Spygate: The Greatest Controversy In F1 History
How the greatest rookie season in history and one of the closest title fights ever seen was overshadowed by allegations of cheating and espionage.
2007 was looking like it would be simply the one of the best seasons in F1's history; the World Champion had ditched the team with which he won his two titles, Renault, for McLaren, the then-statistical greatest of all time had retired at the end of the year before and a 21 year-old British hotshot had been thrown into the deep end with his teammate being the defending champion. What could possibly spoil this season?
This is the story of Spygate: The Greatest Controversy In F1 History.
Act One: The Dream Team
Ferrari's "Dream Team", consisting of Michael Schumacher, Jean Todt, Rory Byrne, Ross Brawn, and the architect of this controversy - Nigel Stepney, collectively saw Ferrari dominate after the turn of the millennium. But it would be Stepney who publicly made comments that he was unhappy at Ferrari.
Ferrari would then drop Stepney from their race-going team, where he would remain at Ferrari's factory as Head of Team Performance Development. Ferrari insisted that Stepney himself made the decision to move to a different role but this has been questioned. A sad death to the five-man tag team that had brought glory back to Maranello.
Act Two: The Saboteur
In the week of the 2007 United States Grand Prix, Ferrari filed a complaint against Stepney, accusing him , in no uncertain terms, of sabotage. As well as the internal disciplinary procedure he would be faced with, the court of Modena in Italy brought forward a criminal investigation. This revolves around an allegation that Stepney had tampered with a fuel rig back prior to the Monaco Grand Prix.
Stories of a mysterious "white powder" in and around the fuel rig were rubbished by Mike Gascoyne, Spyker's Technical Chief, saying that the FIA "take regular samples" and it would be "extremely difficult to do so" concluding that he believes that this sort of sabotage seems "too incredible".
In July, Stepney was formally dismissed from the Ferrari team as a result of "irregularities discovered at the Ferrari factory". But it didn't end there.
Act Three: The Fire Intensifies
McLaren and Honda interestingly became implicated in this unfolding situation, after Ferrari stepped up their claims against Stepney, accusing the disgraced mechanic of not only tampering with the fuel rig but also handing more than 700 pages of highly confidential technical information to McLaren's chief designer Mike Coughlan. Stepney unequivocally denied and dismissed such allegations, and Coughlan refused to comment entirely.
Where does Honda come into this? Well, both Stepney and Coughlan were dissatisfied with their jobs, and travelled to Honda's factory in search of executive roles. Honda immediately defended themselves, claiming that no technical information belonging to Ferrari was offered no received and insisted that was the end of that, for them at least.
Ron Dennis, the McLaren team boss, lashed out against strengthening claims that parts of the Ferrari documents made it onto their 2007 car, simply stating that "there is no intellectual property of any other grand prix team on our cars, and there never will be".
The FIA President Max Mosely refused to believe that these allegations could be true, but promised hard and harsh penalties if McLaren in fact had possession of these documents.
Act Four: The Hungarian Hardships
McLaren clarified their position on the matter, confessing that one person in McLaren had access to the documents: Mike Coughlan. The team's defence was that McLaren could not be punished based on the actions of a single "rogue employee" - the FIA disagreed, saying a team has to take collective responsibility.
Then, in the week prior to the Hungarian Grand Prix, McLaren was summoned to the World Motorsport Council to answer the building allegations of espionage and cheating. The team maintained their defence, but the Council rubbished this defence. Crucially, since the World Council could not find any evidence of Ferrari's secrets on McLaren's car they imposed no penalty at all.
The Italian outfit was absolutely livid with this finding and forced the FIA to hold an appeal. Ron Dennis responded with a five-page letter addressed to Ferrari, essentially accusing them too of cheating by using an "illegally flexing floor". This didn't tame the red team, it instead soured the already awful relationship between Dennis and Jean Todt and Ferrari stated they would deal with these "serious allegations" in the Courts.
Then, during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton failed to honour an agreement to let Alonso past on track, this denied Alonso "the tow", also known as slipstream. Alonso lashed back by blocking Lewis Hamilton in the pitlane, meaning the Brit could not post a lap time and Alonso instead took pole. The team said the hold-up in the pitlane was not Alonso's fault, but stopped short of plainly blaming Hamilton.
That infamous pitlane incident (Photo: Sky)
In response, the FIA decided McLaren would win no points from the Hungarian Grand Prix, but that the Driver's points would be unaffected. McLaren sought to appeal this, but they withdrew this appeal after something bigger was to come.
Act Five: Crime and Punishment
And just like that the Council had decided; McLaren were to be excluded from the entire Constructors' championship, and would score no additional points from the Belgian Grand Prix onwards. It had now become completely clear exactly what happened, and there was no doubt about it.
Nigel Stepney had leaked a constant stream of Ferrari information to Mike Coughlan, you'll remember him being McLaren's chief designer. Coughlan had taken the Ferrari documents back to Britain, and handed them to his wife, Trudy, to take to a copy shop and have it burned onto a CD. However, the operator at the copy shop was a Ferrari fan, and saw the Prancing Horse logo at the bottom of all of the 700 pages. She immediately sought to inform the most senior member of Ferrari that she could, via email, and there set in motion were the events to follow.
Coughlan would get Stepney to give him information, then Coughlan would send this information to test driver Pedro De La Rosa - and it wasn't exactly cloak and dagger action like you may think. And it wasn't just De La Rosa involved either.
Fernando Alonso replied to De La Rosa's emails regarding the gases they use to inflate the tyres, exclaiming how important it was to investigate these gases. Further exchanges detailed the Ferrari's braking system, what lap Kimi Raikkonen would make his first pit stop on in Australia, the exact aero balance of the Ferrari car at 250kph and it's flexible wings.
The use of phrases by De La Rosa like "we must test this in the simulator" when talking about wheel camber angles suggests McLaren gained some competitive advantage from this information. Leaving an email trail of such requests was shocking in its seemingly infinite naivety, and dispelled McLaren's long held defence that Mike Coughlan, and Coughlan only, had access to this information.
Perhaps the most shocking of all the findings was that it was Ron Dennis himself who alerted the FIA to the existence of these emails, despite swearing to Max Mosely that these emails did not exist. A very very honest confession that cost the team a Constructors' title and more than $100 million. That's right, not only were McLaren excluded from the Constructors' but they were fined $100 million dollars, in what is recognised as the biggest sporting fine in world history. Max Mosely would later joke that the fine was "$5 million for the offence and $95 million for Ron [Dennis] being a tw*t”.
Dennis confessed he learned about these emails during an argument between himself and Fernando Alonso in the aftermath of the Hungarian qualifying incident, in which Alonso held up Hamilton in the pitlane. Max Mosely stated that he would have pushed for McLaren to be kicked out of the championship for two years for "polluting the sport", but the World Council disagreed with him. He then coldly stated that in years to come the World Council may be "reproached with not doing too much, but with doing too little".
Act Six: The Aftermath
Whereas $100 million was the figure being spat around, the final figure would be that minus the prize money that McLaren would forfeit through their exclusion. ITV estimated the final figure to be some $15-20 million. That was the extent of the financial damage, but the reputation damage would continue. It was the first major controversy McLaren would find themselves involved in.
Two years later, Hamilton would be excluded from the 2009 Australian Grand Prix for lying to the stewards. Hamilton passed Jarno Trulli who went completely off track under yellow flags, this is perfectly legal. Hamilton is instructed to let Trulli back past, then Trulli lets Hamilton back past, thinking he had made an illegal overtake. However, it was in the Stewards' room where the exclusion occurred, as McLaren' team manager Dave Ryan lied to the Stewards, telling them that Trulli had made an illegal overtake. The Stewards then found an interview which contradicted their claims and not only did Hamilton lose 3rd, Ryan paid for it with his job.
Fernando Alonso, who returned to Renault post-Spygate, seemed genuinely appalled that he hadn't been involved in another controversy, so his team had his teammate crash so he could win. But that's a story for another day.
So there you have it. F1 wrapped up in a single story to be honest. Controversy, greed, rule bending (and breaking) and some good ol' F1 politics.