Is it safe to say something now?

I am quite reluctant to write about the week’s off-track events in the world of Formula 1. Originally I wanted things to settle down before I wrote anything. But ever since then, things have steadfastly refused to settle down. A few people come along to kick some dust into the air and the whole issue is flipped on its head again. Hopefully things have at last settled down now.

First things first. The evidence against McLaren was fairly damning. In the original hearing, McLaren’s defence was that Mike Coughlan was a rogue employee and that no other employee had access to any confidential Ferrari information. Furthermore, most of the evidence pointed to Nigel Stepney and Mike Coughlan intending to use the documents at Honda, where they jointly applied for a job, rather than McLaren.

The new evidence demonstrates that there was, to an extent, an intention to use Ferrari information to guide development at McLaren. Pedro de la Rosa and Fernando Alonso also knew about the documents and discussed information from them. And, as the WMSC pointed out (points 3.10, 3.11), it is highly likely that other employees must have known about this.

Otherwise, the implication is that Pedro de la Rosa has the sole say on which weight distributions get tested on the simulator and whether to try out a special type of gas on the tyres. Common sense says that somebody else other than the test driver is involved in these decisions.

However, this also conclusively proves that Ferrari information was not flowing among McLaren employees freely. My guess is that Mike Coughlan probably knew that he would end up in big trouble if enough people found out that he had special access to Ferrari information.

It is notable that Pedro de la Rosa — somebody who Coughlan will have known since his days at Arrows — is at the centre of all the email conversations. He was clearly being used as a kind of middleman between Coughlan and whichever other employees de la Rosa was working with.

Perhaps it was Coughlan’s intention to keep the Ferrari documents to himself all along. It is possible that he accidentally let it slip to his friend Pedro that he was in regular contact with Nigel Stepney. From then on, de la Rosa’s curiosity forced Coughlan to look up the documents and the rest we see in the emails. de la Rosa let his compatriot Alonso in on the secret. This explains why Lewis Hamilton had no incriminating emails.

And it is still possible that no other employees were aware of the Ferrari documents, although de la Rosa was providing helpful suggestions to his colleagues. In this sense, the McLaren team is no more guilty now than it was in July. It was just the actions of one (or two or three) rogue employees in a company which must have several hundred employees.

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.

There remains precious little evidence that McLaren actually did use any of the Ferrari data in the end. It’s a shame that, because of the way this story has been presented by the media, most people seem to think that McLaren were found guilty of “spying” on Ferrari and copying Ferrari parts and therefore having an illegal car.

McLaren were actually found guilty of the catch-all “bringing the sport into disrepute”. This (along with the fact that all of McLaren’s drivers provided the FIA with the relevant emails) explains why the drivers have kept their points while McLaren have lost all of theirs. It is close to the prediction I made in my previous post — that McLaren would be punished heavily while Hamilton (the story of the season, remember) would get away scot-free.

It is cynical of the FIA to do this. But there was not much else they could do. They had got themselves into a situation where they had to punish McLaren, but at the same time they did not want to jeopardise the story of entire season (the emergence of Lewis Hamilton and an exciting 3- or 4-way title battle). It is fair, though, for the drivers to keep their points as they have not been driving an illegal car.

A lot of the problem came down to the fact that the WMSC had to be seen to be punishing McLaren harshly. The media latched onto this story in an unprecedented way, and in many respects it was sensationalised and blown out of proportion. As such, the punishment is suitably sensationalised and overblown.

The $100 million fine was clearly designed to attract headlines, not least because this is nothing like what McLaren will have to pay. Some of the money will come out of the earnings they will lose as a result of being thrown out of this year’s Constructors’ Championship. McLaren won’t even have to pay half of the $100 million.

Another aspect of the coverage that has annoyed me is the way that it has become known as “spygate”. You will notice that I continue to call it by its original name, “Stepneygate”. Why? Because there was no spying going on! Mike Coughlan did not break into Maranello and hide in Jean Todt’s cupboard. He was approached by a Ferrari employee, Nigel Stepney, and from there a relationship was formed.

No bugs. No wiretaps. No covert break-ins. Just one Ferrari employee exchanging information with one McLaren employee. As far as I am concerned, this all began with the wrongdoing of a Ferrari employee, not the McLaren team. It begs the question once again — why were Ferrari not also charged with bringing the sport into disrepute? It was their employee who started this whole sorry episode. A rogue employee, yes — just like Mike Coughlan.

In fact, if anyone has been the victim of spying, it is Nigel Stepney. Earlier this year he claimed that he feared for his life after finding that he had been bugged. He says he was also involved in “Mafia-like” high-speed car chases and subsequently fled Italy.

This is where the whole tale becomes darker. Clive at Formula 1 Insight says that certain articles on some websites have mysteriously disappeared. I am certain of this as well, because I can not find any reference to Stepney’s car chase claims on the reputable F1 websites that I read, although I am certain that I must have read of them there.

This leads us nicely onto conspiracy theories. The FIA’s institutional pro-Ferrari bias is well known and barely contested by anyone except the most blindly ardent Ferrari fans. For instance, the World Motor Sport Council — the body that found against McLaren on Thursday — has more representatives from Ferrari than any other team. The governing body’s constant attempts to rig the championship in Ferrari’s favour has done far more to place the sport into disrepute than anything Ron Dennis or McLaren have done.

A lot of people are asking why McLaren have been so harshly punished. One of the things that I am reading time and time again is that this sort of thing is apparently fairly commonplace in Formula 1 (although perhaps not to the same extent). I mentioned Peter Windsor’s comments on this blog before (near the bottom of the post).

Many are also drawing parallels with the incident that involved Toyota a few years ago. The FIA stayed well away from that — the whole matter was kept to the Italian courts.

So, why have McLaren been singled out in this way? The FIA’s pro-Ferrari bias can’t explain it all. The Toyota case also involved Ferrari blueprints. Obviously, the way the media latched onto the story explains part of it. But the media latched onto it for a reason. Ferrari pushed this for all it was worth and asked the FIA to get involved (unlike the Toyota case). But was there something else at play?

Many claim that FIA president Max Mosley has a personal vendetta against Ron Dennis. Mosley didn’t do much to change this perception with his comments at Spa yesterday morning (awkward photo opportunity or not).

It seems to me that Max Mosley’s comment that the large fine was designed partly to “bring… his [Ron Dennis’s] budget down to the level of some of the other top teams in the paddock” backs up this notion that Mosley is anti-Dennis and pro-Ferrari. It sounds like a calculated plan to damage McLaren and help its rival teams.

Paul Stoddart certainly put in more than his two cents in a must-read interview with Pitpass. Stoddart was an old nemesis of Max Mosley, but he was hardly best pals with Ron Dennis either. It is notable therefore that Paul Stoddart should come out so strongly in Ron Dennis’s favour.

As an aside, note Stoddart’s claim that Max Mosley was the person who prevented there being a proper race at Indianapolis in 2005. He and Jean Todt were the only people who were not willing to compromise for the sake of the sport. Even Bernie Ecclestone was so incensed at Mosley’s stubbornness that he threw his phone at him. This is a real (albeit thoroughly unsurprising) insight into Max Mosley’s character.

Speaking of Max Mosley, Ron Dennis and character, another thing I have read about time and time again is the integrity of Ron Dennis. It is difficult to imagine Ron Dennis cheating or knowingly allowing cheating to go on in his team. He is clearly a proud individual — not just proud of himself, but proud of McLaren as well.

His company has a strict policy whereby the drivers are treated equally. This had already got the team into trouble at least twice this year (at Monaco and Hungary). Still, Ron Dennis refused to deviate from the policy.

Well, seemingly it is the equality stance that has landed McLaren in the deep doo-doo that it has found itself in. Apparently Fernando Alonso confronted Ron Dennis on the morning of the Hungarian Grand Prix. He told Ron Dennis about the incriminating emails and threatened to hand them over to the FIA unless he was made number one driver.

It is interesting that Ron Dennis preferred to hand over the information himself rather than capitulating to the powerful Alonso’s demands. He risked the reputation of his team to preserve the integrity of his team. Very, very admirable. Allegedly, Alonso and Dennis have not spoken since the incident.

It has to be said, this casts Alonso in a very bad light. Not only did he sit on incriminating information, but he also effectively blackmailed his boss in an attempt to get preferential treatment. I bemoaned Lewis Hamilton’s arrogance a few weeks ago, but Fernando Alonso is obviously not squeaky clean either.

I am just glad that there is a race tomorrow so that hopefully this whole sorry affair can be put to rest at last. For some light relief, check out this amusing animated version of the Stepneygate saga (via Ed Gorman). The captions are all in Spanish (or something), but I can still understand it all perfectly!

7 comments

  1. Excellent post from the good Doctor who is, nevertheless, not a vee! 😉

    I would say more but it’s Sunday now, the race has been run and I’m trying to forget the whole thing. Fat chance.

  2. Ron is in denial about the involvement of his drivers, Luca & Todt will do ANYTHING to win on or off track, and Max is………well Max is Max.

    I’m so over the whole disgusting saga I would be happy to see them all thrown under a bus.

    All this being said, Alonso has well & truely cooked his goose at McLaren. You made your bed Fernando, now go sleep in it.

    On the bright side, Spa was a good race & Sutil drove the wheels off the new Spyker.

  3. One thing I can’t stand about this whole saga, and indeed any boardroom saga like it is how it is always dubbed ‘-gate’ by the media.

    “Stepneygate”, “Spygate”, “Camillagate”, “Cheriegate”, “Monicagate”, “Nipplegate”…

    On the other hand, I’d disagree with peterg – I found spa a pale imitation of former battles. Aside from some very strong tactics by Alonso (While a little harsh to force lewis onto the runoff, Lewis would have done the same and been applauded for it), a great drive from Sutil and a fantastic piece of proper racing overtaking by Webber – force his opponent onto the marbles before taking up his position for the corner. I thought Spa to be quite a boring race.

  4. Yeah, the Belgian GP was disappointingly boring. A few good overtaking moves, and the Alonso–Hamilton battle at the start was quite exciting, but beyond that… oh dear.

  5. I’ll second that Andy. I HATE when I hear the -gate suffix. Makes me all shouty and stuff. Might as well prefix them with water-, makes as much sense.

    Yes, Alonso was a bit robust at the start, but it’s not as bad as Hamilton pushing people toward the grass until they have to lift, which he’s done several times this year. He has some cheek to be complaining.

  6. The disappearance of some earlier stories may not necessarily be for ‘sinister’ reasons – for reason of English law it is sometimes necessary for news sites to change things that have been reported so as not to prejudice a trial.

    This could lead us into a discussion about what happens when blogs and other ‘non-professional’ sites discuss the same stories but that might take us off on a tangent…