NOVEMBER 8, 2007
The really important issue
They say that there are three Chinese curses of increasing severity: the first "is may you live in interesting times". The second is "may you come to the attention of those in authority" and the third, and worst, is "may you find what you are looking for". Observers of the Formula 1 world will see any number of applications for these in the ongoing scandals relating to industrial espionage. These are certainly interesting times - although perhaps the real fans of F1 have switched off now and want only to see great races and hear the howl of the engines. They do not want to turn the F1 coat inside out and look at all the stitching on the inside.
F1 is meant to be about impressive machines and heroic drivers not about spies, sabotage and vendettas. Some would argue that espionage has been a part of the sport since the very beginning and will always be a part of the story but there are some undefined rules to which the sport has adhered (to a lesser or greater extent) for the last 30-odd years. If a designer turns up in a team with his pockets stuffed with discs and drawings this is not acceptable but if an engineer with a photographic memory arrives with data in his head he is allowed to do as he pleases. It is accepted that teams photograph one another's cars on a regular basis. No doubt there are other more advanced ways of measuring things, such as analysis of the acoustic emissions of the Formula 1 engines to establish not only the revs that are being used but also the gear changes and thus using advanced calculation the maximum speeds that can be achieved. In the world of the laser beam it must also be possible to make exact measurements of the cars of rival teams.
The FIA this summer made a ruling that created an extraordinary precedent. McLaren was deprived of all of its points in the Constructors' Championship and fined $100m on suspicion that it used information that was illegally acquired from Ferrari. McLaren makes no bones about the fact that a rogue employee did have Ferrari information in his home and accepted that it was thus responsible for a breach of the rules. But the punishment was incredibly harsh, particularly given the fact that there was no hard evidence that any of the data was ever used. What then would be the punishment for a team that was caught with hard evidence against it? The decision opened the door for future problems.
The FIA is still looking for evidence that McLaren has been up to no good. Last week a group of independent legal and technical experts spent two days at McLaren™s Technology Centre in Woking, looking at the details of the 2008 car. Some would like to dress it up as "a raid" to make it sound more dramatic and gives the impression that McLaren has done something wrong. Others would see it as continued harrassment of the McLaren team. Whatever the case, McLaren says it was simply part of the judgement which the FIA World Council came up with in September and that it is cooperating fully with the investigation. The only bone of contention seems to be that the investigation team was not willing to sign confidentiality agreements which McLaren would have liked. In theory at least this leaves the team exposed although there would obviously be legal moves possible if any leakage could ever be proven.
Now comes word that charges have been laid against Renault and these are much more specific than those laid against McLaren, listing "the layout and critical dimensions of the McLaren F1 car, together with details of the McLaren fuelling system, gear assembly, oil cooling system, hydraulic control system and a novel suspension component used by the 2006 and 2007 McLaren F1 cars".
This ties up almost exactly with rumours we have been hearing since September.
McLaren is known to have asked the Kroll company to investigate on its behalf and it is understood that Kroll was given access to Renault computers. Nothing has been made public but there have been many rumours circulating. It is impossible to verify or dismiss these claims and we will have to wait until December to see what happens. One presumes that, given the precedent set in the case of McLaren, the proceedings of the World Council will be recorded and the transcripts published so that everyone knows exactly what transpired.
Having adopted a zero tolerance attitude towards McLaren the FIA will have to deal with any other offenders in the same way or it will face accusations that it is not being fair. Such claims would undermine the authority and credibility of the governing body and that is not something that anyone wants to see.
Some say that another scandal will damage the credibility of F1 and will have a similar effect as drug scandals have had on cycling and on athletics. Others argue that if it is necessary for these things to come to light in order to ensure that all such activities stop in the future, then it is for the best to create a stronger and cleaner sport. They also argue that the troubles in athletics and cycling are hardly new because these things have been going on since money first started to arrive in sport in the 1960s.
As far as we are concerned the ONLY thing that matters is that the sport emerges from it all with the perception that the rules apply equally to all involved - without fear nor favour. What turns off the fans is not the sordid details of human weakness that is often seen in espionage cases but rather the belief that things are not being done in a fair way.