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.