F1 heads for serious trouble

Formula 1 folk would be forgiven for having a sense of foreboding about an announcement this afternoon from the FIA, cancelling the upcoming International Court of Appeal and instead recalling the FIA World Council to re-examine the question of whether McLaren breached Article 151c of the International Sporting Code which states that those involved in the sport should avoid "any fraudulent conduct or any act prejudicial to the interests of any competition or to the interests of motor sport" between March and July by having unauthorised possession of documents and confidential information belonging to Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro.

The Council concluded at the end of July that there was "insufficient evidence that this information was used in such a way as to interfere improperly with the FIA Formula 1 World Championship." The FIA did, however, add that if further evidence emerged the decision might be reconsidered.

Until the end of last week there was no sign of any new evidence, but it seems that the FIA may have received a tip-off from somewhere alleging that other evidence existed and where it could be found. We hear that the F1 teams have all received a fax in recent days from the FIA pointing out that it is their duty to report any information they may have with regard to information relating to the case, told to them by any of the drivers. This seems oddly specific and suggests that drivers are now involved in this affair. Whatever it was that emerged from the FIA questions was obviously sufficiently convincing for the federation to cancel its own appeal and bring the matter back before the WMSC.

The question that no-one will answer is who is involved and what they know. One can speculate that there are teams out there who might have information which came from McLaren drivers and that they are entirely capable of using such information if it serves their purpose. It is no secret, for example, that at least one team would like to have Fernando Alonso in 2008 but he is under contract to McLaren. If McLaren is punished it is almost inevitable that there is a clause in his contract which would free him next year. The hows and the whys are not, however, the problem. They are merely tawdry details in an utterly unsavoury affair.

The question that the World Council must answer is what to do about whatever it is that has come to light and what punishment would be used if there was evidence to justify penalising McLaren. The punishment for such an offence is not cast in stone. The organisers of the Turkish GP were charged with a breach of the same article and received a $5m fine and were reckoned to have got off lightly but that is not a case with any direct relevance. There was a similar espionage case a few years ago two former Ferrari employees were found guilty of industrial espionage in an Italian court and were given suspended jail sentences. The FIA says it is not involved because no-one made a complaint in that case and that the McLaren case is different because there was a very specific and formal complaint from Ferrari.

The FIA knows that it must be incredibly careful in its dealings with the case because Mclaren has long felt victimised and if there is any hint of anything untoward the team might consider launching a civil case against the FIA for damaging the team's reputation.

In the overall scheme of things there can be no good solution to this problem. If McLaren is found to need punishment it will destroy the illusions of many that the team was the last bastion of the sporting ideal. It is still hard to imagine Ron Dennis being involved in such things, but one must consider that team members can act independently of the team management but that is no defence as the FIA rules state that the team must be responsible for its people. It is hard to imagine how the punishment could not damage the World Championship, even if the drivers were left untouched. The big story this year is a positive one: Lewis Hamilton bringing in a new era for the sport. This would ruin that story and taint any result.

There are subsidiary issues such as the question of whether Ferrari should be found guilty of breaching Article 151c because of the actions of Nigel Stepney, as he is alleged to have brought the sport into disrepute and was a Ferrari employee when he did it.

There are also questions that may arise about whether Mike Coughlan told the whole truth in his affadivit. If he did not and that comes to light in the new revelations then he faces going to jail.

McLaren's response to the announcement from the FIA was very muted.

"McLaren will continue to co-operate fully with the FIA," the team said in a statement.