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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 September 2007, 18:59 GMT 19:59 UK
F1's face-saving ruling

By Andrew Benson
BBC Sport at Spa-Francorchamps

There was an autumn evening chill in the air at the Spa-Francorchamps race track in the Ardennes mountains by the time the verdict in the latest instalment in Formula One's spy scandal was announced on Thursday.

Ron Dennis
Ron Dennis is a man who has based his entire business career, his entire company, on an image of honesty and integrity

But that will have been nothing compared to how they felt at McLaren.

Their team boss Ron Dennis will be distraught at being thrown out of the constructors' championship and hit by a gargantuan, unprecedented $100m (49.2m) fine - not least because he is adamant his team have done nothing wrong.

If he is correct that McLaren was the innocent party as two disgruntled employees at opposing teams conspired to find jobs elsewhere, then it does indeed seem disproportionate punishment.

That must be the biggest fine in sporting history, and even for companies of the scale of McLaren and engine partner and major shareholder Mercedes it will take some paying.

And it remains to be seen what effect being punished in this way will have on McLaren's other partners - their sponsors Vodafone and banking giant Santander.

To say major multinational companies such as that do not appreciate being tied up in a scandal of this nature would be to understate it in the extreme.

Dennis, too, will feel the pain - personally as much as anything.

This is a man who has based his entire business career, his entire company, on an image of honesty and integrity, and to be besmirched like this will hurt him almost physically.

One hopes that this unsavoury affair does not drive out of the sport one of the most influential men in its history.

It is Dennis's image - a rare one for someone in F1 - that has made it so hard for many people in the sport to believe that McLaren have been caught up in this. The concept just seems so alien.

On top of that is the thought that McLaren have to some degree been unfairly singled out - trade secrets of the kind we are talking about here constantly pass from one team to another in F1 as engineers move teams.

There seem to be only two substantive differences in this case.

This happened while the two people in question - McLaren chief designer Mike Coughlan and Ferrari performance director Nigel Stepney - were still employed by their respective teams.

And the pair acted quite astonishingly naively - or arrogantly, depending on how you look at it.

Hamilton and Alonso
Had Hamilton and Alonso been thrown out of the championship, the sport would have been an international laughing stock

It is worth pointing out, too, that in all the hand-wringing that has come from Ferrari, the Italian team have somehow managed to distract people from one of the most unsavoury facts to come out of this whole farrago.

That is that Ferrari won the first race of the season with a car that was subsequently decided to be illegal - and were asked, as is the way of things in F1, to change it before the second one.

For all that, though, the sport's governing body, the FIA, has probably done the only thing it could.

After it came to light that Coughlan had access to a huge amount of confidential Ferrari technical information, the FIA could hardly ignore it.

And without knowing the detail of how the World Motor Sport Council came to its verdict - which will be published on Friday - it is hard to comment on whether the decision is right.

But there are a couple of things that mitigate the damage that has been done to McLaren - and to F1.

Firstly, although 49.2m is a massive fine, the amount McLaren will end up paying will be a lot less than that.

That is because the prize money that McLaren would have earned this year will be taken off that amount, substantially reducing the impact of the fine, probably to around 25m.

Secondly, while the F1 teams say they consider the constructors' championship to be as important as the drivers', no-one else in the world does.

And McLaren - through Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso - are still one and two in one of the most exciting drivers' championship chases in history.

A cynic might ask at this point why McLaren have lost their team points for possessing secret Ferrari information, but their drivers - who drive the car that may or may not have benefited from it - have not been punished.

And it is a good question. There may be an answer to it on Friday when more details of the hearing and verdict emerge.

606: DEBATE
Or it may be that the FIA will hide behind the fact that they gave the drivers amnesty for providing evidence.

But it doesn't matter. Whatever machinations were used to come to the verdict, it is a good one for F1 as a whole, even though it is terrible for one of its greatest teams.

Had Hamilton and Alonso been thrown out of the championship, the sport would have been an international laughing stock.

And had no-one at all tuned in to watch Ferrari drivers Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen "dispute" the final four races, then it would have been little more than F1 deserved.

As it is, however uncomfortable this verdict may sit with some, it is one of the few ways the FIA could have got out of this whole mess and still salvaged some respect for the sport.

Hopefully, Ferrari will now accept this verdict, and the sport can go back to dishing up what promises to be a scintillating end to the season.

And McLaren can re-establish itself as what it is - one of the greatest teams in F1 history, whose reputation does not deserve to be sullied like this.

This being F1, though, you would not bet on it.



SEE ALSO
McLaren hit by constructors' ban
13 Sep 07 |  Formula One


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