Felipe Massa’s suing F1 and the FIA for justice and $80M: ‘We will not be deterred’

Felipe Massa has been consistent since August 2023. He wants justice after the ‘Crashgate’ scandal cost him the 2008 Formula One drivers’ championship. Now, that pursuit has taken the form of a lawsuit seeking more than $80 million in damages.

Earlier this month, Massa filed papers in the King’s Bench Division of the High Court in the U.K. The Athletic has obtained and reviewed the Particulars of Claim, which name Formula One Management (FOM), former F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone and the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) as defendants.

The former Ferrari driver is after more than money, according to Bernardo Viana, one of his lawyers. “Based on the recently revealed conspiracy by FOM and FIA, this lawsuit seeks recognition that FIA breached its own regulations and that Felipe should have been considered the 2008 F1 Champion,” Viana said.

The FIA and FOM declined to comment on the ongoing legal matter.

This legal move is unprecedented within the world of F1. No one has tried to overturn a world championship before, let alone challenge it over a decade later. But Viana said there are legal precedents in other cases that will be disclosed as the process unfolds. This lawsuit, moreover, could set an example.

“What Felipe is doing sets a strong precedent for athletes in motorsport. The way Formula One is structured, with the Concorde Agreement and political arrangement between big teams and FIA/FOM, leaves little to no room for drivers, the pawns that risk their lives on a weekly basis, to even become aware of relevant information, much less participating in key decisions,” Viana said.

“There is a lot of fear and skepticism by star drivers to seek correction of clear injustices; it is time to change that.”

The history of ‘Crashgate’

Even though it has been over 15 years since the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, ‘Crashgate’ still remains one of F1’s biggest controversies.

During that race, Renault driver Nelson Piquet Jr. intentionally crashed on team orders, triggering a series of events that helped his teammate, Fernando Alonso, win, and left Massa out of the points. A few races later, Lewis Hamilton clinched the drivers’ championship over Massa by a single point. In 2009, Piquet Jr. revealed he had crashed on purpose. The ensuing investigation led to punishments for Renault leadership, but came too late to change the outcome: The rules at the time dictated results could not be altered once prizes had been awarded at the FIA’s year-end Prize-Giving ceremony.

The scandal fell quiet after 2009 and the sport moved on. That is until March 2023, when F1-insider.com published a story quoting Ecclestone as saying he and former FIA president Max Mosely were told the crash was intentional soon enough that they had “enough information in time to investigate the matter,” and adjust the results. Ecclestone, who was 92 at the time, later told Reuters he didn’t remember the quotes or giving the interview.

Ex-Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone looks on during the "KitzCharityTrophy 2024" on the sidelines of the Men's Downhill event of FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup in Kitzbuehel, Austria on January 20, 2024. (Photo by GEORG HOCHMUTH / APA / AFP) / Austria OUT

Massa alleges Bernie Ecclestone engaged in a conspiracy to cause him harm. (GEORG HOCHMUTH / APA / AFP)

Massa began looking into his legal options, and in August 2023, his legal team sent a Letter Before Claim, which is required under UK law before filing a lawsuit, to FOM and the FIA, specifically directed to the attention of FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem and Formula One CEO Stefano Domenicali. This letter detailed the factual background and evidence and demanded a “substantive reply” within 14 days of the letter’s date. They then extended that deadline multiple times.

When asked how FOM and the FIA responded about the matter last fall, Viana said, in part, “FOM and FIA refused to address the issue despite a confession by FOM’s former CEO (Ecclestone) that both conspired not to apply the regulations properly. Recorded interviews with late Mr. Mosley and Mr. (Charlie) Whiting (the then-F1 race director) also confirm Mr Ecclestone’s statement. Despite all of that and their vocal commitments to ethics and integrity in sport (FIA even has a supposed Race Against Manipulation initiative), they have simply referred to the future legal defences they will attempt to deploy.

“Their only purpose so far seems to be keeping us from seeking justice. We will not be deterred.”

The crux of the case

Massa and his legal team are trying to prove that the defendants were notified and knew the Singapore GP crash was deliberate in November 2008 and/or before the awards gala in December.

The Particulars of Claim detail that while at the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix, Piquet Jr.’s father, Nelson Piquet Sr., notified Whiting that his son had crashed intentionally, on orders from team personnel. According to the document, “At or around the time of the Brazilian Grand Prix (i) Mr Whiting informed Mr Mosley, and (ii) Mr Whiting and/or Mr Mosley informed Mr Ecclestone, that Mr Piquet Sr had told Mr Whiting that Mr Piquet Jr crashed deliberately at the Singapore Grand Prix on the instructions of the Renault team.”

The bottom line: The Particulars of Claim alleges all three individuals knew the crash may have been intentional before the FIA Prize-Giving Gala Ceremony, when an investigation could have altered or voided the race results and resulted in Massa’s winning the championship. It wasn’t until summer 2009 that the media reported the crash might have been intentional, which triggered an investigation.

The World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) determined the crash was deliberate and a conspiracy did occur between Piquet Jr. (who was given immunity) and two members of the Renault team (Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds), and punishments were handed out. Part of the WMSC’s assessment (which is included in the Particulars of Claim) stated, “Such activities not only violate the very essence of sporting fairness but also demonstrate a total disregard for the safety of others. As guardians of the sport the FIA must look upon these matters with the utmost gravity. In the absence of mitigating factors, the perpetrators of such offences have no place in international motorsport.”

The alleged claims

The case lists relevant legal provisions from both English and French law (the FIA is headquartered in Paris). It also cites the FIA Statutes, the International Sporting Code, the 2008 F1 sporting regulations from the FIA, and the FIA’s Judicial and Disciplinary Rules. According to the Particulars of Claim, these regulations “constituted the terms of a contract between” Massa and the governing body.

Massa’s legal team claims that the FIA breached that contract by failing to investigate the crash promptly, allowing “the end of season Championships to be awarded despite knowing that the results of the Singapore Grand Prix and, therefore, the overall Championships, were or could have been tainted by fraud or the deliberate manipulation of results as a result of the deliberate Crash,” and/or lastly, failing “to make public its knowledge that Mr Piquet Sr told the FIA at the Brazilian Grand Prix that the Crash was (or, alternatively and at the very least, may have been) deliberate.”

Ultimately, they argue this violates Article 151 of the International Sporting Code (published in Dec. 2007), which prohibits “any fraudulent conduct or any act prejudicial to the interests of any competition or to the interests of motor sport generally.”

Additionally, the Brazilian driver is claiming a conspiracy occurred where Ecclestone and Mosley allegedly “agreed to use unlawful means with an intention of causing harm to Mr Massa.”

What Massa is seeking

They aren’t explicitly asking for the results to be overturned, which would likely be outside of the scope of a civil court. The claims are as follows:

  • Damages and interest
  • “A declaration that the FIA acted in breach of its own regulations in failing to investigate the circumstances of the Crash promptly in 2008.”
  • “A declaration that if the FIA had not acted in breach of its own regulations, it would have cancelled or adjusted the results of the Singapore Grand Prix with the consequence that Mr Massa would have won the Drivers’ Championship in 2008.”
  • Any “further or other relief” that the Court feels would be appropriate

Massa estimates his losses — without factoring in interest — amount to £64,000,000 (over $80 million). This includes Ferrari’s bonus he would have received for winning the title, salary differences he would have earned throughout his motorsports career as well as the salary he could have negotiated as a world champion, and the loss of potential commercial and sponsorship opportunities.

Next steps

Now that the Particular of Claims has been filed, Viana said, “the Defendants will likely submit early defences, then we will have substantial discovery, and so on.”

Massa and his legal team did try to resolve the matter with the FIA and FOM but waited on the two parties for six months. Ultimately, Viana said, the FIA and FOM “have decided not to do so. Unless we see a significant change in their attitude, we expect Felipe’s lawsuit to go all the way.”

It has been over 15 years since the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, but Viana feels the incident and aftermath still carry importance today. “We are not far from scandals – so many recently, on and off the track – and the current decision-making and governance framework is clearly not equipped to deal with the challenges modern competition and the new generation of fans require.

“What can we expect when there is another competitive season? Do we trust our current framework to prevent another scandal?”

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(Lead photo of Felipe Massa: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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