Is there a witch hunt against McLaren?

This has turned out to be McLaren’s annus horribilis when it should have been a year of celebration. After an unprecedented series of years in the doldrums on the track, McLaren have finally gone back to their winning ways. But off the track, it is difficult to imagine what else could have gone wrong.

It would have been bad enough had it just been the Stepneygate scandal from which McLaren (at the time) escaped any harsh punishment (probably rightly given the evidence there was at the time). But despite escaping punishment, the cloud of suspicion lingered, the media was not impressed and the tifosi were livid.

But there have also been rows over team orders and the status of the drivers which was kicked off by a deterioration in the relationship between Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton. McLaren probably have the two best drivers in the world in their cars, but instead of being an unmitigated success it has turned out to be a disaster.

At Hungary the FIA stepped in to prevent McLaren from scoring constructors’ points due to what was essentially an issue between the two drivers. It was harsh to levy such a heavy penalty on McLaren due to something that the team itself was seemingly quite peripheral to.

Then at Monza the race stewards decided to fine the team $50,000 for running a lightweight gearbox at the Hungaroring. The race stewards say that the new gearbox should have been crash tested prior to being run. For their part, McLaren say they were open with the FIA at all times about the existence their new gearbox.

Even if the FIA were not made aware of the situation, you have to ask the question: what were the Italian stewards doing passing judgement on something that happened two races ago? There is a discussion on this over at BlogF1. This is the equivalent of a referee in a football match giving a footballer a yellow card for something he did three weeks ago.

This is not to say that the FIA should not have punished McLaren. But the race stewards are not the people to do it. And the scrutineers at Hungary were seemingly okay with the new gearbox. It all looks a bit fishy to me, particularly since it happened at the Italian Grand Prix. Italy is, of couse, the country where Ferrari almost rivals Catholicism as the biggest religion.

A similar thing happened last year at the Italian Grand Prix when Fernando Alonso was penalised for “blocking” a Ferrari that was a hundred metres behind him. The video of the entire lap is still available. Yes, that distant speck on the horizon is meant to be blocking Felipe Massa. The only people in the world who actually believe this are FIArrari.

But the FIA does not have to be in Italy to unfairly find in favour of Ferrari and against every single other team. Jackie Stewart rightly pointed this out today.

Now the whole Stepneygate saga is being opened up again, and the World Motor Sport Council is meeting on Thursday to discuss it. It will be a big day for Formula 1. Will the FIA cave into their pro-Ferrari instincts and award the Scuderia the Championship in the courtroom? Or will they act like the governing body of a sport and allow the Championship to be won and lost on the racetrack?

This series of events has prompted some to ask: are McLaren being picked on by the FIA this season? Craig has also taken a look at this. Many have mentioned the fact that FIA president Max Mosley has a pretty frosty relationship with Ron Dennis. The FIA deny that there is a witch hunt, but they would say that wouldn’t they?

For what it’s worth, I do not think that the FIA are deliberately singling out McLaren. At least, not beyond the extent we have come to expect from the FIA’s pro-Ferrari bias. But I think the adverse reaction to the original WMSC hearing in July has encouraged the FIA to punish McLaren heavily for the slightest wrongdoing.

The FIA are quite right to re-open the Stepneygate case if they think there is sufficient evidence. The integrity of the sport is important, and if McLaren are found to have benefited from Ferrari documents then they should face a heavy punishment.

But to me, it just does not stack up for the reasons I explained in my previous post on Stepneygate. The McLaren car had already been built by the time Mike Coughlan got his hands on the documents, and from then on basing developments on Ferrari blueprints would surely be like trying to piece together pieces from two different jigsaw puzzles.

But the whole saga became much more serious when drivers became involved. It is suggested that Fernando Alonso gained some insight into set-up data as a result of an email conversation with test driver Pedro de la Rosa, who is good buddies with Mike Coughlan.

This could prove crucial because beforehand McLaren had claimed that no employee was aware of the Ferrari information except for Mike Coughlan. If it transpires that de la Rosa and Alonso also knew, then there could be serious consequences.

A lot of people are asking themselves how the FIA could punish McLaren (if they are found guilty) without damaging the great story of this World Championship — particularly the emergence of the hugely exciting Lewis Hamilton. There is a nasty idea in my head that the FIA could end up punishing McLaren and punishing Alonso (because of the emails) but exonerating Hamilton. That way, Hamilton can win the World Championship while McLaren still get punished.

Yesterday Rory left a comment on this blog pointing out that the rumoured conversation between de la Rosa and Alonso was infact a fabrication. But that does not mean that the emails did not exist. They could have contained perfectly innocent information — or it could have been far worse than suggested by La Gazzetta dello Sport.

For the integrity of F1, and for the sake of this year’s fantastic World Championship, let us hope it is the former.

Update: See also Formula 1 Insight: Sport and Politics in Formula One.


  1. Well summed up, as usual.

    Taking each point on it’s own merit then it would appear that McLaren aren’t being picked on as such. I personally think they got off lightly in the last FIA hearing by having no punishment levied against them, and I think they were right to be punished for running the new gearbox without having it crash tested first – and a fine seems a pretty fair way of punishing that crime, although they weren’t necessarily punished by the correct authority.

    The team orders thing was a total nonsense though, and I would agree with anyone who suggested that had it been any other team then they wouldn’t have been brought to task by the FIA over what happened.

    Thursday will be interesting – as you say, even though the supposed contents of these e-mails was made up it doesn’t mean that the real content will be any better for Ron Dennis & Co.

  2. The thing that made me laugh this week was Jean Todt exclaiming how damaging this whole saga is to Formula One (and therefore his team, indirectly), but he still wants to press ahead and will not stop until he gets his own way. It wasn’t put exactly like that, but the words he uttered certainly hinted that.

    The Monaco incident with team orders was ridiculous. The gearbox issue appeared to be backtracking on the FIAs behalf. The only ‘crime’ that McLaren are guilty of (as far as I can currently see) is not managing their drivers well (as a team, I mean) and not managing their staff well (Mike Coughlan, who apparently accepted the documents). That said, Ferrari are guilty of the same crime if it transpires that Nigel Stepney did indeed leak confidential information to another teams employee.

    As I understand it now, Fernando Alonso is in the clear as he has cooperated with the FIA. The letter does say that there will be no proceedings against a driver should he assist the FIA with this.

  3. Of course the media are making a big issue of it, but looking at each point individually it’s very complex. As you yourself have commented, there’s a fair shout that the issue in Hungary kicked off because Hamilton complained to the stewards. Now I don’t know if that’s fact, but no other team had any beef with it, but if Lewis had complained the stewards have to look at it.

    As for Monza, well in my opinion the video you posted shows the stewards were correct – Massa is very close to Alonso in many sections, especially Parabolica where he will surely suffer from dirty air off the McLaren, robbing him of front grip – what did Alonso think was going to happen? Sure, he had to get round to start his lap, but that’s Alonso’s fault for going late, and Massa shouldn’t suffer for that. The rules are (were) black and white, that anyone on an out lap must not impede anyone on a hot lap.

    If anything I think the FIA agreed with Renault, as they later changed the rules to stop the stewards having any say in future such incidents. But the rules being what they were and Alonso placing himself as he did, I don’t see there was much choice.

    As to the Stepney issue, Ron Dennis himself may be whiter than white, and wish the team to be so also, but it seems not to be the case for everyone – plenty of smoke at present, if not yet any fire.

    In any case, as a sport that lives or dies on advertising revenue and public interest, it’s getting plenty now – racing, infighting and politics. Seems the perfect PR mix.

  4. To answer your headline question; “Is there witch hunt against MM?” Yes.

    What should be a fair and transparent investigation does appear to be a vindictive hunt. Max’s overturn of the WMSC was pretty tacky.

    Is MM completely innocent or is Coughlan on his own – through Stepney – the sole villain in the saga. Thursday will tell. Regardless, the entire matter has been appallingly handled by the FIA, hence your question about it being a witch hunt, because for many that is what it appears to be. Similarly, Ferrari have milked this for all they can get, when the initial WMSC decision was not to their liking they ramped it up to a new level. They are still threatening taking to take the matter to the civil courts.

    On the other side of the coin, can you imagine the way Ron would be carrying on if the documents had gone the other way & were found in the possession of a Ferrari employee?

    The only real loser in this is F1 & it’s image, & the fact that Max seems ignorant of this only makes me suspicious of him relishing the chance rubbing Ron’s face in the s**t. Thursday can’t come soon enough for me as I would like to see the entire thing resolved………………….I’ll bet I’m to be disappointed.

  5. […] What the new evidence also reveals is that the Ferrari data was probably not much use to McLaren anyway. The revelations about weight distribution suggest that the Ferrari data was so different to what McLaren was used to that it was deemed useless for their car to the extent that Fernando Alonso doubted the accuracy of the data. It backs up what I said in my previous post on this subject — that it would be like putting together pieces from two different jigsaws. […]

  6. Actually Scott, the rules never said that cars on an out lap must not impede cars on a hot lap. That was a lie created by Mosley to defend the steward’s decision. The rules said cars must not impede each other – but even though Schumacher was running not too far in front of Alonso earlier in the session (right before Alonso had his puncture) it was not enforced then.

  7. […] For the second time this year, the stewards have found themselves ruling on something that happened in another race. This week the Chinese GP stewards had to discuss something which had already been discussed by the Japanese stewards. This is not on really. It is like a referee at a football match giving someone a yellow card for something a footballer did in his previous match. […]