The disgraced Formula One team principal Flavio Briatore celebrated a staggering victory yesterday when a French court overturned his lifelong ban from the sport, ruling that the sanction was illegal.
Motor sport's governing body launched an immediate appeal with the aim of frustrating any plan for Briatore to secure a return to F1 amid concerns the scandalous figure could take up a role in driver management, a sideline he held when he was Renault team boss.
The hearing centred on the 59-year-old Italian's part in the "Crashgate" race-rigging plot at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, and for which the former Renault team principal was banned indefinitely and engineer director Pat Symonds for five years last September.
The French high court decreed that the sanctions imposed against both Briatore and Symonds were invalid because of "irregularities" in the FIA's decision-making process following the investigation into the allegations that the two had conspired with driver Nelson Piquet Jnr to stage a deliberate crash that helped team leader Fernando Alonso to win.
Briatore's lawyer, Philippe Ouakrat, said after the verdict but before the FIA made its appeal: "We have the feeling that some justice has been reinstated. I'm certain that the court was quite shocked by the way that the decision was made against Mr Briatore.
"We are in a situation in which Mr Briatore is reinstated in all his capacities to act in Formula One or motor sports. The reputation of Flavio was tarnished but now he can recover his dignity."
Though the FIA's appeal means the wrangling continues, the judgment should put Briatore in the clear according to the Football League's fit and proper person test, leaving his co-ownership of Queens Park Rangers unaffected.
At the hearing, Briatore denied any involvement in the scandal, the biggest ever to hit Formula One, and, said many commentators at the time, any sport. In his defence when he launched his action in October, claiming that the penalty was the result of a vendetta against him by Max Mosley, who was then the FIA president, he said: "In this case, the FIA has been used as a tool to exact vengeance on behalf of one man.
"This decision is a legal absurdity and I have every confidence that the French courts will resolve the matter justly and impartially."
The World Motor Sport Council, which found Briatore and Symonds guilty last September, said Renault had breached their sporting code with conduct of "unparalleled severity".
Yesterday the Tribunal de Grande Instance ruled that the FIA did not have the power to hand down such a penalty because neither Briatore nor Symonds were required to hold a licence to carry out their jobs and were thus beyond the jurisdiction of the governing body.
"The FIA can sanction licence holders, leaders and members of the ASNs [national sporting authorities] but it cannot, with respect to third parties, take measures equivalent to a sanction," the court ruled. The court also appeared to accept Briatore's claim that there was a bias to the ban as Mosley was already in dispute with him over the threatened breakaway world championship and other team issues, and that Mosley played a part in both the investigation of the allegations and in the determination of the penalties.
"The decision of the World Council was presided over by the FIA president, who was well known to be in conflict with Briatore," the judgment continued, "with Mr Mosley having played a leading role in launching the inquiry and its investigation, in violation of the principle of separation of the power of the bodies.
"The decision of the FIA World Motor Sport Council is not annulled but declared irregular, and rendered without effect in its provisions against Mr Briatore and Mr Symonds." The FIA now has two weeks in which to publicise the new ruling, or face a daily penalty of €10,000 (£8,980).
There was, however, a sting in the tail for Briatore, who has been dubbed the sporting villain of the decade in a reader poll in this newspaper. He had been seeking damages of €1m (£900,000), but was awarded only €15,000. Likewise, Symonds sought €500,000 but was awarded only €5,000.
"It's difficult to know just what this ruling means," F1 commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone told The Independent. "But it would be good if all of this is put out of the way so that we can look forward to a cracking season of racing and not be hampered by all the politics that spoiled 2009.
"I guess the FIA will have to appeal and maybe change their rules and bring Flavio and Pat Symonds before them again, which is what I suggested they should do some time ago. We'll have to see what happens."
Banged to rights? How the mighty fell
28 September, 2008 Fernando Alonso wins the Singapore GP after Renault team-mate Nelson Piquet Jnr crashes on lap 15. Piquet's crash causes the deployment of the safety car, which aids Alonso's victory bid.
26 July, 2009 The FIA is informed that Piquet wants to make a statement regarding the Singapore race. The Brazilian alleges that Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds, the team technical director, asked him "to deliberately crash my car" to aid Alonso.
3 August, 2009 Piquet confirms he has been sacked by Renault after a disagreement with Briatore, the team's principal. Piquet describes Briatore as his "executioner".
30 August, 2009 Symonds interviewed by FIA at the Belgian GP. He refuses to give direct answers: "I don't remember" and "I don't want to answer" are his stock replies. The affair goes public after a Brazilian TV station breaks the story during the race.
4 September, 2009 FIA summons Renault to answer charges that they fixed the Singapore GP.
16 September, 2009 Briatore leaves Renault after they decide not to contest the charges following an internal investigation. Symonds also leaves the team.
21 September, 2009 Renault given a two-year suspended ban from Formula One. Briatore is banned from all FIA-sanctioned events for life. Symonds is banned for five years.
24 November, 2009 Briatore asks Tribunal de Grande Instance, France's high court, to overturn his ban.
5 January, 2010 Briatore wins his case, as does Symonds. FIA announces it is to appeal.Reuse content