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ING Renault F1 Team gets last-minute reprieve, but is it too late?

ING RenaultThere was an air of hushed expectation at Place de la Concorde in central Paris yesterday. The first public execution for 200 years – since the time of the French Revolution – was about to take place. Formula One was bringing back the time-honoured custom for one day only. F1’s presiding body, the FIA (based in Place de la Concorde), was to be judge and jury and Renault F1 Team the victim.  At least, that was the widespread expectation. As it happened, Renault got a last-minute reprieve. The guillotine has been left on standby for two years.

Renault, it will be recalled, is at the centre of probably the worst example of sports chicanery ever exposed – which is saying quite something where Formula One and its track-record of multiple scandals is concerned. Briefly, Renault has admitted it manipulated the outcome of a Grand Prix race by causing one of its drivers, Nelson Piquet Jnr, to crash his vehicle in order that team mate Fernando Alonso might win the race. Renault F1 Team supremo Flavio Briatore, the principal conspirator, has already got the chop, as has his number two, Pat Symonds, director of engineering.

Some might argue that the FIA penalty was not enough; it could never be enough. After all Briatore & Co were knowingly risking the lives not only of their own driver but those of others on the track. Shouldn’t criminal charges also be in the offing?

Whichever way you look at it, Crashgate could not have come at a worse time. The horrendously expensive sport is strapped for cash as never before. It is struggling to fill the grid now that the likes of BMW have withdrawn. With Renault’s F1 reputation so badly damaged, who else is going to bother pouring billions of dollars into this discredited sport?

Come to think of it, current sponsors must be feeling pretty sick, and none more so than ING, the financial services conglomerate whose moniker presently prefixes “Renault F1 Team”  in all the headlines.

Now what was the logic of ING’s unconscionably large financial involvement again? Ah yes, I have ING’s then ceo, Michel Tilmant, on the record on June 27, 2007 – just after he first signed his company up. Here are some extracts:

“We believe our brand recognition does not quite match the scope and size of our business…We believe Formula One can help raise ING’s brand awareness, and ensure that we are known as one of the leading global financial institutions. …We see our F1 sponsorship as complementary to our other sponsorship, but very much in the lead to position our business globally.”

Apparently, Tilmant and his top team “conducted extensive research” into which sports would best offer ING a global audience, including “football, the Olympics and tennis amongst others” but “F1 was the best choice. It offered an unrivalled blend of a large global audience, with a profile that closely matched the needs of our business.”

Sounds as if you made the wrong call, mate. You should have stuck to boring old tennis or the Olympics. At least they are fairly clean.

As it happens, we can see an unflattering similarity between high-rolling finance and F1 all too clearly – but not in the way Tilmant will have intended when he signed away all those shareholder dividends on the deal. Let’s have a look at that parallel a little more closely. Both communities, banking and top motor racing, suffer from a surfeit of testosterone and are suicidally competitive – which makes them “reckless” with the rules when they think they can get away with it. Both are ludicrously overpaid for what they do – in the highest echelons that is – and are adept at finding new ways of enriching themselves whatever the collateral cost. Both are bloated  and have a dubious ‘social utility’ (to use FSA chief Lord Turner’s phrase). And both have shown only the most superficial contrition when faced with their misdeeds. A perfect fit, in short.

Any other parallels I may have forgotten? Probably.

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