FIA hearing begins: new evidence against McLarens emerges
Several hundred email messages between McLaren chief engineer Michael Coughlan and Nigel Stepney, at the time development director for Ferrari, form part of the evidence against McLaren being presented to the FIA’s World Motorsports Council at the hearing into McLaren’s conduct which began early Thursday in Paris. The Times, a London newspaper, is reporting that the new evidence includes 166 pages of material implicating McLaren.
The new evidence apparently emerged as a result of the criminal investigation being conducted by Italian authorities. Previously, it was known that the investigation had targeted Stepney, but just before the Italian Grand Prix last week-end, Italian authorities informed McLaren team manager Ron Dennis that he and two other McLaren team members are now also under investigation.
Rome police seized Stepney’s computer in July and have since reconstructed his email traffic, including deleted emails. They also seized his cellular telephone. The investigation revealed that from early March to mid-May this year, Stepney and Coughlan exchanged several hundred emails, text messages, and telephone calls and that the frequency of the contacts was greatest shortly before Grand Prix races. Though Coughlan has admitted meeting Stepney on one occasion, credit card payments and ATM records have led the Italian police to conclude that the two met on several occasions.
Worse for McLaren, the police have also established that other McLaren employees are involved. Rumors had earlier centered on Pedro De La Rosa, McLaren’s test driver, who was said to have sent an email to McLaren driver Fernando Alonso revealing information obtained from stolen Ferrari documents. Apparently, that’s accurate. According to a report carried in Corrier della Serra, an Italian newspaper, yesterday, the emails reveal that De La Rosa told Alonso that he had learned details of Ferrari’s brake balancing system and their tire set-up. Worse, the paper also reported that emails revealed that Coughlan had specifically directed De La Rosa to do testing based on information stolen from Ferrari. Independently, the Guardian newspaper in Britain is reporting that investigation into those both communications between Coughlan and Stepney and into De La Rosa’s participation in testing with Ferrari information is ongoing.
Even worse for McLaren, the Times is reporting that the FIA is able to show a repeated pattern in which communications between Stepney and Coughlan match up to emails between Alonso and De La Rosa, suggesting that there is a direct link between the drivers and car testing and information being funneled to McLaren from Stepney at Ferrari.
Sources at McLaren have told the Times that they remain confident and that McLaren intends to vigorously defend against the charges. Each of the 26 members of the Council received the documentary evidence this past Friday, as did McLaren itself. In McLaren’s view, the email traffic does not establish that the team used any of the information it received.
The FIA also confirmed this week that McLaren’s lawyers had approached the organization with allegations about Renault’s Formula One team. Apparently, McLaren wished to argue that other teams had committed misdeeds and that if McLaren were to be punished for its violations of rules, then other teams should also be punished. The FIA statement indicated that it had told McLaren’s counsel that the hearing would not address alleged misconduct by other teams and that such allegations would be deemed irrelevant to the issue of McLaren’s rules violations. To the contrary, the FIA informed McLaren that the hearing would focus “solely” on the new evidence implicating McLaren.
Renault’s team manager, Flavio Briatore, has been an outspoken critic of the FIA’s earlier decision to impose no punishment on McLaren and has flatly said he believes that McLaren was lying when it claimed that it had not used the stolen data. Briatore has specifically said that he believes McLaren got an advantage by getting access to Ferrari chassis set-up information after it, like Renault, switched from Michelin to Bridgestone tires for the current season. If the Italian news report concerning De La Rosa is confirmed, it will prove Briatore correct.