The future of the championship itself seemed in doubt earlier this season when eight rebel teams threatened to form a breakaway league, while reigning champion, Lewis Hamilton, was disqualified for deliberately misleading stewards in a post-race enquiry over tactics employed in the Australian Grand Prix.
But nothing has yet come close to yesterday's astonishing revelation that Renault principal, Flavio Briatore and chief engineer, Pat Symonds, had quit following the Nelson Piquet Junior race-fixing scandal, dubbed "crashgate" by many. Former F1 driver, Johnny Herbert, said that the scandal-hit sport could weather this latest storm. "It's disappointing that this has happened but at the end of the day the sport is strong enough to come out of this," he said yesterday.
"It's an indication of the unsavoury side of Formula One, but I think it's positive that it has all come to light, that the FIA is dealing with it and it should be a message to other teams that might be tempted to cheat." The incredible run of events that led to the departure of Renault's key men started when Piquet Jr, who had failed to earn his team a single point in 10 races, was dropped by Renault in August for "under performing".
Angry at this treatment, the 28-year-old Brazilian driver said his two years at Renault had thrown up some "strange incidents" accusing the team of favouring Spaniard, Fernando Alonso. He claimed Briatore often threatened to remove him 15 minutes before qualifying if he did not perform well and called him as his "executioner". Then, earlier this month, Piquet Jr and his father, a triple world champion, made the sensational allegations that the younger Piquet had been ordered to crash in Singapore in order to rig the race. The FIA president, Max Mosley, was quick to offer Piquet Jr immunity from prosecution while Renault, and Briatore personally, vehemently and consistently denied any wrongdoing.
The saga came to head yesterday afternoon when the beleaguered French team made a brief, yet shocking, statement. "Renault wishes to state that the managing director, Flavio Briatore, and its executive director of engineering, Pat Symonds, have left the team before attending the hearing before the FIA World Motor Sport Council. The team will not make any further comment," said the announcement. The Italian Briatore, 58, had overseen Michael Schumacher's world titles with Benetton as team principal in 1994 and 1995, and helped Renault purchase Benetton in 2000.
He was also the team principal at Renault when the manufacturer won world championship in 2005 and 2006. His former team's future may now be in doubt ahead of the hearing on September 21. "The rumours I have been hearing are that Renault may be pulling out of Formula One whatever happens at the hearing," said Herbert. "But they may continue to supply engines and promote themselves in that way. It's a shame that the people at Renault will suffer for this.
"They are promoting a product and it seems that any wrongdoing was at the feet of the people in the team who were using the name rather than within Renault itself, but I admit it doesn't look good for Renault." Herbert does not believe that race-fixing is a problem in Formula One, however. "This is not something that we have seen before and the sport is under more scrutiny than it has ever been in the past 20 years," he said.
"I don't think that there are other teams developing plots like this one. It is an isolated and unique incident which has now been discovered and will be dealt with." @Email:email@example.com