SINGAPORE, September 23 – Formula One will be desperate to put the damaging Renault race-fixing scandal behind it this weekend, but it will not be easy with the sport returning to the scene of the crime in Singapore.
By a quirk of fate, the 14th race of the season takes place in the city-state just days after Renault was slapped with a suspended two-year ban by the International Automobile Federation.
It was here at Formula One’s inaugural night race last year that team principal Flavio Briatore and chief engineer Pat Symonds ordered Nelson Piquet junior to deliberately crash to help teammate Fernando Alonso win.
Briatore and Symonds have been thrown out of the sport and Piquet’s reputation is in ruins, but Alonso was cleared of any wrongdoing and will be back on the grid at the Marina Bay street circuit.
Last year, Alonso began in 15th position, but after the Spaniard made an early pit stop to refuel, Piquet crashed into a wall, prompting the deployment of the safety car.
As Alonso’s rivals then gradually disappeared into the pits to refuel, he catapulted himself into the lead and went on to win his first race in a year.
Another Renault victory on Sunday is not likely with the team struggling to match frontrunners Brawn GP and Red Bull.
With just four Grand Prix left, Brawn’s Jenson Button knows he needs a podium finish with teammate Rubens Barrichello closing the gap at the top of the world championship standings to 14 points after his win in Monza.
The Briton, winner of six of the seven opening races of the season, remains on top with 80 points, but the Brazilian now has 66 points.
Whatever happens, the pair look certain to deliver the constructors championship to their eponymous team-chief Ross Brawn in the outfit’s first season.
"The Marina Bay street circuit is pretty challenging and although it has a stop-start layout which isn’t usually my favourite type of circuit, I still enjoyed driving it last year," said Button.
"I spent some time at the factory last week driving the circuit on our simulator which helps with the track layout, gears and downforce levels so we are well prepared and looking forward to getting the weekend underway."
Barrichello’s victory at the Italian Grand Prix this month was his 11th in a 284-race career and he is fired-up for more of the same here.
"I’ve had a great time over the last month with two victories so we’ve got some good momentum behind us going into the final four races of the season," said the 37-year-old.
"I can’t wait to get back in the car and get on with the challenge."
After finishing Monza in eighth, Red Bull’s Sebastien Vettel saw his world title ambitions take a huge hit.
The German is now 26 points adrift of Button and knows nothing short of victory here will be enough.
"We are looking forward to Singapore as the target will clearly be to win, as it is the target at all remaining races," he said.
"It’s true the gap is quite big and it will be very difficult to catch up, but be sure we will try."
Defending world champion Lewis Hamilton is out of the title race after crashing on the final lap in Italy and failing to finish.
But the crowd favourite, who finished third in Singapore last year, is promising an aggressive drive.
"I remember my race in Singapore last year was all about damage limitation — I was driving with one eye on the world championship and wasn’t going to take too many risks," he said.
"I was happy to finish on the podium. This year, it’s very different. I know I’m out of the title hunt and I want to attack these last four races, pushing for as many victories as I can."
After becoming the first ever night race, Singapore will nudge the boundaries a little further this time round when the drivers race from day-to-night during practice.
Friday’s first practice session is scheduled from 6:00-7:30 pm (1000-1130 GMT) meaning they will start in daylight and end after dark, although the lighting system will be on throughout.
Sunday’s race starts at 8:00 pm.