It’s now been five years since Formula One took a step into the unknown with the sport’s first night race, held under the flood lights of Singapore’s Marina Bay. Since 2008, Singapore has become a jewel in Formula One’s crown, seen very much as the Far East’s alternative to Monaco. Yet it is impossible to forget the controversy that reigned over the country’s inaugural Grand Prix in 2008, a race won by Fernando Alonso and his Renault team and which would forever be marked for the incident dubbed ‘Crashgate’.
The F1 circus headed to Singapore in 2008 on the crest of a wave, following a spectacular and very much unexpected victory for Sebastian Vettel at Monza, the German’s and his Toro Rosso team’s first. While with just four rounds of the season remaining, the championship battle between McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Felipe Massa remained tight, with the Briton on 78 points, just a single point ahead of his Brazilian rival. The fight for the constructors’ honours also rumbled on, with just five points separating Ferrari on 134 points and McLaren on 129.
Having shown strong pace over the weekend’s practice sessions, Felipe Massa stormed to pole position on Saturday night with a laptime of 1:44.801, some six tenths of a second quicker than his championship rival Hamilton, who would line-up second. Outside bets for the championship, Kimi Raikkonen and Robert Kubica followed on the second row of the grid. McLaren’s Heikki Kovalainen was joined on row three by Monza race winner Sebastian Vettel. While Timo Glock, Nick Heidfeld and the Williams pair of Nico Rosberg and Kazuki Nakajima filled out the rest of the top 10.
Despite topping FP2 and FP3, Fernando Alonso started Formula One’s inaugural night race in 15th, back on the eight row of the grid, following a fuel-feed failure in Q2 which meant he failed to set a time. The Spaniard’s Renault stable-mate Nelson Piquet, Jr. was knocked out in Q1 and lined-up in 16th, which meant the Brazilian had been out qualified by his team-mate at every race of the season so far.
Formula One’s first night race got under way fairly cleanly, with Massa leading away from Hamilton and Raikkonen, while Robert Kubica leaned on Kovalainen through the first chicane which saw the Finn lose two positions. Behind them, Heidfeld and Alonso cut turn 1 as the field filed through the tight first section of the circuit, but neither driver faced a penalty.
Massa started the race brightly, building up a three second buffer over Hamilton’s McLaren by lap 10, with Raikkonen a further seven seconds back in the sister Ferrari.
Fernando Alonso then became the first man to stop, coming in early on lap 12. The following lap his team-mate Piquet Jr., who had been stuck behind the Honda of Rubens Barrichello since the start of the race, received a radio message from his team: “Push, Nelson!” The Brazilian obliged by spinning his R28 into the wall at turn 17 on lap 14, which brought out the safety car.
This was the point on which the whole race turned on its head.
The Red Bull duo of Mark Webber and David Coulthard, as well as the Honda of Rubens Barrichello managed to slip into the pitlane just before it was closed, but Nico Rosberg and Robert Kubica were not so lucky. The pair were caught out by the regulations of the time, which stated that the pitlane would remain closed until the field had been picked up behind the safety car. As Rosberg and Kubica had planned on an early stop, they ran the risk of running out of fuel and had no option but to come into the pits, which saw them both awarded a drive-through penalty.
Once the pitlane opened, the majority of the field, other than Trulli and Fisichella who were one-stopping, peeled into the pits.
It was at this stage that Felipe Massa’s so far perfect weekend unravelled, as the Brazilian entered the pitlane on lap 15, ahead of his team-mate Raikkonen, who would have to queue. The fuel hose was attached and four new tyres were fitted to the Brazilians’ F2008 and just a couple of seconds later Ferrari’s light system turned green signalling that Massa was free to leave. Massa accelerated away from his pitbox, but an error by a mechanic meant that he took the still attached fuel hose with him, tearing it from its pump, while it writhed around like a snake behind the Ferrari. Massa then had to pull up short at the end of the pitlane while his Ferrari mechanics made a mad dash to remove the fuel hose from his car. The delay was further exasperated as the Ferrari boys struggled to remove the damaged fuel hose from the car. Massa sat at the end of the pitlane and watched the whole field pass by before re-joining in last.
Following the commotion of the safety car and the first round of pitstops, Nico Rosberg led the Grand Prix for Williams, ahead of the one-stopping Trulli and Fisichella, with Kubica fourth and Alonso in fifth. However, Rosberg and Kubica were yet to take their drive-through penalties awarded earlier in the race.
Rosberg was fortunate as he managed to take advantage of the heavy cars of Trulli and Fisichella behind to build up a cushion before taking his penalty, re-joining in third. However, Kubica had no such luck and was stuck behind the Force India.
With 20 laps to go Alonso came in for his second stop of the race, fortunately able to re-join ahead of the battling pair of Coulthard and Hamilton. It wasn’t long before Lewis passed the Scot, who still had to make a stop anyway. The ex-McLaren man showed that it was not just Ferrari who were having trouble with fuel hoses, as he very nearly repeated Massa’s earlier mistake, pulling away fractions too early during his stop. Fortunately for him he could continue without too much lost time.
More drama was to follow on lap 50 as Felipe Massa spun at turn 18, having come across the dying Toyota of Jarno Trulli. Just as the Brazilian righted his Ferrari, Adrian Sutil came into turn 18 at full pelt and with nowhere to go went straight on into the wall, breaking the suspension on his Force India. The German became the fifth retirement of the race, as the safety car made its second appearance of the night.
With just four laps of the race remaining, Kimi Raikkonen rounded off an awful weekend for Ferrari with an uncharacteristic mistake. Chasing down the Toyota of Timo Glock for fourth position, the Finn vaulted his car over the kerbs at turn 10 and creaming his F2008 into the barriers. No points for Ferrari at Singapore, the first time the Scuderia had gone home pointless since Australia 2006.
Out at the front no one could stop Fernando Alonso’s march to the 20th win of his career, his first of 2008 and the Renault team’s first victory since Suzuka 2006, almost two years before. Nico Rosberg came home a then career best second for Williams, despite the drive-through penalty, taking his and the teams second podium finish of the year. They were joined on the podium by a relieved Lewis Hamilton, who extended his championship lead over the non-scoring Felipe Massa to seven points. The Brit’s six points also meant that his McLaren team snatched the lead in the constructors’ championship by a single point with just three Grand Prix to go, 135 points to Ferrari’s 134.
However, even though the chequered flag had fallen on Singapore’s debut Grand Prix, the races result would have far reaching connotations for the sport which would rumble on for over a year.
Doubts were first raised in the immediate wake of the Grand Prix, with some people in the paddock curious over the suspicious nature of Alonso’s pit stop on lap 12, of the 61 lap race, which made little sense from a strategic standpoint. Many critics argued that Alonso’s early stop, which was two laps earlier than Rosberg and Kubica, who pitted behind the safety car on lap 14, was in the words of a rival team strategist: “not aggressive, it’s stupid.” Under normal circumstances, most teams would fill the car up for a one-stop, running long into the race with the hope of making up track position on some of those cars two stopping ahead. Jarno Trulli, who qualified 11th, four places ahead of Alonso on the grid did just that, going for a marathon 33 lap stint.
However, no formal complaint was made against Renault at the time, with the team simply claiming the incident had simply been a matter of good luck, coupled with a great technical drive from Alonso.
It wasn’t until almost a year later in August 2009 that Renault’s plot unravelled, that Nelson Piquet Jr., who had been sacked by the Enstone-based-team for his poor performances, raised allegations that he had been told to crash at Singapore deliberately by his Renault team.
Suffice to say, following an investigation, Renault were found guilty by the FIA World Motorsports Council of conspiring to affect the outcome of the race, with the deliberate accident of Piquet Jr. on lap 14, which forced the necessary deployment of the safety car, as there were no cranes at that section of the track. As a result, the teams Managing Director Flavio Briatore was banned from any FIA sanctioned events for life, while Pay Symonds, Renault’s executive director of engineering faced a ban of five years. Both bans were later overturned, with Symonds now working at Williams. The Renault team were disqualified from Formula One, with a two year suspended sentence. Alonso and Piquet were both cleared of any wrongdoing.
As a result of ‘Crashgate’, as the event became known, the Renault team lost both it’s title sponsor ING, as well as Mutua Madrileña, just mere days before the F1 circus returned to Singapore for a second time. Renault would sell 75% of the team at the close of the season to Genii capital, with the French manufacturer selling their final 25% stake at the end of 2010. The Renault/Enstone team now lives on as Lotus.
Images courtesy of Philip Hayward, Scuderia Ferrari and Wikimedia Commons