Will Alonso leave McLaren?
Bernie Ecclestone may be sending a message to McLaren.
In an unexpected twist to the ongoing drama about theft of confidential Ferrari documents that turned up in the possession of McLaren’s chief engineer, it is being reported by Sky Sports in Great Britain that McLaren’s star driver, world champion Fernando Alonso, could leave the team if McLaren is found to have participated in industrial espionage of Ferrari.
The FIA’s hearing into McLaren’s conduct starts Thursday, but speculation about the penalties that might be imposed has already become rampant in the European press. Apart from heavy fines, speculation centers on the forfeiting of race wins and the accompanying championship points, both constructor’s and driver’s.
Should that happen, it is believed that Alonso would be able to break his contract under a clause that allows his departure if the team does something to damage his image or reputation.
While a certain level of press feeding frenzy can be expected in Europe over any controversial Formula One development, the new speculation about sanctions against McLaren, coming only days after press reports that McLaren’s chief engineer had shown the purloined documents to others at the team, including the team manager, Jonathan Neale, has shifted the focus from whether McLaren will be penalized to what will be the extent of the penalties.
The FIA is, of course, free to take the position that McLaren is responsible for the conduct of its employees, whether or not the highest levels of the team’s management had direct knowledge of the employee’s actions. While McLaren claims it did not know about its chief engineer’s misdeeds and has tried to create itself as somehow separate from him, the FIA can easily conclude that Chief Engineer Coughlan was McLaren, that what he did was the act of McLaren, and that McLaren is fully responsible for those actions.
That may just be the underlying reason that selected parts of Coughlan’s affidavit implicating Neale have been leaked to the press. Ferrari has steadfastly maintained it was not responsible for those leaks. Presumably, they didn’t come from BMW. That leaves legal counsel for both sides and – maybe – the FIA.
The announced terms of the settlement of the lawsuit between Coughlan and Ferrari that resulted in Coughlan giving Ferrari an affidavit detailing his actions precluded that affidavit being provided to Italian prosecutors. But, nothing has been said indicating that Ferrari was not free to share it with the FIA.
Presumably, they have done so.
The FIA has a very real interest in settling this controversy quickly, and it has some power over the competitors to get it settled, should it elect to use that power. There are still seven races left in the season’s schedule. Until this controversy is resolved, the remaining races will lack finality. Even if a McLaren car wins, as Alsonso did at the Nurburgring this past weekend, loss of points from earlier races could eliminate McLaren’s cars and drivers from competition for the championship.
The worst possible scenario would be for the season to end without the controversy having been fully and finally resolved.
Final resolution, however, means the Italian criminal prosecutions and British civil suits brought by Ferrari need to be resolved, too. The FIA cannot risk making a decision that affects the outcome of either championship this season if there is the slightest chance that court proceedings in either country will, subsequently, show that its judgment was wrong.
So what’s the message the FIA is sending to McLaren through the lastest rumors about Alonso’s contract?
The FIA is going to propose penalties on McLaren. It is going to strong-arm Ferrari into agreeing with them and dropping its legal actions in light of them. McLaren is going to loose points – both driver and constructor points (because it’s not rational to take one away without the other, if the underlying rationale is that race results may have been affected.) McLaren will be expected to partially fall on its sword as part of that deal. Ron Dennis will be allowed to save face by not being further questioned about how he could possibly not have known what his immediate subordinates were doing. Neale will be excluded from the team for the balance of the season. (And nobody will care what happens to Coughlan, since he was the one that got caught.)
McLaren won’t want to take that hit. But the Alonso rumors are the FIA’s way of saying exactly what it will do if McLaren doesn’t take the deal.
Behind it all, it’s all Bernie Ecclestone.
Ultimately, McLaren needs Bernie Ecclestone, the czar of Formula One, more than he needs them. Ecclestone is craven, mercurial and grasping. He built Formula One into what it is today. He sold off a chunk of his ownership to a German communcations consortium for cash. That company eventually went bankrupt and he retained control over Formula One. Most of the auto manufacturers involved in Formula One threatened to create a new, equivalent series: essentially, they went on strike against Bernie. When it was over, the manufacturers settled on Ecclestone’s terms.
When it comes to Formula One, Bernie Ecclestone runs the show.
This show is about to be over.