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today is May 30, 2023

Felipe Massa is looking into whether any action can be taken over a race which contributed to his world championship defeat 15 years ago.

The former Ferrari driver was beaten to the 2008 world championship by Lewis Hamilton, missing out on the title by one point in a nail-biting finale.

Massa won praise for the sporting attitude he exhibited in defeat. It was a world apart from the conduct of one rival team two months earlier in Singapore. The tactics Renault used to win that race “violated the very essence of sporting fairness but also demonstrated a total disregard for the safety of others”, according to the FIA when it delivered its verdict almost a year after the fact.

The team’s drivers Fernando Alonso and Nelson Piquet Jnr qualified a lowly 15th and 16th respectively in Singapore. In an effort to get Alonso to the front of the field, Renault instructed him to make an early pit stop and his team mate was told to crash shortly afterwards. The plot worked: Piquet’s crash triggered a Safety Car period which put Alonso in the lead, from where he won.

Massa wants to reopen the book on the Crashgate controversy Massa was collateral damage in the episode which became known as ‘Crashgate’. He had taken pole position and was leading when his countryman Piquet spun his R28 backwards into a barrier at turn 17.

In response, Ferrari summoned him into the pits, but subsequently failed to disengage his refuelling hose correctly. Massa’s car tore it from the tank as he left the pits. He had been on course to turn a one-point deficit to Hamilton into a one-point lead; instead he finished 13th and dropped seven points behind.

Since retiring from F1 six years ago, Massa has been the FIA karting president and now heads up the drivers’ commission. However he is now raising questions over how the governing body handled the Crashgate episode.

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There was speculation over what Renault had done at the time. One team member who was not part of the conspiracy even challenged Piquet over why, instead of braking when he lost control of his car, he continued to accelerate.

Nelson Piquet Jnr, Renault., Singapore, 2008 Feature: Crashgate – The 2008 Singapore Grand prix controversy explained Despite this Renault went unpunished for almost a year. The FIA only began actively probing the controversy after Piquet’s father, three-times world champion Nelson Piquet, formally contacted the FIA nearly 10 months after the race.

Max Mosley, the FIA president at the time, indicated he was aware of the questions surrounding the crash before then. The information reached him via Charlie Whiting, the FIA F1 race director at the time, who was previously Piquet Snr’s chief mechanic at Brabham in the eighties. Piquet told Whiting what had happened at that year’s Brazilian Grand Prix.

In an interview with Sky in 2013 Mosley indicated Whiting told him what had happened before 2009. “Charlie told me so we knew what had happened but there was absolutely no proof, no evidence,” said Mosley. “Then in ’09 Nelson Snr came to see me in Monaco and he told me the story.” However in his autobiography two years later Mosley indicated he first heard claims Renault had cheated in Singapore “early in 2009.”

But in an interview with F1 Insider last month Bernie Ecclestone learned of the FIA heard the accusations in 2008. Moreover, he said they had done so early enough that they could have taken action to overturn the results of the race.

“We had enough information in time to investigate the matter,” he said. “According to the statutes, we should have cancelled the race in Singapore under these conditions. That means it would never have happened for the world championship standings. Then Felipe Massa would have become world champion and not Lewis Hamilton.”

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Massa has seized upon those comments. “This is very sad, to know the result of this race was supposed to be cancelled and I would have a title,” he told Motorsport. “In the end, I was the one who lost the most with this result. So, we are going after it to understand all this.”

Massa had a 4.3-second lead when Piquet crashed The results of the 2008 championship, including Renault’s ill-gotten win, are long since finalised. Massa is aware the “justice” he seeks will be hard to come by.

But, he points out, precedents exist in other sporting competitions. “We have already seen other situations happening in sports, such as Lance Armstrong, who was proven to have doped, and he lost all the titles. What is the difference?”

There are several differences, but the most significant is that while Armstrong (pictured top with Massa) cheated his way to Tour de France trophies, the 2008 F1 world champion was not part of the team which broke the rules in Singapore.

While the Singapore Grand Prix was one race which formed part of the 2008 world championship, the Tour de France is a standalone event held over 23 gruelling days. American cyclist Lance Armstrong won the race for seven years in a row between 1999 and 2005, but in 2012 was stripped of every one of his titles for systematically cheating the sport’s anti-doping rules using performance-enhancing substances such as erythropoietin.

Only the most basic parallels can be drawn between this case and Crashgate. Armstrong cheated and was stripped of his victories; Renault cheated and kept theirs.

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The UCI (International Cycling Union) reacted to Armstrong’s unmasking as a cheat by stripping him of his Tour de France wins. However, recognising that other cyclists also doped at the same time, they chose not to award the victories to anyone else. Officially, no one won the 1999 to 2005 tours.

Bernie Ecclestone, Interlagos, 2022 Hamilton criticised Ecclestone’s comments on Piquet and Putin If the FIA could do the same (and there are distant precedents – no one finished second in the 1983 Brazilian Grand Prix after Keke Rosberg was disqualified for being given a push start) this would not result in Massa becoming champion. In order to do that the result of the entire race would need to be voided.

Of course, if the FIA had taken the logical route of disqualifying Renault from the race, Hamilton would have picked up two more points and won the title by a wider margin. Unsurprisingly, this is not what Massa is arguing for.

What Massa seems to want is something slightly different from the action taken against Armstrong: He wants the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix expunged from the record books. In this he is taking his lead from Ecclestone. The motivation behind the former F1 CEO’s words therefore requires consideration.

When Piquet Snr was found to have made racist and homophobic comments about Hamilton last year, Ecclestone leapt to his defence. Hamilton, speaking after Ecclestone had also defended Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, retaliated by saying the views of “old voices” should not be given a platform.

Ecclestone’s comments on Crashgate this year were transparently intended as a swipe at Hamilton. He claimed Massa was “cheated of the title he deserved while Hamilton had all the luck in the world.” Besides neglecting to point out Hamilton was not the one who did the cheating, the statement is hardly borne out by the circumstances of that year’s Belgian Grand Prix.

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Whatever steps Massa now intends to take, it’s hard to imagine the FIA editing the results of the 2008 world championship a decade and a half after the fact. The governing body has since had to react to the deeply controversial circumstances of the 2021 title-decider, following which former FIA F1 race director Michael Masi was shown the door after making an error which likely cost Hamilton a record-breaking eighth world championship.

It’s hard not to sympathise with Massa over the events of Singapore. Sadly, we never got to see the continuation of his fight with Hamilton in that race, or how a fair outcome to that grand prix might have influenced the final rounds of the year.

By the time the facts of Crashgate came to light, Massa was out of action. The day before Piquet Snr told the FIA his son was prepared to blow the whistle on the conspiracy, Massa was struck by debris during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix and suffered serious head injuries. He returned to competition in 2010 and never won another F1 race. That might have been different had he not been ordered to hand victory in Germany that year to his new team mate – Alonso.

Does Massa believe Hamilton should lose his first world title? The injustice clearly still rankles. Piquet Jnr has said his countryman blames him for the lost title. Massa has voiced his suspicions over who knew what and when regarding Crashgate before, and compared it to match-fixing in football. Whether his attempt to reopen the book on the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix will lead anywhere remains to be seen.

But as recent experience has shown, unpicking the championship implications from a single tainted race is extremely difficult even when the controversy occurs on the final lap of the season, never mind with three-and-a-half grands prix to go. Hamilton was no more the culprit at Singapore in 2008 than Max Verstappen was in Abu Dhabi a year and a half ago.

It’s one thing to take titles away from a disgraced cheat. But does Massa really believe Hamilton should be stripped of his 2008 world championship because another team broke the rules?

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