Revisiting Spygate: the most controversial scandal in F1 history

The 2007 F1 Season May Have Had A Three-Way Title Fight To Finish, But It Was All About The Behind The Scenes Show At McLaren & Ferrari

1y ago

A​s we won't have an F1 race for another 72 days (at the very least), I've started another series entitled 'Revisiting', where we look at some of the most controversial and exciting times in Formula One's history, and other motorsport disciplines such as WEC, WRC and Indycar.

I​n the first of the series we're revising Spygate, arguably the most controversial scandal in Formula One history, along with the 2007 F1 Season, arguably one of the best of the 21st century.

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After an intoxicating 2006 season which went down to the wire, the 2007 Formula One season was already being set up as a classic. Michael Schumacher had retired, with McLaren ace Kimi Raikkonen replacing him, fed up of the reliability problems at McLaren which cost him arguably two world championships in 2003 and 2005. After winning two double championships with Renault, Fernando Alonso signed a multi-year contract with McLaren, aiming to cement himself as an F1 legend with more championship wins, whilst Lewis Hamilton had been given the shot of a lifetime by Ron Dennis, the rookie racing alongside Alonso at McLaren.

From pre-season testing, most pundits had already narrowed the fight down to Ferrari v McLaren. Raikkonen and Massa of Ferrari, Alonso and Hamilton of McLaren, although some went as far to saying that it would be a re-run of the 2005 season where Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen duelled for the title, except with the duo now at a host of different teams.

Heading into the season, McLaren hadn't won a championship since 1999 with Mika Hakkinen, and despite having the raw pace, the reliability of the Mercedes engine had cost them the 2003 and 2005 titles. They needed a win.

Ferrari on the other hand, were in a weirdly similar situation. After dominating the sport for five years between 2000 and 2004, they were completely out of the ballpark in 2005, and despite Schumacher's best efforts in his final season, they couldn't dismantle the defending champions of Renault and Fernando Alonso.

The first four races of the season in Australia, Malaysia, Bahrain and Spain set things up nicely: Raikkonen, Massa and Alonso all took wins, yet it was the rookie sensation Hamilton who led the championship. After two Massa-Hamilton 1-2's the championship looked like this:

1. Hamilton - 30

2. Alonso - 28

3. Massa - 27

4. Raikkonen - 22

A dominant McLaren 1-2 led by Alonso at Monaco, followed by Hamilton's first GP win at Montreal, followed by another McLaren 1-2 put the British outfit in prime position for the double world championship as we approached the halfway mark in the season. Hamilton led Alonso by ten points now, with Massa nineteen behind the British rookie, with pre-season favourite Raikkonen a full 26 points behind Hamilton.

However on the weekend of the Indianapolis Grand Prix, it began. Ferrari filed a formal complaint against Stepney, leading to the commencement of a criminal investigation by the Modena district attorney in Italy. Ferrari would not elaborate on the nature of the complaint, and it was thought that this would be brushed over with relative ease, away from the public eye.

(​From Left to Right) Ross Brawn, Nigel Stepney

(​From Left to Right) Ross Brawn, Nigel Stepney

I think it should be prefaced the Nigel Stepney, who was the chief mechanic at Ferrari, was part of the so-called "dream team" credited with the change of fortunes of Ferrari in the late 1990s, with Stepney announcing that in February he was unhappy with his situation at Ferrari, intending to take a year out from the sport.

But the F1 circus of course rolled on as a classic season began to unravel. Could rookie sensation Lewis Hamilton become the first British World Champion in eleven years since Damon Hill?

With Ferrari's championship hopes on the slid, they utilised the two week break between Indianapolis and Magny-Cours to get a grip on their situation. The response was immediate.

The fast sweeping corners of the Nevers track suited the F2007, with the only uncertainty being which driver would take the win. That would be Raikkonen. Despite this Ferrari 1-2, Lewis still finished on the podium, consolidating his championship lead, now 14 points over his team-mate, but Massa and Raikkonen were on the move.

At Silverstone, hundreds of thousands had hoped that Hamilton would be able to convert his pole position into a home win, however things didn't go his way in the race, with Kimi Raikkonen once again delivering a fine performance to defeat the closing Fernando Alonso for a second consecutive win. Nevertheless, Hamilton still held a 12 point lead over Alonso, and more importantly an 18 and 19 point lead over Raikkonen and Massa.

It was around this time that it was reported by the Italian media that Stepney had been officially dismissed by Ferrari due to information gathered from its internal investigation. At the time, Ferrari spokesman Luca Colajanni told ITV Sport that Ferrari’s action against Stepney related to "irregularities discovered at the Ferrari factory prior to the Monaco Grand Prix." Though this was a small shock to the paddock, it the politics in the paddocks was at a level most people were used to.

Luca Colajanni

Luca Colajanni

However, just hours after this announcement, things began to heat up. On the day Ferrari announced Stepney’s dismissal, the team also announced it had taken action against "an engineer from the Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes team", later named as Mike Coughlan. Coughlan was suspended by McLaren as a result. The press release by Ferrari stated:

"Ferrari announces it has recently presented a case against Nigel Stepney and an engineer from the Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes team with the Modena Tribunal, concerning the theft of technical information"

Ferrari announces it has recently presented a case against Nigel Stepney and an engineer from the Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes team (Coughlan) with the Modena Tribunal, concerning the theft of technical information. Furthermore, legal action has been instigated in England and a search warrant has been issued concerning the engineer. This produced a positive outcome"

The search warrant is understood to have been related to Coughlan's home and the "positive outcome" is reported to be documents claimed to have originated at Ferrari's Maranello factory.

In response to this announcement on Ferrari's part, McLaren and Ron Dennis launched an internal investigation and concluded "no Ferrari intellectual property has been passed to any other members of the team or incorporated into our cars." McLaren were surprisingly open with the investigation, stating "In order to address some of the speculation McLaren has invited the FIA to conduct a full review of its cars to satisfy itself that the team has not benefited from any intellectual property of another competitor." McLaren complied with the FIA, handing over documents for the FIA's eyes only, showcasing McLaren's development of their MP4-22 since April, to prove that no components of the car had come from designs back at Maranello.

Nevertheless, the FIA were thorough. Days after the British GP, they officially launched an investigation, summoning McLaren to a hearing to answer to the possibility of them breaching Article 151C of the International Sporting Code. The hearing took place two weeks later on July 26th, and after it, the FIA had found that McLaren had been in possession of confidential Ferrari documents that were handed to Coughlan from Stepney, which in turn meant that they had breached the International Sporting Code, however there was no evidence that McLaren had used these documents to enhance the design of their car.

Ferrari were furious, labelling the decision as "incomprehensible". McLaren, of course, were content with the ruling, but Ferrari launched an appeal, with a hearing set for the thirteenth of September at the FIA International Court Of Appeal.

In the midst of this, there was still a spellbinding season at play. Just before the hearing, the infamous European Grand Prix took place, arguably the greatest wet weather race of the decade, with Marcus Winkelhock making a name for him and Spyker by leading the opening seven laps of the treacherously wet race. Raikkonen and Hamilton both retired, leaving Alonso and Massa to duel for the win, minutes ahead of third placed Mark Webber. It looked like Massa was set to win a third race in a row for Ferrari, leading for the best part of fourty laps, but with five laps to go, a thunderous bellowing of rain enabled the wet-weather master Alonso to close up and take the lead. Massa was critical of Alonso's forceful wheel-banging pass, with a heated discussion afterwards taking place. Alonso couldn't care less. He'd won the race. Now, he was just two points shy of his team-mate and championship leader Lewis Hamilton, and once again, Ferrari had work to do, Massa now eleven points behind Hamilton, Raikkonen eighteen.

Despite the appeal date being set for mid-September, a lot still occurred in the month of August. On August 1st, Ron Dennis pinned an open letter, to the president of the Italian motorsport authority Luigi Macaluso. He accused him of giving a false and dishonest version of events, and more shockingly stated that the F2007 driven by Kimi Raikkonen to victory at the season-opener in Melbourne was illegal. The problem for McLaren was that even if the car was illegal, they learned the information from, guess who, Nigel Stepney, with the British outfit calling it an action of "whistle-blowing", whilst Ferrari called it "espionage".

And if it wasn't already controversial that week, the Hungarian Grand Prix came along. With the championship battle slowly but surely looking like it would be a duel between double defending champion Fernando Alonso and rookie sensation Lewis Hamilton, the relationship was beginning to crack.

It seemed that heading into Saturday Qualifying that McLaren had the advantage around the tight and twisty Hungaroring. Heading into Q3, Hamilton failed to comply with the prearrangement to concede to Alonso during the fuel-burn laps. In retaliation, Alonso held the stacked Hamilton in the pits, meaning he could not complete his final hot qualifying lap. The stewards docked McLaren their constructor points and Alonso was handed a five-place grid penalty, putting Hamilton on pole, followed by a excellent Nick Heidfeld and Kimi Raikkonen. As for the race, Hamilton had a lights to flag victory , but could not complete the grand slam as Raikkonen took the fastest lap, finishing close behind Hamilton. It was then, the BBC has reported that Alonso told McLaren he would reveal information about the team spying on Ferrari if they didn't make his teammate's car intentionally run out of fuel during the race.

McLaren refused with team boss Ron Dennis going to FIA president Max Mosley himself to disclose what would become the 'spygate' scandal.

According to the source at the time, he stated that none of this would have unravelled if Lewis had simply complied. According to Max Mosley, Ron Dennis informed him of the conversation and told Mosley that the threat was an empty one, "There's no information, there's nothing to come out; I can assure you that if there was something, Max, I would have told you.”

"The problems had started before, this was just the final volcanic eruption, But Lewis started it. Let's not forget that. If he had let Fernando past, there would not have been an explosion.

Anonymous mclaren source, 2007

This, however, only put fuel to the already burning fire. Three weeks later, it was the Turkish GP, with Felipe Massa winning his second consecutive race at the Istanbul Park. Raikkonen, who completed the Ferrari 1-2, later stated "It's boring sitting behind another car, you can't pass in F1 these days". Nevertheless, this once again gave Ferrari a glimmer of hope, although a podium finish from Alonso once again closed the gap, this time to just five points.

On 5 September 2007, the FIA announced that it had received new evidence regarding the case, and would re-open the investigation on September 13. This replaced the planned appeal hearing. It later transpired that the new evidence was the driver's emails that were sent to Bernie Ecclestone, F1's commercial rights holder who then informed the FIA. The FIA requested the three McLaren drivers (Alonso, Hamilton, and de la Rosa) to provide relevant evidence and help FIA in further investigation. In return FIA offered assurance that any information made available would not result in any proceeding against the driver personally under the International Sporting Code or the Formula One Regulations. However, the drivers were notified that if it later came to light that they had withheld any potentially relevant information, serious consequences could follow.

Just four days after this announcement, it was the Italian Grand Prix, the toxic paddock atmosphere surrounding the McLaren motorhome was hardly eased by the team's first ever 1-2 finish in Ferrari's backyard. The McLaren's were dominant, but this time it was Alonso who was easily leading the way, closing the gap now just to three points, with Raikkonen only being able to manage P3 for Ferrari, hardly anything to cheer about for the Tifosi. With a suspension problem early on, Massa now looked to be out of the championship race with four rounds to go, Raikkonen holding on for Ferrari, but still eighteen points behind Lewis Hamilton.

Two days before the verdict was set to be announced, McLaren approached the FIA, stating they had information about Renault doing similar things to them. Their argument was simple - if they were guilty, so were the rest of the grid.

But this made little difference to the verdict. On September 13th, 2007, a date that shall forever be remembered in Formula One history, the FIA found the McLaren-Mercedes team guilty of illicitly collecting and holding information from Ferrari to confer a dishonest and fraudulent sporting advantage upon McLaren. The penalty was huge: For starters, McLaren were excluded from the constructors championship, receiving no prize money at the end of the season, despite them looking set for that title at the very least (In fact, if they weren't DSQ-ued, they would have won by 14 points). Then, the gut punch. A $100,000,000 fine, the biggest in the sports history to this day, with the team obliged to submit their 2008 chassis to the FIA before the start of the next season. Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton (and Pedro De La Rosa) escaped any penalty as they had complied as the FIA asked wanted them to, meaning they could fight on in the drivers championship, with one of the two extremely likely to take that crown home to McLaren.

The ramifications of the spy scandal verdict echoed around The Eiffel Mountains at Spa. Adding to the pain at McLaren, Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa took a dominant 1-2, Raikkonen taking his third win at Spa in the space of four seasons. After an excruciating weekend for McLaren, Raikkonen was now thirteen points behind Hamilton and eleven behind Alonso, slowly making the final three rounds a nail-biting three-way fight for the title, although Raikkonen was a real wildcard.

Two weeks later however, it looked like Hamilton had sealed the title. A fantastic wet weather drive from pole at Fuji meant that thanks to Alonso's crash, he lead the championship by twelve points to his team-mate. Raikkonen, who was at one point dead last in 22nd place, miraculously pulled of a recovery drive on par to his at Suzuka in 2005 to finish P3, meaning that, technically, he could win the championship, seventeen points behind Hamilton with twenty remaining.

Shanghai. The penultimate race of the year. Hamilton took pole from Raikkonen, and on Lap 28, at the half-way distance of the race, Hamilton's journey to immortality in the history books was very much alive - he was going to become the first rookie world champion since Giuseppe 'Nino' Farina in 1950. But, on Lap 30, it was over. His first DNF of the season. On badly worn intermediates, he eventually pitted for slicks, but in the still wet pit lane, he went straight into the gravel trap. Thanks to his retirement, Raikkonen won his fourth race of the season, with Alonso and Massa completing the podium. With one to go, Lewis still led Alonso by four points, who was somehow still in the title fight, with Raikkonen now seven behind. It was the Briton's to lose.

Heading to Interlagos, Hamilton didn't have to win the race, just keep his rivals close. P2 beside poleman Massa was a good start, Raikkonen and Alonso third and fourth. In the opening chicane, he was barged down the pecking order to fourth by Raikkonen, on a mission to do the impossible, with Alonso following through. Still, not too bad, however an of at turn four in a rash attempt to repass Alonso was bad, now in eighth place, but on Lap 7, agony. Running in P6, working his way back to the Ferrari's and Alonso, a gearbox electronics glitch left him stranded for thirty seconds, until mysteriously, it cured itself. Now P18, he did the best he could, recovering to P7, but still two points away from Nirvana. The dream was over: Hamilton was not going to be World Champion.

So it would be the old foes Raikkonen and Alonso to decide this championship. The Ferrari's were too quick for Alonso's McLaren, a late-season upgrade putting the Ferrari's ahead in pace. At this point in time, P3 was enough for Alonso, he was going to win his third consecutive world championship, a feat only Fangio and Schumacher had achieved. But then, the inevitable switch came along at the front. Denying Felipe Massa a home victory, Raikkonen took the lead of the race with 21 laps to go, with the Brazilian bestowing World Champion status upon Kimi Raikkonen... by one, single, point.


It's hard not to think that the 2007 Formula One World Championship isn't fiction, something that was manufactured in the studios at Hollywood, but to this day it is one of the best championships stories in the sports history.

Spygate will forever be remembered for exposing the secrecy and scandals in Formula One, with the sport not having experienced something like this since. Maybe that's a good thing, maybe it's not, maybe fans want these controversial stories that they can write about on the interweb a decade on later, but nevertheless, this titanic battle between Ferrari and McLaren will forever be immortalised, up there with the battles between Senna at McLaren, Prost at Ferrari; Lauda at Ferrari, Hunt at McLaren.


S​o what do you think about Spygate? Did they make the right call? And what would you like to be revisited next in the series? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Comments (35)

  • What a great season overall. Raikkonen winning the championship by one point, this, and don't forget about the Renault affairs.

      1 year ago
  • Pity I wasn’t following F1 then, but man what a story. Thank you for the great article! Very well written.

      1 year ago
  • What worries me is that 40% of people in the pole thought that the penalties on McLaren were too harsh.

      1 year ago
  • And Suzuka 2005.

      1 year ago
  • Spain 2016.

      1 year ago