Can Piquet Handle The Pressure?

Everyone who follows motor-sport knows quite well that GP2 is a stepping stone on and into the tight and intimidating cockpit of an F1 car. Along with various teams nurturing a ‘young drivers program,’ GP2 is a place to find unique, up and coming talent.

In 2006, Nelson Piquet Jr. ended his second GP2 season in second place – only twelve points behind Lewis Hamilton. With such an eventful year under his belt, Piquet landed a testing and reserve driver role at Renault for the following year.  Fernando Alonso had just been crowned World Champion for the second year in a row, and Renault’s spirits were high. As double World Champion, Alonso’s services were wanted by all, eventually resulting in his move to McLaren-Mercedes for 2007.

In 2008, two potential drivers were waiting in line hoping for a Renault seat: Nelson Piquet Jr. and Heikki Kovalainen (Kovalainen was looking to continue with Renault, into his second year, but rumor had it – with Alonso returning to the French team – that Kovalainen was seen as a potential rival to Alonso). Looking to Piquet, after having soaked up a year shadowing Giancarlo Fisichella and Kovalainen, Flavio Briatore opted to give him a shot.

His first year was – what’s the word – underwhelming. All the hype made it seem like another Hamilton had arrived. I like Central/South American blood. I had hoped to see a little of Juan Pablo Montoya in Piquet, with just a little less wild. Honestly, I saw nothing.

Renault had lost the thunder they so happily possessed, Alonso seemed to be happy back at Renault as long as it was far away from Hamilton (having one of the most miserable seasons of his career), and Piquet, luckily, was given a second chance to prove to the paddock and the world that he had a pair of cohones. He was remembered for his offs more than anything else that year, especially when the F1 circus arrived in Singapore. September 28th, 2008 was one of the most exciting nights in Formula 1 history: the F1 calendar welcomed its first night race. Due to a fuel problem, Alonso only managed to qualify in 15th place. Piquet sat a place behind him. Renault decided to pit Alonso early after realizing that overtaking would be difficult from the back of the grid.

Singapore 2008

Piquet flies through the night, counting down the laps until crash corner © Martin Trenkler

When Renault meant early, they meant lap 12. 3 laps later, Piquet had spun off track into the brand new, scratch-free, barriers at turn 17. The Safety Car inevitably came out, bringing the grid to a slow-down until Piquet’s car had been cleared. 46 laps later Alonso crossed the finish line in first position, winning his first of two races in 2008.

Let’s fast-forward to 2009. Renault were unimpressed with Piquet’s form throughout the year and replaced him just days after the Hungarian Grand Prix.

“It is obviously with great disappointment that I receive such news. But, at the same time, I feel a sense of relief for the end of the worst period of my career,” Piquet said.

Clearly furious with the decision, he lashed back saying that Briatore was to blame for his poor performance. Days later, Piquet came forth to the FIA with news that Renault had sabotaged the Singapore Grand Prix 2008. He claimed that he had been asked to crash deliberately, aiding Alonso to victory.

Now let’s look a little closer:

Turn 17 is believed to be an ideal crash location to tempt out the Safety Car, due to the lack of cranes in the area. When telling his side of the story, Piquet pointed fingers at Briatore, who he and Pat Symonds met with a few hours before the first night race in F1 history. Several reports stated that Piquet was in an ‘uncomfortable’ state throughout the weekend and at Renault in general (which would be the perfect platform for Briatore and Symonds to take advantage of). Symonds claims that during their pre-race ‘conversations,’ it was Piquet who suggested the crash be staged.

“Anyone who knows my history knows that the results I am having in F1 do not match my CV and my ability. The conditions I have had to deal with during the last two years have been very strange to say the least – there are incidents that I can hardly believe occurred myself,” he elaborated.

The pre-race meeting took place without the involvement of Alonso.

“Yeah, of course. I am very surprised. I cannot imagine this situation,” Alonso said.

Safety Car - Singapore 2008

Briatore & Symond's plan had been played out... © Martin Trenkler

When I first heard about a possible sabotage, it really put F1 in a temporary new light. My mind interpreted the investigation as if it were out of a movie. It makes you wonder: people will go long ways to succeed (that is if allegations against Briatore prove correct). Was Renault frustrated at their lack of pace throughout the season that led them to staging a race? Was Piquet frustrated enough with his let-down that he would create such an inconceivable story?

Whatever happens, I feel Briatore and Symonds have betrayed me, regardless of their success in the sport.

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