Weak action over ‘Crashgate’ leaves F1 in the pits

Sport is big business. Think athletics, World Series cricket, the US National Football League and English Premier League football. Even the Olympic Games. The scale and nature of global investment in sport and sporting brands differs little from the world of consumer retailing. 

But even while huge sums of money continue to be poured into sport, its credibility and therefore its commercial appeal are under attack. Hardly a week passes without headlines somewhere about ‘thrown’ cricket matches, ‘fixed’ football results, doped athletes and corrupt jockeys and trainers.

Not much is spared; allegations of corruption are even rocking the hitherto staid and sedate world of New Zealand bowls.

Don’t let anyone tell you that sport’s financial lifeline, its commercial sponsors, are prepared simply to suffer these slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It was tough enough having to justify massive amounts of sponsorship during the good times. Now, with financial reality having been rammed home in even the plushest boardrooms, sporting sponsorship is a decidedly sensitive affair – not made any easier by allegations of muck and sleaze.

Which is why it’s surprising that the global Formula One governing body, the World Motor Sport Council, dropped such a massive clanger this week.

Renault was served with a ban suspended for – wait for it – a whole two years!

In terms of brand building and ongoing financial investment, sport just doesn’t get any bigger than Formula One. So why, in handing down its verdict on the ‘Crashgate’ affair of the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, did the WMSC let the Renault team off with the lightest of hand-taps? For plotting the crash of one of its own cars in order to give another of its drivers a better chance of winning the race, Renault was served with a ban suspended for – wait for it – a whole two years!

I’m not concerned about the fact that the ban was suspended. I understand totally the reasons for that. It’s the two year bit that bothers me. It’s sending a message that says: “what you did was wrong, but it’s kind of OK to think about doing it again two years from now.”

If ever there was an opportunity for the WMSC to act decisively to kill off any doubt among fans, industry commentators, investors and sponsors that Formula One is anything but scrupulously above board, ‘Crashgate’ was it. I believe Renault should have received a permanent suspended ban, and that the world of Formula One should have been warned that a repeat episode would result in the offending team being banned from racing immediately for a truly thought-provoking period of time.

But instead, Formula One’s authority fluffed it. The two-year suspended ban was greeted with howls of derision and disbelief in many quarters and, in terms of reputation management, it was a clumsy, race-losing pit-stop.

I’m told that the WMSC didn’t want to come down too harshly on a team that was considering following BMW out of the door. It’s also argued that The Crash itself was a tactical move, not an example of corruption or race-fixing.

To the first point I’d say that surely a ban suspended permanently, and to be activated only in the case of repeat behaviour, is hardly onerous for a team that truly has no mischievous intent. But the resulting benefit to the commercial reputation of Formula One would have been significant.

As for the crash being tactical, well; that’s just semantics. Renault did what they did in a covert manner in order to engineer a win by default. A true sporting tactic is there for everyone to see and will withstand scrutiny in the harsh glare of the spotlight. Renault’s behaviour was quite patently not the type of tactic that Formula One, its fans or its sponsors would wish to acknowledge and embrace.

‘Crashgate’ wasn’t the first instance of dubious dealing in Formula One (we don’t have to go very far back to be reminded about McLaren Mercedes’ behaviour in Melbourne). And it won’t be the last. But it was a clear example of a missed opportunity by a sport that needs to act more firmly to protect its reputation.

It’ll take some momentum for the glitz, glitter and high-octane glamour of Formula One to be tarnished by doubt, misgivings and reservations. But when it starts the slide will be quick, difficult to remedy, and a huge turn-off for the all-important commercial sponsors. Just ask the world of horse-racing.

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