Sunday, September 09, 2007

Lawyers at Dawn

Here's an amusing twist on a very old cliche. With only their native wit, fighting for honour, and armed only with the sword of truth and the trusty shield of fair play, the Italian Ferrari team do battle with the duplicitous, underhand, scheming English Mclaren team. With the allegations against them of industrial espionage involving many members of the team, and even of sabotage, it is as if Machiavelli were alive and well and had recently upped sticks from his native Florence to sample life in Woking.

Except, of course, its all a bit more complicated than that. Until now, I have avoided writing about the Mclaren/Ferrari spy scandal because a) I don't know anything more than you do about it, b) In all honesty, I find it rather tedious, and c) I was rather hoping it might all just be a passing frenzy anyway. If one thing has become clear in recent weeks, it is that it certainly isn't going to just blow over. It now looms large over the most close fought world title battle in some years, and threatens to deny us the final denouement in the battle between Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso.

Until last week, I had assumed that, essentially, all we were looking at was a conspiracy for private gain between Messrs Coughlan and Stepney. Now, it appears that there is strong evidence that there were others in on it all. Including, it would appear, the drivers. Why else would the FIA decide to write specifically to Alonso, Hamilton and De La Rosa, demanding that they disclose all that they know of the affair?

How does this tally with Mclaren's seemingly convincing demonstration that no part of what they found out was incorporated into this year's Mclaren MP4/22?. It strikes me that there is one compelling explanation that has been mostly, though not entirely, overlooked. There is one part that is necessarily common to the Mclaren and Ferrari - and indeed every other car on the grid. The control Bridgestone tyres.

What if Stepney had passed on some vital piece of information on how to get the best out of them to Coughlan? What if this information had enabled Mclaren to get the jump on all the other teams switching over from last year's Michelins? There's still an awful lot to be explained. Could information on how to set up a Ferrari for the control tyres really be readily transferred to a Mclaren - an entirely different car? And even if it could, why take the chance of letting the drivers in on what the team was up to? They must know that drivers tend to move on over time, taking a team's secrets with them. Surely Coughlan must have known that one day, sooner or later, De La Rosa or Alonso might find it useful to use such information against the team?

And what on earth does all this have to do with Italian Magistrates apparent investigation of Mclaren for sabotage? Or the white powder in the fuel tanks at Monaco? Or Mclaren's involvement of Renault in the whole tawdry affair?

The eagle-eyed amongst you might have spotted that I stole the line on the 'sword of truth' from the opening statement of Conservative politician Jonathan Aitken in his suicidal libel action against the Guardian newspaper back in the mid 1990s. I'm not suggesting that the end result of this whole process could be Jean Todt's imprisonment for perjury, far less that Ferrari have been involved in selling weapons to totalitarian states in the Middle East, but rather simply that Ferrari are not necessarily whiter than white themselves.

For starters, there's the question of why it might be that Ferrari would have knowledge worth stealing about the Bridgestone Control tyres anyway. The team have always been close to the Japanese tyre manufacturer, and they fought many title campaigns together. It is claimed that the control tyres are unrelated to those used by Ferrari in previous seasons, but most observers note their similarity to the rubber used by the Scuderia in their successful 2004 title campaign. And that's before one even considers the possibility that Bridgestone might have fed them with inside information.

It's worth asking why Bridgestone supply the control tyre in the first place? After all, almost all the major teams were running Michelins at the time that decision was taken. Surely the greatest fairness to the greatest number would be achieved by using the French manufacturer to supply control tyres? Unless, of course, Ferrari 'persuaded' the FIA to do otherwise.

It seems more than mere coincidence, too, that it should be Mclaren that is feeling the heat from the FIA this season. Leaving aside the (admittedly interesting) question of any animus between Ron Dennis and Max Mosley, there does seem to be something of a pattern here. Last year, Renault were battling with Ferrari for the title, and the controversy centred around their previously unremarked upon 'mass damper' system (and let's not forget the ludicrous penalty given to Alonso for 'blocking' Massa in qualifying at Monza). Going back a little, to 2003, both Mclaren and Williams were fighting with Ferrari for the title. What happened? Both teams got thrown off their stride when Michelin's tyres were declared illegal. Coincidence? Perhaps, but there's an old saying: Once is an accident. Twice is a coincidence. Thrice is a conspiracy.... Could it be that Mclaren resorted to espionage only because they considered they were already playing on a queered pitch?

So what's going to happen tomorrow? If I knew that, I'd tell you now. The word in the paddock, though, is that any punishment is likely to centre on Mclaren as a constructor, rather than its drivers. This might seem hypocritical (the FIA want to punish the team without interfering with the battle between Alonso and Hamilton) but in a weird kind of way, it makes sense.

There is no implication that this year's Mclaren was in any way illegal. They were not running a bigger engine, or wider tyres, or lower ride height, or anything that necessarily gave Alonso or Hamilton an unfair advantage over their rivals. Indeed, spying on one's rivals in the manner that Ferrari allege isn't even explicitly against the rules (though it is probably contrary to both English and Italian law). Such a law would, after all, be all but impossible to enforce, especially given the reality that designers, engineers and the rest regularly switch between different teams, taking their secrets with them. It may even be the case that inter-team espionage is commonplace - that engineers regularly talk to each other about what they're up to - and that Mclaren's only crime is to be the ones who got caught.

The team are instead being charged with the rather nebulous offence of 'bringing the sport into disrepute'. I've complained in the past that this breaks the legal principle that there shall be 'no crime without law' but the result of such a vague charge (apart from the difficulty of refuting it) is that it is genuinely difficult to know what the punishment might be (Mclaren are, to my mind, sure to be found guilty, as one thing I have noticed over the years is that the FIA does not lose cases in its own court). A decision to throw Mclaren out of the championship, or even a decision short of that which severely interferes with the world championship battle, would, to my mind be utterly disproportionate to the alleged offence

Common sense requires that no decision is taken tomorrow which disrupts what has been the most close fought championship I can remember. Common sense, though, is something which appears to have left the building some time ago...

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Anonymous Clive said...

Well, you have been proved right on all counts, Patrick. Particularly telling are your remarks regarding the Bridgestone tyres, since they were indeed an important part of the "evidence" that convicted McLaren. The real question may be: to what extent is it illegal to steal information that another team has already obtained illegally?

Much is also being made of the movable floor saga but that is pure BS. I can remember that the movable floors were common knowledge long before the Australian GP and that there was discussion even amongst bloggers as to whether McLaren would protest them or not. They hardly needed info from Stepney to help them see what was blatantly obvious on the Ferrari cars - a strut, damper and spring arrangement on the tea tray at the front of the floor. There could have been no other intent for such an arrangement other than to allow the point at which the floor started flexing to be adjusted as required. It was in full view and all the teams had pointed at it; if Stepney had whispered something to McLaren about Ferrari's movable floor, the response would have been, "Yeah? And what else is new?"

9:28 AM  

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