Erring on the side of caution?

McLaren have been reprieved for the moment, while Ferrari are fuming at the verdict. We have not heard the last of this espionage scandal, writes Alan Henry.

The FIA World Motorsport Council’s verdict on July 26 satisfied neither of the two key protagonists involved in an increasingly acrimonious argument. It left the Ferrari team infuriated after their key rivals McLaren escaped apparently without sanction. On the other hand, it was clear that McLaren had been granted only conditional absolution after it was established that they had been in possession of confidential Ferrari drawings and technical data.

Sir Jackie Stewart felt the verdict was unsatisfactory. “In truth I would have to say that I am sorry this whole issue ever arose,” said the retired triple Formula One world champion. “I think it is most unfortunate for McLaren that the verdict was not one of not guilty but what amounted to an acquittal on the grounds of insufficient evidence.”

If new evidence were to emerge to suggest that they have in fact used technical information acquired by their disgraced chief designer, Mike Coughlan, then they could find themselves back in front of the FIA world motor sport council facing the prospect of being disqualified not only from this year’s World Championship but next year’s too.

On the face of it, the decision not to apply a penalty to the McLaren team was an elegant device to escape from a potentially very tricky situation.

Had McLaren been excluded from the 2007 World Championship, or even suspended from a few races, the commercial damage that might have been done to one of the sport’s highest profile, blue chip operations would have been incalculable.

Under the circumstances, and bearing in mind that the threshold of proof required to convict McLaren was extremely high, the FIA erred on the side of caution and decided not to apply the most draconian penalty at its disposal.

Stewart added: “Personally I think the whole affair has been extremely negative for Formula One but, having said that, I would have to say that I believe Ron (Dennis) when he says that none of the information illegally acquired found its way into the McLaren factory.

“At the end of the day we know that the chief executive and senior management are responsible for their employees under the rules of corporate governance but, if one individual is operating independently outside his own remit, then it is right that such clandestine behaviour should be punished on an individual basis.” Certainly the FIA verdict, for all the outcry from Ferrari, will be interpreted by many observers as proving beyond doubt that the sport’s governing body in no way shows partiality towards the famous Italian team, as has been alleged by many observers in the past.

More crucially, however, it will stir the enduring rivalry and resentment which has existed between McLaren and Ferrari for much of the past decade, part of which is the result of ingrained professional jealousy and part down to the historic reality that both teams have been implacable, wheel-to-wheel rivals for much of that time.

The ultimate embodiment of this high-speed rivalry is represented by a front-wing endplate from one of the McLaren-Mercedes Formula One cars which claims pride of place in the office of their chief operating officer, Martin Whitmarsh, and their company’s technical headquarters near Woking.

The endplate, from Mika Hakkinen’s car in the 2000 Belgian Grand Prix, bears the imprint of a tyre sidewall from Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari with which the Finn was embroiled in a wheel-to-wheel 200mph battle for victory on this epic circuit through the Ardennes forest.

At the end of the afternoon Hakkinen emerged the winner, but after the race the two men stood poignantly alone in the scrutineering area while the Finnish driver outlined what he felt were his rival’s manifest professional shortcomings.

In a sense that feeling of rivalry and resentment remains as indelible as that tyre mark on the front-wing endplate.

The FIA World Motorsport Council’s decision on July 26 will have simply poured more high-octane fuel on to these troubled waters.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007