Commentary

Ferrari: McLaren got 'a very soft sentence' in spy scandal

Too Soft? A $100 million penalty and getting booted out of the world constructors' championship not harsh enough? That's what Ferrari is saying about the punishment McLaren absorbed in the messy spy-gate scandal, writes Dan Knutson.

Updated: September 20, 2007, 1:07 PM ET
By Dan Knutson | Special to ESPN.com

Too soft.

That's what Ferrari thinks of McLaren's punishment in the spy-gate scandal.

McLaren has been handed a whopping fine of $100 million, and it's been booted out of the prestigious world constructors' championship. That was the penalty handed down by the World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) convened by F1's sanctioning body, the FIA.

"If you get deeply into all this sad story, you realize that it's a very soft sentence," Ferrari team principal Jean Todt said.

The story involves now-former Ferrari employee Nigel Stepney feeding a string of secret Ferrari data to now-former McLaren chief designer Mike Coughlan, who shared some of that information with McLaren driver Fernando Alonso and test driver Pedro de la Rosa but not with rookie driver Lewis Hamilton.

If you get deeply into all this sad story, you realize that it's a very soft sentence.

Ferrari's Jean Todt

In all, there were at least 323 e-mails, telephone calls and text messages sent between these individuals concerning Ferrari data.

Just who else in McLaren knew of or saw the data depends on whom you ask. McLaren says it really went no further than those three individuals. Ferrari, naturally, believes otherwise. And, after a 10-hour hearing in Paris on Sept. 13, the WMSC also believed there was enough evidence to suggest that McLaren got an unfair and illegal advantage with the knowledge of Ferrari's technical secrets.

Initially, the WMSC was going to throw the entire McLaren team out of the 2007 and 2008 championships. FIA president Max Mosley supported this. Ferrari would have been happy with that penalty, too. At the very least, Ferrari wanted the McLaren drivers eliminated from this year's world drivers' championship.

The first time around, McLaren escaped any punishment at all.

After a hearing on July 26, the WSMC ruled that while rogue employee Coughlan had access to the Ferrari data, the rest of the McLaren team did not. But then new information was revealed, showing Stepney, Coughlan, Alonso and de la Rosa exchanging e-mails about confidential details of the Ferrari car and team strategy as far back as March.

"From the beginning of the season, they had access to a lot of information," Todt said.

For example, the transcripts of the WMSC Sept. 13 hearing contain the following e-mail that Stepney sent to Coughlan on March 14 (two days before practice began for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix) about the aerodynamic drag of the new 2007 Ferrari:

"Mike, apart from the rear wing, I don't think this is the whole story. Once the front floor compresses, when it makes contact with the ground, which is around the 200km per hour to full compression ... the drag reduces quite considerably, due to reduction of air beneath the car. At the same time, the turning vanes also move. The front floor is about 100 cm long, so it is quite an effective device, also as mentioned in my previous e-mail, as a mass damper, because it helps in this mode to control the arrow and keep the front tire contact patch. Other areas we look at are rear stall, but this is difficult to control. Another solution has been found, which I'll talk to you some other time. Regards, Nigel."

This new information led to a new hearing and the penalty for McLaren. While Ferrari respects the ruling of the WSMC, it is not pleased with the severity of the punishment.

"It's very difficult to say we are happy -- we are unhappy," Todt said. "Something which was very important after the hearing of 26th of July, if you are guilty, you must be penalized. Our main competitor has been recognized, after new evidence, guilty. [It] has been penalized with a soft penalization, losing points for the manufacturers' championship."

Todt was speaking at a press briefing for the F1 media, including ESPN.com, after the Belgian Grand Prix on Sept. 16 in which Ferrari drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa finished first and second, beating Alonso and Hamilton, who were third and fourth.

So, will Ferrari lobby for a stiffer penalty?

The sport, the competition, and all that is fantastic. But you must know where to put the limit.

Jean Todt

"It's not a menu [of penalty choices that] we like, we don't like," Todt said. "We respect [the WMSC ruling]. We feel it's a soft penalty considering the whole story ... If you are guilty, you must have a penalization, so they were guilty, they had a penalization.

"Now you can always decide enough, not enough. We feel it's soft. The president of the FIA said that he confirmed that it was soft. But we know in this business you have a lot of things taken into consideration and I can understand that."

Things taken into consideration include the overall health of the sport.

It was F1 czar Bernie Ecclestone who pushed hard to make sure the McLaren drivers were not thrown out of this year's championship and next year's as well. It would have been hugely damaging to the TV ratings and spectator turnout if the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team and its drivers were not competing.

So, just how severe is the penalty?

Even in F1, where people toss around figures of a million dollars like they were candy bars, $100 million is a substantial amount.

Looking at the NBA, for example, the total of all the fines the league handed out over the 2004-05 season was just under $14 million.

The biggest fine in F1 before this was when the FIA fined the organizers of the Turkish Grand Prix $5 million for using the podium celebrations after last year's race to put forth a controversial political message. That fine was later cut to $2.5 million.

By comparison, the costliest fined levied to date by NASCAR came against David Hyder, who was a crew chief for Michael Waltrip Racing. Hyder was fined $100,000 and suspended indefinitely after officials discovered a fuel additive in Waltrip's intake manifold at the 2007 Daytona 500.

McLaren has until Sept. 21 to decide if it would file an appeal. Team boss Ron Dennis said at the Belgian Grand Prix that McLaren might swallow the fine and take the punishment if it brings closure to this whole sorry mess.

"Everything in this document that the FIA says is true," Dennis told the British media. "True in their content. It happened. But there is only one thing that I feel is not appropriate. This is a fine so disproportionate to the reality of the situation. So the decision I have is not whether to appeal their findings.

"It is: do I appeal the fine? Does McLaren take a financial hit in the interests of the sport? Once I have reached a decision I will make a recommendation to my shareholders, and it is they who will decide. If we do not appeal this it will be because we want closure."

If McLaren does pay the fine, it won't have to write out a check for the entire amount. Because it won't score any constructors' points this year, McLaren won't get any points prize money. That figure would be around $50 million, so the team would have to pay up the balance.

But, the bottom line is that McLaren is going to be $100 million poorer than if none of this had happened.

With an annual turnover of $450 million to $500 million, the McLaren group, which is debt-free, can afford to pay the fine. Furthermore, Dennis says that none of the money would come out of the team's competition fund.

"It will not in any shape or form be funded from our racing budget," Dennis said of the fine.

While not happy with the penalty itself, Ferrari hopes it acts as a deterrent.

"[It] is very important to punish," Todt said. "When things are wrong, you must answer properly to try and make sure it doesn't happen again.

"The sport, the competition, and all that is fantastic. But you must know where to put the limit. We all want to win, we all want to go to the limit, but it is very important not to overpass the limit."

McLaren insists it did not overpass the limit. All 140 engineers and designers at McLaren signed affidavits saying that none of the Ferrari data was incorporated into the design or development of the 2007 McLaren.

So was the penalty too soft? The very fact that such a question is raised about a $100 million fine shows just how massive the stakes are in the high-tech, big-buck world of F1.

Dan Knutson covers Formula One for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.

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