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JULY 26, 2007

A decision based on facts and realities

When Ron Dennis emerged from the six hour hearing of the FIA World Motor Sport Council, he said: "The punishment fits the crime".

That said it all.

By the letter of the FIA law, McLaren may have been guilty, but the team had been the victim of a rogue employee and in such a circumstance taking action against the team would have needed a great deal of proof of collusion, which clearly did not exist.

Indeed, there is an argument - which McLaren may have used in the court - that Ferrari might also have been judged guilty if it had been called before the World Council because the alleged activities of its former employee Nigel Stepney, as these actions might also have been judged to have brought the sport into disrepute.

That argument may not have much validity but it was a legal point nonetheless.

However, apart from the naive or those with a grudge, there are very few people in F1 circles who ever believed that McLaren would have used any Ferrari data to its advantage. The team has an unblemished reputation. The World Council studied all the available information, including court papers such as Mike Coughlan's affidavit, and thus was in a position to judge fairly and impartially on whether McLaren had done anything wrong.

Ferrari director Marco Piccinini, who also sits on the World Council, stood down in this particular case, to avoid a clash of interest.

Ferrari has nonetheless responded to the World Council decision with anger, saying that McLaren was "found guilty by the FIA World Council" and that it is "incomprehensible that violating the fundamental principle of sporting honesty does not have, as a logical and inevitable consequence, the application of a sanction". Ferrari goes on to say that the World Council's decision "legitimises dishonest behaviour in Formula 1 and sets a very serious precedent" and is "highly prejudicial to the credibility of the sport".

Ferrari says it will continue with the legal actions in Italy and England.

These remarks will not go down well with the FIA, although they will do no harm at all as it is not in the interest of the federation to always be in agreement with the Italian team.

There is another question which has yet to be answered: how was it that so much negative publicity about McLaren appeared, primarily in the Italian press, claiming to be based on Coughlan's affidavit. And did this coverage not bring the sport into disrepute far more than what had actually been happening at McLaren?

The key question in this issue was who was feeding out information in Italy to create this "trial by media".

There are a limited number of possible suspects and you do not need to be good at Cluedo to work out that apart from Coughlan himself and court officials in London (most of whom are probably not regular readers of the Italian dailies), the only people with access to the Coughlan affidavits were McLaren, the FIA and Ferrari. McLaren had nothing to gain from revealing details of the documents and the FIA had more to lose than to gain and that meant that the prime suspect when it came to the leaks was Ferrari. The Italian team says that it did not leak anything to anyone and suggests that the Italian press invented it all.

McLaren clearly believes that the stories were deliberately created to damage its reputation.

It is not impossible that this might end up with legal action over damage to the reputations of those involved, although this would probably not be a very wise course of action for either party. It does nonetheless highlight the level of bad feeling that now exists between the two teams.