Formula One’s spy tale: shifting gears, shifting loyalties

Formula One’s spy tale: shifting gears, shifting loyalties
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First Published: Mon, Sep 17 2007. 12 42 AM IST

Spygate saga: Team principal of the McLaren-Mercedez Formula One team Ron Dennis arrives at the World Motor Sport Council headquarters, the governing body of the FIA in Paris, on 13 September.
Spygate saga: Team principal of the McLaren-Mercedez Formula One team Ron Dennis arrives at the World Motor Sport Council headquarters, the governing body of the FIA in Paris, on 13 September.
Updated: Mon, Sep 17 2007. 12 42 AM IST
SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium: A day after the world of Formula One was shocked by a $100 million (Rs404 crore) fine over spying, the racing federation on Friday revealed some extraordinary details of the scandal.
In a 15-page account—including details from emails and cellphone text
Spygate saga: Team principal of the McLaren-Mercedez Formula One team Ron Dennis arrives at the World Motor Sport Council headquarters, the governing body of the FIA in Paris, on 13 September.
messages—the International Automobile Federation explained its punishment of the previous day against team McLaren Mercedes. What came out was a tale of intrigue, and insight into the workings of the pinnacle of motor racing.
In Formula One, each team spends hundreds of millions of dollars each season to build a car to gain precious seconds on the competition. Sharing intellectual property is, to a degree, part of the game, with teams employing photographers to take pictures of the elaborate technology belonging to the opposition to garner the slightest advantage.
But the federation concluded that the McLaren team probably had gained an unfair advantage by obtaining data from its rival, Ferrari. On Thursday, in addition to the fine, it excluded McLaren from the constructors’ championship this season.
The case first broke in the media in the days leading up to the British Grand Prix on 8 July . But its beginnings can be traced to the retirement from Ferrari of Michael Schumacher last year after 11 seasons with the team, and the resulting sabbatical of Ross Brawn, the team’s technical director.
Nigel Stepney, a right-hand man to Brawn, was unhappy about his new boss.
According to the federation report, as early as the first race of the season in mid-March, the Australian Grand Prix at Melbourne, Stepney began to communicate with his friend and former colleague, Mike Coughlan, McLaren’s chief designer, about details on Ferrari’s car and team strategy.
When the scandal broke in July, it focused only on a 780-page document found at Coughlan’s home in England.
Ferrari claimed that it had been tipped off about the document by an employee of a copy shop in Woking, England, where McLaren is based, as the employee was a Ferrari fan and became suspicious about the document. But, according to Stepney, in an interview with the British media in early July, Ferrari had been following his movements all season.
On 4 July, McLaren said the data had not been transferred to the car or used by anyone else within the company, and that it had been an isolated incident involving a rogue employee.
But the evidence issued on Friday suggests otherwise. Coughlan and Stepney were shown not only to be communicating regularly since before the first race of the season—won by Kimi Raikkonen of Ferrari—but also to be in contact with two drivers of the McLaren tam.
Coughlan had worked with the McLaren test driver, Pedro de la Rosa, on another team years ago. Coughlan shared some information in email exchanges with de la Rosa.
“Hi Mike, do you know the Red Car’s weight distribution?” de la Rosa wrote in an email to Coughlan on 21 March, three days after the first race. “It would be important for us to know so that we could try it in the simulator.” At the hearing on Thursday, de la Rosa confirmed that Coughlan had responded by text message “with precise details of Ferrari’s weight distribution”.
De la Rosa then sent an email to Fernando Alonso, the McLaren driver and reigning world champion, setting out the Ferrari’s weight distribution to two decimal places on each of Ferrari’s two cars as they were set up for the Australian Grand Prix.
“Its weight distribution surprises me,” Alonso responded in an email. “I don’t know either if it’s 100% reliable, but at least it draws attention.” De la Rosa responded on 25 March, saying: “All the information from Ferrari is very reliable. It comes from Nigel Stepney, their former chief mechanic.”
De la Rosa then mentioned to Alonso in the email that in the first race of the season, Stepney was “the same person who told us” before the race the exact lap on which Raikkonen would make his first pit stop in the Ferrari.
Other information provided included such things as a special gas that Ferrari used to inflate its tyres to reduce the internal temperature and blistering of the rubber. “We’ll have to try it, it’s easy,” de la Rosa wrote to Alonso.
Email exchanges continued through April, when de la Rosa asked Coughlan for details on Ferrari’s braking system, and Coughlan told him.
In June, Ferrari started proceedings in court in Modena, Italy, against Stepney.
The Italian police provided the racing federation with evidence that showed Coughlan and Stepney had exchanged 288 text messages and 35 telephone calls between 11 March and 3 July.
For the federation, this evidence seemed to nullify the argument that two rogue employees had simply been sharing data. “The advantage gained may have been as subtle as Coughlan being in a position to suggest alternative ways of approaching different design challenges,” the report said.
It said that the evidence led the federation “to conclude that some degree of sporting advantage was obtained, though it may forever be impossible to quantify that advantage in concrete terms”.
After the report was released on Friday, McLaren group chairman and CEO Ron Dennis continued to deny that the team had gained any advantage and he also pointed out that he had himself supplied some of the final evidence after he learned about it at the Hungarian Grand Prix on 5 August.
“We now have seven days to appeal and are carefully considering the company’s position once we have a full understanding of the FIA’s findings,” Dennis said, referring to the federation.
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First Published: Mon, Sep 17 2007. 12 42 AM IST