Will Driver Felipe Massa Get His Day in Court?  It’s Hard to Tell

May 17, 2024

By Kerri Cebula

The 2008 Formula One Singapore Grand Prix is best known for one reason: Crashgate.  On lap fourteen, Renault’s Nelson Piquet, Jr crashes on his own, leading to a safety car (or caution for American auto racing fans).[1]  Not much was thought of the wreck at the time, but it did have a tremendous impact on the race for the World Drivers’ Championship.  Coming into the Singapore Grand Prix, McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton held a one-point lead over Ferrari’s Felipe Massa in the World Driver’s Championship standings.[2]  When Piquet crashed, Massa was leading the race and Hamilton was running in second, giving Massa the real-time lead in the Championship.  Both cars pitted under the safety car, but during his stop, Massa was released from his stop before the fuel hose was removed from the car and he left his pit stall with it in the car.  He had to pull to the side of pit lane for his crew to remove the hose.  Hamilton’s pit stop went smoothly and he left pit lane before Massa.  Hamilton restarted the race in eighth; Massa in eighteenth and last.  Hamilton finished the race in third, earning six points; Massa finished the race in thirteenth and out of the points. Hamilton leaves Singapore with a seven-point lead.  He retained the points lead through the end of the season, eventually winning the 2008 World Driver’s Championship by one point.

In July 2009, Piquet reported to the International Automobile Federation (FIA) that he had deliberately crashed his car at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix at the behest of Flavio Briatore, Renault’s Team Principal, and Pat Symonds, Renault’s Executive Director of Engineering, in order to help the team’s other driver Fernando Alonso.[3]  The World Motor Sports Council (WMSC) suspended Briatore from FIA motorsports for an indefinite period and Symonds was suspended for five years.  Piquet had received immunity for his testimony and was not suspended.  But the race results, and consequently the championship standings, stood.  Included in the WMSC report was a paragraph that stated that the FIA was aware of the rumors that Piquet had deliberately crashed in the weeks that followed the race.  It also stated that it was understood that Piquet, still under contract with Renault at the time, would not be prepared to make a statement to the FIA and the FIA believed it did not have sufficient evidence to investigate the claims.[4]

In 2023, Bernie Ecclestone, the chief executive officer of Formula One in 2008, told a German website that he and Max Mosley (then FIA President) knew about the crash and that it was deliberate.  Ecclestone went on further to state that:

“[w]e had enough information in time to investigate the matter.  According to the (FIA) statutes, we should have cancelled the race in Singapore under these conditions.  That means it would never have happened for the world championship standings.

            Then Felipe Massa would have become world champion and not Lewis Hamilton.”[5]

Massa stated at the time that he would be looking into his legal options[6] and in March 2024, filed a lawsuit against the FIA, Formula One Management (the commercial rights holder of the sport), and Ecclestone.[7]

While there are questions regarding under which legal theory Massa is suing[8], there are also procedural questions over whether or not Massa will actually get his day in court.  This paper will deal with those procedural questions.

There are two procedural questions that will need to be answered: would the FIA’s judicial process have heard Massa’s appeal of the race classification and would the High Court in London be able to hear the case.  Unlike other international federations recognized by the International Olympic Committee, the FIA has not given the Court of Arbitration for Sport jurisdiction over general disputes.[9]  Instead, disputes involving on-track incidents are first heard by the race stewards, who play both a role similar to on the field officials in other sports and serve as the trial court for initial complaints about on track behavior.  Decisions by the stewards can be appealed to the internal International Court of Appeals (ICA).

Under the 2008 (the year of the race) and 2009 (the year Piquet came forward) International Sporting Codes, competitors could have protested against both a fellow competitor or an “error or irregularity occurring during a competition”.[10]  If protesting against a fellow competitor, the driver has two hours after the scrutineering of the cars and thirty minutes after the publication of the race results of protesting an irregularity.[11]  As information that Piquet had purposely crashed was not available so quickly at the end of the race, Massa would not have had the opportunity to protest the race results while still at the track in Singapore.  There is no other opportunity for a competitor to file an initial protest for on-track incidents.

The Judicial Regulations in place in 2008 and 2009 are unavailable publicly.  Under the 2024 Judicial Regulations, the International Court of Appeals (ICA) will review a decision if new evidence “…unknown at the outset of the case before the ICA and which would call into question or cause the ICA to modify its decision…” came to light.[12]  This must be done within 12 months of their initial decision, or if the decision could affect championship decisions, by November 30 in the same year.[13]  While this case received a preliminary decision from the stewards at the 2009 Belgian Grand Prix (the first race held after Piquet made his official statement), due to the nature of the allegations, this case went from a preliminary decision by the stewards directly to the WMSC,[14] bypassing the ICA.  Therefore, this provision does not apply in Massa’s case.  In the FIA’s publicly available documents, there does not appear to be a mechanism in place for a review of decisions of the WMSC if new information is brought to light. While the WMSC was aware that the FIA knew of the allegations, Ecclestone’s comments that the FIA has enough information about the allegations at the time to investigate is new information.

The second question is whether or not the High Court in London will be able to hear the case.  The FIA Judicial Regulations do permit drivers to file a lawsuit in any jurisdiction so long as they have exhausted the FIA’s internal procedures.[15]   Based on the publicly available information, there appears to be no internal procedures for Massa to exhaust.  Massa does state that he attempted to settle the dispute internally with FOM and the FIA, but he was left with no alternative to file his lawsuit.[16]  So under the Judicial Regulations, Massa should have the ability to pursue his case in the courts.  Whether the courts will actually hear the case is a separate question.  Courts will typically not hear cases involving field of play decisions if they are being asked to question decisions made by sporting officials.  If this is what Massa is asking for, the High Court is likely to dismiss the case.  If Massa is asking for monetary relief only, the courts are more likely to hear the case.

Whatever happens, there will continue to be questions about the 2008 World Driver’s Championship.

[1] Replay: 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, Formula One, https://f1tv.formula1.com/detail/1000003658/2008-singapore-grand-prix?action=play (last visited Apr. 26. 2024).

[2] 2008 FIA Formula One World Championship Central, The Third Turn, https://www.thethirdturn.com/wiki/2008_FIA_Formula_One_World_Championship_Central (last visited Apr. 26, 2024).

[3] Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), World Motor Sport Council Decision Re: 2008 Singapore Grand Prix – ING Renault F1, Paris, September 21, 2009.  https://s.libertaddigital.com/doc/decisiones-de-la-fia-20-paginas-pdf-en-ingles-20107276.pdf

[4] Id., para. 7

[5] Michael Lamonato, ‘We decided not to do anything’: Explosive Ecclestone claim prompts ex F1 star to consider legal action over 2008 ‘Crashgate’ title, Fox Sports Australia (Apr 5, 2023, 4:32 PM) https://www.foxsports.com.au/motorsport/formula-one/we-decided-not-to-do-anything-explosive-ecclestone-claim-prompts-ex-f1-star-to-consider-legal-action-over-2008-crashgate-title/news-story/ef51c67882bb3756f1eed38b15efae83; Ralf Bach, Ecclestone bricht Schweigen über F1-Skandal: Schumacher wäre alleiniger Rekordweltmeister, F1 Insider (March 1, 2023, 2:58 PM), – https://f1-insider.com/formel-1-ecclestone-schumacher-rekord-53946/ (German)

[6] Jonathan Noble, Erick Gabriel, Massa to look into legal options over 2008 F1 title outcome, Autosport (Apr. 7, 2023, 9:26 PM), https://www.autosport.com/f1/news/massa-to-look-into-legal-options-over-2008-f1-title-outcome-/10453168/

[7] Matt Kew, Massa files lawsuit against FIA, FOM over 2008 F1 Singapore GP, Autosport (Mar. 11, 2024, 9:45 PM), https://www.autosport.com/f1/news/massa-files-lawsuit-against-fia-fom-over-2008-f1-singapore-gp/10586544/

[8] Courts in England and Wales do not make the Statement of Claim (what courts in the US call the complaint) publicly available immediately after filing.

[9] Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), 2023 Sporting Code, Article 15.10.  Only cases involving anti-doping disputes are allowed to be appealed to CAS

[10] Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), 2008 Sporting Code, Article 179(b), https://argent.fia.com/web/fia-public.nsf/917D67F70F1C5EE7C12573B7003DCEC5/$FILE/CSI%20modif%20ap%20AGO%20oct%2007%20ANG%20-%20Applic.%2001.01.08%20-%20clean.pdf; Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), 2009 Sporting Code, Article 179(b), https://argent.fia.com/web/fia-public.nsf/2AE516858C3C8A6BC125765B004E3B63/$FILE/CSI_après_AG-Oct.09-ANG.pdf

[11] Id.

[12] Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), 2024 Judicial and Disciplinary Rules, Article 11.3.1.

[13] Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), 2024 Judicial and Disciplinary Rules, Article 11.3.2.  FIA prize giving is done in December and once the prizes are award, the results are final.

[14] Supra, note 3.

[15] Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), 2024 Judicial and Disciplinary Rules, Article 13.

[16] Supra, note 7.

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