The trouble for McLaren may only be beginning
The trouble for McLaren may only be beginning.
When Arton Senna was killed in the Formula One race at San Marino, Italy in 1994, the Italian prosecuting authorities investigated and ultimately concluded that the steering on his Williams had failed. Italian authorities brought criminal manslaughter charges against the Williams team’s chief designer, Adrian Newey, and its technical director, Patrick Head. The two were acquitted at a trial in 1997, but the prosecution appealed. An appeals court upheld the acquittals in 1999, but in 2003 a higher appeals court reversed and ordered a new trial on the charges. That trial started in 2004, but in the midst of the retrial prosecutors dropped the case, citing the Italian version of a statute of limitations which precludes pursuing charges more than ten years old.
So, despite the FIA’s refusal at the hearing it held Thursday to impose any sanctions upon McLaren for the team’s possession of stolen Ferrari technical documents, Ron Dennis and the rest of those at McLaren involved in the fiasco have good reason to remain worried.
There is every indication that this case is going to be hanging over the McLaren team’s collective heads for a very long time.
Italian law grants prosecutors rather broad investigative powers, and there is every reason to believe that the prosecutors will use them in pursuing the stolen documents case. Ferrari is, of course, quite influential in its home country. All indications are that both Ferrari and the Italian populace are incensed at the FIA’s decision. There is no question that documents were stolen from Ferrari and ended up with McLaren. There is no reason to believe any prosecutor in Italy will not want to pursue that case.
And with good reason:
McLaren has lied from the beginning.
Here’s what Ron Dennis told the press shortly after 780 pages of stolen Ferrari documents were recovered from the house of the Chief Engineer of his team:
“I live and breathe this team. There is no way anything incorrect would ever happen in our team.”
Apparently, Dennis has his own definition of “incorrect” than does the dictionary.
According to a statement made by Ferrari Team manager Jean Todt to an Italian newspaper, Dennis admitted during the FIA hearing that he knew about the stolen documents.
In an aggressive statement, Ferrari’s Jean Todt, manager of the Formula One team, told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that he believes the FIA would have imposed heavy penalties on Ferrari, had Ferrari done what McLaren has admitted doing: “I wonder if they had found in the house of a Ferrari chief designer 780 secret papers, 780 classified documents of another team. There would have been cries of a scandal, an exemplary punishment would have been demanded. And it would have been granted, I have no doubt."
Todt was blunt: "I’ve been in this world for about 40 years, I’ve seen all kinds of stuff so I don’t get surprised by anything, but this state is really at the limit. One thing is certain: we at Ferrari can calmly look at ourselves in the mirror. I think others, since yesterday, can’t do the same thing."
Todt, pictured here, indicated that the team had not yet decided whether to appeal the FIA’s decision.
But Ferrari’s president, Luca de Montezemolo publicly responded to the FIA’s refusal to impose any sanctions on McLaren by stating that it “doesn’t end here.” Ferrari has also stated that it will pursue the pending lawsuits, including one it brought in England against the McLaren chief engineer, Mike Coughlan.
Meantime, one of the FIA commissioners involved in the hearing told the press that he had not voted with the majority, and had believed McLaren guilty. The FIA promptly moved to impose sanctions against him for speaking publicly about the matter. However, the statement directly contradicted the FIA’s claim that their decision had been “unanimous.”
McLaren may have been able to sell the notion to the FIA that Coughlan acted alone, with the intention of joining a different team. But the fact is that the highest officials at McLaren knew their chief engineer possessed stolen property. They did not notify authorities. They did not notify the FIA. They did not notify Ferrari. They did not fire, suspend, or discipline Coughlan in any way – until he got caught.
While the Italian case is considered criminal, Ferrari’s lawsuit in England is civil. English law provides a way for parties to the lawsuit to compel testimony from witnesses and other parties to discover information. If Ferrari should add McLaren to the English lawsuit already pending, it would be in a position to delve very deeply into the conduct of McLaren employees.
It would also be in a position to seek some very confidential information about McLaren’s racing program, in an effort to determine whether the stolen information McLaren’s chief engineer received was, in any way, used by the team. McLaren could resist providing that information but probably couldn’t ultimately avoid it, though a court would likely appoint an independent party to review the records to protect confidentiality. McLaren has admitted so much already, that a court would likely conclude an extensive inquiry into the team’s records is justified. In that setting, McLaren’s deceptive public remarks won’t help them, either.
The FIA may have been reluctant to do anything that would upset past race results or affect the championship battles because that would affect the outcome of bets made on Formula One. But the failure to impose any penalty on McLaren, apart from surprising most reporters covering the story, so much appears to be a clumsy whitewash that it almost assures the story won’t go away.
The FIA took no action in the case of Senna’s death, considering it merely a tragic racing accident. They had a lot more justification for their decision in that case than they do now.
In the end, it wasn’t the FIA that turned out to be important.
But, just ask Frank Williams what his team and its personnel endured for the next decade.