or should that be Coughlangate?

The sport of F1 has an urge to shoot itself in the foot although one might think that all that was required to protect it from self-harm was a sensible and fair president of the governing body. We’ll never know of course.

One of the most bewildering circumstances where the whole of F1 was brought into disrepute was the so-called Spygate. There’s been much written in magazines and on the internet about the circumstances and if you wish to indulge yourself, feel free to read them. Here is an overview from the point of view of a self-confessed McLaren fan and F1 nerd.

Not in dispute:

Nigel Stepney, a senior engineer at Ferrari F1 and Mike Coughlan, in a similar position at McLaren were involved. Honda F1 said that they had been approached by the pair who were after positions in the team. The sweetener on their CV was technical details of the current Ferrari and, many suggest, the same for the current McLaren. There was an enquiry into the circumstances by the Mosley-led FIA where McLaren was found to have done so little that they were not punished. Nothing was said about Ferrari despite Stepney’s admission that there was flow of information from McLaren to his team, presumably, although not confirmed, via Coughlan.

The situation got complicated after that. Fernando Alonso (FA), the current WDC and a driver for McLaren, was upset that Lewis Hamilton (LA), the upstart beginner, was beating him on track. He wanted to be treated as undisputed #1, meaning that if LH was in front of him, he should move over. Ron Dennis (RD), was having none of it, his thoughts probably being that if FA was worth making #1, he should be able to beat a novice, even one in the same car.

What happened next is in dispute so let’s say what is reported.

During a ‘discussion’ between FA and RD regarding #1 status something was said which made RD call in the CEO of McLaren F1, Martin Whitmarsh (MW) and ask FA to repeat what he had said. FA did so. RD and MW then had a conversation and it was decided that the only option was to report the conversation to Mosley (no initials for him, he hasn’t earned them) then head of the FIA. FA then returned and said he withdrew the statement.

We obviously have no idea what was said.

Mosely then offered both FA and the spare driver, Pedro de la Rosa (PdlR) exemption from prosecution if they would report all they knew about the incident. LH was also given the offer but he told Mosley to stick it, but not in so many words. LH was an exciting driver to watch in those days, but I began to warm to the chap. Loyalty is undervalued, except by those who have benefited from it.

FA and PdlR then said that they were in receipt of set-up information from the Ferrari cars and they tried them out. This has led many to suggest that FA threatened RD to expose the, let’s say, experiments to Mosley. But who knows?

So the two people who actually committed offences were given Get Out of Jail Free cards.

The enquiry into McLaren’s use of the information was exhaustive and there was no concrete evidence found. There was much supposition in the report, with words such as likely used.

McLaren were fined an unprecedented $100m on this singular lack of dependable evidence.

I was asked to write 2000 words on the matter. What follows is more or less as refused by the person commissioning the article. I included references, some of which have disappeared from the internet, so I’ve excluded them.

I was given no reason for the rejection other than a comment a while later to the effect that pit passes were hard to come by and easy to lose.

The Article

[There was a bit on the size of the fine. I quoted some comments by two lawyers commenting on the net. I can’t find the source.]

The fine of $100m is indecent. Allowing FA to keep his points whilst McLaren, which acted in ignorance, lost all theirs would be hilarious if it wasn’t so serious.

McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh, referred to variously as Chief Operating Officer and CEO, signed what was described by the Guardian thus:

“By any standards this was a grovelling apology from McLaren which demonstrates how anxious the British team are to draw a line under an acutely embarrassing episode which began when their disgraced chief designer, Mike Coughlan, was found to be in possession of more than 700 drawings allegedly supplied by the Ferrari engineer Nigel Stepney.”

By any standards this was wrong from the start.

The Guardian is not noted for its accuracy in spelling nor motor racing commentary. The only thing of special note is that the whole sentence has no spelling mistakes. So, one out of two isn’t bad.

Before examining the letter, it should be noted that an apology to the FIA would have been a requirement. In such discipline enquiries – and believe me, I know about them – the only stance a party found guilty of some breach of regulations can take is to accept the finding or appeal. If the party appeals then the norm is a harsher penalty, which in this case was generally touted to be exclusion from the championship for 2008. McLaren decided that it wasn’t worth the risk so their only course of action was an apology in which they must make it clear that they accept the findings of the court. Over and above that, there was a threat that the FIA would demand major modifications to the McLaren at a meeting on 14 February 2008. This would result in the car not being ready for the 2008 season.

However, McLaren (whilst the letter is signed by Whitmarsh, there can be little doubt it was written by lawyers) moved away from this norm. Sections of the letter will be quoted with observations in brackets[]. It is not the full text, which can be seen [the link has expired] here, as I have excluded guff.

The letter is addressed to Mosley and some other people of no particular note.

“In the light of this report and its conclusions we felt that it was appropriate to write directly to you to express our sincere regret in regard to some of the matters that had been brought to light.” [Note that it says, quite clearly and very early on in the letter, that they regret “some of the matters”. This is a big risk. In case the reader should miss such an obvious rejection of some of the points, the letter goes on:]

“. . . we do not agree with all of the conclusions that have been drawn following this most impressively thorough and daunting investigation into the engineering processes of McLaren Racing,” [Two points of note here. They are expressing their rejection of some of the conclusions and then go on to say that the examination of McLaren Racing has been impressively thorough and daunting which can be interpreted – and can only be interpreted – as ‘if you can’t find it after all that, it ain’t there’.]

“. . . we accept 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.” [Who and how many is the crux of the matter.]

“It is a matter of deep regret for us that our understanding of the facts has improved as a result of the FIA inspection rather than our own prior investigations.” [Remember the ‘impressively thorough and daunting’ investigation? McLaren are saying that if they did miss stuff then they have an excuse.]

“We apologise unreservedly if our prior ignorance of some of these facts has misled the World Motor Sport Council and we can only assure you all that this was never our intention.” [Same again. This is a qualified apology. It also says that whatever information was there, McLaren International as a company were unaware of it.]

“. . . 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.” [This is what they said to the original enquiry; that they gained no advantages from the dossier. They also had no reason to suspect that LA and dlR were cheating.]

“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).” [A complex reply but in essence it is saying that Mosley went in heavily, McL cooperated fully, there was no evidence of concealment and so, if it was there it must be apparent and clear.]

“. . . the inspection has not reached any conclusion that McLaren used Ferrari confidential information on the 2007 or 2008 car (subject to issues as to the deployment of – edited out by McLaren but which relates to similarities of brake design – for 2008, in respect of which see below).” [Which is hardly grovelling.]

“We do, however, accept that the inspection provides some support for the conclusion that is set out in paragraph 8.11 of the WMSC’s decision of 13 September 2007. In particular, that “a number of McLaren employees… were in unauthorised possession of … Ferrari technical information” for which we have been most severely punished. However, it does not establish that the information in question was used on the 2007 or 2008 cars.” [Again, the conditional acceptance of the main finding.]

[There followed a long an involved paragraph where the most significant phrase is left to the end. The para is worth reading for those deeply into the subject. There’s nice little digs at Ferrari if you look carefully.]

“. . . it may be appropriate and also incidentally in the interests of Formula One generally, to bring an urgent conclusion to this affair. Toward that end we would like to express our willingness, despite not agreeing with the findings, to enter into discussion with the FIA Technical Department as to a moratorium of an appropriate length in respect of the use of – edited out by McLaren.” [Again McL saying they did not agree with the findings.]

“We have 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.” [So Mosley is critical of McL for not telling Ferrari that one of their employees was corrupt. OK, it is a point of view, but not something that is, surely, worth a massive penalty.]

“McLaren would make every effort to try and improve its relationship with the FIA.” [You can read that whichever way you want.]

“We apologise wholeheartedly once more . .” [Ah! Is this the famed grovelling apology? Mind you, the use of the phrase ‘once more’ is rather unsustainable.]

“. . . that it has taken the intervention of the FIA and a time consuming process to expose all of the facts emanating from this matter . . .” [In essence the apology is for McL not finding information that it took Mosley a whole team of people ages to discover something – the brakes – that was not directly attributable to the documentation from Stepney.]

“. . . but we hope that when the Council members have had time to consider the circumstances surrounding this case and the pressures that have been placed upon McLaren during our investigations, that our lapses in this respect are at least partially excusable.”


So, in conclusion, there is only partial acceptance of the findings in this matter. There is no real apology for any specific action on behalf of McLaren. This is remarkable as an unconditional apology is a requirement in such matters, although a grovelling one is not. However, the letter is in reality a list of conditional rejections.

This seemed to me at the time to be a very risky ploy. Whilst McLaren were in a strong position of being the foremost team in the pitlane, apart from the favoured Ferrari, their refusal to accept MRM’s finding was a challenge to his authority. Perhaps the Guardian’s – let’s be generous – ‘misreading’ of the tone of the letter went in McLaren’s favour, although I can’t see the paper being on MRM’s breakfast table. Everything in such matters is appearance.

It was admitted by Mosley at a later date that he (he being himself and the FIA) had since concluded that neither Ron Dennis nor McLaren Corporate had any knowledge, nor were aware of any use of, confidential information from Ferrari apart from the information on Ferrari’s use of an illegal floor.

Whether you think Ron Dennis is the devil incarnate or that Todt is just a little bloke with a lived-in face and a girly name, you’ve got to say that the whole matter was a shambles. The two main conspirators in the matter were hardly dealt with at all . . . and the two McLaren drivers who cheated repeatedly were not punished in any way, shape or form.



I asked a lawyer friend to look over the article to see if there was anything I should be concerned about. The references were all good (then) although she red-lined four sentences, plus one short paragraph, which I binned. She commented on the Whitmarsh reply, asking for the full text. She said that it was ‘immaculate’ in the way it rejected the findings, but in a way that Mosely would find hard to justify further punishment. It was, she said, a ‘classic’.

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