As Renault hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons in 2009, Cyril Abiteboul says he was a “useful idiot” as he was aware the “tension” involving Nelson Piquet Jr. but didn’t know the reason for it.
It all stemmed from the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix.
That Sunday, Renault team boss Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds, the executive director of engineering, ordered Piquet Jr. to deliberately crash to improve the race situation for his team-mate Fernando Alonso.
Cyril Abiteboul: I was a bit of a useful idiot
The timing of his crash at Turn 17, which brought out the Safety Car, meant Alonso, who had pitted just before the Safety Car was deployed, gain such a significant advantage that he won the race.
It wasn’t until August the next season, after Piquet Jr. was dropped by the team, that the Brazilian revealed the truth behind his Singapore Grand Prix crash.
Abiteboul, who at the time was the director of commercial development at Renault F1, says he knew nothing about it and had left perplexed by the “tension” he noted during the team’s talks with the drivers that weekend.
“I was a bit of a useful idiot, too!” Abiteboul told the Dans La Boîte À Gants podcast.
“We were in the middle of driver negotiations, we were negotiating the renewal of Piquet’s contract or not. Indeed, we see a car that is going into the wall, we see Alonso who has the right strategy. We see that we won.
“Indeed, during this weekend I felt a lot of tension in the driver discussions, obviously, but that’s why I speak of a useful idiot: I had absolutely no knowledge of what was going on at this time.”
Abiteboul recalls ‘overwhelming’ fall-out
He, like the rest of the paddock, got on with life after the Singapore Grand Prix, only finding out months later what really transpired.
“At the moment, we say to ourselves: ‘It’s still incredible’,” he said of Alonso’s win. “And then afterward, life goes by. Contracts are made and undone.
“The life of Formula 1, in any case, is a life at 300 km/h. The Grands Prix come one after the other. We don’t always have time, ultimately, to analyze in depth what is happening. One event chases the other.”
“It was a little later, the following spring, in 2009, that this story began to come out. We realised the plot that had been organised, and indeed, as I was also dealing with legal matters at that time. There, I coordinate a kind of internal investigation with the lawyers, the creation of files.”
He added: “It was a very difficult moment to manage because it’s a moment where there are still circumstances that are quite overwhelming. We must take responsibility towards the people concerned, including my boss at the time, Flavio Briatore, to whom I must explain that it is over.”
The Frenchman was the one who replaced Briatore as Renault team boss when the Italian not only lost his job but was banned from Formula 1.
“There weren’t many candidates!” he called. “It was a moment of taking responsibility, of emancipation, of leaping into the unknown. It’s complicated because I still realize today how much I owe to Flavio. At one point, he made bullshit, we have to be responsible. There was also a subject of the reputation, of responsibility of Renault as such.
“Flavio and Pat Symonds, who were credited as the brains behind this company, were taken on board, and the rest of the team was able to continue to survive, although in terms of reputation… It was the only time that Renault made the front page of the New York Times. The whole question was: is any publicity good publicity (sic), or not?”
The fall-out over Singapore 2008 could yet have new ramifications as Felipe Massa has taken legal action as he feels that the “manipulated” race cost him the F1 World Championship and tens of millions.