Renault F1 were in disarray last night after the announcement that team principal Flavio Briatore and engineering chief Pat Symonds had left with immediate effect in the wake of the Piquet race-fixing scandal.
The team issued a statement indicating they would not mount a legal defence of the driver's allegations that he was instructed to crash his car at the Singapore Grand Prix last year in a shocking plot to guarantee a much-needed win for the team's main driver Fernando Alonso.
It had been expected that Briatore's head would roll before an extraordinary meeting of the World Motor Sport Council in Paris, which is still scheduled for Monday, and the Singapore Grand Prix at the end of next week. But it was widely thought that Symonds would escape, having been offered immunity by the FIA in return for full co-operation.
The Renault chief executive, Carlos Ghosn, is thought to have long wanted to divest the team of its controversial Italian principal, and the latest scandal has played into his hands.
The team were accused of "fraudulent conduct" by plotting with driver Nelson Piquet Jnr to stage a deliberate crash during the inaugural Singapore Grand Prix, in September last year, in order to bring about deployment of the safety car to give Alonso a crucial advantage. The Spaniard went on to win the race, Renault's first success in a hitherto difficult season, against a backdrop of questions about whether the French company would continue its involvement with a struggling team. While suspicions were raised at the time, with many observers noting that the crash panned out conveniently for the Renault team, the governing body could take no action because there had been no formal complaints or protests over the result. That was also their line when, it is believed, the subject was raised again at last year's season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix.
Back in Singapore, in the race when this most desperate of plans was executed, Alonso had been in contention for pole position in qualifying until his fuel pump failed, leaving him only 15th on the starting grid. He began the race with a relatively light fuel load and was brought into the pits to refuel very early on, dropping down the field and apparently out of contention. It is alleged that Piquet was instructed to crash on the 14th lap.
Radio transmissions between Piquet and his crew on the pit wall allegedly reveal that he repeatedly asks: "Is it lap 14?" and that his car's onboard telemetry shows that he did not lift off the throttle in the corner in question as he had on every previous lap, but kept his foot to the floor even when the rear wheels had broken traction and the car was sliding out of control. When Nelson Piquet Jnr was sacked in July – apparently at Renault's behest rather than just Briatore's, and following a string of poor results – the 24-year-old Brazilian and son of the legendary namesake hit out with astonishing allegations that he had been instructed to crash in Singapore. This time the FIA commissioned the independent investigative agency Quest to interview Briatore, Symonds and Alonso while at the Belgian Grand Prix in late August.
At the Italian Grand Prix at Monza last weekend Briatore reacted angrily to Piquet's claims and announced that Renault F1 were seeking to initiate criminal proceedings against the driver and his father, the triple world champion Nelson Piquet Snr, accusing them of blackmail. In the meantime, the FIA have also indicated that Piquet will be immune to punishment, having provided them with the majority of their evidence against Briatore and Symonds.
In taking the action to jettison Briatore and Symonds Renault have clearly laid the ground for a plea for leniency to the WMSC, but they could still face a possible ban next year. There is precedent for this, as the Toyota rally team were thrown out for a year after cheating in 1995. In that case, Sauber would automatically join in 2010 and Renault would have to reapply.
The issue is far from clear-cut, as other teams may now seek to claim prize money that was paid out to Renault, though the FIA have already indicated that it is too late to change the 2008 results. It also remains to be seen whether Alonso will be implicated in the affair, as some argue he must have had knowledge of it.
Prost in pole to restore team's image
If the Renault F1 team survives Monday's meeting of the World Motor Sport Council, in which they must answer charges that they rigged the result of the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, it could open the door for Alain Prost to return to Renault.
It is no mean feat to fill Flavio Briatore's extravagant shoes as team principal, a figurehead role for which kudos is the chief requirement. And at the Italian GP at Monza last weekend, Prost, now 54, was rumoured to be the most likely successor.
Prost began his Formula One career with McLaren in 1980 but the following year he switched to Renault for three seasons.
Despite being fired from the team in 1983 for failing to win the world championship, and the failure of his own team, Prost GP, which he founded in 1997 and closed in 2002, he is still a highly respected figure both in France and internationally. The winner of 51 grands prix and four world championships, Prost has the gravitas and credibility that Renault sorely need as they seek to rebuild their tarnished reputation.
Current technical director Bob Bell, is expected to step up, filling the gap left by the outgoing executive director of engineering Pat Symonds, who also lost his job yesterday after it was alleged he was instrumental in hatching the plot and telling Nelson Piquet Jnr exactly where to crash.
The lap in Singapore in which Nelson Piquet Jnr was told to crash in order to help Alonso win.
Year of the cheat? Sports dragged through the mud
12 April – Bloodgate
Dean Richards orchestrates the fake blood injury to Tom Williams in Harlequins' Heineken Cup fixture against Leinster and the subsequent attempted cover-up. The director of rugby then resigns from his post when it comes to light and receives a three-year ban. Williams receives a 12-month ban, which is reduced to four months when he tells all.
1 June – Bath Drugs Scandal
Michael Lipman, Alex Crockett and Andrew Higgins resign from Bath amid allegations that they refused to take drug tests. They are each banned from rugby for nine months charged with "conduct prejudicial to the interests of the game". Earlier in the year club prop Matt Stevens is banned for two years after testing positive for cocaine.
12 July – England time waste
Ricky Ponting accuses England of failing to play in the spirit of the game after James Anderson and Monty Panesar's match-saving effort in the first Ashes Test in Cardiff. The Australia captain is angry at England's delaying tactics, when their 12th man and physio rush on to the field to speak to the last-wicket pair as England hang on for a draw.
26 August – Eduardo's tumble
Arsenal's striker falls after minimal contact against Celtic in a Champions League qualifier and is charged with diving by Uefa. His two match ban is then overturned when Uefa fails to prove its case.
3 September – Chelsea ban
Fifa bans Chelsea from signing any players during the next two transfer windows after a complaint by Lens that Chelsea have poached Gaël Kakuta despite him being on a contract.
14 September – Sprint ban
Jamaican sprinters Yohan Blake, Marvin Anderson, Lansford Spence and Allodin Fothergill suspended for three months for taking a banned substance.