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Friday, September 28, 2007
My name is Stepney. Nigel Stepney.

The last months in the World of Formula 1 could have been taken out of a Bond flick. The "Circus" has been hit by what is arguably the greatest scandal in the world of motorsports, caused by the antics of two long-time servants of the sport, which in a way relate to Geoffrey's recent post on Sign-stealing, Trade Secrets, and Corporate Espionage. To cut a long story short (for a complete review of facts and opinions see here) Nigel Stepney, Ferrari's Director of Performance up until the start of what is now dubbed the "StepneyGate", was apparently aggravated at being snubbed for a promotion within the legendary racing team. He then thought the best course of action would be to firstly tell McLaren about potential irregularities in Ferrari's cars and subsequently make Ferrari's intellectual property (namely designs) available to McLaren, an outfit who had struggled to put out a competitive car the previous season. Mike Coughlan, designer at the Woking-based team and allegedly an old friend of Stepney was the recipient of the information and was handed extensive documentation containing some of Ferrari's most prized trade secrets.
At the beginning of the season, in the Australian GP, McLaren were astonishingly effective (much more than the FIA in fact) in detecting certain irregularities in Ferrari's cars, namely the controversial floor attachment mechanism. We now know that Stepney's "whistleblowing" was decisive in this. The whole scandal began with an apparent blunder by Coughlan, who had the documents copied at a store. The store's employee - all the more commendable because he was actually paying attention to what he was doing - eventually informed Ferrari and so the StepneyGate came to light.
In reaction, McLaren maintained this was a rogue action by Coughlan of which they had no knowledge of, in an attempt to stay clear of sporting sanctions and criminal action. But they forgot Fernando Alonso, reigning World-Champion and a man deeply dissatisfied with the equal treatment given to him and rookie Lewis Hamilton, who tops the points table at the moment. It seems Alonso has a vengeful side to him and all facts indicate that he leaked inside information to the FIA. The latest developments were a series of e-mails and text messages swapped between Alonso, Pedro de la Rosa (test driver) and team-members, in which Ferrari's set-up and weight distribution, for instance, appear to be common knowledge amongst McLaren staff.
In the end and after a first decision which basically amounted to a slap in the wrist, the FIA decided to take away McLaren's points in the Championship, to preclude the team from registering any further points in GP's still to come this season, to allow their racers to compete for the Driver's championship and to impose a $100m fine. The decision has come in for a lot of criticism, most of it probably deserved. The FIA excludes the team but not the drivers. The seemingly akward decision is justified since it has not been proven that McLaren used Ferrari's intellectual property in its cars. On the other hand it is fairly obvious that McLaren used Ferrari information to obtain a competitive advantage, in breach of Article 151 c) of the FIA's International Sporting Code and hence the exclusion and the fine. But one has to wonder: if the cars do not employ any of Ferrari's intellectual property, the only information used in competitive conditions was the one relating to set-ups and other data resulting from experience, which ultimately was beneficial to McLaren's drivers.
Should Alonso and Lewis have been excluded from the Championship? Probably yes, but this would have destroyed the thrill of one of the most competitive championships in the past two decades. As for the fine, touted to be equal to one fifth of McLaren's yearly budget, it's hard to imagine the Mercedes powered team suffering any setbacks due to lack of funding... as for the exclusion from the Constructors Championship, no one outside the paddock pays any attention to that. I'd say McLaren are very, very lucky to have escaped with the punishment eventually handed down by the FIA. Coughlan and Stepney however, shall not be as lucky. The criminal courts in England and Italy (where Ferrari lodged criminal charges against both) will not take into account any sporting considerations. They will probably face Industrial Espionage (so called in the Continental jurisdictions, very similar to the American Economic Espionage) charges and the prospect of time in jail. Which just serves to underline that McLaren seem to have been dealt fairly leniently by the FIA.


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