Symonds stated to the FIA that the idea to crash during the race had come from Piquet Jr. Clearly, someone was still lying. What was now confirmed, however, was that Renault did indeed force a crash leading to a Safety Car to aid its star driver.

A day after Symonds spoke to the FIA, transcripts were released by The Guardian following a leak to the wider media. The transcripts detail Briatore, Symonds, Alonso, Piquet Jr and engineers talking via radio in the build-up to the crash. Renault then announced it would not contest the allegations, with Symonds and Briatore departing the team:

The ING Renault F1 Team will not dispute the recent allegations made by the FIA concerning the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix. It also wishes to state that its managing director, Flavio Briatore and its executive director of engineering, Pat Symonds, have left the team.

Bob Bell was promoted to interim Team Principal, while Renault’s reputation within F1 and the wider motorsport world plummeted. Having admitted the conspiracy plot, the team was now hoping a fresh start of leadership would help turn the page in a sad saga.

Renault in the dock
Flavio Briatore (left) and Pat Symonds (right) departed the team shortly before the FIA hearing into allegations Renault fixed the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix (Image Credit: Autoevolution)

The FIA held an extraordinary meeting of the World Motorsport Council on 21st September 2009. Renault paid dearly for fixing the 2008 Grand Prix.  The team received a two-year suspended disqualification from the F1 Championship. The reputational damage continued, as title sponsor ING pulled out of its deal with Renault, leaving the team with self-branding for the 2009 Singapore GP.

Flavio Briatore received a lifetime ban from F1 and motorsport for his role in the plot, despite his vehement denials of any wrongdoing. Also banned from managing drivers with a superlicence, it was a spectacular fall from power for the once influential Italian. Symonds was banned from FIA motorsport for five years.  Alonso denied any involvement in the conspiracy, and was cleared by the FIA, along with his mechanics.

The World Motorsport Council confirmed Renault saved itself from an F1 ban by ensuring the departure of Briatore and Symonds from the team. Highlighting the obvious dangers placed on the crowds at Singapore in 2008, and the damage to F1’s integrity. Alonso’s victory stood, Renault, keeping its win. Its full statement read:

Renault had accepted, at the earliest practicable opportunity, that it committed the offences with which it was charged and cooperated fully with the FIA’s investigation. It had confirmed that Mr. Briatore and Mr. Symonds were involved in the conspiracy and ensured that they left the team; It apologised unreservedly to the FIA and to the sport for the harm caused by its actions:

“It committed to paying the costs incurred by the FIA in its investigation; and Renault (the parent company, as opposed to Renault F1) committed to making a significant contribution to FIA safety-related projects.”

“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 Jr. himself. The World Motor Sport Council considers that offences of this severity merit permanent disqualification from the FIA Formula One World Championship.

“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 World Motor Sport Council will only activate this disqualification if Renault F1 is found guilty of a comparable breach during that time.”

The aftermath and legacy
Pat Symonds returned to F1 in 2017 as Chief Technical Officer (Image Credit: UKIO Congress on Twitter)

Briatore and Symonds both had their bans overturned and reinstated in a court saga that ran for over two years. An agreement was made with the FIA to not work within Motorsport until the 2013 season. Both have since returned to the sport. Briatore rejoined F1 as an ambassador in 2022.   Symonds returned to F1 as Chief Technical Officer for Williams from 2013 to 2016 and has served as F1’s Chief Technical Officer since 2017.

The saga proved to be the end of Nelson Piquet Jr’s F1 career, as the Brazilian never raced in the sport again. That Briatore and Symonds returned to F1 considering their involvement in a race-fixing conspiracy is remarkable. That they are both such senior figures in the sport is a huge comeback story.

Feature Image Credit: Motorsports in the 2000s on Twitter 

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