All crimes are equal...

…but some are more equal than others. How the Renault verdict has cast even more of a shadow over Formula 1
By Nigel Roebuck

One Formula 1 luminary said it reminded him of the Simpson verdict. “It was just like OJ,” he said. “You knew what was going to happen – but you still didn’t believe it when it did…”

On December 6, in Monaco, the World Motor Sport Council concluded that Renault, being in unauthorised possession of confidential material from another team (McLaren), was in breach of Article 151(c) of the International Sporting Code, which deals with ‘Any fraudulent conduct or any act prejudicial to the interests of any competition or to the interests of motor sport generally’.

On September 13, in Paris, the same WMSC had reached a similar conclusion about McLaren, who had been supplied with confidential material by a disaffected Ferrari employee. But while McLaren was stripped of its constructors’ points for 2007 and fined an extraordinary $100,000,000, Renault went quite unpunished. The discrepancy has left the F1 community disquieted, to say the least.

In the weeks coming up to the Renault hearing there was much speculation as to how it would go, for in punishing McLaren so savagely the powers-that-be had set a potentially dangerous precedent, presumably in the belief – hope, anyway – that such a situation was unlikely to occur again.

At Spa, two days after the McLaren hearing, FIA president Max Mosley fatuously described the fine imposed as, “A very minor punishment. A hundred million dollars is a large sum of money, but in such a serious case any fine has to be large enough to deter similar behaviour in the future. Anything less than that would have no effect at all.”

Strong words. Any team contemplating using another’s confidential information, the message seemed to be, should understand that, in the event of detection, it was going to be nailed to the cross.

“Besides,” Mosley went on, “the sum of money is less than the difference between McLaren’s budget and those of teams like Williams or Renault. All we’re doing is bringing McLaren’s budget down to the level of some of the other top teams. It’s actually a very modest penalty, and when the history of this case is written, the FIA may well be reproached for doing too little…”

Too little? Mosley went on to say that, had it been his decision alone, not only would McLaren have lost all its points, but so, too, would the team’s drivers, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, “On the grounds that there is a suspicion they had an advantage they should not have had”.

A suspicion, surely, is something you have when you bring a case against someone, rather than when you have punished them to the tune of $100,000,000.

On the one hand, Mosley now appeared to be suggesting that a deterrent tariff for such misdemeanours had been set – “Anything less than that would have no effect at all” – while on the other, his reference to the size of McLaren’s budget, relative to those of, “Teams like Williams or Renault”, rather implied punishment according to means.

Whatever, very shortly after the McLaren case had been decided word surfaced that Renault was to face a similar investigation, and this time the wronged party was… McLaren. Soon we learned that when engineer Phil Mackereth left for Renault in September 2006, he took with him a considerable quantity of McLaren material, including drawings covering the entire blueprint of the ’06 and ’07 cars. This was acknowledged by Renault – indeed, witness statements from company employees admitted to the loading of 33 files of McLaren technical information onto Renault’s mainframe IT system – but it was of course denied that it had played any part in the design of their own cars.

On the face of it, the evidence against Renault was rather weightier than anything that had been levelled at McLaren. Even before the WMSC hearing, it was clear that the team was in breach of Article 151(c), as McLaren had been, and we knew what had happened to them, so… what was coming the way of Renault?

A ticklish problem for the FIA, this, because Renault – as Mosley had pointed out at Spa – had nothing like the budget of McLaren, and if they, too, were to face a nine-figure fine, there was just the chance that it might not sit too well with the mother company, the Regie.

This was apples and pears, after all. Where the core business of McLaren is racing, that of Renault – and BMW, Toyota et al – is building road cars. Major manufacturers do not get involved in F1 for reasons of altruism: as Bernie Ecclestone has said, “They disappear when it suits them – always have, and always will.”

To some degree, major manufacturers need constantly to justify their participation in F1, both to their shareholders and their employees. In the early 1980s there was much discontent within the Renault unions about money being ‘wasted’ on motor racing, not least on the retainer of Alain Prost. So unpleasant did the attacks on Prost become, indeed, that eventually he took himself and his family off to live in Switzerland.

By 1985, when the company was not in great shape and redundancies were rife, the decision was taken to continue to build engines (for such as Lotus and Ligier), but to withdraw the Renault team from F1. In times of financial difficulty for a major manufacturer, racing will always be first in line for the red pencil.

These things being so, the conclusion of the F1 community was that a fine for Renault – if comparable with that imposed on McLaren – was something the powers-that-be dare not contemplate. If Renault, stung for a hundred million bucks, upped and left F1, what effect would that have on the other manufacturers?

At the same time, though, based on admissions made even before the hearing, the team was bang to rights, so – what to do?

In defending the WMSC’s decision not to punish Renault at all, Mosley has cited the first McLaren hearing, in July, in which it was concluded that no penalty was appropriate because there was insufficient evidence that McLaren had benefited from the Ferrari material smuggled out by Stepney, and handed over to Mike Coughlan. A similar conclusion had been reached with regard to Renault, he said. But even after the second McLaren hearing – the one which resulted in draconian punishment – few could see any concrete proof that the team had benefited: whatever else, it was clear that no ‘Ferrari intellectual property’ had been incorporated into the cars. The gist of the WMSC’s findings was that McLaren must have benefited simply by having knowledge of what Ferrari was up to, and on that basis it was only right and proper to lower the boom on them.

What strikes one, reading the WMSC’s findings into the two cases, is the difference in wording, that dealing with Renault being notably more conciliatory. Item 5.11, for example: ‘The WMSC finds that Renault’s senior management acted responsibly after it became aware of the issues, and took an open and cooperative approach with both McLaren and the FIA’.

In light of the fact that the investigation took place after severe punishment had been meted out to McLaren, that would seem to have been no more than common sense. And it’s worth remembering, too, that when Ron Dennis was made aware (by Fernando Alonso at the Hungarian Grand Prix) that there was more to the ‘Spygate Affair’ than he had previously realised, his immediate response was to call, and inform, Mosley.

Item 8.9 offers more of the same: ‘The WMSC considered it significant that Renault approached the investigation with an open and transparent attitude. The WMSC also notes that Renault cooperated fully with the FIA’s technical department’s investigation’.

So, for that matter, did McLaren.

Item 8.8 appears to be an attempt to put clear distance between what Stepney and Coughlan did, and the actions of Mackereth. ‘The McLaren confidential information brought to Renault was in the context of an F1 engineer changing teams. It was not ‘live’ information in the sense that there is no evidence of a flow of current information between competing teams. After leaving McLaren, Mackereth had no further access to current or updated McLaren information. Nor is there any evidence that Renault encouraged Mackereth in any way to bring the confidential information from McLaren’.

I can remember no evidence, either, that McLaren encouraged Stepney to slide a Ferrari dossier out of Maranello. The information was offered, not solicited.

According to item 8.12, the WMSC ‘concluded that there was insufficient evidence to establish that the information was used in such a way as to interfere with or have an impact on the World Championship’. Given that Renault scored but 51 points this year, that much is probably true – but where was the evidence that the championship had been ‘interfered with’ by McLaren?

As Renault ‘walked free’ from the court, there was a last sting in the tail for McLaren. During his outpouring at Spa, Mosley had said that, “McLaren were extremely lucky that we didn’t simply say, ‘You’ve polluted the 2007 championship, and you’ve probably polluted the ’08 championship, so you’d better stay out until 2009 – if you’re still around – because that’s the only way we’ll know it’s completely clear.”

That – mercifully for the World Championship – is not going to happen, but still McLaren needs to convince the FIA that its 2008 car, the MP4-23, contains no element of ‘intellectual property’ from Ferrari.

As the designs of the car have been rigorously examined by FIA-appointed officials at the team’s HQ, McLaren had hoped to get the all-clear at the meeting in Monaco, but the WMSC decided to hold off on delivering a verdict until February 14, when another meeting will be convened, at which – as well as McLaren – Ferrari and other teams will be allowed to make presentations.

While declining to go into the reasons for the delay, Mosley said the governing body had ‘good reasons’ for it, of which McLaren had been made aware. “Should the doubt be confirmed,” he added, “they have sufficient time to react.”

It should be pointed out that the meeting is to be held just a month before the car is due to make its racing debut, at Melbourne.

For those of us in the press, though, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the events in Monaco was what came after – the day after, in fact. It was an announcement that the FIA was to sue The Sunday Times, in response to a piece, published on the day of the Italian Grand Prix, in which Martin Brundle suggested that the governing body was engaged in a witch-hunt against McLaren.

I had lunch with Brundle at Monza that Sunday, and already he had been informed that his piece was before the FIA’s lawyers. This he took, as much as anything else, to be a warning not to come out with something similar in the course of his ITV broadcast that afternoon.

The WMSC’s decision, in December, not to punish Renault for what was ostensibly the same crime as that for which McLaren had been hammered of course served to strengthen a widespread belief in the paddock that Brundle had been on the mark, and thus the timing of the announcement that the FIA was indeed to sue The Sunday Times – the very morning after Renault had escaped punishment – was about as subtle as a headbutt. I hesitate to suggest that it would have made Alastair Campbell proud, for there’s always a danger of that being taken by some as a compliment.

Pour encourager les autres. That was the message we took from it, and in response Brundle came forth with another column for the paper, commenting on the Renault situation, relative to what had befallen McLaren, and defending his right to have opinions about the sport and to express them honestly, as he saw fit.

Again, the FIA lost little time in responding, and in criticising Brundle – not least for his timing! “It is regrettable,” said a spokesman, “that, instead of applauding the achievements of motor sport’s international champions, who were recognised this week in a gala prize-giving ceremony in Monaco, Martin Brundle chose to continue his campaign against motor racing’s governing body, and to call into question the integrity of the FIA World Motor Sport Council.”

One thought of Gordon Brown, droning on endlessly about umpteen months of consistent growth while Rome burns about him. Not really Brundle’s way.

The fact is that we appear to have reached a point where disagreement – publicly expressed – with any action taken by the FIA is not to be tolerated, and that cannot be a healthy situation. At Monza Jackie Stewart made clear his feelings about the McLaren situation, and Mosley’s response was to describe him at a press conference as a ‘certified halfwit’.

Not only was this patently absurd, it was also remarkably short-sighted, for what kind of a sport is this when the president of the governing body chooses wilfully to denigrate one of its greatest champions? Mosley may hold Stewart in low esteem, but the great majority of people in the sport value him – and his opinions – highly. JYS doesn’t miss much.

What angered Mosley was that Stewart suggested that ‘exchanging information between teams’ had always gone on, and always would: it was the nature of the business, so why had it suddenly become a hanging offence? Adrian Newey recently said the same, adding that in times past there had been far worse examples of it which had gone unpunished – and, in many cases, undetected. Anyone who has been around F1 a while knows that to be the case.

Probably Newey had it right, though, when he added that, in his opinion, anything in your head was acceptable, anything written down, in any form, not. What no one can quite understand, though, is why only McLaren has been punished – crucified – for it.

It is somewhat ironic now that in June, when McLaren escaped sanction at the first ‘Spygate’ hearing, Flavio Briatore of Renault was outraged: “I don’t understand what happened,” he said. “If the FIA admits to having established possession of Ferrari material by McLaren, then why is there no retribution?” A line of thought that has been in many a mind since December 6.

Max Mosley has often spoken of the need for the FIA’s governance of F1 to be ‘transparent’, but in the minds of most within the sport, it has become more than a little opaque. On several occasions, too, when questioned about his own future as FIA president, he has spoken of the dangers of ‘staying in this job too long’. At the moment, it must be said, there are not too many in the paddock who would take issue with that.