Ferrari sees red

The Italian Formula One team described the World Motorsport Council’s verdict as “incomprehensible” although it granted McLaren only conditional pardon. By Alan Henry.

Ferrari reacted with anger after the World Motorsport Council (WMSC) let their rivals McLaren off without penalty in the espionage controversy that had threatened to undermine the British team’s push towards the Formula One World Championship.

The ruling body, the FIA, said although McLaren had Ferrari data in their possession there was insufficient evidence that they had gained any benefit from it. Ferrari described the unanimous decision by the 26-man council as “incomprehensible”, although it came with the proviso that McLaren will still face possible disqualification from the 2007 and 2008 World Championships if it is subsequently proved that the Ferrari technical information had been used to enhance the current McLaren car.

The decision removes the threat of a points deduction that would have harmed Lewis Hamilton’s standing at the top of the drivers’ championship. “I am pleased with the decision and can’t wait for the rest of the season,” the British driver said.

Ferrari stated: “McLaren-Mercedes has been found guilty by the FIA world council. (We) therefore (find) it incomprehensible that violating the fundamental principle of sporting honesty does not have, as a logical and inevitable consequence, the application of a sanction.

“Today’s decision legitimises dishonest behaviour in Formula One and sets a very serious precedent. In fact, the decision of the world council signifies that possession, knowledge at the very highest level and use of highly confidential information acquired in an illicit manner and the acquiring of confidential information over the course of several months represent violations that do not carry any punishment.”

Ferrari emphasised that civil legal actions against Nigel Stepney, the former Ferrari engineer accused of leaking the information to the McLaren chief designer, Mike Coughlan, and against Coughlan would continue in Italy and the United Kingdom — holding out the possibility that further evidence may be uncovered.

“The WMSC is satisfied that Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes was in possession of confidential Ferrari information and is therefore in breach of article 151c of the International Sporting Code,” said Max Mosley, the FIA president. “However, there is insufficient evidence that this information was used in such a way as to interfere improperly with the FIA Formula One World Championship. We therefore impose no penalty. But if it is found in the future that the Ferrari information has been used to the detriment of the championship, we reserve the right to invite Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes back in front of the WMSC where it will face the possibility of exclusion from not only the 2007 championship but also the 2008 championship.

“The WMSC will also invite Mr. Stepney and Mr. Coughlan to show reason why they should not be banned from international motorsport for a lengthy period.” The FIA will pursue this matter.

In March Stepney allegedly began sending data to Coughlan. It seems that both men were disaffected with their employers and both had a meeting with Nick Fry, the Honda team principal, to discuss the prospect of joining the Brackley-based team, although there is no suggestion that they indicated they had the Ferrari data in their possession while talking to Fry.

In early July Coughlan’s house in Surrey was searched and a cache of Ferrari documents was discovered. Coughlan was immediately suspended by McLaren while Stepney, who denies all wrongdoing and has been quoted as saying he has been “framed”, was fired by Ferrari.

McLaren said the FIA decision was “very balanced and fair”.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007