At the start of the season after the Australian Grand Prix, McLaren expressed concern that Ferrari had installed a flexible floor providing them with an illegal aerodynamic advantage. The British team wrote a letter to the FIA that forced a new ruling to come into place and Ferrari had to adjust their cars accordingly.
It was a sign of the tension that exists between McLaren and Ferrari, and was a hint that we could be in for a year of controversy. The events of the past three weeks have now proven that to be the case.
The discovery of sensitive Ferrari technical documentation at the house of McLaren’s Chief Designer means the two biggest teams in F1 could find themselves in court. To date Ferrari have only commenced legal proceedings against Mike Coughlan as an individual, and not the McLaren team. However this could change after a separate FIA investigation into the alleged espionage. McLaren have been summoned to answer charges of breaching the International Sporting Code and the outcome of the hearing on July 26 may determine Ferrari’s future actions.
It remains to be seen how this scandal will affect the remainder of 2007, but it is sure to be a talking point for a long time to come.
Ferrari and McLaren are the two oldest and most successful teams in the history of grand prix racing and it is not unusual for their battles to be clouded by off-track controversy.
In fact, their intense off-track enmity goes back a good thirty years when both teams found themselves in court for the first time.
At the 1976 Spanish Grand Prix the McLaren of James Hunt took an easy win over Ferrari’s Niki Lauda, who was the main championship contender. However, Hunt’s McLaren was disqualified after the race because it was found to be two centimetres too wide.
A conspiracy theory emerged that Ferrari had tipped off the scrutineers, as the McLaren had been measured before the race and no such discrepancy was noted.
The matter went to the FIA Court of Appeal where McLaren was able to argue the punishment did not fit the crime. As a result they were handed back their win in Spain and were forced to pay a 3000 pound fine instead. Enzo Ferrari described it as a ‘wicked verdict’ and developed a burning desire to beat the British team.
The situation escalated in the middle of the 1976 season at the British Grand Prix.
At the first corner of the race James Hunt was involved in a collision with the two Ferraris and was not able to continue. Niki Lauda’s Ferrari was undamaged but the race was stopped.
Since James Hunt had not completed the first ‘red flag’ lap he was unable to take the restart. When this was announced over the circuit’s PA system the partisan home crowd became restless and started throwing objects onto the track. Fearing the situation would develop into a full scale riot the race officials reversed their decision and Hunt was allowed to restart the grand prix. He went on to win but Ferrari immediately lodged an official protest.
Again the matter went to the FIA Court of Appeal, although this hearing was a much more heated affair. It was a few months after the British Grand Prix and during that time Niki Lauda had suffered the fiery accident that almost killed him. He made an astonishing recovery and not only was he able to regain much of his fitness, he was able to return to racing within six weeks. He made an appearance at the FIA hearing.
Although many of his wounds had healed, Lauda arrived at the FIA court covered in bloodied bandages that Ferrari were using to win sympathy with the judges. Their ploy worked and James Hunt was stripped of his British Grand Prix win and his points were given to Lauda.
McLaren were furious at Ferrari’s tactic to use Lauda’s accident to their advantage. They were also angered that Enzo Ferrari threatened to boycott the sport if the court’s verdict was not to his liking.
James Hunt said at the time the championship was totally devalued and worthless. He felt it had been rigged against him and used the earlier Italian Grand prix to back up his claims.
At Ferrari’s home race in Monza, James Hunt was sent to the back of the grid because it was determined the fuel in his McLaren was illegal. The fuel samples were taken as part of an investigation that was supposedly started by Ferrari. It was later proven that there was nothing wrong with Mclaren’s fuel at all, and the team declared the Italian officials were out to do anything they could to help Ferrari.
Although Ron Dennis was not at the helm of McLaren in 1976, the antagonism between the two teams has continued to the present day. Some of the most controversial moments in Formula One history have come when Ferrari and McLaren go head to head for supremacy.
The actions of Nigel Stepney and Mike Coughlan will make 2007 another such example.
Nigel Stepney made it quite clear he was upset with the restructuring at Ferrari following the departure of Ross Brawn. Not only did the Chief Mechanic miss out on Brawn’s vacant position but he was relocated to a new role in the factory. Stepney’s relationship with Ferrari gradually broke down and he started seeking employment elsewhere. A number of other Ferrari engineers shared Stepney’s sentiments so he came up with the idea of taking a whole technical squad to another team. Honda are desperate for new technical staff at the moment so they were a logical target for Stepney’s aspirations.
At a test session during April in Spain, Stepney talked to McLaren’s Mike Coughlan about the idea. The two engineers had previously worked together at Benetton and Ferrari and were good friends. Coughlan took an interest in the plan and both men approached Honda in June with their proposal. Essentially, they wanted to take a team of Ferrari and McLaren technical boffins to the struggling Japanese manufacturer. Given Honda’s current situation you would expect them to have jumped at the opportunity.
It wasn’t to be however, because shortly after the meeting with Honda the situation for Stepney and Coughlan became incredibly messy.
Mike Coughlan was found to be illegally possessing Ferrari technical documentation and it is fairly likely he received this from Stepney. McLaren say they can prove none of the Ferrari information has been used to influence the design of their cars, and this is almost certainly true because the probable intended purpose of the documents was to take them to Honda. Coughlan was only found with the files after they were taken to a shop in Woking to be photocopied. The diligent printing staff took note of what was going on and informed Ferrari. The Italian team immediately took court action in London giving them the right to search Coughlan’s house.
Nick Fry says that Honda never saw the Ferrari documents, or knew of their existence. Coughlan has since provided an affidavit to Ferrari explaining how they came into his possession and although this has not been made public it is believed he claims to have received them in the mail.
Whilst this was been going on, Ferrari have accused Nigel Stepney of trying to sabotage the teams machinery. A mysterious white powder was found in the fuel tanks of the Ferrari cars before Monaco and the laboratory results will confirm what the substance was in a few weeks. Stepney has denied being involved and is yet to be charged with anything.
Ferrari knew that Stepney was disillusioned at Maranello and wanted to get out. Given the high level of knowledge he has about the Scuderia’s operations, senior management would have been nervous about Stepney taking that to another team. Accusing him of sabotage has made the Brit damaged goods and has ruined his chances of employment anywhere else on the grid. Mission accomplished for Ferrari, although they seem fairly determined to prove Stepney did something wrong. They have had private investigators following his every move and even had his car fitted with tracking equipment.
The legal proceedings currently involve Ferrari and Coughlan, but action involving Stepney and McLaren is probably not far away. It will be awhile before the whole saga is over and it means there is a possibility the World Championship could be decided in court.
It would be disappointing if the season became tainted by ‘Stepney-gate’ because at the moment it is providing a little extra spice to the championship. Something new is revealed every couple of days and it is playing out like a soap opera. Hopefully the mystery will remain exciting and will not become detrimental to the sport.
It is a very complicated affair and as a result we may never find out the full truth. The unanswered questions could last forever.
The tension between Ferrari and McLaren certainly will.