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Sun 20 Sep 2009 04:00 AM

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The fall of Flavio

Read how the glamorous Formula One billionaire came crashing to earth last week.

The fall of Flavio
The fall of Flavio
Former Renault F1 team boss, Flavio Briatore.
The fall of Flavio
Former F1 champion driver Fernando Alonso.
The fall of Flavio
The team’s former engineering director Pat Symonds.
The fall of Flavio
Driver Nelson Piquet Jr, who was fired by Renault last month.
The fall of Flavio
In the paddock, Briatore was known as someone who could be very hard on drivers who did not match up to his exacting standards.

How the Formula One billionaire became the greatest cheat in the history of sport.

Flamboyant, rich, football mad, a lover of women with his own way of talking in any language and an apparent Midas touch when it comes to business and sport, Flavio Briatore came crashing to earth last week.

One of the big beasts of the Formula One jungle, it seems his overarching ambition, desperation almost, to repeat his earlier glories of championship and race-winning seasons drove him and his No 2 at the Renault Formula One team, Pat Symonds, the director of engineering, allegedly to commit one of the worst acts of cheating and race-fixing in professional sport.

The Renault Formula One team last week sensationally released a statement saying that they would not dispute claims made against their conduct at last year's Singapore Grand Prix.  It was charged that Nelson Piquet Jr, their former driver, was instructed to crash his car on purpose during the race, in a plot designed to propel his teammate Fernando Alonso to victory.

Piquet Jr, who was fired by Renault last month, crashed on the 14th lap of last year's race. Alonso went on to win the race as other cars came in to refuel while the Spanish driver had enough fuel to move ahead of the field.

Governing body FIA began investigating last month, and offered Piquet Jr immunity against prosecution in return for his testimony.

The statement, which said the team "will not dispute the recent allegations made by the FIA" also revealed that Briatore, the team's managing director, and Symonds had both left the team. It was not clear whether they had been sacked.

Until this debacle, Briatore, 59, could be counted among the most successful and influential figures in Formula One. He had presided over two world championships for Michael Schumacher during his time as team principal at Benetton in the mid-1990s, then he repeated the feat at Renault, where Fernando Alonso won drivers' titles in 2005 and 2006.

The Italian with a mop of long grey hair, who started out as a skiing instructor, had become a big player at the head of one of the sport's biggest teams. As the years rolled by, Briatore had survived to become a close associate of Bernie Ecclestone, the billionaire Formula One promoter with whom he regularly played poker and with whom he is a part-owner of Queens Park Rangers football club.

In recent years, Briatore had developed strong convictions on how the sport could be developed and improved. He played a prominent role in the Formula One Teams Association (Fota) and he was regarded as someone who saw himself eventually running the show, in the role of an Ecclestone. (Dangerous ambitions, those, when the man himself is still very much in charge.) In the crisis over a threatened breakaway by the teams from the FIA this season, Briatore was a leading light and his conduct during that difficult time did not endear him to either Ecclestone or Max Mosley, the president of the governing body.

Briatore was successful, but it would be hard to argue that he was widely respected or loved. Many saw potential difficulties because he tried to run the Renault team and, at the same time, owned a company that managed several drivers. And there was a ruthlessness about him that did not endear him to the wider paddock. No better example of this was his unwise and distasteful personal attack on Nelson Piquet Jr, his former driver, who sparked the scandal that brought him down, when Briatore tried to dismiss the allegations against him at the Italian Grand Prix at the weekend.

Like many in Formula One, which is as much a business as a sport, it would be hard to argue that Briatore is passionate about it. Football is a religion for him and, since buying into QPR two years ago, his ham-fisted attempts to run that club have occupied his mind and his dreams probably more than any of his problems in motorsport. Rather, he is regarded as a highly competitive deal-maker who found success in business and sport by being clever in whom he employed and letting them get on with it without interfering too much.

How he did it

The website Racefax.com last week published what it said was a dossier resulting from the FIA investigation into Renault's role in the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix. These are extracts from the website's evidence.

Piquet's allegations

On August 3, Piquet issued a statement confirming he had been sacked by Renault.

On July 26, Piquet's father, Nelson Sr, told the FIA that his son wanted to make a statement regarding the Singapore Grand Prix crash.

Five days before Piquet announced he had been released, he provided the FIA with a signed statement in which he alleged:

• He was asked by [the team principal Flavio] Briatore and team technical director Pat Symonds "to deliberately crash my car" in Singapore to benefit [teammate Fernando] Alonso.

• 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'".

• He "agreed to this proposal and caused my car to hit a wall and crash during lap 13/14 of the race".

• That after meeting with Briatore and Symonds, the latter "took me aside to a quiet corner and, using a map, pointed me to the exact corner of the track where I should crash", because "it 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 damaged car to be rolled off the track. Crashing where Symonds indicated "would thus necessitate the deployment of a safety car".

• Symonds told Piquet that the strategy to be employed for Alonso, who would start 15th, would have him very light on fuel, and that Alonso would thus pit before the Piquet crash while others would not, thereby allowing Alonso to gain track position.

• That he agreed to crash because he thought it would help him keep his drive, though no promises were made.

• He repeatedly asked the team to confirm the lap he was on, "which I would not normally do".

• "Mr Briatore discreetly said ‘thank you' after the end of the race" but the deliberate crash was not discussed with him by anyone after the initial meeting and agreement.

On August 17, Piquet provided the FIA with a supplemental statement. In it, the driver explained how he had crashed.

"After ensuring I was on the designated lap of the race, I deliberately lost control of my car" on the exit to turn 17, the second part of a right-left chicane. "I did this by pressing hard and early on the throttle. As I felt the back end of the car drifting out, I continued to press hard on the throttle, in the knowledge that this would lead to my car making heavy contact with the concrete wall..."

In both his statements, Piquet acknowledged that he had "a duty... to ensure the fairness and legitimacy" of the Formula One championship.

In the paddock, he was known as someone who could be very hard on drivers who did not match up to his exacting standards while, at the same time, he adored Alonso, the Spanish driver whom many, not just Briatore, view as in an exceptional class of two alongside Lewis Hamilton.

It was widely thought that his own expertise was limited and he had very little, if anything, useful to add from his seat on the Renault pitwall during races. They sometimes used to joke in the team that he should be given his own radio channel, so that no one else could hear him.

The Italian, whose parents were both teachers, left the ski slopes for the Milan stock exchange as a young man, where he got his big break in 1974 when introduced to Luciano Benetton. Three years later, Benetton hired him to roll out his line of casual clothing stores in the United States. Briatore was phenomenally successful in that task and by 1989 he found himself running the company's Formula One team with a young driver on his hands called Michael Schumacher.

At that time, Briatore surrounded himself with talented lieutenants, some of whom stayed with him for years, among them Symonds. Another who worked for him as technical director was Ross Brawn, who would go on to achieve so much at Ferrari and now Brawn GP.

Briatore's success at Benetton was matched at Renault where he took the helm after the company re-entered Formula One in 2000, having bought the Benetton team. Based at Enstone, near Oxford, Renault always had a reputation as being a group of real "racers" but with a relatively relaxed approach compared with, say, McLaren Mercedes under their former principal, Ron Dennis. Those who worked with him say Briatore's great strength was in knowing what he did not know and letting those with the right skills and expertise express themselves. He set stiff targets and would come down on his staff very hard if they failed to make the grade.

In his life outside Formula One, Briatore, who lives most of the time in London, has enjoyed the glamorous existence of a middle-aged playboy with several hundred millions in the bank and most of the toys, including a superyacht called Force Blue.

A regular subject of the diary columns of the Italian papers, he raised eyebrows last year when he married Elisabetta Gregoraci, the Italian model, who, at 30, is 29 years his junior. Since then the unlikely couple have been photographed in various glamorous locations with headlines to match their very contrasting physiques.

In addition to his work with Renault, Briatore has also launched the successful Billionaire clothing and nightclub brand designed to appeal to the super-rich or those who want to hang out with them.

Some have wondered why Briatore was prepared to risk all to win the Singapore Grand Prix. At heart he is a hugely competitive individual who was under great pressure from Renault to deliver results amid the ever-present danger that the company might withdraw from the sport. He was also anxious to demonstrate to Alonso that the team could produce a winning car, something that might have influenced the Spaniard's decision to stay with the team for another season.

Another unanswered question is why Briatore decided to sack Piquet in July when he must have known there was a risk the driver could retaliate. Some believe he was again under pressure from Renault, who could not understand why he was keeping faith with a driver many believe is not up to the task in Formula One.

Courtesy of The Times.

Renault race-fixing: The Belgian Inquiry

While the Renault race-fixing story became public during the Belgian GP at the end of August, it had actually begun to unfold much earlier.

This led to an inquiry during the Belgian race, where stewards were charged with interviewing a number of people from the Renault team.

The inquiry was conducted over August 27 and 28.

Made available to the stewards was the telemetry (a technology that allows remote measurement and reporting of information) printout from Piquet's team-mate Fernando Alonso's car, illustrating that he had also experienced wheelspin at Turn 17 during the race.

The data traces showed him easing off the throttle, the opposite of what Piquet had done on Lap 14.

Alonso was interviewed first but merely confirmed that his reaction to wheelspin in Turn 17 was conventional.

Next up was the team's director of engineering,  Pat Symonds:

FIA adviser:[With respect to the Singapore meeting involving Briatore, Symonds and Piquet] In your own words, Mr Symonds, what do you recall being said to Nelson Piquet Jr at that meeting? This is shortly before the race.

Symonds:I don't really remember.

FIA adviser:You don't remember?

Symonds:No.

FIA adviser:Nelson Piquet Jr says that he was asked by you to cause a deliberate crash. Is that true?

Symonds:Nelson had spoken to me the day before and suggested that. That's all I'd really like to say.

FIA adviser:Mr Symonds, were you aware that there was going to be a crash at Lap 14?

Symonds:I don't want to answer that question. Later, there was this exchange.

FIA adviser:There is just one thing that I ought to ask you, and put it to you so you can think about it, at least.

Mr Piquet Jr says that having had the initial meeting with you and Flavio Briatore, you then met with him individually with the map of the [Singapore GP] circuit. Do you remember that?

Symonds:I won't answer. Rather not answer that. I don't recall it but it sounds like Nelson's talked a lot more about it.

FIA adviser:Mr Piquet Jr also says that at that meeting, you pointed out a specific place on the circuit where he was to have the accident and said it was because it was the furthest away from any of the safety or lifting equipment, and gave the most likely chance of a safety car being deployed.

Symonds:I don't ... I don't want to answer that question.

Still later, the questioning of Symonds concluded with the FIA adviser asking whether Symonds or Briatore had done most of the talking during the meeting involving them and Piquet.

FIA adviser:Because, just to be absolutely clear here, what Nelson Piquet Jr has said is that at that meeting it was you that asked him to have the crash deliberately.

Symonds:I can't answer you.

FIA adviser:Can I say that if, Mr Symonds, you'd been put in the position where you were made to ask Mr Piquet Jr to crash, it's much better.

It would be much better for you in the long term to tell these stewards, to hear that today.

Symonds:I fully understand that.

FIA adviser:Yes.

Symonds:I have no intention of lying to you. I have not lied to you, but I have reserved my position just a little.

FIA adviser:And you're aware that the stewards may draw conclusions from your unwillingness to assist them in relation to what went on in that meeting?

Symonds:I would expect them to. I would absolutely expect that.

FIA adviser:I think I haven't got any further questions.

The FIA technical department provided the Belgian GP stewards with annotated telemetry traces from Piquet's Singapore accident, and other data.

Symonds was also questioned about the telemetry printout from Alonso's wheelspin incident and from Piquet's car, copies of which was shown to him.

FIA adviser:I think you'll anticipate what I'm going to ask you here.

Symonds:I think I will.

FIA adviser:There's a more significant wheelspin recorded here [in Piquet's traces than Alonso had experienced earlier in the race]. You'll see what has been marked by the [FIA] technical department as a rapid increase in throttle pedal [application].

Symonds:Mmm hmm.

FIA adviser:There's a slight releasing of the throttle as the wheels start to spin but when the [wheel] spin is at its greatest, there appears to be a reapplication of the throttle at almost 100%.

Symonds:Yes.

FIA adviser:I put it to you, Mr. Symonds, that that's a very unusual piece of telemetry that would suggest that this may have been a deliberate crash.

Symonds:I would agree that it is unusual.

FIA adviser:Would it suggest to you a deliberate crash?

Symonds: I'm not sure I've ever seen a deliberate crash, so I... It's very unusual data.

FIA adviser:Counter-intuitive for a driver to put his foot full on the throttle when he's in a deep [wheel] spin like that, Mr Symonds?

Symonds:It is. Yes, when he has that much wheelspin, it’s counter-intuitive.

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