Last night’s Belgian Grand Prix had two story lines. One was the race for the drivers’ championship. Rookie Lew Hamilton came in fourth and maintains a two point championship lead over team mate and bete noire Fernando Alonso. Business as usual, you might say. Raikkonen and Massa driving Ferraris came home first and second and remain within striking distance.
The other story involved the machines Hamilton and Alonso were driving, which last week were the subject of an F1 espionage crisis that came within minutes of bringing down arguably the biggest and best team on the grid, and possibly the sport.
McLaren-Mercedes boss Ron Dennis will fly back from Spa-Francorchamps in his private jet today, but it’s questionable whether he will even bother phoning team co-owner Mansour Ojjeh — probably lazing somewhere in the Mediterranean on the deck of his 100-metre superyacht Kogo — to discuss the biggest fine in motor sport history. For those of us with two kids, a mortgage and a Toyota station-wagon, $120 million is about fifty times more than we’ll earn in our entire lives. McLaren is debt-free and perfectly able to secure a mortgage of that size against its assets and future earnings, and doubly so if Hamilton opens the sponsorship floodgates by winning the title as a rookie in a few weeks time.
But as the World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) broke last Thursday for lunch, Dennis walked out of the FIA’s historic building on Place de la Concorde looking decidedly unwell. According to one insider, he headed to Paris’ nearby five-star Hotel de Crillon and couldn’t stomach a single Hors d’Oeuvre. Rather than the size of the fine, onlookers assumed he was bright green because of the manner in which the governing body got hold of the incriminating emails between test driver Pedro de la Rosa and Alonso, who plotted about how to best take advantage of Ferrari’s secrets. FIA president Max Mosley confirmed in Belgium that the whistleblower was in fact the treacherous Alonso, so desperate is he to break free from a contract he despises.
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But a lone WMSC member soon spilt the premature beans and told a lone pressman that McLaren would be immediately kicked out of F1 and not be allowed to return until 2009 — if they are still in business. When the pressman couldn’t resist the scoop of his life, the news was so hot that every major formula one website carrying it promptly crashed, such was the global interest in it.
Realising he was about to farewell F1’s combined equivalent of Arsenal, Roger Federer and Muhammad Ali, Bernie Ecclestone roughed up enough of his fellow FIA heavies, making the “plan-B” penalty official – punish the team, not the drivers. McLaren was stripped of all points won in this year’s constructors’ championship, effectively handing the crown to Ferrari which now holds an unassailable 71 point lead over its nearest rival.
Fans have been blessed with a fantastic four-way fight in 2007. It’s been great for the sport. But pondering how the British press would have sensationally reacted to the hobbling of Golden Boy Lewis Hamilton, one insider in the paddock at Spa-Francorchamps on Saturday observed: “They would have destroyed this sport. Really, they would have.”