The record books will always say that Fernando Alonso won the inaugural night race on the streets of Singapore, yet the politics and fallout from that race still ripple through Fomula One and taint the reputations of all involved with the scandal ultimately refered to as “Crashgate“.
Throughout 2008 the main battle had been between McLaren and Ferrari for the championships. Lewis Hamilton took the reigns at McLaren after Alonso left to return to Renault, while Felipe Massa became Ferrari’s team leader despite having World Champion Kimi Raikkonen alongside him. In regards to Renault, the former championship winning team had fallen into a barren, winless run that was making the French manufacturer question it’s position on the F1 grid. The team was under immense pressure to deliver results.
Qualifying created the kind of grid that was commonplace for that season; Massa took pole position ahead of Hamilton by setting a time six-tenths faster than his title rival. Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen and BMW’s Robert Kubica made up row two. Heikki Kovalainen’s McLaren, Nick Heidfeld, Sebastian Vettel in his Toro Rosso and Toyota’s Timo Glock occupied the third and fourth rows of the grid respectively, whilst the Williams’ of Nico Rosberg and Kazuki Nakajima completed the top ten. Fernando Alonso and Renault teammate Nelson Piquet Jr. finished qualifying in 15th and 16th places.
In the beginning phase of the race it became a clear fight between the two title contenders, with Massa eeking out a gap between himself and Hamilton. The front two were also pulling away from Kimi Raikkonen, and behind him Jarno Trulli had made a strong start to leapfrog both Williams into 9th place. His heavy fuel load became a hindrance though, and he began to hold up several faster cars, namely Fernando Alonso, who had cut the first corner at the start without penalty and had moved up to 12th. After seven laps Rosberg passed the slower Toyota, followed by Nakijima and Alonso soon after.
On lap 12 Alonso was the first to pit, taking on soft tyres. The gap between the front three was 10 seconds; Massa led by 3 seconds over Hamilton, who in turn had a 7 second gap to Raikkonen. Two laps later and Nelson Piquet spun his car coming out of Turn 17 and clattered the wall, leaving his Renault stranded. With no other choice the stewards released the Safety Car to ensure the marshals could recover it, but in doing so closed the pit lane due to the rules in effect.
Despite the fact it would breach said rules and result in penalties, Nico Rosberg, Robert Kubica and Honda’s Rubens Barrichello all made stops, but the latter would retire soon after with a mechanical problem. Now that all the driver were behind the Safety Car, the pit lane was re-opened and all of the cars that hadn’t stopped already, or were on one-stoppers, dived in. Leader Massa had the worst stop of all – in the rush to maintain his advantage over Hamilton, the Brazilian left his pit box early with the fuel hose still connected. He stopped at the end of the pit lane, after narrowly avoiding Adrian Sutil, and the Ferrari mechanics finally removed the hose and Massa rejoined way down the field.
The new race order saw Nico Rosberg leading, followed by Trulli, Giancarlo Fisichella, Kubica, Alonso, both Red Bulls of Webber and Coulthard (who’d stopped before the pit lane closure) and Lewis Hamilton. Rosberg looked to build up a lead over the heavier Trulli before having to serve his 10-second stop-go penalty issued to himself and Kubica for stopping when the pit lane was closed. Massa received a drive-through for an unsafe release, which he served first, heading back out in last place.
Alonso’s pace meant that after his final stop he didn’t relinquish the lead. Behind him, David Coulthard and Lewis Hamilton fought over 2nd place, with the younger Brit coming out on top before they both stopped. Coulthard nearly became another retirement after his fuel hose failed to disconnect, in a scene reminiscent of Felipe Massa’s earlier.
Three-quarters of the race down, and Alonso led Timo Glock by just over six seconds and Rosberg by a further eleven seconds in third. The Spaniard looked in a strong position after being out of contention most of the weekend, and it only grew stronger after Glock and Kimi Raikkonen took their second stops. In the following laps Turn 18 became the focus of attention – Massa spun and got away without any damage after hitting the wall, but Adrian Sutil didn’t fare as well and his afternoon finished against the wall. Due to the tight nature of the circuit, the Safety Car made another appearance.
With nine laps to go the race boiled down to a straight sprint for the victory, which Alonso stamped his authority on by pulling away from the chasing pair of Rosberg and Hamilton. This pair would provide most of the excitement as the laps ticked down, as Hamilton looked to score as many points available to extend his advantage over title rival Massa.
Raikkonen in the other Ferrari was still pushing hard in fifth, so much so that he set the fastest lap of the race, but lost it at Turn 10 and clattered the wall. With Massa finishing in an eventual 13th place, it would mark the first time Ferrari failed to score points in a race since the opening round of 2006
Fernando Alonso crossed the line to win, with Rosberg holding of Hamilton to finish 2nd, despite the penalty earlier in the race. Hamilton’s podium place extended his lead over Massa by seven points. to many, it was an exciting debut race for Singapore that had smatterings of everything.
Fast forward 12 months later, and the truth began to emerge.
Nelson Piquet Jr had been dropped by Renault mid-way through the 2009 season, and promptly made accusations that Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds requested that he crash deliberately to instigate a Safety Car, which led to a full FIA investigation. The sport was in shock.
Ultimately, Briatore and Symonds took the fall and were banned for life and 5 years respectively, but have since appealed and returned to the paddock. Piquet, in return for his testimony, recived immunity for his part in the event, but his reputation was tarnished and never raced in F1 again.
And Fernando Alonso? He claimed he knew nothing of the whole scheme, and had earned that win fair and square. And who are we to ask otherwise – he won the following race in Japan, just for good measure – but even though the record books has his name down as victory, it will never tell the whole story we now know as Crashgate.