The Singapore Scandal: Alonso’s Controversial Win of 2008

Following the first night race at Marina Bay in 2008, it was initially reported that Fernando Alonso’s luck had changed as he picked up his first victory of the campaign late on for Renault, but the aftermath that would follow revealed that his turn in luck, unfortunately, had been engineered for him.

The Race

Renault hadn’t won a Grand Prix in just under two years before this weekend, but it was starting to look good for them when Alonso went quickest in FP2 and FP3, he appeared to be in strong contention for pole. But after being the 5th quickest car in Q1, the Spaniard’s Renault suffered a mechanical issue in Q2 and set no time, meaning that Alonso would start the race from 15th.

At the start of the race, the usual suspects got away cleanly, with Hamilton in a Ferrari sandwich of Massa and Raikkonen, whilst Heikki Kovalainen and Robert Kubica’s BMW made contact behind. Alonso, still further back, avoided a penalty despite cutting out the first sequence of corners.

Ten laps into the inaugural night race, Massa had built a steady gap of three-seconds over Hamilton, the two title rivals of 2008 in a race of their own given that Kimi was a further seven-seconds adrift at this point. But between lap 12 and 14 of the race, a chain of events occurred that would give the Renault of Alonso an unlikely lead, and in hindsight, cost Felipe Massa the 2008 World Championship.

On lap 12, Alonso would make an early pit-stop to get his car off of the unfavourable Super-soft tyres. He dropped to the back of the field and strategically looked to be on for some decent points. But two laps later, the scenario akin to taking a dive in boxing would happen, Alonso’s teammate, Nelson Piquet Jr, crashed his Renault into the wall, bringing out the safety car.

At the time, it looked like a simple driver error, it was a tight, demanding street circuit that had never been driven before, and a few visits to the walls had been expected before the race. Under the safety car, but before the pit-lane was open, Rosberg and Kubica were forced to stop due to low fuel. they would both later receive penalties.

Once the pit-lane was open, the rest of the grid, except Alonso and those on one-stop strategies, pitted for refuelling and some fresh rubber given the clear advantage that pitting within this window brings. Ferrari had to stack their drivers in the pits, and in the madness, Felipe Massa was released from the box with the fuel hose still attached and was unsafely released, nearly making contact with the Force India of Adrian Sutil. The Brazilian stopped at the end of the pit-lane once he noticed the hose as Ferrari mechanics scrambled after him to remove it. He emerged from the disastrous stop at the back of the grid, having led the race fairly comfortably moments before.

Consider the butterfly effect of this. Had the rest of the Championship played out exactly the same without Piquet Jr’s crash, Felipe Massa would have at best won the race and at worst scored a few points. That would have been enough to win the 2008 Formula One World Championship, given that he lost it by a single point. In a parallel universe in which there had been no race fixing, the Brazilian would be champion. This doesn’t take away anything from what Hamilton achieved in only his second year of the sport, but surely even the Brit would acknowledge this.

A source has confirmed to us that straight after the race, Felipe Massa angrily went to the Renault garages and made it perfectly clear that he was aware of what they had done. Little did he know how justified his own personal rage towards the sequence of events would be at the end of the season. Don’t expect Massa to drive for Renault anytime soon, because they cost him big time.

Back to the race, and the order following the safety car and pit-stops was Rosberg’s Williams, Trulli’s Toyota, Fisichella’s Force India, Kubica’s BMW, Alonso’s Renault, the Red Bulls of Webber and Coulthard, and Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren in 8th.

Rosberg started to build a lead as the heavy-fuelled cars of Trulli and Fisi held up the rest of the field. Then the penalties were dished out from race control, a drive through for Massa, who was already at the back, and 10-place stop and go penalties for the leader Rosberg and Kubica in 4th for refuelling whilst the pit-lane was closed. Massa served his penalty straight away, with nothing to lose, and Kubica dropped from 4th to the back, behind the Brazilian. Rosberg would take advantage of the traffic jam that Trulli was causing in his heavy Toyota, and built a 15-second lead before serving his penalty, meaning he would emerge in 4th, promoting Trulli to the lead, Fisichella to 2nd and Alonso to 3rd, who was at this point in the net lead given the two cars ahead were on a one-stop and yet to pit.

When the two leading drivers took to the pits, Alonso put in a strong stint that allowed him to pit later on and rejoin with his lead in tact. Despite a few more retirements, crashes and safety car periods, the Spaniard would hold on to pick up his first win for Renault since returning to the team, and Rosberg would finish behind him in what would be the last podium appearance for a Toyota-powered car. Hamilton secured the final podium place, a satisfying drive given that Massa had finished 13th, outside the points.

Piquet Jr’s early crash had jeopardised most of the driver’s strategies apart from Alonso, who had been given the call to pit two laps prior to the incident. Nothing would be made of the incident until August 2009, when Nelson Piquet Jr parted ways with Renault. His comments would bring the team into disrepute.

The Aftermath

Piquet Jr’s comment after the race:

“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.”

Only a few journalists were suspicious after the crash. It does seem like the sort of accusation that would be laughed at and called a conspiracy theory at the time. Following the incident, one writer for Grand Prix Times wrote that some cynics were questioning what had happened but concluded with:

“One likes to believe that no team would ever be so desperate as to have a driver throw his car at a wall.”

The crash was forgotten for a while, but after he was dropped by Renault, Nelson Piquet Jr’s statement to the FIA was damning. Here is a chunk of his comment from the official transcript:

“The proposal to deliberately cause an accident was made to me shortly before the race took place, when I was summoned by Mr Briatore and Mr Symonds in Mr Briatore’s office. Mr Symonds, in the presence of Mr Briatore, asked me if I would be willing to sacrifice my race for the team by “causing a safety car”. Every F1 race driver knows that the safety car is deployed on a track when there is an accident that leads to the track being blocked either by debris or a stationary car, and where it is difficult to recover a damaged car, as was the case here.”

“At the time of this conversation, I was in a very fragile and emotional state of mind. This state of mind was brought about by intense stress due to the fact that Mr Briatore had refused to inform me of whether or not my driver’s contract would be renewed for the next racing year (2009), as is customarily the case in the middle of the year (around July or August). Instead, Mr Briatore repeatedly requested me to sign an “option”, which meant that i was not allowed to negotiate with other teams in the mean time. He would repeatedly put pressure on me to prolong the option I had signed, and would regularly summon me to his office to discuss these renewals, even on racing days – a moment which should be a moment of concentration and relaxation before the race.

“This stress was accentuated by the fact that during the Formula One Grand Prix of Singapore, I had qualified sixteenth on the grid, so I was very insecure about my future with the Renault team. When I was asked to crash my car and cause a safety car incident, I accepted because I hoped it could improve my position within the team at this critical time in the race season. At no point was I told by anyone that by agreeing to cause an incident, I would be guaranteed a renewal of my contract or any other advantages. However, in the context, I thought that it would be helpful in achieving this goal. I, therefore, agreed to cause this incident.

“After the meeting with Mr Briatore and Mr Symonds, Mr Symonds took me aside to a quiet corner, and using a map, pointed to me the exact corner of the track where I should crash. This corner was selected because the specific location of the track did not have any cranes that would allow a damaged car to be swiftly lifted off the track, nor did it have any side entrances to the track, which would allow a safety marshall to quickly move a damaged car away from the track. Therefore, it was felt that a crash in this specific location would be nearly certain to cause an obstruction on the track which would the necessitate the deployment of the safety car in order to allow the track to be cleared and to ensure the safe continuation of the race.

Mr Symonds also told me which exact lap to cause the incident upon, so that a strategy could be deployed for my teammate Mr Fernando Alonso to refuel at the pit shortly before the deployment of the safety car, which he indeed did during lap twelve. The key to this strategy resided in the fact that the near-knowledge that the safety car would be deployed in lap thirteen/fourteen allowed the team to start Mr Alonso’s car with a aggressive fuel strategy using a light car containing enough fuel to arrive at lap twelve, but not much more. This would allow Mr Alonso to overtake as many (heavier) cars as possible, knowing that those cars would have difficulty catching up with him later in the race due to the later deployment of the safety car. This strategy was successful and Mr Alonso won the 2008 Formula One Grand Prix of Singapore.”

– Nelson Piquet Jr’s Official transcript to the FIA

Flavio Briatore would deny any wrongdoing despite compelling evidence that concluded guilt. Pat Symonds retained a modicum of dignity by admitting his guilt in the event, omitting a great sense of shame and apology. Nelson Piquet Jr walked away from the incident without any real repercussions, although teams made it quite clear that he would never be employed in Formula One again. Briatore and Symonds were given five-year bans that were later overruled, both of them receiving compensation despite being found guilty of one of the most disgraceful scandals in Motorsport.

A continuity of evidence highlights that neither Fernando Alonso or his mechanics were aware of the strategy. The aftermath of this event brought shame to Formula On and will immortalise the inaugural night race at Marina Bay, which has continued to be a gem in the crown of the F1 calendar ever since.

Piquet Jr would move on to NASCAR and Formula E, and would become the first champion of the all-electric series, but his admittance of participation at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix scandal shows a driver that was both blackmailed and guilty of one of Formula One’s most vitriolic incidents.

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