Spying is very much a part of Formula One. All the teams closely monitor their rivals and some go to extraordinary lengths keeping an eye on the competition. However most of their actions are entirely legal and 2007 is the first year that espionage has developed into a major talking point. The FIA had never punished a team for ‘spying’ before and hopefully now they won’t ever have to again.
F1 teams spend a lot of time watching each other but do so within the rules. They each have commissioned photographers that are paid to take very specific shots of rival machinery. When a car stops in the pits or out on the circuit there is often a scurry of eager snappers trying to shoot an unusual angle, and they’re not doing that because a newspaper is interested. Close-up photos of suspension and aerodynamic features are worth a lot to engineers who will use computers to simulate anything that looks like it might be beneficial.
Formula One manufacturers also hire audio experts that accurately record engine sounds. If you can identify the pitch of an engine at a particular speed you can work out how many revs it is pulling, and from that you can calculate how much horsepower is being generated. This technology helped a few teams discover Ferrari’s flexi-wings in 2006 because their simulations proved Schumacher was going too fast in a straight line for what his horsepower would allow.
Teams also record their opponent’s radio messages enabling them to listen in on everything that engineers discuss with drivers. In addition they also study video footage of cars being hoisted off the track by cranes because that allows them to calculate weight distribution.
Spying is a very big part of the sport but sometimes teams cross the line of what is reasonable.
In 1980 Ferrari’s Technical Director, Harvey Postlethwaite, led a midnight raid on their competitors at the German Grand Prix. Once everyone had gone home for the night Ferrari mechanics emerged from the darkness and broke into the Williams garage. They spent the night there taking photos and measuring the car from every possible angle and no doubt found the information very useful, despite the fact they didn’t win the title for another twenty years.
Other teams have been engaged in such activity as well. It was not uncommon to find someone armed with a camera and tape measure underneath a car trying to record every last detail. All of the teams have been involved in spying to differing degrees.
It has always been frowned upon but has never taken too seriously.
When Patrick Head caught someone measuring his Williams he later presented the culprit with a ruler on which he had written “don’t get caught”. McLaren mechanics also enjoyed some fun a few years ago when they discovered a rival aerodynamicist inside one of their trucks. They simply locked him in there alone for a few hours, somewhat red faced.
Bernie Ecclestone admitted last week that “there has always been spying ever since I have been in Formula 1”. Only recently has it become a major issue and this is the first year in F1 history that spying has affected the World Championship outcome.
The only reason that espionage became the biggest story of 2007 is that it concerned bitter rivals Ferrari and McLaren. If the incident had occurred between anyone else the FIA would never have been involved.
Ferrari only took the matter to the World Council because they had something to gain from a McLaren penalty. This statement can be justified by their actions in 2003 when two Toyota employees were found in illegal possession of Ferrari data. In that instance the Italian team took the matter to the civil courts rather than the FIA.
Even more poignant is that Toyota’s actions four years ago were much worse than what McLaren did this year.
In 2003 a pair of ex-Ferrari employees were found to have taken a lot of data with them to Toyota. Not only was this documentation shown to others within the organisation but it was used to construct the TF103 Formula One car. Ferrari were understandably suspicious when they saw the Toyota because from the outside it looked like a direct replica of the Ferrari F2002 model. Investigations revealed the two men had transferred over 10,000 pages of data illegally from one team to the other.
One of the two employees involved, Angelo Santini, defended himself by saying “It's true that the Toyota TF103 looked like a copy of the F2002, also because of its red colour, but it's normal for F1 cars to resemble the winning machine”. He makes a good point but there is no doubt the CD he loaded with Ferrari information influenced Toyota’s design. A court in Modena agreed and charged him and Mauro Iacconi with Industrial Espionage.
The matter was resolved without FIA intervention and there was no sporting penalty against Toyota. In fact, there was no penalty at all against the Japanese Manufacturer because the civil court case was directed at the two men involved and not the team.
It is the perfect example of how to handle a genuine case of espionage in Formula One.
Ferrari had nothing to gain by striving for a penalty against Toyota because they were not championship rivals. It is perhaps a shame they adopted a very different approach in 2007.
This year McLaren’s Chief Designer was given a dossier of confidential Ferrari information. He showed it to a few people within McLaren who told him to get rid of it and the technical team was unaware and uninfluenced by his actions. Although McLaren were arguably far more innocent than Toyota, Ferrari took the opportunity to have them punished by the FIA. It would have been much better for the sport if the case had been handled differently and settled in the civil court system.
It was the first time the FIA became involved in a spying claim and McLaren reacted by taking action against Renault. Flavio Briatore’s men had been caught with drawings that weren’t theirs and the World Council also found them guilty of breaching the International Sporting Code last week.
Neither case has been good for the image of F1, especially since one team was punished heavily and the other wasn’t. McLaren have every right to feel aggrieved because they were fined and expelled from the championship for doing something that everyone else has done and will continue to do in the future. Not only that, but when they took the matter further and challenged Renault in court the French team escaped punishment altogether.
The situation in F1 could have been much worse however because another spy-scandal was brewing just as the season got underway. At the Malaysian Grand Prix Spyker exhibited confidential Red Bull drawings that proved Scuderia Toro Rosso was using identical machinery to their parent outfit. Red Bull were understandably furious and threatened legal action despite Spyker’s claim the drawings were received in the mail and had not been sourced illegally. Thankfully nothing ever came of it.
Bernie Ecclestone recently met with the team bosses to discuss the current spy dramas and to ensure there is no further silliness just around the corner. He reasoned that it would never have happened in the old days saying “we used to sort these problems out by ourselves. Nowadays every team has got five lawyers, three doctors, two masseurs, a psychologist, and all of them want to work. So if there is the chance to cause trouble, they do cause trouble”.
Hopefully the teams have taken Ecclestone’s advice on board and the next time someone is caught spying they simply get locked in the team transporter for a few hours.