McLaren spy verdict: Why the FIA were right

McLaren’s escape from yesterday’s World Motor Sports Council hearing without a punishment has been met with criticism. Jean Todt called the verdict “incomprehensible and grave” and threatened an appeal.

Renault team boss Flavio Briatore admitted he didn’t understand the decision: “If someone had some advantage from the possession of the material, it would have been fair for him to pay the consequences.”

But I can’t see how the FIA could reasonably have reached any other decision at this point in time.

Of course, I’m British and McLaren are a British team. But believe me when I say that has nothing to do with why I agree with the FIA’s decision.

The FIA has declared its desire to interview Nigel Stepney and Mike Coughlan – the two individuals who were apparently caught red-handed – with a view to banning them from working in motor sport.

Ferrari claimed that the verdict creates a damaging precedent. They’re wrong. Imagine if McLaren had been docked points, even banned from the championship, simply because Coughlan was found to have Ferrari documents in his possession, without having used them.

We would then have a scenario where any disgruntled employee could hold their team to ransom by claiming they possessed similar confidential documents about another team.

In all legal systems, there has to be a dividing line between the companies’ responsibility and the individual’s. If the FIA are happy that everyone else in McLaren bar Coughlan behaved correctly, then Coughlan should be the man in trouble and not the team.

I have two other points to make.

First, I’m not convinced that Coughlan necessarily intended to use the Ferrari dossier to improve the McLaren car. That’s why he and Stepney turned up at Honda for an interview.

Second, McLaren are not in the clear – not by a long shot. Yesterday’s verdict stated:

If it is found in the future that the Ferrari information has been used to the detriment of the championship, we reserve the right to invite Vodafone McLaren Mercedes back in front of the WMSC where it will face the possibility of exclusion from not only the 2007 championship but also the 2008 championship.

The message to Ferrari is they can win the championship on the track, or if they find some compelling evidence, they could still win it in the courtroom.

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17 comments on McLaren spy verdict: Why the FIA were right

  1. Cooperman said on 27th July 2007, 15:11

    I wonder if Ferrari’s blast at the FIA is damaging their own position. For a team that has always had a ‘special relationship’ with the FIA, this isn’t the way to keep it special.

    Going on your logic that the McLaren team is guilty but can’t be punished because it was their employee who did the deed, then Ferrari must be equally guilty because Nigel Stepney also took part in the saga when he was an employee of theirs??

  2. Journeyer said on 27th July 2007, 15:17

    We would then have a scenario where any disgruntled employee could hold their team to ransom by claiming they possessed similar confidential documents about another team. – This isn’t a problem. All the team needs to do is tell the FIA about their disgruntled employee hostaging the team, and they’re off the hook. McLaren got into trouble here because they didn’t do that, just telling Coughlan to destroy the dossier and keeping the matter an internal one.

    @Cooperman: Of course Ferrari will attack the decision publicly. But remember, we don’t know what’s going on internally. There will almost definitely be backchannel negotiations ongoing here. Remember, any punishment has to benefit both Ferrari and the FIA. And besides, Ferrari is actually helping the FIA by attacking it, making the FIA seem objective and impartial.

    Actually, The Mole on GrandPrix.com has something along the lines of your 2nd paragraph.

  3. Any other team would have Max threatening them with disrepute charges by now.

  4. Well, what about the fact that a few members of the McLaren top management knew Coughlan had the documents after he confided in them, and they didn’t do anything about it apart from asking him to destroy it? Here’s a man in a very senior position (chief designer) whose head is crammed with Ferrari information that could inadvertently slip out in their aid, and he was not even suspended after he explicitly told them he possessed the documents? And no one thought of informing Ferrari or FIA about the same?
    And then to suspend him AFTER the information was outed by a random photocopier shop is totally disgraceful and reeks of hypocrisy. I always considered McLaren to be an ethical and honest team, but no longer so. It’s a very very sad decision and FIA has just lost all credibility IMHO. Not that they had too much of it to begin with.

  5. DrF said on 27th July 2007, 17:12

    “That’s why he and Stepney turned up at Honda for an interview.”

    Nick Fry claims they never told him they had Ferrari information and they didn’t get the job they were angling for.

    Strange to take the info in order to get a job and then not tell the guy who you are asking to employ you.

    Unless Nick is lying.

    And that still leaves the Chief Designer of a team in posession of another teams’s technical documentation, with the knowledge of senior managers.

    Were these managers not duty-bound to inform Ron, who should then have fired Coughlan?

    The fact that Coughlan was only suspended AFTER Ferrari found out about it is what stinks.

  6. They’re hardly likey to tell Stepney in the first chat with him. Theyhad have to sound him out first to make sure he wouldn’t go running to the FIA.

  7. Sorry – Fry, not Stepney.

  8. Nikos Darzentas said on 27th July 2007, 18:45

    @Cooperman: Ferrari guilty for employing somebody that damaged them? then McLaren should be erased from the map for employing (UNTIL THEY WERE DISCOVERED!: very good points from previous commenters) somebody that gave them an advantage, even if this remains to be proved…

    I honestly don’t want the championships to be decided in courts, but this is rather frustrating, and from now on I’ll be laughing whenever I hear anyone talking about the evil Ferrari and its dirty tricks

  9. There is one thing troubling me slightly about this.

    The FIA seem to have decided that McLaren were in possession of information about this year’s Ferrari and info on their tests etc, but they are letting them off for now because the McLaren doesn’t share any design with the Ferrari and therefore the FIA don’t think McLaren have had any advantage in having these documents.

    But isn’t it possible to gain an advantage by having certain information without it actually mean copying it? The designers would surely have had the sense to know that any blatant copying would land them all in hot water pretty sharpish anyway.

    Say McLaren were thinking about going down a particular design route, they read that Ferrari have already tried this idea and it doesn’t work so they abandon that costly research and go down a different route, ending up with what they have now – and saving a wedge of cash in the process.

    Their car is different to the Ferrari but they have still gained an advantage through having the documents.

    Also, McLaren seem to be very thorough in what they do and I’ve always had the impression that they will over analyse every little detail, yet Pat Symonds from Renault implies in F1 Racing this month that McLaren are quick this year, but are not too sure why…

  10. As an employer myself I understand Keith is making here. I would really hate to be put is similar position by some rogue employee. However , as DrF says above, “The fact that Coughlan was only suspended AFTER Ferrari found out about it is what stinks.”
    I still think, that what FIA did at this time is the sensible thing to do. The case is still not over, and the threat of exclusion still hangs over McLaren. The decision to exclude them can be made any time if deemed necessary.

  11. Journeyer said on 28th July 2007, 5:27

    @Craig: As I said in another thread, Ferrari must prove such. In terms of using the stolen info, McLaren is innocent until proven guilty.

  12. Magnus said on 28th July 2007, 15:45

    Another point: Had the FIA thrown out Mclaren now the championship would have been already over, with 7 races to go.

    With the decision they took we can have continued excitement and drama both on and off track all season through (and perhaps even longer).

  13. I am sorry , but i feel your article is very much biased, like most non-Ferrari fans are against Ferrari. I have talked to many McLaren fans also, while most love the fact that their team got away, if you ask them whether McLaren could have used the information, its another story.

    I am not in competitive sports, but even if i get the blueprints of a rival company’s products which i can use to my advantage, i would either return it or use it. I wont keep it unused in my home. If i am keeping it in my home, it means i have wrong intentions.

    Like Jean Todt said, its like playing poker with a person who knows your cards.

    I asked my lawyer friends about rogue employees threatening companies, well they told me its as simple as a NDA, as long as a court does not tell them to give particular information, they may not state it or even state knowledge of it. If they do , they are in deeper trouble than the company and such testimony is usually ignored by courts.

    Unless the person uses Whistle-blower laws that some countries have, the company has nothing to worry about. Even then it can infact file a criminal case against the employee of extortion and get a gag order against him and the employee will goto Jail for a long time.

  14. Sidharth said on 29th July 2007, 18:20

    I think the reason for the FIA’s deplorable decision on the whole spy scandal is to keep alive the intrest of millions of people around the world at the cost of the basic rules of any sport. The other reason for this decision one can understand is a commercial aspect. The FIA doesn’t want to lose the billions of hard cash invested in the betting industry, Telecast & sponsorship rights associated with the Formula 1.

    I also do believe that Bernie Ecclestone as the president and CEO of Formula One Management find it hard to accept that his british counterparts i.e Maclern are guilty of possessing confidential Ferrari’s data that is why he always try to keep his mouth shut on this whole spy scandal the same person sometimes back in past never missed any opportunity and infact try to prove that ferrari’d dominace in the Formula 1 in this sport from 2000 to 2004 is not good for sport.

    Now I would like to ask the president and CEO of Formula One Management Mr Bernie Ecclestone that what do you say on this when the Macleran has admitted of possessing ferrari’s secret documents?

  15. Rach said on 2nd August 2007, 12:19

    Both McLaren and Ferrari were testing consistently well over the winter, with both of their driver pairings (and test drivers for that matter) posting good/top times on their respective days.
    With the lead times that it takes for a piece of equipment, technology or design to make it onto an F1 car, McLaren have not won GPs this year on the back of documents any members of their staff have been given by Ferrari. Ferrari have, however won a GP with an illegal car.
    Consider Max’s usual hostile atitude to McLaren and the fact that a Ferrari franchise-hodler is the only senior FIA member who has complained I’m losing any objectivity I might have had.
    Regardless of which team anyone supports we can all be objective – it’s just a case of whether we’ll let ourselves. As a McLaren fan of very recent standing (2 seasons – so don’t accuse me of jumping on the Hamilton bandwagon – remember they didn’t win a single GP last year), I of course am glad that McLaren have not been punished yet.
    However, Ferrari are well known for throwing their toys out of the pram. To the extent that despite being a very professional driver, even Schumacher could be petulant when his lead was threatened (cf Monaco ’06), so applying pressure in the most effective place is practically above-board for them.
    What’s quite worrying is that the FIA listen to someone demonstrably in the pay of one the teams concerned – does “conflict of interests” mean nothing?

    @Craig: re:Saving money from not testing technology that Ferrari have found not to work. Firstly, If the document was indeed the blueprint for Ferrari’s F2007, then it won’t have details of failed technology. Secondly, at EVERY GP (not to mention track test) there is an opportunity to have a look around your rivals’ machines. McLaren engineers are not so stupid that they analyse the changes and not work out how it might affect the car and how to go about adapting it to suit their own design.

    “McLaren are quick this year, but are not too sure why…” Lol. Of course they’re not telling everyone which particular part of their car contributes most to the speed. Most probably it’s the drivers… Raikonnen and Montoya were hardly showcasing their ability last season. Look how well Pedro did when given the chance – he was hungry for results. The highest finishing mid-season replacement with 19 points, he was 11th, higher up than drivers who’d had the whole season to make their mark.

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