Clause for concern

The paragraphs highlighted in the FIA document above are at the core of Formula 1’s biggest scandal. McLaren has been fined 100 million dollars and stripped of its Constructor points, not for stealing designs, not for offering bribes, but for possibly gaining, through the actions of a disgruntled Ferrari employee, a theoretical intellectual advantage – an advantage which the FIA itself says would be impossible to quantify. With an invisible crime to punish, and the eyes of the sport and the media upon it, the FIA decided McLaren had transgressed against clause C of paragraph 151, Breach of Rules – a clause containing no concrete definitions of illegal behaviour. In this section, Nigel Roebuck assesses the outcome, and F1 luminaries comment on the judgement, which we print in full

It began as the story of two dishonest and greedy men, both unreasonably dissatisfied with their lot. When Ross Brawn, after countless years on the road, decided to step down – at least temporarily – as Ferrari Technical Director, at the end of last year, Nigel Stepney, another Brit at Maranello, harboured high hopes of promotion. Over in Woking, meantime, Chief Designer Mike Coughlan was less than content at McLaren.

Stepney, the Race Technical Manager at Ferrari, had previously been the team’s chief mechanic, and some say there has never been a better mechanic in Formula 1. During Stepney’s watch, Ferrari achieved a level of reliability unequalled in the sport’s history, as Michael Schumacher can gratefully attest. Stepney’s salary, said to be well over a million dollars, was substantially more than he could have earned in that capacity with any other team.

During their years at Ferrari, Stepney worked closely with Brawn, but clearly he had a higher opinion of himself than did the powers-that-be at Maranello. When Brawn decided to go fishing for a year, Mario Almondo was brought in to replace him and Stepney, while perhaps not aspiring to the top job, was angered by the decision. Last December he said as much to journalists – the Ferrari hierarchy was furious.

In the spring Stepney contacted Coughlan, with whom he had previously worked at Benetton, and suggested that they offer themselves as a ‘rescue package’ to Honda, whose calamitous form this season has been well documented. In the meantime, he discussed aspects of Ferrari with Coughlan, and it was as the result of information gleaned from these talks that at the first race of the season, in Melbourne, McLaren asked for clarification from the FIA as to the legality of the ‘floor’ of the new Ferrari F2007. After the Australian Grand Prix, the FIA’s Charlie Whiting announced that it was not in conformity with the rules – but by then Kimi Räikkönen had already won the race, and his victory stands.

Subsequently, a 780-page Ferrari dossier found its way to Coughlan’s house, and his wife Trudie duly took it to a print shop in nearby Horsham where it was transferred on to two CDs, the bill being paid with a personal cheque. The original dossier was shredded and burned in Coughlan’s garden. Had not an employee at the print shop, concerned about the job he had been asked to do, contacted Maranello, the affair might never have come to light.

At the end of May Stepney and Coughlan had a meeting with Honda’s Nick Fry at Heathrow Airport, where the possibility of their working for the company was discussed, but any question of documents or dossiers, Fry insisted, was never discussed. Coughlan, apparently, was of greater interest to him than Stepney, but no deal was concluded with either.

It was on Monday, July 2, the day after the French Grand Prix, that the news broke that ‘a Ferrari employee was suspected of handing confidential material to a McLaren employee’, and the fact this was also only four days ahead of the start of practice for the British Grand Prix immediately raised suspicions that the leak had been timed, by Ferrari, to cause maximum disruption to McLaren at a crucial moment in the season. (There would be a similar incident later in the year, at Monza, when Italian legal authorities arrived at the McLaren motorhome – immediately before qualifying – simply to inform certain personnel that they were ‘under investigation’.)

The FIA announced that the matter would be discussed by the World Motor Sport Council at a meeting in Paris on July 26, by which time a McLaren-Mercedes had been dismantled, and minutely examined. No evidence could be found that any aspect of the design of Ferrari’s F2007 had been incorporated into McLaren’s MP4-22 – and no surprise there, as the cars differ widely in concept, and had anyway been ‘signed off’ many months earlier. Ferrari’s contention, though, was that details of its car, and of its working practices, had inevitably benefited McLaren in various ways.

Eventually the 26-man council unanimously concluded that there was no clear evidence that McLaren, as a team, had benefited from the confidential Ferrari information in Coughlan’s possession. That being so, it was felt there was no justification for punishment.

Unanimous the decision may have been, but it did not keep one Italian member of the council, Luigi Macaluso, from afterwards declaring that he had tried to persuade his fellow members to vote otherwise: “For me, McLaren are guilty, and that’s that.”

On the heels of Macaluso’s comments came a torrent of fury from his homeland, Ferrari’s Jean Todt in particular responding with that brand of self-righteous outrage he has made his own.

“I wonder what would have happened with the roles reversed,” Todt said. “I wonder if they had found in the house of a Ferrari chief designer 780 classified documents of another team…

“There would have been cries of a scandal, and an exemplary punishment would have been demanded. And it would have been granted, I have no doubt.

“There is not even a sign of logic in this verdict. Either they are guilty or they are not. McLaren were found responsible of having violated the regulations of F1, of having behaved in a fraudulent manner, but they haven’t been punished.

“One thing is certain: we at Ferrari can calmly look at ourselves in the mirror. I think others can’t do the same thing.”

These last remarks provoked a good deal of mirth in the paddock, where the general response was that Ferrari was somewhat poorly placed to complain about decisions taken over time in Paris. When, for example, Michael Schumacher blatantly attempted to barge Jacques Villeneuve off the road in their championship-deciding race at Jerez in 1997, it was confidently expected – not least because he had done the same to Damon Hill at Adelaide three years earlier – that he would be hammered by the powers-that-be.

In the end, though, the FIA came down on Schumacher like a ton of feathers. His second place in the World Championship was struck from the records – but he was allowed to ‘keep’ his five wins from the season. Other than that, the FIA required him to do some road safety work on its behalf, and that was all she wrote.

FIA President Max Mosley earnestly attempted to persuade the press that really Schumacher had been very seriously punished. To be stripped of the title of ‘Vice World Champion’ was no little matter, he said. In vain, one tried to think of a driver to whom second place meant less than Michael Schumacher. 

Mosley also said that the governing body’s conclusion was that Schumacher’s action, while deliberate (as proved beyond doubt by in-cockpit footage at the moment of the controversy), had been spontaneous, rather than preconceived. So that was all right, then.

A couple of years later, in the latter stages of the 1999 season, the Ferraris of Eddie Irvine and Schumacher finished first and second in the Malaysian Grand Prix, only to be disqualified when their bargeboards were found not to conform to the rules. Their removal from the results promoted McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen into first place, and that in turn confirmed him as World Champion.

While there was no suggestion that Ferrari had acted illegally – the bargeboard infringement was insufficient to have created any performance advantage – Ross Brawn afterwards admitted to Williams’s Patrick Head that the team was indeed ‘bang to rights’. It was unfortunate, but there it was.

Thus there was some surprise when Ferrari later appealed against its disqualification – and even more when, at a meeting in Paris the following weekend, it was decided that the bargeboards were in conformity, after all. Irvine and Schumacher were reinstated in the Sepang results, and the World Championship, with the Japanese Grand Prix still to come, was not dead after all, for now Irvine could still beat Hakkinen to the title.

In the event, this did not transpire, Ferrari proving surprisingly less competitive than in Malaysia, but still the team narrowly beat McLaren to the constructors’ title – which would have been impossible without the 16 points from Sepang.

Back to the present. Following the first WMSC hearing, Ferrari lost no time in appealing against the decision not to punish McLaren, and a date – September 13 – was set, this falling in the four-day break between the Italian and Belgian Grands Prix. Later, the FIA announced, new evidence to be presented was such that it would no longer be heard in the FIA Court of Appeal, but before the World Motor Sport Council once again. A whole new ‘trial’, in effect.

The FIA became aware of much of the ‘new evidence’, remarkably, through none other than Ron Dennis. It will be remembered that his drivers, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, became embroiled in the qualifying session at the Hungarian Grand Prix, during which each, in different ways, appeared deliberately to impede the other. No other competitor was affected, and it should have been an intra-team problem, to be resolved by McLaren. As it was, though, the FIA stewards decided to become involved, and Alonso, who had taken pole position, was punished with the arbitrary loss of five grid positions.

Given that Hamilton appeared to have started the whole thing, Alonso was particularly incensed, and on race morning had a face-to-face confrontation with Dennis. For some little time he had been unhappy with his lot at McLaren, feeling he was not getting the ‘number one’ treatment he felt was his due, and undoubtedly he was thoroughly unsettled by the pace and performance of his rookie team-mate, which not even Hamilton’s keenest supporters could quite have anticipated.

Neither man has revealed the detail of what was said that morning, but the belief is that Alonso effectively threatened Dennis that if he did not ‘slow Hamilton down’ (and perhaps get rid of him at the end of the season), he, Alonso, would go to the FIA with ‘new evidence’ on the Stepney/Coughlan affair.

If the facts are true, it was not only ill-advised for Alonso to behave in this fashion, but also remarkably stupid. In Formula 1 circles Dennis has a long-established reputation for integrity, and throughout the investigations into this disreputable affair McLaren had done everything possible to co-operate with the FIA. Not only did Dennis refuse to be coerced by Alonso, he said that if he had any new evidence he should impart it to the FIA as soon as possible. A few hours later Alonso’s manager came to Dennis to say that Fernando had acted in haste and anger, and wished to retract what he said, but in fact, as soon as the stormy conversation had concluded, Dennis had immediately telephoned FIA President Max Mosley. 

After the race Alonso came to see Dennis, offered apologies for his behaviour earlier on, and the two men shook hands. By now, though, the genie was out of the bottle: not only had Dennis learned that day of new evidence linking Stepney and Coughlan, but so also had the FIA.

At no stage of the entire affair has there been any suggestion that McLaren incorporated information from the Ferrari dossier into its car. Rather, the basis of the case against McLaren has been that it benefited from knowledge of Ferrari work practices.

Once in receipt of the Ferrari documentation, Coughlan imparted some details to McLaren’s test driver, Pedro de la Rosa, with whom he had worked previously, and with whom he had a good relationship. De la Rosa, in turn, communicated it to his good friend, and fellow Spaniard, Alonso. A sizeable number of text messages and e-mails leave no doubt about this.

That said, there is considerable doubt that it was actually ‘cutting edge’ information. There were, for example, details of the weight distribution of the Ferrari F2007, but this car, as previously said, is quite radically different in concept from McLaren’s MP4-22. Stepney had also furnished Coughlan with information about Ferrari pit stops: at Melbourne, he said, Kimi Räikkönen would be stopping on lap 18. In point of fact Räikkönenn pitted on lap 19, but, as Dennis and others have pointed out, this is hardly classified information. Given that an extra 10 kilos of fuel costs about three-tenths of a second per lap, it is relatively simple to calculate – by comparing a car’s lap time in the first and second segments of qualifying (when it is very light on fuel) and the third segment (when it has ‘fuel for the race’ on board – when it will make its first stop.

This e-mail correspondence between Coughlan and de la Rosa (and de la Rosa and Alonso) apparently ceased after the Bahrain Grand Prix, the third round of the World Championship, on April 15. By then, Stepney had been useful to McLaren in other ways, suggesting, for example, that the team seek clarification from the FIA as to the legality of the ‘floor’ of this season’s Ferrari F2007.

The revelation of ‘new evidence’ came as a body blow to Dennis, who had previously questioned his employees as to whether or not they knew of the collusion between Stepney and Coughlan, and had believed that Coughlan alone was involved. It was in this belief that Dennis attended the first WMSC hearing in July, at which McLaren escaped punishment. The second one, on September 13, promised to be very much serious, and so it proved.

Once Mosley knew of ‘new evidence’ (as revealed to him by Dennis following the row with Alonso in Hungary), the FIA required statements from all the McLaren drivers, revealing everything they knew. If they were to comply, Mosley promised, they would be guaranteed personal immunity from proceedings under the International Sporting Code and the Formula 1 regulations. “However,” his letter concluded, “in the event that it later comes to light that you have withheld any potentially relevant information, serious consequences could follow.”

At no stage has there been any suggestion that Hamilton was involved, but Alonso and de la Rosa submitted very full reports of what they knew. The WMSC debated the matter at length in Paris, and after many hours announced that McLaren would be stripped of all constructors’ championship points for 2007 (which automatically handed the title to Ferrari) – and would also be fined $100,000,000. Numbing.

The reaction throughout the paddock – save in the Ferrari area, anyway – was that the punishment was absurdly disproportionate to the offence, an impression which gained further strength when the FIA produced a document on the judgement.

Item 5.3, for example: “The WMSC does not have evidence that any complete Ferrari design was copied and subsequently wholly incorporated into the McLaren car as a result of Coughlan passing information from Stepney to McLaren. However, it is difficult to accept that the secret Ferrari information that was within Coughlan’s knowledge never influenced his judgment in the performance of his duties. It is not necessary for McLaren to have copied a complete Ferrari design for it to have benefited from Coughlan’s knowledge. For example, the secret Ferrari information cannot but have informed the views Coughlan expressed to others in the McLaren design department, for example regarding which design projects to prioritise or which research to pursue. The advantage gained may have been as subtle as Coughlan being in a position to suggest alternative ways of approaching different design challenges.”

Or item 7.1: “The WMSC believes the nature of the information illicitly held by McLaren was information of a nature which, if used or in any way taken into account, could confer a significant sporting advantage upon McLaren.

“The WMSC does not have evidence that…” “It is difficult to accept that…” “The advantage gained may have been…” “Could confer a significant sporting advantage…” Phraseology of that kind hardly sits easily with a fine of draconian proportions.

At Spa, the day after the Paris hearing, Mosley said that, in his opinion, McLaren had got off lightly. “They were very nearly out of business – very nearly. I think what we did was arguably less than we should have done – that $100m is less than the difference between his [Dennis’s] budget and those of Williams or Renault or several other teams, so it’s a very minor punishment, as such. The other teams clearly understand that nobody should do this – and in fact I think they’re actually relieved to know that we will stamp it out. Once you get this culture of cheating in a sport, it’s a complete disaster, and you’ve got to cut it out as soon as you find it. I’m just trying to run a fair, proper sport, as far as I’m able, and the World Council is the same.

“McLaren was extremely lucky that we didn’t simply say, ‘You have polluted the World Championship in 2007 – and you’ve probably polluted it in 2008, as well, because we’ve no way of knowing what information you’re using in your 2007 or 2008 cars, so you’d better stay out of the World Championship until 2009 – if you’re still around – because that way we know it’s completely fair’. We didn’t do that, and I think when history gets to be written about this, that may be what we will be reproached for – doing too little, not too much.”

Ferrari apart, that is not a viewpoint much in evidence among the other teams – indeed, their feeling was that Ferrari were ill-placed to assume the moral high ground, to gloat. 

Mosley also said that the drivers, as well as their team, could have been stripped of their championship points, “on the grounds that there is a suspicion that they had an advantage they should not have had”. A suspicion?

Jackie Stewart was one of many to suggest that it was insane for the sport to wash its dirty linen in public this way, pointing out that, in varying ways, this sort of thing had always gone on. “When I started Stewart Grand Prix,” he said, “we hired people from Ferrari, McLaren, Williams, Arrows, Jordan and God knows who else. Every single one of them brought with them intellectual property secrets – and some of them, I dare say, had pieces of paper that they’d kept because they thought they were valuable to them. I certainly wasn’t aware of that – and I didn’t have anyone into the office saying, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m going to bring this with me…’ I mean, I knew they were going to bring that with them! That’s what has always happened.

Adrian Newey left Williams, and went to McLaren – he left a world championship-winning team, and is anyone going to suggest he did that without taking any knowledge of Williams with him? I mean, for God’s sake, that was one of the reasons why McLaren recruited him! Then he left McLaren, and went to Red Bull – did he do that without taking extraordinarily important knowledge with him? Of course not!”

Two years ago, a couple of Ferrari engineers, recruited by Toyota, took Maranello software with them. They were duly dealt with under the processes of civil law, but on that occasion the FIA did not become involved.

At Spa, Renault’s Pat Symonds was asked if he considered McLaren guilty. “Mmm, yes, I suppose so,” he said. Guilty of what? “Not very much,” said Symonds. “Not very much…”

Hans Stuck

From what I’ve heard, there is some guilt. I would say the points penalty is fine, the money is too much. It doesn’t fit into the system. The punishment should be a warning for other people not to do like this, but the money is too high. Ferrari had this problem with Toyota a few years ago, with people taking stuff there. I think maybe they should check what is going on there. Why are people doing it? Are they doing it for the money, or because they don’t like Ferrari any more? How is this possible? It’s not good for the sport. I have all my guests in the Paddock Club, who are mainly high-value sponsors, they all say what about all this shit going on? What kind of business is this? Do we want to come here any more? The worst damage is for McLaren-Mercedes, and for the fans.

Ove Andersson

I think it is outrageous, what has happened, the way the FIA has gone about it. This is typical – money. There is no common sense. You can’t exclude McLaren from F1, so it’s completely different to what happened to us. [Toyota’s Corolla WRC cars were excluded for a year after turbocharger infringements in 1995.] That wasn’t so important. People are always moving around in F1, and when Benetton people went to Ferrari I don’t think they went empty-handed. This is always happening. Maybe not in such a vulgar way as this has been done. However, people say any publicity, whether bad or good, is always positive, because it creates a lot of interest.

Keke Rosberg

I hear from inside of McLaren that they still don’t understand why they have been penalised. They don’t think there was anything in it, and they must know. Of course $100m is a lot of money. I would have wished that for one instance if a penalty had to be imposed, it was a loss of points. We know it would have been a financial penalty, but it would not have been announced to the public as a so-many-millions fine. I don’t like to talk about money like telephone numbers, and I wish we could have talked about it in a sophisticated manner. Information has been moving for years, although they didn’t have computers in my day. A good designer or engineer moving knows most of the stuff. You can’t copy directly anyway, so you can only say, ‘Well our philosophy was this’. A good aerodynamicist will know numbers, knows all the numbers to aim for,
but then another team’s wind tunnel gives different numbers, so even those can’t be compared directly.

Dan Gurney

I don’t know if this sort of thing went on in my day, but it’s probably safe to say the current era doesn’t have a monopoly on sinister characters. Of course, in my day there weren’t millions and millions of dollars at stake, and now with computers everything is so much more sophisticated. And back in the so-called golden era of racing, there were waaaay fewer rules. All the design breakthroughs came from people who were trying to show they were smarter than their competitors, instead of getting a half per cent gain here and a one per cent gain there.

Mario Andretti

How do you quantify $100 million? How do you react to that? I don’t know. Why not $50 million? Why not $200 million? Is this an arbitrary figure or is it something in the FIA by-laws? We can compare this to the National Football League in the US which just imposed its ‘maximum allowable fine’ of $500,000 on New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick for their infraction [illegally tape-recording opposing teams’ signals], but at least that’s the maximum fine allowed. 

Does the FIA have a free hand to do whatever it wants? Because McLaren can afford $100 million, do you charge them $100 million, and if Spyker did the same thing they would fine them $10,000? Those are the questions it raises and who am I to say what is right or wrong? What I can say is that, whatever transpired, I don’t think it made any difference in the performance of the team. With or without that information, I think McLaren probably would have had the same success, because I don’t think one single individual can have that much influence in making the car – all of a sudden – that much better. And unfortunately it negates all the efforts of the whole team to get to the level of performance they are now enjoying. That’s the real tragedy in my opinion.

This sort of stuff has been going on from the beginning of time. I remember at Lotus when we had something nobody else had with the ground effects. I’m not going to mention names, but I remember when a very prominent designer was pulled out from under our car in Belgium. They didn’t fine him, they didn’t throw him in jail. The following year the team he worked for had a better car than we did, so draw your own conclusion. So this has been going on forever; it’s more sophisticated today because they give it the name of espionage.