A few days ago, F1 ’07 was a fascinating four-way battle for title supremacy. However, a new tsunami of scandal, intrigue, corruption and betrayal on the shores of the Monza paddock has moved the fingers of an unnamed few to the self-destruct button. F1 insiders are now waiting for the bang.
“Formula one at the moment is half sport, half crime-thriller,” the grand prix correspondent for Spanish newspaper Diario As observed after Sunday’s Italian grand prix. Others believe he has fudged his numbers. “Sport?” they wondered.
Italy always turns out some of the most attention grabbing, um, female, ah, promotions professionals. But the local Carabinieri (police), as it happens, are also well dressed, as any observer in the paddock moments before qualifying would have agreed — black pants with detailed red piping and striping, white leather sash across their chests.
“We strongly suspect that the nature and timing of this wholly unnecessary (police) contact was to disrupt our preparation for this important session and Thursday’s World Motor Sport Council hearing,” McLaren said in a statement, after these finely groomed gentlemen served key members of the team with Avviso di Garanzias; formal notices of, in this case, pending criminal prosecutions for fraud, espionage and embezzlement. In an unlikely even-worse-case scenario, Ron Dennis and his Woking mates could soon be under the thumb of another arm of the Italian forces; the Penitenziaria.
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So serious has the so-called ‘spy row” become, that Ron Dennis now suspects that Italian magistrates are in cahoots with Ferrari regarding the accusation that his McLaren team used 780 pages of stolen team documents to go faster in 2007.
British speculation suspects that the rot runs even deeper than corrupt Italian nationalism. McLaren could be kicked out of the championship at the hearing on Thursday, amid intense rumours that the FIA wants Dennis to quit his post as boss of one of the most powerful teams on the grid.
He and the Paris federation’s president, Max Mosley, share a historically poisonous relationship, made worse last year when Dennis was in the driving seat of threats that all manufacturers in F1 will leave the sport and set up a rival championship if the establishment didn’t give them more control.
Dennis won that battle, but “there have been suggestions that, if he were to reconsider (retirement), the team’s (current) problems would disappear”, the Independent’s David Tremayne wrote on Tuesday.
Like any good crime-thriller, meanwhile, the Prime Suspect is not who you might imagine. Not Nigel Stepney, who (allegedly) poured white powder into Felipe Massa’s fuel tank after giving McLaren’s suspended chief designer Mike Coughlan the 780-page dossier. And not Coughlan, whose wife Trudy made CD-ROM copies of the evidence before shredding and burning it in their backyard.
Plot spoiler below: The (possible) culprit is none other than world champion Fernando Alonso, egged on by Flavio Briatore, who wants him back at Renault. So desperate is he to skip out of his McLaren contract, goes the conspiracy, that the Spaniard has colluded with the FIA by providing copies of emails and text messages that prove that cheating ran so rife through McLaren’s Surrey headquarters this year that even the drivers knew about Ferrari’s secrets.
The wild rumours were confirmed at Monza, where — in a suspiciously transparent fashion — Mosley published a copy of the warning he wrote to McLaren’s drivers about the issue. It gave Alonso the cover he needed by threatening that “there is a duty on all competitors and (F1) Super Licence holders to ensure the fairness and legitimacy” of the championship.
The final chapter is rumours that Dennis prepares to go down fighting, with potentially explosive information that could also send Briatore and Jean Todt once again pressing the speed-dial for their preferred lawyers. Until then, there’s just enough time to grab another bucket of popcorn.