Commentary

Many doubt usefulness of Formula One's ongoing spy games

Although the eye-popping sanctions against McLaren Mercedes in the F1 spy scandal seem to put the team's actions in the most serious light, many around the paddock wonder whether spying has much value, writes Dan Knutson.

Updated: September 14, 2007, 7:24 PM ET
By Dan Knutson | Special to ESPN.com

SPA-FRANCORCHAMPS, Belgium -- After a year's hiatus, Formula One has returned to one of the most challenging, stunning and historic road circuits in the world -- Spa-Francorchamps -- for the Belgian Grand Prix.

On Friday morning, when the 22 V-8 engines started to scream at 19,000 rpm around the track that sweeps and plunges through the hills and trees of the Ardennes Forest, they drowned out, at least for a moment, the cacophony surrounding the McLaren/Ferrari spy scandal. But that didn't last long, especially not when the FIA, F1's ruling body, released new evidence implicating two of McLaren's drivers in the scandal.

In Paris the day before, the FIA's World Motor Sport Council had fined the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team the incredible sum of $100 million.

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Despite McLaren's strident defense, the council decided that McLaren was guilty of using illegally obtained Ferrari data in the design and setup of the 2007 McLaren.

McLaren also has been stripped of all its points in the constructors' championship, although Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso -- currently first and second in the drivers' championship, respectively -- will be allowed to keep their points and to continue to fight for the crown.

It was thought that dissatisfied Ferrari employee Nigel Stepney started the whole mess when he gave McLaren employee Mike Coughlan 780 pages of confidential Ferrari information in June. But now the trail stretches back to at least March.

"We have never denied that the information from Ferrari was in the personal possession of one of our employees at his home," McLaren director Ron Dennis said in Paris. "The issue is: Was this information used by McLaren? This is not the case and has not been proven today."

In fact, the entire McLaren engineering team, consisting of more than 140 people, signed affidavits affirming that they had never received or used Ferrari information.

But, according to the FIA, which obtained and published e-mails between Alonso and test driver Pedro de la Rosa, Stepney was feeding Coughlan information as far back as March. That's two months before he handed over the 780-page document.

The e-mails, which the FIA obtained from the drivers in exchange for immunity, include the following from de la Rosa to Alonso on March 25, 2007:

"All the information from Ferrari is very reliable. It comes from Nigel Stepney, their former chief mechanic -- I don't know what post he holds now.

"He's the same person who told us in Australia that Kimi [Raikkonen] was stopping in lap 18. He's very friendly with Mike Coughlan, our Chief Designer, and he told him that."

Three days earlier, de la Rosa had sent the following e-mail to Coughlan asking about the Ferrari setup:

"Hi Mike, do you know the Red Car's Weight Distribution? It would be important for us to know so that we could try it in the simulator. Thanks in advance, Pedro."

Having a mole in a rival team is one thing, but, looking at the overall espionage scene in general and not specifically at the Ferrari/McLaren situation, just how valuable would it be for one team to be able to read 780 pages of inside information from another team? Or to get sporadic information by other means?

That depends on whom you ask. Some senior engineers from other teams say such information has limited benefit.

Besides, there are other means -- legal ways -- of getting technical information about a rival's car.

Ferrari F1
Mark Thompson/Getty ImagesTechnical data on the Ferrari F2007 is at the center of F1's spying scandal.

"When you are designing a car, particularly when you are looking at your competitors, one of those things that you want to know is where is the other person's advantage," said Geoff Willis, who has worked for Williams and Honda and is now the technical director at Red Bull Racing.

"So, in some ways, knowing that information or some of it helps you to focus a bit more on where you develop your car. And in the absence of that information, all the teams are doing a lot of competitor comparison analysis to try to focus on exactly where their shortcomings are."

Pat Symonds, Renault's director of engineering, is a key member of the team that fielded championship-winning cars for Michael Schumacher and Alonso. Symonds said that the engineers and designers in all the teams know the basics of what make a car go fast and that the main focus at the moment is on aerodynamics.

"We all understand where we should be spending our money and putting our effort in, and in what proportion," Symonds said. "And we are trying to do that as much as we can in the budgets that we have and the personnel that we have. So, information from another team doesn't really help you in that respect, and equally neither does detail.

"What's important in a team are the people and the way people approach things. To have even a complete set of drawings of a car, if you don't understand the concept of how it works, then it is not terribly interesting."

Willis said that sometimes having detailed information about somebody else's car could be a huge advantage. But on the other hand, it would only allow you to produce what that team already has produced.

"Therefore you would always be playing catch-up," Willis said. "However good your manufacturing and design and operations loop is, it is going to take you four to six weeks to get those sort of components on your car.

"Fundamentally, what you want is an understanding of why you have come up with those engineering solutions and not what those solutions are."

BMW Sauber's technical director Willy Rampf said that suddenly getting some random information isn't really going to help because you can't just integrate it into the design of your current car.

"It is not one thing that makes a car go quicker," he said, "but a huge amount of small details and all the philosophy that has developed in a team over years."

Ferrari's technical director Mario Almondo sees things differently. He said he believes being able to analyze another team's confidential data is a major benefit even if you don't see the full picture of another team's design.

"It is not a matter of single details that you would like or not of the other car, or of trying to imitate what the other team did," Almondo explained. "It is a matter of knowing references.

"If I know the weight distribution of another car, the efficiency, how powerful the engine is and so on, then I know my references, and I know exactly where to put our resources.

"I have a higher possibility of arriving at the same result if I am behind, or even a better result if I am quicker, and with less energy spent, less money and in a quicker time. So for sure it is an advantage to just know things and how the other [team] works because it is a sort of technical gift in this respect."

When it comes to spying, much of F1's espionage takes place out in the open.

During the 25 or so minutes that the cars are lined up in the grid before the start of the race, it is a common sight to see the technical directors and engineers of rival teams standing just a few feet away from a car and intently studying it.

The cars are not allowed to be covered up with blankets on the grid. And the screens the teams used to put up at the front of their open pit garage doors have long been banned, as well. This was done for safety reasons because a fire could break out and go undetected.

All the teams employ photographers, some of them dressed as race fans, to take detailed photos of other teams' cars.

What's important in a team are the people and the way people approach things. To have even a complete set of drawings of a car, if you don't understand the concept of how it works, then it is not terribly interesting.

Pat Symonds

Perhaps the biggest transfer of information takes place because of the constant movement of technical people from one team to another. Although they don't leave their old team with a briefcase full of photocopies and computer disks, they certainly leave with information in their brain.

"Every time we take an employee from BMW, or lose one to Honda, or a Renault employee goes to another team, there is always some transfer of information," said team owner Frank Williams. "Sometimes it is very little and has tiny value, and sometimes it is worth a tenth or two of a second per lap.

"More often than not, you get very little out of anybody because these days most teams are clever enough to ensure that nobody except the very senior people know the whole picture."

When a senior designer or engineer leaves one team for another, it is common practice to put them on "gardening leave" for six months. In other words, the person must stay at home for six months before joining the new team. In that time, any really valuable technical information will become obsolete in the fast-paced world of F1.

However, although such people can't physically go to the factory of their new team for six months, there is nothing to prevent them from picking up their phone or booting up their computer.

But even if an engineer did arrive with a briefcase full of information from the old team, how valuable would it be?

"I was always of the frame of mind that if someone comes with good ideas, that was great," said former Jordan and Stewart Ford technical director Gary Anderson. "If someone came with a bunch of papers, it meant that it was someone else's ideas, not their ideas. So the person you were employing was not who you thought it was. I would rather that someone came in with very little. But, if you asked a question, the person should have a good technical input on how the other team operated."

Of course, technical espionage has been a part of all auto racing, not just F1, since the earliest days of the sport.

Back in the early part of the 20th century, Peugeot sent one of its Grand Prix cars on a tour of England. Engineers from the Sunbeam team "borrowed" the car one night without Peugeot's knowledge, took it apart and made drawings of all the components.

The FIA's draconian punishment of McLaren, however, certainly will make people think twice about just how far they should go in the F1 spy game.

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

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