The verdict is finally out -- though after the tumultuous legal ride the FIA, McLaren and Ferrari have been engaged in over the last few months, the word 'finally' is used purely at one's own peril. Anyway, after much-heated debate and hyperbole in the Paris meeting of the World Motor Sport Council on September 13, it has been decreed that McLaren will be banned from all points in the 2007 season, and that their participation in 2008 will be subject to a thorough investigation by the FIA in December.
Oh, and there's the small matter of a $100 million fine.
However, while McLaren has been found guilty of espionage, of willful use of Ferrari's intellectual property, and reportedly even sabotage, drivers Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton have been let off scot-free. Therefore, on every front, a most-confounding decision.
For one, McLaren could have lost much more. A complete ban on the teams and drivers was on the cards, and the first reports emerging from the Paris meeting claimed that a blanket ban had been placed on the team for both 2007 and 2008 seasons. This, plus the $100 million ban, would have been easily the harshest punishment in Formula One history.
What is it all about? For those tuning in late, a 780-page highly confidential Ferrari dossier was found in the home of McLaren chief designer Mike Coughlan, given to him by Nigel Stepney, a very senior Ferrari engineer. In an earlier hearing, McLaren was reprimanded but let off, stating that Coughlan was the only one who saw the Ferrari information. Both engineers were fired immediately, and that seemed like the end of that, before Ferrari appealed the verdict, confident not just of theft of their intellectual property but also of sabotage.
By the time Wednesday's second hearing came about, tons of new evidence came to light, most sensationally, as reports claim, an email exchange between McLaren's technical director Paddy Lowe, test driver Pedro de la Rosa and Fernando Alonso something that clearly showed their knowledge of, and willingness to exploit, the knowledge of Ferrari equipment. Rumours were abuzz that Alonso, clearly dissatisfied with the lack of preferential treatment at McLaren, played whistleblower in exchange for immunity from the scam.
See a pattern here? The only fact on the record in terms of Wednesday's verdict is that nobody really knows what led the FIA to make such a damning decision against McLaren, outside of the members of the WMSC. The FIA are slated to reveal their full reasoning behind the decision shortly, but one must wait. Conjecture is nowhere near enough, and the famously partisan British media is entirely unjustified in giving this scandal and the FIA's fierce perusal of evidence the air of a witch-hunt.
Their poor little British team can't possibly be as innocent as they claim. The FIA has always been accused of Ferrari-favoritism, but expelling McLaren for an entire season (and possibly next year) is a massive step. Vodafone McLaren Mercedes is one of the biggest teams in the sport, and, with other sponsors like Johnnie Walker and Hugo Boss, generates some of the biggest revenue to the sport. For the FIA to look past all that and disqualify McLaren means there is serious evidence of foul play, and a precedent must be set.
Several former drivers are whining about the public nature of the investigations, and how Formula One should wash its dirty laundry in its own paddock. Agreed that there has been much espionage over the years, but spying and sabotage of this magnitude is unheard of. If even half the reports of evidence found by the FIA are confirmed, this is a scandal of enormous, motorsport-shaking proportions.
Whichever way the verdict would have gone, it would have been appealed by one of the two biggest teams in motorsport. If the decision had indeed exonerated McLaren, they and the press would have a mega time decrying Ferrari's 'sensational, desperate' attempts at justice.
Currently, Ferrari's jubilant at having been vindicated, at being handed the Constructor's Championship, and the sadistically comforting thought that even if a McLaren driver wins this year, his victory will be undeniably tarnished by the scandal. Obviously, McLaren now thinks the story isn't over, team principal Ron Dennis saying they will wait for FIA's reasoning before slapping an appeal. But imagine those lawyers sitting in a dugout, ready to strike.
And while appreciating that this is indeed a ballsy step by the FIA, to strike down today's top team, in the post-Michael Schumacher era, there is a distinct lack of clarity.
Why, for example, are the drivers free to race? If McLaren and its drivers have been declared guilty of acquiring and using illegal information -- the drivers evidently privy to said information through their season, then they should be held equally guilty. The Daily Mail reports an email from De la Rosa to Alonso saying: "I have learned how Ferrari exploit the Bridgestone tyres and how the braking system works on the Ferrari. Coughlan has told us. He got it from Stepney." Ahem.
The FIA's reason for this is clear, and they seem reluctant and helpless. 'Due to the exceptional circumstances in which the FIA gave the team's drivers an immunity in return for providing evidence, there is no penalty in regard to drivers' points,' the FIA statement said, explaining the verdict.
Which is understandable in a way, and while it seems Lewis Hamilton or Fernando Alonso -- currently on the grid's most reliable car, leading the Ferrari drivers by at least 15 points with time running out -- are poised to pick up the Driver's Trophy, it looks like this will be purely on paper.
No matter how much we have raved about Lewis Hamilton, that mega natural talent, what could be his debut World Championship will always be clouded by the fact that his team cheated to help him win it.
Even more tragic for him and that perennially disliked two-time World Champion who could lift his third crown, their next few race wins and points finishes are really going to rankle:
Thanks to the McLaren ban, even if their drivers score points in the next few races, no one from the team will be allowed to take a place on the podium. So a McLaren one-two could conceivably mean Felipe Massa standing alone on step three of the podium, next to two unclaimed bottles of champagne.
Not quite the dream way to win the Drivers Championship.