Veteran Williams engineer Patrick Head has seen it all in his 30 plus years at the sharp end of Formula 1.
This weekend he spoke out about the FIA investigation into Nelson Piquet’s allegation that Renault F1 management got him to deliberately crash his car at a specific time and place in Singapore last season in order to bring out the safety car and help Fernando Alonso win the race.
Head has seen plenty of young drivers, under pressure for their futures, do some desperate things, but the notion that a driver would go along with something like this is extraordinary even to a seasoned F1 pro like him.
He said that he became aware that Piquet may have crashed on purpose when a journalist friend of his told him that Piquet had let him in on the plot, not long after the race.
Many in the sport had their suspicions at the time and I was one of them, privately, because it was just such a huge co-incidence. But knowing the Renault engineers pretty well I dismissed the notion from my mind because to do that would simply be nuts and I don’t see the guys I know as capable of that kind of thing.
Being a bit clever with electronics or dampers is one thing, but doing something like this would cross the line.
Patrick said that the case is a real acid test for the sport and for showing the public that the FIA’s disciplinary processes have integrity after a few cases recently where the public have come away thinking that it was more about personalities than justice,
“The FIA have raised this, I hope that what goes on in Paris and whatever punishments are handed out can be looked at and stand up to scrutiny,” said Head. “If the regulators of F1, which is not just the regulators of the car but the race, if they are not thought to be proper regulators then it calls into question lots of things.”
As for his analysis of the Piquet incident, he firmly believes that no driver, however much pressure he is under, should do things like this. Piquet says that he sees that now, but it’s hard to believe that – if all of this actually did take place – he didn’t have enough of a support network that he had no-one he could turn to for advice about what to do. Where was his father?
“Young drivers, before they have established their name in F1, are in quite a difficult position,” said Head, “But if young Nelson was asked to deliberately crash or spin his car, regardless of his contractual position, in my view he should have said no at the time.
“If that did happen, then the people responsible should be dealt with pretty firmly.”
Head articulates a fear that F1 should take seriously, that the public could easily lose interest in F1 if it felt that it was watching something that was being manipulated,
“If that proved to be happening in a consistent way I think rightly nobody would have any interest in Formula 1 racing because you couldn’t believe what you were looking at, ” he said.
“If someone has used operational procedures to gain an advantage as has been suggested, then it needs to be dealt with quite firmly because you wouldn’t believe anything that you were looking at – and you couldn’t write an article saying that whoever wins the race did a fantastically good job because you’d think how were they cheating.
“It’s a complex sport. Some people say it isn’t a sport. But if all the cars are designed to the same rules and the engines are to the same rules, for all the shenanigans that go on beforehand and all of the commercial deals and everything, when the lights go out at the start one would like to think that was a straightforward race.”
This is dangerous ground for F1 and it is vital that next Monday the FIA gets to the bottom of what happened in Singapore and reaches the right conclusions. It’s probably the most important disciplinary matter ever to come before the World Council.
On the face of it, the case may come down to two men’s word against one, but the supporting evidence, like telemetry and radio will be decisive.