F1: Crashgate, the endless saga

15 years later Crashgate is still a hot topic. Felipe Massa is fighting it in court and has asked for Lewis Hamilton’s support.

Controversies are no strangers to sports. They’ve always plagued sports, and some even linger over into new eras. Organizations like FIFA and the FIA are always defending themselves against a new controversy. But this time around, the FIA found themselves fighting an old one – Crashgate.

We’re back in Singapore this weekend – Crashgate’s home. Crashgate happened in 2008, at the first edition of the Singapore GP, and F1’s first-ever night race.

What is Crashgate?

At the Singapore Grand Prix in September 2008, Nelson Piquet Junior crashed into the wall at turn 17 on lap 14 – a catalyst for all that unfolded over the years.

Piquet Jr. and Fernando Alonso were teammates at the time. Renault had a poor qualifying session with Alonso starting in 15th, and Piquet Jr. in 16th. On race day, during the warm-up lap, Piquet Jr. spun at the exact corner where he would later crash out but was able to keep control of the car.

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Alonso started the race with a light fuel load to try to pass the cars ahead of him. Subsequently, Alonso was the first driver to make a pit stop for fuel and tyres on lap 12. He rejoined the race at the back of the field. Three laps later, Piquet Jr. hit the wall at turn 17. There was no crane nearby at this specific turn, so this meant that safety car deployment was necessary.

The Benefit

In 2008, safety car regulations meant that the pit lane was closed until all the cars had been bundled up behind the safety car. This meant that the leading cars would lose out significantly after pitting – they would re-enter at the back of the field. Alonso, having pitted just before the safety car was introduced, gained a significant advantage. From 15th on the grid, Fernando Alonso won his first race of the season.

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The Brazilian stated that his crash was just a mistake. Renault attributed the safety car being deployed when it was ‘good luck’. There were questions about whether the crash was deliberate, but it was hard to believe that a driver would intentionally crash an F1 car for some underlying sinister reasons. It was all just speculation, therefore the sport took no action over the incident.

What sparked the investigation?

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Nearly a year later, on August 3rd, shortly after the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, Renault released Piquet Jr. To add to the tension, the Brazilian claimed that he had an ‘understanding’ with the team. He was furious, and days later claimed that he had crashed because he received orders. Speculation and rumour crept around the paddock for weeks, and on September 4th, Renault was charged with conspiracy.

The hearing was scheduled for September 21st, and Renault had made it clear that they were ready to deny all charges. However, things changed massively just days before the court date. On September 16th, Renault said that they would not contest the allegations. In an even more shocking twist, managing director Flavio Briatore and executive director of engineering, Pat Symonds were announced to have quit.

At the hearing, Renault were disqualified from Formula 1. The disqualification was suspended for two years pending any further rule infringements. Briatore was banned from all F1 and FIA-sanctioned events indefinitely, whilst Symonds received a five-year ban. Their bans were later overturned by a French court in January 2010. However, they both agreed to not work in F1 or FIA-sanctioned events for a specified time as per a later settlement that was reached with the governing body. Briatore eventually returned to F1 in 2022 as an ambassador. Symonds too returned to the sport in 2011 as a technical consultant for Virgin Racing.

How is Felipe Massa involved in Crashgate?

According to Brazilian TV station Rede Globo, Brazilian driver Felipe Massa questioned Briatore about the crash at the time.

Felipe Massa had been leading at the time of Piquet Jr.’s crash and finished 13th The Brazilian was in a close title fight with Sir Lewis Hamilton throughout the entire season. The then McLaren driver went on to win the 2008 Driver’s Championship, with Massa losing out by one point. Massa believes that Crashgate played a big part in his loss of the 2008 title, as the crash led to him ultimately missing out on scoring points in that race.

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Renewed legal action

In March 2023, quotes emerged of former F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone, suggesting that he and then-FIA president Max Mosley were aware of Crashgate but did nothing of it. He was quoted in a story by F1-insider.com saying that he and Mosley “were informed during the 2008 season of what had happened in the race in Singapore.”

Massa then began looking into possible legal options. Massa’s Brazilian lawyer has said that they had offered Formula 1 and the FIA time until mid-October to respond to a letter they had sent before the claim. F1 and the FIA are yet to respond.

To make their case stronger, the lawyers want Hamilton, who was then racing for McLaren, to support their claims. Viana said;

“He is an important ambassador for the sport and has always defended sporting integrity. He is an honorary Brazilian citizen and very well liked by Brazilians, so I hope he will support us.

“We have absolutely nothing against Hamilton.”

The Brazilian driver’s aim is to seek compensation from F1 for the deliberate accident – the lost income he would’ve earned after winning the championship.

Was Crashgate really the reason Massa lost the 2008 title?

When Piquet Jr. crashed, Massa went into the pits. However, it was quite disastrous. The Ferrari pit crew gave him the green light to go but, Massa was still connected to still be connected to the fuel hose. A few mechanics were knocked over as Massa drove down the pit lane with it still attached to the car. He stopped near the exit of the pit lane and had to wait a while. This is because the Ferrari pit crew had to attend to Kimi Räikkönen’s pit stop, before running over to Felipe Massa. When the pit crew finally got to him, they struggled to remove the hose but were eventually able to.

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Finally, Massa rejoined the race, but he was at the back of the grid and was given a drive-through penalty.

It is no lie that Massa was a victim of the horrific Crashgate scandal – all parties involved in the title fight were. But, team error was a greater contributor to his loss of points. My personal opinion is that Ferrari are the reason Massa lost the 2008 title, not Crashgate. However, it can be argued that team error occurred due to panic caused by Piquet Jr.’s crash.