The first Singapore Grand Prix was to be the first night race in Formula One history around a tight street circuit with plenty of barriers and walls to collect errant drivers.
So who could be surprised by a crash causing a safety car? Nelson Piquet’s Renault duly obliged on lap 14, and in amazingly fortuitous circumstances the timing of the crash was just what was needed to propel Piquet Jr’s team mate Fernando Alonso, who had just made an early pit stop to the front of the pack after everyone else had come in.
Once the pits stops under the safety car had shaken out Nico Rosberg led the race for Williams from the Toyota of Jarno Trulli, followed by the Force India of Giancarlo Fisichella, then BMW-Sauber’s Robert Kubica and Alonso next up. Both Rosberg and Kubica faced penalties for coming into the pit lane while it was closed, while Trulli and Fisichella were on one stop strategies, and when they pitted Alonso was into the lead from Rosberg, a lead he would hold for the rest of the race to give Renault their first win of the season, in spite of having to deal with a further safety car period after Adrian Sutil found the barriers with his Force India.
Of course as we now know when Piquet Jr was handed his notice from Renault, he spilled the beans, admitting he crashed on purpose under the instruction of the team. Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds were banned from F1 (although those bans were overturned on appeal), Renault was also given a suspended sentence, and the incident would weigh heavily on the French marque, with sponsors withdrawing support and Renault eventually deciding to sell on the works team and remain in F1 as engine supplier only. Piquet Jr has never had another chance at F1 (although he was impressive in winning the inaugural Formula E championship), while Pat Symonds subsequently returned with roles at Marussia and Williams. The drama of crashgate dominates memories of that first event, but the race will also be remembered as a crucial failure for Ferrari and Felipe Massa.
Coming into the race Massa trailed McLaren title rival Lewis Hamilton by just a single point. Massa had a good start to the weekend, taking pole position having qualified an impressive 0.6 seconds ahead of Hamilton, and was leading comfortably in the early stages and looked set to coast to a victory that would have made Lewis last gasp pass of Timo Glock in Brazil academic in the battle for the world championship, but in the chaos of the safety car brought about by Piquet Jr’s crash, Massa’s title hopes took as massive hit, as he drove his Ferrari out of the pit lane with the refuelling hose still attached (Massa to be fair had been given the all clear to leave), knocking over his mechanics and sending fuel spilling over the pitlane. Massa would eventually be rolled back to the pits and rejoin the race, but the damage was done, and with a further penalty to come for unsafe release he would eventually finish the race well down the order and well outside the points, while Lewis Hamilton finished third behind Alonso and Rosberg to claim 6 valuable world championship points en route to his first world drivers title.