DECEMBER 14, 2007

Fat lady sings in McLaren Affair?

They say that the show is not over until the fat lady sings. Or perhaps screeches would be a better description. Certainly in the F1 spying affair the final screech from McLaren sounds like one of pain. The newspapers will all scream their headlines that McLaren has admitted to this and to that. The FIA has won the day. The men in silver-grey are the bad guys.

The real question that remains is whether admitting to having done things while under torture makes a confession true. In the history of the world there are many cases which show that confessing is the pragmatic way to stop the pain and allow those inflicting it to disappear off to polish their uniforms and congratulate themselves on a job well done. McLaren's final pained squawk is a most unusual confession because it is clearly one that was phrased by lawyers.

McLaren has admitted that "it has become clear that Ferrari information was more widely disseminated within McLaren than was previously communicated" and has apologised to the FIA, Ferrari, the F1 community, the F1 fans (and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all). This is a significant change of tack. Until a few days ago the team had spent an incredible amount of energy, money and time defending its position and its reputation. Now, sudddenly, it has caved in and humbled itself. The perception will be that McLaren is at fault but in F1 perception is not always reality. Time will tell what has really been going on this year. The truth invariably comes out in the end and history is rewritten with reputations being altered accordingly. For some, historical reputation is not important. They get their kicks from life and do not care what the world will say when they are gone. That is one way to look at it.

For others, reputation is everything.

So why the sudden capitulation?

McLaren is a team that exists to go racing and to win. In our experience it is an team that has certain principles and sticks to them. And that makes the statement very hard to understand. Are we F1 observers all fools who cannot recognise honesty and integrity? Were we duped by Ron Dennis and men? Are the conclusions we have reached over many years of dealings with these people the wrong conclusions?

It is possible that this is the reality - but it does not feel like it. It feels as though McLaren has decided that it is a necessary evil to do certain things to survive. This is not the act of a racing team which prides itself on its integrity. It just a way to stop the pain. A sensible form of risk management that involves a little more agony, some swallowed pride and the opportunity to go back to the business of what is important. It is very clear that McLaren would not have put out such a statement unless it was absolutely forced to do so. There is an element of pride in the organisation that would never have allowed this to happen unless it was absolutely necessary.

The only kind of sanction that would have forced such a statement is the threat of the team not being allowed to compete in 2008. If the FIA had thrown McLaren out of the World Championship in 2008, what would have been the next step? There might have been legal actions but these would have taken time and there is no way that this would have been sorted out by the start of the new season. Racing is what is important. Perhaps legal arguments might have been won in the end, but where would that have left the team? Sitting in the garage feeling good about itself?

So what was it exactly that the latest FIA investigations discovered?

The FIA has published the report, a 21-page document that reads as though written by lawyers rather than engineers.

The report recognised that there is "an important distinction between obtaining information on a competitor's car from improper sources and obtaining such information from accepted or legitimate sources". The conclusion was that there were three ways in which McLaren had benefited from Ferrari information: the team had discovered that something was possible; could thus find a way to achieve the same thing by a different route and produce different drawings to achieve the same concept. Much of the detail in this report is confidential and so is not published which means it is almost impossible to understand what is going on. One McLaren e-mail for example reads: "the Ferrari [redacted - confidential] is a [redacted - confidential]([redacted - confidential] on the redacted - confidential]). It has [redacted - confidential]. There are pages of assessments that information from Coughlan leaked into the McLaren empire. This does not indicate that it was done knowingly, apart from a few references to "a mole" at Ferrari. This can be construed as one wishes to construe it. Many teams have access to people in other teams who are willing to give away information. If the investigators went into the computers of any F1 team and went through the e-mails in the way they did with McLaren they would find similar things because the flow of information is part of the sport and always has been.

The McLaren sums up the evidence by saying that "whilst with great respect to the authors of the report, we do not agree with all of the conclusions that have been drawn" McLaren accepts that "the central conclusion that some pieces of Ferrari information may have been disclosed via Nigel Stepney and Mike Coughlan, directly or indirectly to individuals within McLaren other than Pedro de la Rosa and Fernando Alonso."

The word "may" is not an acceptance of guilt but rather an acceptance that such a thing might have been possible.

The team also accepts that its own investigations were insufficient, but argues that these were "conducted during a highly intense racing season and under significant time pressure. As a result, our investigations focused most strongly on satisfying ourselves that no Ferrari confidential information had been used directly or indirectly on the 2007 and 2008 cars".

The team says that "the FIA investigation was extremely exhaustive, comprehensive and we trust that it is apparent, as is acknowledged in the report, that McLaren co-operated fully and speedily with all requests made by the investigating team. We also believe that the investigators found no evidence of concealment or data cleansing as they reviewed the comprehensive materials supplied. To put this investigation into context, the investigating team interviewed 20 key engineers, accessed 22 personal computers belonging to key members of the organisation and retrieved by computer search 1.4 Tera Bytes of data stored on the central computer systems of McLaren Racing (this latter data is equivalent to approximately 75 million sheets of A4 typed information)."

The team goes on to say that "pieces of Ferrari information may have penetrated our organisation beyond our previous belief" and that the inspection "provides some support for the conclusion" that a number of McLaren employees were in unauthorised possession of Ferrari technical information. Once again this is very carefully worded. It is not admitting the charge but rather accepting that things could be interpreted in this way if someone wanted to thus interpret them. Later McLaren says that it has reflected on these matters "carefully and critically and in particular on the comments made by the FIA President, Max Mosley, to the effect that had we contacted Jean Todt as soon as we were aware of the 'whistleblowing' information coming from Stepney these matters could all have been avoided".

But McLaren does not accept that what it did was wrong.

Reading between the lines McLaren is admitting very little.

It is certainly very convenient that McLaren has caved in. It means that the FIA will be seen to have been right all along the way and thus there is no sensible possibility of any legal actions against the decisions that have been made; it would seem to justify the penalty imposed and it means that the industrial espionage scandals can disappear and F1 will no longer be viewed with wide-eyed amazement by casual observers who just cannot understand why one team was right and another wrong.

Thus the story ends.

Or does it? Ferrari says it will continue its legal actions in Italy. We will see (one day) what this results in.

Will the statements clear the air and give the sport a better image? Will all the grudges now disappear? Or is everything being shoved into the cupboard to lurk there for a while longer until the door falls open again when a new issue comes along?

Time will tell.

However, now it is time to move on and to concentrate on the racing; to remember what it is that the F1 fans and the sponsors want.