Silverstone: The feel-good story of Lewis Hamilton, Formula One’s star rookie, racing in his first home Grand Prix, was eclipsed by an industrial espionage scandal off the track that embroiled three teams and is headed to court in both Britain and Italy.
At the heart of the scandal are 500 to 700 pages of documents that a member of the McLaren staff allegedly received from a disgruntled member of the Ferrari team; documents that could help McLaren understand the workings, both bureaucratic and technical, of the Ferrari team and its car.
After Ferrari outperformed McLaren early in the season, McLaren suddenly picked up and began winning races. The turnaround happened in April, about the same time as the documents were thought to have changed hands.
Jean Todt, the head of the Ferrari, said on Sunday, that his team will go to the London High Court on Tuesday in an action stemming from the case.
Todt told Reuters that the action followed a house search by lawyers and independent experts last week that led to McLaren suspending a senior technical employee. Todt refused to say what aspect of the case would be at issue.
Ron Dennis, the McLaren owner and director, said before the race that no ”intellectual property,” that is to say original engineering ideas, from Ferrari had made their way onto the McLaren car. Dennis also said the spying scandal had nothing to do with his team as a whole, which meant it could be an individual acting alone.
On Friday (9 July), a third team, Honda, released a statement saying that its director, Nick Fry, had met last month with the two suspects in the scandal. The two men were looking for a job at Honda.
”Honda would like to stress that at no point during this meeting was any confidential information offered or received,” said the statement.
The statement also confirmed in print for the first time the name of the McLaren employee. It was Mike Coughlan, the team’s chief designer.
It was Coughlan’s house that was searched. But, a source in the McLaren team who did not wish to be named reported that Coughlan said he did not know who had sent him the material that had been found. He also said that when he received the material, he had asked one of his superiors - but not Dennis - what he should do with it.
The second man involved, Nigel Stepney, the technical manager at Ferrari, then came forward with a series of interviews to British newspapers in which he defended himself.
”I have no idea how Mike Coughlan got the documents and I have no idea what exactly he is supposed to have,” said Stepney.
Stepney was the right-hand man to Ross Brawn, Ferrari’s long-time technical director. When Brawn took a leave of absence this year, Stepney did not get the job.
He said that he was under constant watch at Ferrari after he expressed his frustration with his position, particularly friction with his new superiors.
Honda said Stepney and Coughlan came to it to propose their services to help lift the team. Honda has designed a very poor car for this season and has scored only one point. The two were said to be ready to be joined by four other people from Ferrari.
Spying, and paranoia, are not new to the sport. There is a long-standing tradition of teams taking detailed photographs of rival’s cars.
A dispute involving Ferrari and Toyota that started in 2002 ended in an Italian court early this year. In 2002 a Ferrari engineer moved to the Japanese team and when the Toyota was unveiled the following season, Ferrari complained that its intellectual property was on the car.
In 1980, the garage holding the cars of the Williams team, a power in the sport at the time, were broken into during the night in Hockenheim, Germany, presumably so a rival could study the cars close up.
What makes this different is the scope of the information and the status of the two men involved.
The story reportedly broke because Coughlan visited a copy shop nearly the McLaren factory in Woking, England, to make copies of the material. A shop worker noticed the Ferrari insignia on the documents, became suspicious and reported his find to Ferrari.
But in an interview with The Observer, a British newspaper, Stepney said he did not have to trade in documents, as the information was all in his head anyway. Furthermore, he said he even doubted that Coughlan had received any material.
Formula One is supposed to be about good, honest competition and multimillion-dollar factories in which brilliant engineers devise high-tech solutions the problem of meeting a complex set of technical regulations while going faster than their rivals.
One of the most visible expressions of the glamorous combination of glitzy technology and huge sums of money are the centres housing hospitality and team offices that the teams erect in the paddock before each race.
But the spying scandal cast a pall over the party McLaren had planned as it unveiled its new three-story, £10 million, or $20 million, traveling paddock business centre - what used to be called a motor home and has now been called a ”Brand Centre” - the festive moment turned into a teary one by Dennis.
”I live and breathe this team,” he said. ”There is no way anything incorrect would ever happen in our team.”
It was a powerful and ironic moment: if the accusations against McLaren proved to be true, then perhaps the sponsors who paid for the Brand Centre, and other sponsors up and down the paddock, would flee the sport.
Dennis said in his speech that in the predecessor to the Brand Centre, which was born five years earlier and called the ”Communications Centre,” the team had done $500 million worth of deals to make the team and the sport go round.
In addition to the court action in London, a separate case against Stepney is taking place in Italian courts, and the International Automobile Federation, the sport’s governing body will study both the Ferrari and the McLaren to determine whether any of the Ferrari’s intellectual property is on the McLaren cars.
Max Mosley, the president of the FIA, said that he hoped to resolve the sporting side of the problem within three weeks, but a decision may be made within days.
Meanwhile, at the end of a week in which the paddock had been soaked by rain and the celebratory mood had been doused by the spying scandal, Hamilton, the British rookie, could finish only a distant third in his home debut. Kimi Raikkonen, in a Ferrari, won, and Fernando Alonso in a McLaren was second.
The two McLaren drivers still lead the standings, but Raikkonen, with two straight victories, has closed the gap. The rivalry between the teams is growing ever more heated.