Spy stories

Espionage is big news in F1 right now, but it’s also old news. Ideas, designs, even complete cars, have been ‘borrowed’ since racing began

By Adam Cooper

Grand prix racing has been rocked in recent weeks by the dramatic controversy surrounding former Ferrari man Nigel Stepney and McLaren chief designer Mike Coughlan. The full story has yet to emerge, but the fact Coughlan had some 780 pages of Maranello documentation in his home is not in doubt. What he did with that information, or was planning to do with it, is not entirely clear.

Of course, ‘borrowing’ ideas from the opposition as a short cut to making a car go faster is nothing new. It has just taken different forms over the decades. In the early years, it usually wasn’t too hard for a manufacturer to get hold of an example of a rival’s car and find out what made it work, not least because racing often involved customer cars.

The most famous early example concerns Sunbeam, whose 1914 model was a copy of the previous year’s Peugeot. There are two different stories as to how that happened. The more glamorous tale has it that racer Dario Resta was sent on a promotional tour of the UK with the French car, and stopped off to see Sunbeam boss Louis Coatalen. While they dined, Sunbeam mechanics stripped and measured the Peugeot. The less exciting version is that Coatalen simply bought a Peugeot after the 1913 Coupe de l’Auto, in order to see what made it tick.

The outbreak of WWI put a different value on information gleaned from motorsport. Legend has it that Rolls-Royce acquired and copied a Mercedes grand prix engine, and thus both German and British aircraft ended up using similar technology, though the story is disputed.

Ironically it was Mercedes who would later move the goalposts as far as maintaining secrecy was concerned. When the W25 arrived on the scene the team wasn’t keen on giving away much information, and the suspension was enclosed – not purely for aerodynamic gain. Through the years, the chances of any interested parties buying, dismantling and copying one of the Silver Arrows were slim at best… 

However, the process became rather easier after WWII when the Allies conducted their report into Mercedes and Auto Union technology. Information – including drawings – was made available to BRM, and the British car’s original gearbox was effectively a straight copy. In 1948 Raymond Mays even attempted to import one of the surviving German cars from its resting place in Czechoslovakia in order to take a closer look. He managed to attract government assistance in his quest, but in the end the silver machine remained stranded.

What do you do if you can’t get hold of drawings? As in the Sunbeam days, get the tape measure out. History is full of stories of team personnel being caught out while examining cars that were not theirs, usually late in the evenings, or perhaps when a spare chassis has been left on its own under an awning during a practice session or race.

Tyrrell designer Maurice Philippe was once found taking a close look at the Lotus 79 – it may not have been a coincidence that the 009 he subsequently designed looked like a blue Lotus, while the Williams FW07 was clearly a direct inspiration for the Tyrrell 010 of 1980. 

The FW07 was also involved in one of the most celebrated espionage stories. At the Osterreichring in 1979 then Lotus team manager Peter Collins was caught measuring specific suspension components.

“Basically Colin Chapman and Mario Andretti ordered to me to go and measure the Williams,” says Collins today. “Chapman was a guy you didn’t say no to, and it was my first year in F1. So I went and did it, at a time when there weren’t a lot of people around. Frank and Patrick were incensed, but Chapman had had it happen to him many times.”

Years after the fact, Harvey Postlethwaite admitted that he had also once led a night-time Ferrari raiding party on the Williams pit garage at Hockenheim, in order to size up the FW07. At Spa in 1986 another high-profile Ferrari designer was found examining that year’s Williams-Honda. And so it goes on…

Photographs have always provided teams with useful information. For example, a media colleague recalls visiting Team Lotus HQ Ketteringham Hall in the 1980s, when Lotus and Williams both used Honda engines. When being shown round he was surprised to see an almost life-sized picture of a Williams sidepod profile stuck on the wall in the drawing office. When he was shown in, there were some startled looks from the draughtsmen who were studying it.

Sometimes technical folk can’t resist getting their own pictures. Around 10 years ago a Ferrari aerodynamic specialist was taking photos of cars in the pitlane at a Barcelona test. He was dressed in civvies, and not a familiar face at the tracks, but somebody spotted and severely embarrassed him.

Life became difficult once he was outed, so at the following year’s Australian GP he simply obtained a team paddock pass for his rather more anonymous brother-in-law. The latter spent the days before the race poking his long lens into other people’s pit garages while looking every inch the Aussie race fan. Later I bumped into the Ferrari guy in the paddock as he was merrily leafing through piles of colour prints.

It was strange that he felt the need to do his own thing, because for years Ferrari – like everyone else – had its own system in place. All teams employ freelance photographers to take PR shots of their own cars and drivers, and it’s long been understood that such contracts also involve supplying pictures of rival machines, often straight from their winter launches or shakedown tests.

It’s not unusual for a photographer to get a request direct from the technical staff on a race weekend – can you get some shots of so-and-so’s new brake ducts? In the digital age images can be received and studied instantly at the track and back at the factory. 

The knowledge that everyone is at it has created a degree of paranoia in the pit lane, and teams know that the guys crowded around the front of their garage are not only working for magazines or newspapers. 

Until recently there were ever more ridiculous attempts to block access with screens that were pulled in front of the garage, completely ruining the view for folk in the grandstands opposite, or on pit walkabouts. Items such as front wings were covered by special shrouds until the cars actually drove off. The madness reached a peak at Monaco, where until recently there were no pit garages. Instead teams began erecting temporary tent-like structures in the pit lane to shield the cars from prying eyes or lenses.

In the end the FIA decreed that it had gone too far, and any kind of covering was banned in mid-2003 on safety grounds. Coincidentally, in the era of parc fermé restrictions after qualifying, some degree of openness was essential. Now the only time mechanics can obstruct a view is when they are working on a crashed car. Alas the screens (and paranoia) remain in place at tests.

Much of this is really about gamesmanship. Of course, the serious legal issue is not spy photography, but the intellectual property that technical staff can take with them when they change teams. The most infamous and blatant example came at the end of 1977, when Jackie Oliver led a breakaway from the Shadow team under the Arrows name.

Designer Tony Southgate and his number two Dave Wass brought the drawings of their forthcoming DN9 with them, and since time was short they were used to produce the Arrows FA1. The two cars were to all intents and purposes identical, and peeved Shadow boss Don Nichols launched a lawsuit.

Arrows knew that defeat was likely, but the strategy bought vital time. The team lost in the High Court in August, but by then Southgate had already penned a totally new car, the A1, which hit the track the day after the decision.

This notorious case was unusual in that the entire team management decamped as one, and Southgate was just part of this group. It’s a very different set of circumstances when an individual moves teams in search a bigger pay cheque and/or more responsibility, and illegally takes drawings or information with him. It has happened over the decades, of course, and allegedly some very big names have been involved, but documented cases are rare.

“We certainly take it very seriously,” says Patrick Head. “And certainly everyone who comes to us is informed that what goes on at Williams is the property of Williams and is private information, and not to be transferred. In terms of security systems the factory has 24/7 security guards. Every now and then the odd search of a car is done when it goes in or out.”

The digital age has opened up a new can of worms for teams. These days someone with the right access could in theory save all the drawings for this year’s car onto a memory stick the size of a cigarette lighter, or even an innocuous looking device such as an MP3 player. 

It’s not quite that easy, because Big Brother is watching. Teams have sophisticated computer networks which tell them what items have been viewed, printed or saved by a particular individual. It’s not that alarm bells suddenly ring and uniformed men rush in – it’s more a question of creating a deterrent, as the trail is always there for future examination if any suspicions should arise.

“We have a lot of measures that alert us if someone is taking information,” says Renault’s Pat Symonds. “So we can stop it. We know exactly who’s accessing what and what they’re doing. But ultimately, we rely on trust.”

And that’s a word that comes up again and again when talking to the sport’s top technical gurus. All confirm that if a potential recruit suggests he can bring hard information from elsewhere, the interview is pretty much over.

“Basically, it almost guarantees that they are not going to get a job,” agrees Head. “Because you know that if they say that to you, they will also be saying that to their next employer.”

“I’ve interviewed people who have hinted that they have information,” says Spyker’s Mike Gascoyne. “And I take that as a very negative trait. Why would you employ someone like that? The implication is that’s exactly what they’re going to do to you when they leave.”

In some instances it’s even made clear in legal terms. That is true for Toyota, where a recent legal case involving some ex-Ferrari employees caused some embarrassment all round.

“It’s absolutely made clear in our contract,” explains team boss John Howett. “They agree they will not do anything that’s incorrect, they will not bring any information or drawings, they bring only their own personal skills.”

“What you carry in your head is fair game,” says Red Bull’s Adrian Newey. “And that’s it. In the electronic age it’s difficult to stop someone actually walking away with stuff, but it is possible to police seeing what they’ve done, and one hopes that is a deterrent to stop people from walking away with it. Because then it’s into court and all the rest of it.”

Coughlan’s dossier was apparently wide-ranging, covering areas such as internal processes and organisation. But how valuable is detailed information on a car to another team? Not very, according to Symonds: “You hire people because of their knowledge and experience, and what’s in their head is actually what counts. Having a complete set of drawings for a Ferrari, and not knowing how it works, is actually not terribly useful. What you want are clever people.”

And, by definition, if you’re taking your inspiration from someone else, you are probably always going to be behind.

“It’s quite a good adage that if you’re following, you’re never going to lead,” says Head, whose ideas have so often been copied in the past. “Generally people who have that mentality are never actually going to be anything but followers…”