Briatore’s victory gives the FIA a tough lesson in the limits of its power

Posted on Author Keith Collantine

The FIA focused its punishment on Symonds and Briatore instead of Renault
The FIA focused its punishment on Symonds and Briatore instead of Renault

The Singapore crash affair is by no means over: I cannot imagine the FIA letting Tuesday’s verdict in favour of Flavio Briatore lie, and Briatore himself has said he may bring further lawsuits.

But now the verdict is out there and the principal players have all said their pieces, it’s time to take stock.

The FIA’s attempt to single out the individuals it believed were behind Nelson Piquet Jnr’s deliberate crashing in the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix has backfired badly. What are the consequences for F1?

Depending on who you believe, either the FIA didn’t want to punish Renault – and risk the team joining Honda and BMW in quitting the sport – or Max Mosley really had it in for Flavio Briatore. Or perhaps a bit of both.

Whichever, the outcome was that when the FIA handed down its verdict on September 21st last year, Renault escaped the full force of the punishment:

The World Motor Sport Council considers that offences of this severity merit permanent disqualification from the FIA Formula One World Championship. However, having regard to the points in mitigation mentioned above and in particular the steps taken by Renault F1 to identify and address the failings within its team and condemn the actions of the individuals involved, the WMSC has decided to suspend Renault F1?s disqualification until the end of the 2011 season. The World Motor Sport Council will only activate this disqualification if Renault F1 is found guilty of a comparable breach during that time.
WMSC decision

In short, Renault would have to commit another similar infraction to gain a disqualification. And remember this extremely restrained verdict came one month after their European Grand Prix ban imposed by the Hungarian Grand Prix stewards was lifted.

Instead the FIA went after the two men it said were responsible: Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds:

As regards Mr. Briatore, the World Motor Sport Council declares that, for an unlimited period, the FIA does not intend to sanction any International Event, Championship, Cup, Trophy, Challenge or Series involving Mr. Briatore in any capacity whatsoever, or grant any license to any Team or other entity engaging Mr. Briatore in any capacity whatsoever. It also hereby instructs all officials present at FIA-sanctioned events not to permit Mr. Briatore access to any areas under the FIA?s jurisdiction. Furthermore, it does not intend to renew any Superlicence granted to any driver who is associated (through a management contract or otherwise) with Mr. Briatore, or any entity or individual associated with Mr. Briatore.
WMSC decision

This verdict was widely truncated to the phrase “lifetime ban” when it was reported, but the differences between the two are important. The FIA does not have power to punish individuals, which is why the ‘ban’ was worded in this way.

As has been widely pointed out the Tribune de Grande Instance did not find Briatore innocent – far from it. They simply found that the FIA had exceeded the limits of its authority:

The FIA […] can sanction licence holders, leaders, members of the ASNs [national sporting authorities], but it cannot with respect to third parties, take measures equivalent to a sanction – in contravention of article 28 of its statutes. The World Council, by forbidding FIA members and licences to work with Messrs Briatore and Symonds, on the one hand added a negative condition ?ǣ to not work with them ?ǣ which is not provided for within the FIA statutes.
Tribune de Grande Instance

(See the FIA statutes for more)

Out from the FIA came a predictably thundering denunciation and some terse words from Max Mosley as well. But it’s far from clear what it can do next – it seems to have painted itself into a corner.

Letting the whole shameful affair lie as it is with no-one receiving any meaningful punishment would be a disgrace. But it can hardly call Renault back and say “actually it turns out we should have punished you”. It has said it is considering an appeal in which it will hope to find some way of sanctioning Briatore.

Nor should we forget that while the FIA went to one extreme in punishing Briatore, it went to the other by failing to punish Nelson Piquet Jnr. He may (so the FIA claims) have blown the whistle on the whole affair, but should a driver who admits to crashing a car on purpose be allowed to keep his superlicence?

Turning away from the Singapore case, how should the FIA handle these cases in the future? Reform its statutes to give it the power to hand down punishments to individuals? Or accept that it might in future have to hand down punishments even greater than McLaren’s 2007 $100m fine – to teams whose F1 commitment is wavering?

Finding the answer to that is the first big question of Jean Todt’s presidency.

Renault Singapore crash controversy