The announcement of Flavio Briatore’s life ban from Formula One has, as one might expect, sent shockwaves through the sport. Motor racing, however might not be the only sport to undergo a degree of soul searching as the result of their sanction against the former head of the Renault team, because Briatore is also the owner of Championship club Queens Park Rangers, and his F1A ban has led to speculation that he will now have to stand down from the board of directors of the holding company which owns the club, QPR Holdings, because he would now fail the FA’s “Fit & Proper Person” test for club directors.
It is worth taking a moment to look at the allegations made against Briatore by the former Renault driver Nelson Piquet Junior. Piquet alleged that, at the Singapore Grand Prix earlier this year, he was instructed by Briatore to deliberately crash his car in order to introduce the safety car into the race. This reduced an advantage held by opposing drivers over Piquet’s team-mate Fernando Alonso (who had a chance of winning the World Driver’s Championship). Alonso went onto win the race, and it looked as if Renault had got away with it until Piquet left the team in acrimonious circumstances this summer.
The FIA heard Piquet’s claims in return for immunity from prosecution, and it looks as if they believed him. Many believed that the Renault team got off lightly with a suspended ban from the sport, but it was widely assumed that Briatore and Pat Symonds, the team’s director of engineering, last week were a tacit admission of guilt. Briatore has blustered about taking the FIA to court and forming a breakaway championship, but for now he is little more than a pariah within the sport that helped to make his fortune. How many people would want to follow a convicted cheat who may, in all honesty, have endangered the safety of one of his drivers is open to question.
All of this may leave Queens Park Rangers in a bit of a pickle. The Championship club hasn’t had too bad a start to the season, sitting in twelfth place in the table but having only lost one match in their opening seven this season. However, Football League’s “Fit & Proper” regulations for club directors state quite clearly that directors who are “subject to a ban from a sports governing body relating to the administration of their sport” should be disqualified from being directors at football clubs. Lord Mawhinney has written to the World Motor Sport Council for further clarification on the ban but, at first glance, Briatore’s likelihood of remaining in a position of control at Loftus Road could, theoretically, be held in some doubt.
The good news for Rangers supporters is that Briatore (whose own income is likely to fall drastically without any Formula One involvement) isn’t the only wealthy man involved with Queens Park Rangers. He was persuaded to get involved at the club in the first place by the Indian billionaire Lakshmi Mittal, whose son-in-law, Amit Bhatia, sits on the board of the club. Mittal is believed to be concerned by Briatore’s recent dalliances and may look to buy Briatore out of the club. Briatore has been less than completely popular amongst supporters, and his departure from the club would not be greeted with complete disappointment by all supporters.
Ironically, Queens Park Rangers travel to Stamford Bridge for match against Chelsea tomorrow night in the League Cup. Mittal buying his share in the club in December 2007 coincided with an FA Cup match against Chelsea at which some Queens Park Rangers supporters waved banners proclaiming their club to be the richest in the world. This bold claim came to nothing, and Briatore’s claims that he could make QPR a “boutique club” may have had supporters of other clubs laughing, but they had serious side-effects for long time Rangers supporters, who have seen ticket prices shoot up over the last couple of years or so amid rumours that the back-room running of the club was chaotic.
For all of this, though, Briatore may yet have a get out clause and, considering the way the so many of the game’s authorities treat people that behave in a manner that in many other areas of life would see them professionally black-balled or imprisoned, it may give him half a chance of retaining his position at QPR. The FIA is not the overall governing body of motor sport – the World Motor Sport Council is. It could be interpreted that even a lifetime ban from the FIA does not amount to “a ban from a sports governing body relating to the administration of their sport”. We may learn something about how seriously the game’s authorities take their fit and proper tests, but then we think of the likes of Ken Bates, Stephen Vaughan and all the rest of them and becomes a little more difficult to imagine that Briatore will leave Loftus Road by any other means than a boardroom coup or his own volition.