Formula One seriously in need of big clean-up

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 September, 2009, 12:00am


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Tonight's Singapore Formula One grand prix will, as usual, be a test of the drivers' skill, judgment and courage. For the sake of the sport and its global audience of hundreds of millions, it would be good if these qualities were more in evidence in the way it is run.

The sport has a huge following and attracts vast sums in sponsorship. But its reputation has been seriously tarnished by a string of scandals. Last April world champion Lewis Hamilton was disqualified from the Australian grand prix for giving misleading evidence to race stewards. Two years ago the McLaren-Mercedes team was fined US$100 million for stealing technical secrets from Ferrari.

Now Formula One is revisiting the scene of its worst disgrace. In last year's Singapore grand prix, Renault No 2 driver Nelson Picquet Jnr deliberately crashed his car on orders from team officials so No 1 driver Fernando Alonso, involved in a fierce battle for the drivers' championship, would win. The instruction was not an impulsive act but a part of a planned strategy to win by cheating. Luckily no one was hurt. Deliberately crashing in a race between 300km/h-plus cars is an act of reckless irresponsibility that puts drivers' lives at risk and stretches the sport's remaining credibility to breaking point.

Its governing body, the International Automobile Federation (FIA), rightly condemned it and banned the Renault team manager, Flavio Briatore, from motor racing for life and chief engineer Pat Symonds for five years. Yet the Renault team remains on the grid for tonight's race. It did not dispute the charges but had already sacked Briatore and Symonds and a racing ban was suspended. If Renault does not re-offend for two years, it will not be applied.

Compared with other penalties, it is a slap on the wrist. It looks more like concern about losing a major team, at a time when manufacturers and sponsors are tightening purse strings. Formula One fans are entitled to expect a thorough clean-out that will act as a strong deterrent. Renault sponsor ING banking group, which kicks in US$75 million, severed ties immediately to protect its own image. This sends the right message. The FIA should heed it.