It is no real surprise that the FIA appears to be preparing to impose sanctions on the McLaren Formula One team for its possession of stolen Ferrari technical information. The FIA’s failure to do so when the World Motor Sport Council first heard the case provoked a public outcry, especially in Italy. To quell it, Max Moseley, the FIA’s president, sent the case to the organization’s Court of Appeals. In the Court of Appeals, unlike before the Council, Ferrari and other Formula One teams would be allowed to participate in the proceedings. The FIA’s whitewash of McLaren’s misconduct accomplished in the Council hearing would likely be very publicly displayed.
With the commencement of the Court of Appeal inquiry imminent – it was scheduled to begin on September 15th – it isn’t all that surprising that the FIA has discovered “new evidence” which results in sending the case back to the Council and cancelling the Court of Appeals hearing. At the time of its earlier decision, the Council reserved the right to rehear the matter if “new evidence” were to emerge: “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 the 2008 championship.”
So, on September 13th, the Council will reconvene. The move can be seen as an effort by the FIA to maintain control over the situation. Sin ce the only way to justify returning the case to the Council was to discover “new evidence,” new evidence was discovered.
Reports indicate that the “new evidence” may be the admission by former Ferrari development director Nigel Stepney that he had technical discussion with Mike Coughlan, McLaren’s chief of design, albeit ostensibly “only to exchange an opinion with a person I respect,” according to Stepney. An Italian newspaper is reporting that Stepney has continued to deny that he provided the documents to Coughlan, however. Stepney claims the documents were stolen from him by someone else.
There has also been speculation in the press that the “new evidence” did not come from Ferrari, but came instead from another Formula One team. Flavio Briatore, manager of Renault’s Formula One team, has repeatedly said that he believes McLaren used the stolen Ferrari information to aid it in the changeover from Michelin tires to Bridgestones. Renault has had great difficulty adjusting to the change, but McLaren has not. Briatore believes the McLaren team used information stolen from Ferrari, which ran Bridgestones in previous seasons, to assist it.
It seems very unlikely that the Council would be reconvening to consider McLaren’s conduct if the intent of the FIA were not to impose sanctions on the team. Its original decision specifically referred to the possibility of excluding McLaren from the 2007 and 2008 racing seasons. It is hardly likely that the Council would invite public obloquy by rehearing the matter and then again doing nothing.
That means things don’t look good for McLaren.
Formula One is, above all else, a business – perhaps the most financially extravagant sport in the world. Though the FIA would probably prefer that this controversy had never occurred, it appears no longer able to contain the controversy and its attendant damage to Formula One’s image. But it can still try to control the damage.
That would mean excluding McLaren from the 2007 season, but allowing it to reinstate for the 2008 season. Most of the 2007 season has already happened. McLaren was allowed to compete to this point, so Formula One has suffered no detriment, to date. There has been no harm to the television ratings, the sponsorships, or to the tracks holding the events. Excluding McLaren for the 2007 season, but not that of 2008, would mean that Formula One would take a hit for only the balance of this year.
It is not credible that so many people at McLaren – team manager Ron Dennis (pictured) and numbers of others - knew of the documents and attempted to ensure that they could never be found out, but didn’t look at them. If Coughlan had destroyed the documents, as he was told to do, McLaren would have gotten away with it.
That Coughlan and Stepney talked doesn’t seem like much of a smoking gun. If possession of 780 pages of stolen Ferrari technical information sufficient evidence of misconduct, it’s hard to see how a conversation, in which the participants are the only two witnesses to its content, adds much. Moreover, Stepney gains nothing by further implicating Couglan. That only makes the position of Stepney, who is facing an active criminal investigation in Italy, even more tenuous because he implicates himself if he implicates Coughlan.
A better guess is that the FIA has found proof that McLaren used the information gained from the stolen documents. Someone at McLaren may have talked. Or, someone at McLaren may have let something slip in the past that, in retrospect, links the team to the use of the document.
Whatever turns out to be the “new evidence,” it is obvious that the FIA wants closure. Until it does something, the controversy won’t go away. So, it’s going to do something, and it’s going to do it in a setting that doesn’t allow anyone but FIA officials to ask any questions or offer any evidence. Then the FIA is going to impose a sanction that will at least appear to be substantial, but which does the least possible damage to the interests of the FIA and the revenue stream of Formula One.
McLaren deserves whatever they get. Contrary to another viewpoint recently expressed on this blog, one should not “hope [the Council hearing] will not bring bad luck to McLaren.” McLaren had multiple opportunities to avoid “bad luck,” including the opportunities to report the theft to Ferrari, the FIA, or law enforcement. “Bad luck” is not a synonym for dishonest.