McLaren’s fate hangs in the balance

Lewis Hamilton (right) with McLaren head Ron Dennis. The team comes under scrutiny in the latest F1 scandal.-AP Lewis Hamilton (right) with McLaren head Ron Dennis. The team comes under scrutiny in the latest F1 scandal.

Formula One remains in shock as the controversy surrounding Ferrari’s stolen design documents rages on, with no-one sure of the consequences. By Alan Henry.

McLaren will find out at the FIA World Motorsport Council meeting on July 26 whether the controversy surrounding Ferrari’s stolen design documents is a storm in a teacup or the biggest scandal to hit Formula One since the long-defunct Tyrrell became the only team ever to be excluded from the World Championship in 1984.

There was a sense of bewilderment in the air. The manner in which Mike Coughlan, the McLaren chief designer, was alleged to have behaved seemed naive to say the least.

Most agree that McLaren have shown themselves to have displayed high standards of probity over the years and think they have been ambushed by a crisis which is not of their making. On the other hand, viewed from Ferrari’s perspective, one can understand the urgency felt by the Italian team to establish how such wide-ranging technical information could be spirited out of their high-security headquarters and into the hands of an engineer working for their most prominent rival.

The likelihood of McLaren being found guilty of a major offence seems distant at this moment. Although the FIA has the capacity to inflict the most draconian penalty of all, such a step would be unusual in the extreme.

Under Formula One technical regulations, teams must design and manufacture their complete car and this dispute is about whether McLaren could have had any interest in adapting Ferrari technology in the design of their current MP4-22 model.

In 1984 the Tyrrell squad was excluded from the second half of the season for a technical infringement which many people believe was the biggest miscarriage of justice the sport has ever seen. Tyrrell were competing with naturally aspirated Cosworth V8 engines at a time when most of the top teams were switching to the fuel-hungry turbo-charged power units. The only way for the Cosworth engine to have a hope of competing with its more powerful rivals was to utilise a loophole in the regulations whereby the cars ran under the weight limit for much of the race before being ballasted back up to the legal weight with lead shot, added to the car under water pressure, at the final refuelling stop.

Unfortunately for Tyrrell, traces of the lead ballast found their way into a fuel churn used for refuelling the car and after Martin Brundle finished second in the Detroit Grand Prix, he was disqualified. Tyrrell appealed but were subsequently suspended for the rest of the season.

Conveniently, Tyrrell had been the one team standing out against the proposal to reduce the turbo car’s fuel allowance in 1985. Unanimous agreement was needed, and with Tyrrell written out of the equation — and their vote suspended — the turbo brigade kept their fuel allocation at the same level for the following year.

However, the FIA has imposed lesser penalties such as when dealing with the issue of Jenson Button’s BAR-Honda which was disqualified from the 2005 San Marino Grand Prix — and then suspended from the Spanish and Monaco races — after the scrutineers decreed that the car was fitted with an illegal secondary fuel tank.

On that occasion many observers felt that it was unfair that Button should have been penalised for a technical transgression of which he was almost certainly unaware.

However the FIA regulations do not differentiate between constructors’ or drivers’ points when it comes to imposing penalties. It may seem unfair, but the rationale is that it would be unfair for a driver to score points in a car which had an exaggerated performance advantage over its rivals. Lewis Hamilton will be hoping that this is all academic as far as McLaren is concerned.

At the halfway stage of the season, McLaren hold first and second places in the drivers’ championship through Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, ahead of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, and are also 25 points clear of Ferrari in the constructors’ championship.

HOW THE SCANDAL UNFOLDED

February 1, 2007: Nigel Stepney, Ferrari’s test and technical manager, says he is open to offers from rivals after expressing unhappiness at management changes.

June 21: Ferrari announce that Stepney is under criminal investigation in Italy.

July 3: Ferrari sack Stepney and start legal proceedings against him for alleged sabotage and industrial espionage. McLaren’s chief designer Mike Coughlan is suspended by the team over allegations that Ferrari documents were foun d at his home.

July 4: The FIA begins its own investigation.

July 6: Honda admit their team principal Nick Fry was visited by Stepney and Coughlan on June 1 to discuss job opportunities but insist no confidential information was offered or received in the meeting.

July 10: Coughlan remains silent as Ferrari launch civil action against him in London high court. Court is told Ferrari were tipped off when Coughlan’s wife Trudy took 780 pages of documents to a photocopying shop near Woking.

July 11: Coughlan and his wife agree to provide Ferrari with sworn affidavits detailing how documents came into his hands in return for them ending high court proceedings against him.

July 12: FIA charges McLaren with unauthorised possession of Ferrari information.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007