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Last Updated: Friday, 21 September 2007, 14:42 GMT 15:42 UK
Was the McLaren spy verdict wrong?
By Andrew Benson

Fernando Alonso
Alonso was involved in an e-mail exchange termed new evidence
It was the second time in seven hours that McLaren boss Ron Dennis had tried to explain to the Formula One media why his team had done nothing wrong in the sport's spy scandal, but he still found time for a joke.

Speaking at McLaren's regular Saturday afternoon "Meet the team" session, he said it should be renamed "Beat the team".

Dennis has been adamant throughout the two months of this scandal that McLaren had not been "infected" by the confidential Ferrari information found at the home of their chief designer Mike Coughlan.

His problem following the decision to exclude the team from the constructors' championship and fine them 49.2m was that it did not look that way.

The full verdict released by governing body the FIA last Friday looked quite incriminating - particularly to the eyes of those not hugely familiar with the workings of F1.

As is often the case, the devil is in the detail

The way it was presented in the FIA's news release, the exchange of e-mails and text messages between Coughlan, McLaren test driver Pedro de la Rosa, and world champion Fernando Alonso did not look good.

Arguably the most damning section was De la Rosa asking Coughlan if he knew the weight distribution of the Ferrari because he wanted to test it in McLaren's simulator.

Dennis has always maintained that no other senior personnel at McLaren knew about the Ferrari information.

But, in the context of the FIA document, that looked like a difficult position to sustain.

So I asked Dennis how a driver could test a new weight distribution in the simulator without a) discussing the fact he was doing it with his engineers; and b) telling them why.

It was a rhetorical question, as Dennis well understood. He simply said: "Read the full transcript, and make up your own mind."

Lewis Hamilton's McLaren at the Belgian Grand Prix
There is no evidence that McLaren benefited from Ferrari secrets
That transcript was released on Wednesday. It runs to 115 pages and it takes a while to get through it.

But now I have. And I cannot get away from the thought that McLaren have been the victims of an injustice.

As is often the case, the devil is in the detail.

Left out of the initial FIA release were the explanations provided by various McLaren personnel for their actions. And that is where things start to get less clear-cut.

Yes, De la Rosa said, he had asked Coughlan about the Ferrari's weight distribution, and he knew the information was coming from Ferrari performance director Nigel Stepney.

But he absolutely did not know about the Ferrari documents. He asked Coughlan because they were friends, dating back to the days when De la Rosa drove for Arrows and Coughlan was their designer.

MESSAGEBOARD
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He knew Coughlan was friends with Stepney, a relationship dating back more than a decade.

Finding out as much as possible about rival teams is an every day occurrence in F1. Drivers constantly talk about what other teams are doing - including with members, and drivers, of those teams. And this was no more than that.

And when he discovered the weight distribution was completely different from McLaren's, he realised testing it would be pointless.

Not only that, De la Rosa said, but the e-mails provided to the FIA were his only communications on this subject.

Equally, McLaren engineering director Paddy Lowe spent a great deal of time explaining how he had traced back what he called "the DNA" of every single McLaren development since before the first contact between Coughlan and Stepney, and was absolutely sure they were all original ideas.

McLaren also employed an independent computer firm to trawl back through their electronic records, and it could find no evidence incriminating them either.

And 140 McLaren engineers signed a letter to say they were sure no Ferrari ideas were on their car.

Ferrari's legal counsel Nigel Tozzi did an impressive job trying to draw inferences and generate suspicion about what McLaren might have been up to.

McLaren test driver Pedro de la Rosa
De la Rosa emerges from the world council meeting last week
But, reading the transcript, you keep coming back to the words of McLaren counsel Ian Mill. There was no evidence of McLaren using the confidential Ferrari technical information. The only actual evidence - as opposed to suspicion - is that they did not.

The members of the world motorsport council clearly did not believe everything the McLaren witnesses said. They concluded that "some degree of sporting advantage was obtained, though it may forever be impossible to quantify that advantage in concrete terms".

But even that verdict, like much of Ferrari's argument against McLaren, contained supposition.

I do not know Lowe, so I cannot vouch for him. But I know De la Rosa extremely well. He won the first race I covered as a motorsport journalist, back in 1992, and our paths have crossed consistently ever since.

He is one of the most honest men you will find in motor racing, or anywhere else.

In evidence that runs over 14 pages of the transcript, De la Rosa provides perfectly justifiable explanations as to what was going on, and why it was not what it might look like if you saw only the words of the e-mails and text messages in isolation.

FIA president Max Mosley and McLaren boss Ron Dennis shake hands in a photo opportunity at the Belgian Grand Prix
FIA president Max Mosley and Dennis have a difficult relationship
And I simply do not believe that he told the world council anything other than the whole truth.

That is not to say McLaren did nothing wrong. They probably should accept responsibility for the actions of Coughlan - he was their employee, after all.

The McLaren counsel argued that, by the same token, Ferrari should accept responsibility for the actions of Stepney. And there have been whispers in F1 that a clever lawyer could make a case against Ferrari on "entrapment".

Be that as it may, the punishment seems harsh in the extreme when weighed against the fact that there was no concrete evidence that McLaren benefited from the Ferrari information, which is what was at the centre of the case.

Equally, it is worth pointing out that when two Toyota employees were convicted and sent to jail for stealing Ferrari technical information, the FIA did not get involved, despite the obvious similarity between the 2002 Ferrari and 2003 Toyota.

So why get involved this time? It is this sort of inconsistency that infuriates F1 teams.

The FIA world council
The world council prepares to hear the evidence in the spy scandal
The verdict after McLaren's first appearance before the world council on the spying charge was that there was insufficient evidence they had gained any advantage from Coughlan having the Ferrari documents.

They were not punished, but were warned that they faced a ban if any proof emerged in the future that they had gained an advantage from the data.

But the much vaunted "new evidence" provided by De la Rosa's e-mails and texts did not provide a smoking gun. And it is difficult to see on the face of it what had changed.

The first verdict could - and arguably should - have stood at the second world council hearing last week.

With the deadline for an appeal approaching, McLaren announced that they would not challenge the decision. The feeling was that McLaren wanted to put the whole affair behind them and did not want to risk a greater punishment, not that they believed justice had been done.

McLaren have talked about feeling that they have been subjected to a witch hunt. Whether that is true or not is difficult to say.

But it is hard to escape the feeling that, on the evidence, the FIA may have got this one wrong.



SEE ALSO
Dennis reveals rift with Alonso
19 Sep 07 |  Formula One
McLaren 'came close to exclusion'
14 Sep 07 |  Formula One
McLaren drop Hungary ban appeal
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How Hamilton drove Alonso to the edge
16 Sep 07 |  Formula One
McLaren ponder Renault complaint
17 Sep 07 |  Formula One
Hamilton defiant over title race
17 Sep 07 |  Formula One
Raikkonen ready for title battle
16 Sep 07 |  Formula One
Alonso has confidence in McLaren
15 Sep 07 |  Formula One
McLaren exposed by spy evidence
14 Sep 07 |  Formula One
F1's face-saving ruling
13 Sep 07 |  Formula One
McLaren off hook in F1 spying row
26 Jul 07 |  Formula One


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