Shadows of Singapore: The 2008 Singapore Grand Prix

On September 28, 2008, under nearly 1600 light projectors fans, drivers, and teams waited to see how the first Formula 1 race to be run at night would unfold: the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix. Little did they know the drama they were about to see develop on the track was only the tip of the iceberg. The real drama that would result from this race would not be felt until August 2009 in a shocking turn of events that came to be known as “Crashgate”.

Practice started the weekend off with a bang. The shift to an evening race had been pushed by the FIA to accommodate their European audiences, therefore drivers and teams had to switch the way their schedule normally ran for a race weekend. Instead of being at the track at the break of dawn, the teams came in mid-afternoon and worked until early the next morning. Therefore, practice was set in the steaming heat of the afternoon with watchful eyes often turned skyward against the rains of a late monsoon season. Lewis Hamilton was fastest in practice, with the Ferraris of Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen hot on his heels. Several drivers, including Mark Webber and Rubens Barrichello, had accidents and by the time the second practice rolled around, the attrition rate had risen. Fernando Alonso, in a Renault, had somehow managed to stay on track and had found himself on top of the leaderboard by the end of Practice 2.

By the time the teams reached qualifying, drivers were more comfortable with the sprawling track and speeds were increasing. Both Kimi Raikkonon and Felipe Massa were fast, with Raikkonen topping the first of the qualifying sessions. Fernando Alonso, so quick in practice, had experienced a fuel feed problem which had prohibited him from setting a time. It was Raikkonen’s teammate Felipe Massa, however, who took the pole, with Lewis Hamilton starting second and Raikkonen third.

By the evening of the race, the tension was ratcheted up and a vibration could be felt emanating from the crowd. The track was bathed in the glow of artificial light and everyone watching wondered how the race would evolve through the course of the evening. As the cars took to the track and began their warm up Nelson Piquet spun but recovered without incident and took his place on the grid for the start. As the race began, the leaders charged through the first set of corners without incident. Behind them, however, Nick Heidfeld and Fernando Alonso cut the corner (but received no penalty) and Robert Kubica tangled with Heikki Kovalainen, an accident which allowed Sebastian Vettel and Timo Glock to get through.

Ten laps into the race, Felipe Massa was ahead by over three seconds, with Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen behind him. Fernando Alonso came in on lap 12 to switch from the super soft tyres to the soft compound. When Alonso rejoined the pack he was at the back of the field. On lap 14, Alonso’s teammate Nelson Piquet Jr. hit the wall hard at Turn 17. Piquet would later blame the hard compound tyres for his collision with the wall, something which would come back to haunt him.

In the pits, it was chaos. Only the two Red Bull cars managed to squeeze in before the pits were closed. Nico Rosberg, Robert Kubica, and Rubens Barrichello, all running low on fuel came in despite the closed pits, adding confusion to the pit process. Once the pits were opened it was no better. Felipe Massa got the go ahead to leave before his team was actually ready and left with the fuel hose still attached to the car. Moreover, he was released in front of Adrian Sutil. The mechanics chased Massa all the way down the pit lane before he came to a complete stop and the fuel hose was removed. Massa had to join the field at the back. Massa, along with the drivers who had come into the pits when they were closed were dealt penalties and the decision as to when the penalties would be served became an important part of each team’s strategy.

Alonso moved into the lead after Rosberg had to serve his penalty, giving up a fifteen second lead over Jarno Trulli. Alonso continued to lead and after lap 45 he led Timo Glock by over six seconds. Both Felipe Massa and Adrian Sutil spun on lap 46 at Turn 18 , moments apart from each other. The safety car came out and the field bunched up.

There were nine laps remaining in the race when the safety car moved from the track and Alonso stood on it, pulling away from Rosberg and Hamilton. He held onto the lead for the remainder of the race and took the win. Nico Rosberg came in second and Lewis Hamilton was third. Formula 1’s first night race was in the books and Fernando Alonso and Renault had taken it in style, or so it was thought.

It was not until August 2009 that rumors began to circulate that the crash that Nelson Piquet, Jr. was involved in, on Lap 14, was not the accident it was claimed to be. The allegations were that Piquet, Jr. had crashed on purpose to give the advantage to teammate Fernando Alonso. In the investigation conducted by the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile), Piquet Jr. said that he had been ordered by Renault team principal Flavio Briatore and engineer Pat Symonds to stage the crash. Renault was consequently charged with conspiracy and with fixing the race and were due to face the FIA World Motor Sport Council in Paris in late September of 2009. Renault, Briatore, and Symonds reacted by claiming they could, and would, take legal action against Piquet Jr. for false allegations. That never came to pass, however, and Renault made a statement that they would not contest the charges. They were handed a penalty of being disqualified from Formula 1, a sentence which was suspended for two years pending no further rule challenges. In addition they lost their title sponsor IMG; the company did not want to be associated with a team caught cheating. Pat Symonds was banned from FIA Motorsport for five years and Flavio Briatore was banned from FIA Motorsport for life. Piquet Jr. was granted immunity for his testimony and was free to race in FIA Motorsport, including Formula 1, again. Finding a team that would hire him, however, was considerably easier said than done.

The 2008 Singapore GP was a race which should have been a crowning achievement for Formula 1. It was the sport’s first night race, held in one of the most exotic locations in the world, and the whole world was indeed watching. What it turned into, however, was one of the most shocking events in the history of the sport, casting a shadow on the hard driven victory of Fernando Alonso, and of Formula 1 itself.

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