The world of Formula One is currently gripped by what is arguably its biggest ever behind-the-scenes scandal.
Ferrari engineer Nigel Stepney, a key figure during Michael Schumacher’s reign of terror earlier this decade, has been sacked and put at the disposal of criminal proceedings in Italy after what initially appeared to be a bizarre case of sabotage.
But his alleged tampering with the fuel tanks of Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa’s cars in Monaco this year was merely the tip of an iceberg that goes as deep as two more teams and seemingly deliberate industrial espionage.
McLaren’s chief designer Mike Coughlan, who has been suspended, is being chased through the British legal system for receiving reams of confidential Ferrari material, covering every imaginable facet of the team, its methods, cars and data. The tip-off came courtesy of a bloke in a Surrey photocopy-shop, who rightly thought it a bit odd that McLaren designer “Mad Mike’s” wife Trudy ordered two copies each of the aforementioned 800 pages.
But while the media’s “spy scandal” deductions make great banner headlines, the only real implication for the sport is for its reputation — which is not as much a problem for its controversy-hungry followers but for its corporate-savvy multi-national backers who use the pure theatre of sport to drive away from their own shady images.
Contrary to the theory popular in most media now, Stepney and Coughlan — who will certainly never work in Formula One again — did not collude for the obvious reasons; financial gain for Stepney, sporting and image-boosting for Coughlan. Rather, they were comparing (albeit extremely iffy) notes in preparation to become a near-irresistible “super team” of defectors to a rival — Honda.
Prior to the scandal going public, they even met recently for a joint job interview with Honda’s team boss Nick Fry at Heathrow.
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But what the tabloid sensationalists are right about is that the FIA could very well come down very hard on McLaren when its emergency meeting of the World Motor Sport Council considers the saga later this month. Team boss Ron Dennis may have let a couple of tears well in his eyes as McLaren’s integrity was questioned by the press at Silverstone, but while Lewis Hamilton wins races, the man most directly responsible for the design of his car had in his possession a veritable mountain of its sole title rival’s deepest secrets.
The saving grace for McLaren could be that it is unfair to penalise an entire organisation for the transgressions of one or two rogue employees, and the perfect precedent is Toyota. Two such employees were convicted of stealing information upon defecting from Ferrari in 2002, but Toyota’s “Ferrari-clone” TF103 now takes pride of place in the team museum.
What you won’t read anywhere else in the media is that secret-swapping and stealing is common in Formula One. Ron Dennis once recalled with great amusement the time he locked a rival team’s chief aerodynamicist in a truck when he caught him photographing and measuring the McLaren cars before they were unloaded.
Spies take overhead photos of rival engineers’ data sheets at Grands Prix. Mika Hakkinen nearly lost the 1998 Melbourne Grand Prix when a radio hacker told him to “pit, pit”. Renault insists to this day that a rival hacked into a computer system and ruined the final designs for the team’s disastrous 2001 engine.
But as almost everyone except the Mother Theresas of the world will acknowledge, an action is not necessarily a crime until you get caught. On this occasion, the formerly highly respected Stepney and Coughlan are in the dock, but it could be Hamilton and Fernando Alonso who pay the price.