Yesterday I read right to the end the transcription of the Extraordinary Meeting of the World Motor Sport Council (html) (pdf) of the FIA held on September 13, 2007 which fined McLaren a record $100 million and took away all this year’s Formula One Constructors points from 2007’s top team. Much of it was boring lawyery stuff, but it was the flavour of how things went and the personalities that drove them that I found most interesting. The controversy surrounding Formula One right now is not likely to go away soon.
Proceedings began with John Mill, representing McLaren, raising a technicality related to the legality of the Italian evidence McLaren were being judged upon. Not a good start in a “sporting” body. It clearly annoyed Max Mosley from the off. From then on, Mr Mill’s whole approach seemed to rely on facts, which clearly didn’t win the day at this FIA meeting.
On the other hand, the Ferrari brief Nigel Tozzi (no, I won’t make any word plays on his surname, although there are a few throw away lines that come to mind!) concentrated far more on the personalities than the facts, leading witnesses and trying to put words in their mouths over and over again. Well, he was representing Ferrari, and they will be pleased with him.
There is much the meeting did not go into. The two main parties in the intrigue, Stepney and Coughlan, did not appear as witnesses; key player Alonso was not there either. What evidence there was was largely circumstantial, based on inference, or was pure speculation or assumption. And of course, unlike a Court of Law, the hearing was time limited. But who decided the date for the hearing should be right in the middle of a week that had a Grand Prix at each end of it, and not a week with only testing going on? Presumably someone who wished to disrupt McLaren’s preparations for the Belgian GP, whether they were found guilty or innocent? All Ferrari had to do was cast a few aspersions – McLaren had to mount a detailed defence and bring their Chief Engineer and other key staff to the meeting. But back to the meeting.
What is clear is that Max Mosley has an intense personal dislike of Ron Dennis; that Ferrari influence Formula One at a Very High Level; that McLaren know how to select engineers but probably not lawyers; that Ferrari are very “Italian” and will try to beat you off the track if they cannot do so on it; that temperamental Prima Donna Alonso is neither loyal nor trustworthy; that Renault (with an Italian boss of course) play the same games as everyone else in the pit lane; that drivers are not employees but suppliers of services; that disgruntled employees can be disloyal; and of course, that a dangerous precedent for the future has just been set.
As for facts, a Court of Law might have more closely followed the principle of Reasonable Doubt, but this was the FIA in Paris, not the Old Bailey in London. Barrister and failed Formula One owner Max Mosley is the boss, and Ferrari (in the person of Ferrari director and ex-Team Manager Mr Piccinini) sit at his right hand.
Sure, there was evidence that Nigel Stepney talked on the phone a lot with his friend Mike Coughlan, and that Mike Coughlan talked a lot with his friend Pedro de la Rosa, but there was and is no record of what was said or texted in telephone contacts between the two; they could have been talking about F1 groupies for all we know. It was clear, however, that both were disgruntled with their respective teams and wanted to move to Renault.
The only indisputable fact is that Technical Drawing specialist Mike Coughlan held a 780 page dossier of Ferrari technical details at home, and received some emails from Nigel Stepney that sounded like a tutorial in aspects of engineering. There is no evidence that McLaren actually received any of the info Coughlan obtained. In fact, all of McLaren’s engineers signed a confirmation saying they had never seen it, and that their ideas were their own. McLaren even invited the FIA to come and inspect all of McLaren’s computer systems for traces of any Ferrari information, but the FIA declined.
I believe it is far more likely that Coughlan and Stepney intended to take the Ferrari dossier – and perhaps one from McLaren as well – with them to Renault who also want Alonso back and would clearly not mind learning some secrets from this season’s top two teams. If this was the case, of course Coughlan would keep it very secret from McLaren.
Unfortunately, nobody seems to have picked this up. Max Mosley seemed more intent on “getting” Ron Dennis for whatever past slight to his ego he holds Ron accountable for. Max clearly believed Ron was “lying” to him about the affair – this belief based on no more than speculation and assumption. It looks like Max let his personal feelings blind him to the wider picture.
Ferrari were more concerned with neutering their main rival, and even if they believed the dossier was really intended for Renault, by blaming McLaren for it simply because it was a McLaren employee who was caught with it at his home they could hit two birds with one stone. McLaren would take the blame and be punished this year, the dossier and the technicians responsible for its release could not take it with them to Renault for next year, and a World Champion driver who does not drive for Ferrari could be discredited. Very Macchiavellian. But effective.
Past events were clearly not relevant. Benetton’s cheating with a fuel rig some years ago when Schumacher drove for them was blamed on a rogue employee and the team got away with it scot free. The source of Ferrari’s previous intimate knowledge of the Berylium compound used to line the cylinders of a past McLaren-Mercedes engine has never been looked into; complaints of previous energy saving McLaren brake systems – that were both safer and and better for the environment, two laudable aims the FIA is always going on about – which were subsequently banned had to have originated with some sort of nefarious informing.
As for the illegal aerodynamic part used by Ferrari to help them win the Australian GP this year, Nigel Tozzi skillfully argued that although the part was later found to be illegal, at the time it was NOT illegal because it was passed using the then available test, even though when the test was altered to more closely reflect the principle rule it was set up to enforce it failed the legality test and was subsequently banned.
But the punishment is a dangerous precedent. $100 million would break most teams. What about all those teams who already use each other’s technology, or who will use it in the future, legally or not? What about the Honda A and B teams? The Red Bull/Torro Rosso technology shares? What about the illegal team orders that kept Schumacher champion all those years? What about teams using engineers who last year worked for a competitor? What about transfers of skills through simple staff changes? Concepts learned or directions followed in one team, when transferred to another when a new staff member arrives, must be part of the reason why staff are poached so often.
Ron Dennis came out of this very well in my eyes. Honest. Straightforward. But maybe a touch naive. His staff came out of this well too – top class intelligent engineers with oodles of integrity. Except one bad apple who didn’t fit in.
Ferrari comes out of this like any good Italian footballer – not averse to the odd well-hidden and cynical professional foul here or there, while diving in the penalty area whenever they get the chance and the referee’s attention. They walk away with the Championship, and due to the redistribution of Prize Money that would have gone to McLaren, with a slice of McLaren’s $100 million.
Max Mosley appears to have been too closely focussed on what Ferrari were saying, but with one of the Ferrari Directors always very close to his ear – and not withdrawn from the meeting at which confidential McLaren technical information was reported – how could he be else? You can imagine the whispering campaign that led up to this. He does seem to have been very quick to judge though.
So, is Formula One rotten to the core? Not while teams like McLaren remain. There is clearly some rot setting in though. As for the FIA – will it now be thought of as Ferrari International Automobiles?
Has Alonso enhanced his chances of employment? I wouldn’t think so. Any employer chasing him would have to be desperate now, knowing what they do about him. But perhaps Renault and Briatore are. We shall see. There will clearly be big changes next year. But you can be sure one of them won’t be more overtaking! After all, that isn’t safe, is it Mr Mosley?
Update – Interesting Links
Montoya says “Everyone in Formula 1 is doing it“