To Forgive and Forget – The Case Of Pat Symonds
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve used the phrase, “F1 never ceases to amaze me,” well, I would not be rich, but I could definitely go out and buy something of wealth. Earlier this week Pat Symonds moved from his consulting position at Marussia to a full time team member at the Williams F1 Racing Team. Symonds’ official title will be that of Chief Technical Officer. He is taking the place of Mike Coughlan, and he’ll be on the pit wall and running the race for both Williams drivers, the final word on all race decisions. And so I say again, “F1 you never cease to amaze me.”
Let me explain, for there is a back-story. Most people already know all about the infamous Crash-gate scandal. For those of you that don’t, here is the gist of it.
Prior to the economic downturn, every smart corporate accountant was seeing the way the wind was blowing, and pulling the plug on questionable spending. With title sponsorship for a top Formula 1 team running 40-60 million dollars a year, this was an easy target, especially if a team wasn’t winning. At one particular team, Renault ING run by one Flavio Briatore with Pat Symonds as Executive of Engineering, this was especially true. The team was not winning races even though they had World Champion driver Fernando Alonso, because their car just wasn’t good enough. ING Bank wanted to pull out of the team and of F1. This would have been disastrous for Briatore and his staff.
As in all good Hollywood scripts about characters with a lot to gain based on a little bit of larceny, a plan was hatched. If they could just get Alonso to the front of the race he was good enough to maintain the lead at Singapore where it is difficult to pass and the Renault on this particular weekend was pretty fast. So the idea was quite simple, just have Alonso’s teammate, Nelson Piquet Jr., crash at a specific part of the track just after Alonso made an early pit stop. This would force a safety car out on track and when all was said and done, due to where the other drivers would cycle back out, Alonso would be at the front of the pack.
If this just happened to work then presumably team principal Briatore would have a win in his pocket for the first time that season and be able to argue to ING’s Bank Board Members against leaving as a title sponsor. Well despite the many variables that needed to fall into place, somehow the cockamamie plan worked. Fernando won the race and Briatore got his ace in the hole. But apparently the scheme’s one flaw was its transparency, it just looked a little too good to be true. Immediately after the race the conspiracy stories were all over the Internet with some very credible analysts putting forth some hard questions.
Just a side note here: If I remember correctly Felipe Massa felt wronged and that the safety car ruined his chance of winning the race. This was also the race where Felipe’s team released him from the pit with the fuel rig still in his fuel tank door, which really can’t be blamed on Renault, but whatever.
He lost the championship to Lewis Hamilton on the last half lap of the Brazilian Grand Prix that year, so every point did make a difference. Anyway, despite the rumors and finger pointing, no action or investigation was publicly undertaken by the FIA so it looked like Briatore and company got away with it.
Fast forward to the following year August 2009, Briatore sacks Nelson Piquet Jr., this enrages former F1 driver Nelson Piquet Sr. his father, so much that he threatens to tell Max Mosley and the FIA the whole ugly story unless his son is reinstated. But Briatore can’t be blackmailed into keeping Junior on since he’s a dismal driver, so he calls Piquet Sr.’s bluff and sets in motion one of the most unpleasant and scandalous stories in F1 history. What follows can only be described as total pandemonium in the F1 world, and everything in its orbit. The teams, the sponsors, the press, the fans, any and all conversations are consumed by Crash-gate. Far, far worse than Tire-gate.
I happened to be at Heathrow airport when this broke and remember seeing the TV monitors while my wife and I waited for our flight the moment the first reports started to come out on the BBC News service. I thought “Holysh*t, this is going to hurt.”
At the end of it all Flavio was banned for life (although this was overturned in a French court of law) and Pat Symonds was told to go do something else for five years (this was also over turned and certain conditions were placed on Symonds to allow him to consult in F1). Renault sold its stake in the team and ING left the sport. And even though the FIA through an exhaustive inquiry cleared Fernando Alonso, many fans felt he had to have some knowledge of what Baritone and Symonds were up to. Summation, there were no winners, just losers, especially Formula 1 itself.
Pat Symonds eventually showed up back in F1 as a Virgin now Marussia consultant (the only capacity that was allowed him via his punishment) and he has been quietly working in the shadows every since. Until this past week that is. With his sentence over and his penance complete, it was announced that he would be working as Technical Director at Williams.
I have to confess that when this news broke I was quite shocked on several fronts. Not only did I not expect Symonds to ever make it back to a big team like Williams (no matter that they are not at the sharp end of the grid of late), but also, how can all be forgiven just like that? And why aren’t there more stories being written, pro or con, regarding Symonds being hired back into the sport?
Here are the comments I did find. To begin with his new employer, here is what Frank Williams, a pretty stand-up guy, had to say:
“I am delighted Pat is joining the team. His technical capabilities and sporting successes speak for themselves and I’m sure that his knowledge and leadership will contribute considerably to the success that all of us at Williams are working hard to achieve.”
Now I don’t what to be too hard on Pat, but the part about leadership rings a little false for me. Were was that leadership back in 2008 when someone could have died if the plan went wrong, just to keep a bank with lots of money in the sport and the team solvent? And does anyone else see the irony in a guy in a wheelchair from a car accident hiring someone that put a driver’s life and limbs in danger?
I read as many comments as I could find about Symonds going to Williams and here came my next surprise. Although there are some fans that think it is quite offensive that just because five years have passed he is allowed back, an overriding majority believe that Symonds deserves a second chance. Here are a few of those comments just to give you an idea of what is being said, taken form James Allen’s F1 site and the BBC.
Comments on The BBC’s F1 website:
I always had a great deal of respect for Pat Symonds as an engineer and his ability is not disputed. It was unfortunate he was in my opinion directed into the situation he found himself in, not in anyway discounting what happened was fundamentally wrong. He has been missed on the pit wall and to be banished for 1 poor moment of judgment would be harsh. I welcome his return to F1 and Williams.
It’s great to see Pat Symonds back in F1, he’s one of the great engineers. Ok, he was a naughty boy, but he’s served his time, and I really believe he’ll help Williams to become one of the top teams again.
Comments on James Allen’s site:
Spare me the weight of his contribution. It is by far the most despicable act we have seen in F1. Any level of involvement in planning it is inexcusable. End of it. You know who is the only person I’m willing to hear excuses from? Jr. Since the level of pressure and power held over him was equal to about 10 tons. But I’m not at all offended that Jr. is not in F1 anymore either to be honest. Although in his case it’s more about marketability.
I’m as uncomfortable about Symonds appointment (and Coughlan previously) as I am about athletes guilty of doping being allowed to compete again. It sets a terrible precedent, cycling is still reeling from its past mistakes of not getting to grips with the doping issue. The problem F1 has is that if these two [mod] seemingly get away with it, it encourages more people to push the boundaries. Arguably Symonds involvement in crash-gate is one of the most dangerous acts of cheating committed in any sport.
There are also a large number of comments that address Symonds’ technical skill and whether he will be able to turn Williams around, so it would seem he has the F1 fan base on his side, even if they’re just curious to see if he can do it.
The next question would be what does the actual F1 community think, the team personnel, principals, drivers, lets throw in the trackside Marshals as well. As there’s been no official surveys or pieces on this topic, I’m speculating here but the very lack of articles condemning his hiring indicates to me that he has the backing of F1 as well.
Myself, I feel as though I am being pulled in two opposite directions. My first inclination is that what Symonds was party to was much more serious than just cheating or race fixing. It’s not as though there weren’t already unsavory happenings in F1 such as the McLaren spying scandal that cost Ron Dennis and company 100 million dollars for having in their possession a 1000 page Ferrari design dossier. Or the alleged sabotaging of one of Ferrari’s car engines – that one was never proved it must be stated. Anything that Michael Schumacher did when crashing into or pushing drivers off the racing line at 170+ miles an hour. The countless examples of team espionage that happen up and down the pit lane all the time. But any one of these pale in comparison to Briatore and Symonds ordering a driver to crash.
To instruct a driver to crash is really just about the worst thing I can imagine one doing in this great sport for a race result. So many horrible things could have gone wrong and ended in the ultimate loss that part of me says, “You Mr. Symonds have forfeited any and all possibility to be part of this sport.”
At a time when safety is so important and when Formula 1 has a very good record, a perfect record really since the death of Aryton Senna, Symonds purposely caused a crash and jeopardized the very thing that Formula 1 has made a very high priority, the safety of life. To me that warrants a more severe punishment than just a five-year hiatus.
But then again, I think. I myself have had more than one encounter with the law for the pretty serious offense of driving beyond the legal intoxication limit, arguably putting lives at risk as well. This was many years ago in my youth, I’ve learned my lesson and have not nor will I commit that sin again. I was banned from driving for one year. Hmm. Perhaps Symonds’ punishment was just about right after all. Yes, Mr. Symonds committed an atrocious act. Call it a momentary lack of judgment to sign up for such a thing. He screwed up, but no one was hurt, the perpetrators have been found out, and Pat Symonds has served his time.
His bio will always have this blemish on it and I am pretty sure he will not be winning a Nobel prize for his outstanding character and direction in the world of Mortorsports, so in a way he will still be serving a kind of never ending sentence, and this should be enough.
It seems silly to say, but I’m sure Pat Symonds has learned his lesson and at the end of the day that is all anyone can require. Do you understand that what you did was wrong? Do you know why it was wrong? Are you sorry for what you did? Will you ever do it again?
We all know these questions quite well. We are all human beings and have all made mistakes. Some serious, some not, and it is not necessarily what you do wrong that defines you, but how you respond in the wake of your actions.
Pat Symonds has had five years to ask and answer these simple yet profound questions. I feel pretty confident that I know his answers. So as much as F1 ceases to amaze me, sometime for the wrong reasons, it is time to forgive and forget and let Symonds get back to what he evidently loves so dearly. Racing…
-jp- (no quip required)