Spy saga taught Formula One a lesson

LONDON (Reuters) - Last year’s spying controversy, as well as costing McLaren a record $100-million fine and the constructors’ title, taught Formula One a lesson it will never forget.

McLaren's Formula One team wait for Lewis Hamilton for a pit-stop practice during a training session at Catalunya's racetrack in Montmelo, near Barcelona, February 25, 2008. REUTERS/Albert Gea

The season that fires up in Australia on March 16 is unlikely to see any repeat of the drama that scarred 2007. The consequences are clear and nobody wants to go down that road again.

“I think it’s a wake-up call for everybody that we have to respect the normal laws and normal ethics of any business,” was the verdict of Honda’s new team principal Ross Brawn, the former Ferrari technical director.

“I think in a couple of areas people have not paid attention and in the future everyone is going to be super-diligent and this will stop.

“It (spying) won’t be an ongoing disease like you see unfortunately in some other sports,” the Briton told reporters at the end of last year.

Even if legal action continues in Italy, with developments likely to punctuate the year after McLaren executives were questioned last week about the leaked Ferrari data, Formula One starts afresh in Melbourne.

After McLaren froze suspect systems, apologized in writing and recognized that Ferrari information had penetrated deeper into the team than had been suspected, a line was drawn under the unedifying saga as far as the sport was concerned.

Brawn, who presided over a golden era at Ferrari with Michael Schumacher, believes the sport has had to wise up about the implications of personnel taking highly sensitive information with them when they change jobs, at least in written or electronic form.

“Everybody realizes that you can’t mess about,” he said.

“It has been unpleasant and unfortunate but I actually think this will be the end of it and we go back to normal competitive stuff in the future.”


The good old days when engineers might get together in the pub and casually jot down information on the back of a beer mat are long gone.

While engineers and designers have always gone from team to team, taking valuable technical knowledge with them, the McLaren case was different.

It involved a 780-page dossier of Ferrari information, effectively everything needed to design and engineer the Italian team’s 2007 car, found at the home of McLaren chief designer Mike Coughlan.

There were also text messages, e-mails and telephone contacts suggesting a transfer of information between Coughlan and Ferrari employee Nigel Stepney over a period of time while both were still working for their respective teams.

The $100-million fine reflected the gravity of the case and the sensitivity of the data in a sport where teams are backed by blue chip companies and budgets run into the hundreds of millions.

Few teams other than McLaren, well-sponsored and 40 percent owned by Mercedes, could have survived such a sanction.

Just in case any further deterrent was necessary, the governing FIA made clear in January that any team found spying in future would be kicked out of the championship.

“You can never stop what someone has got in his head, but we can stop the transfer of information in written or electronic form,” International Automobile Federation (FIA) President Max Mosley told the official Formula One Web site (

“If you are prepared to check, and we have demonstrated that we are, then somebody using such information would be very unwise because in a modern F1 team you cannot do it without leaving traces and we will find those traces.

“Next time, whoever it was, I don’t think they would stay in the championship.”


The teams, led by the major manufacturers, have got the message and tightened up their internal procedures where necessary.

“Certainly we have taken some measures to prevent this from happening,” BMW Sauber team boss Mario Theissen said after the McLaren fine was announced.

“Formula One is a small world...and people do inevitably move from team to team,” added Red Bull’s Christian Horner.

“But what we do rely on is the integrity of the people you employ and not to abuse previous IP (intellectual property) that they have been exposed to.

“Certainly at Red Bull we have reviewed our auditing processes just in order to doubly protect ourselves against anything like this happening in our team.”

McLaren set out their position in the letter of apology on December 13: “Changes are now being made which will ensure that nothing comparable to what has taken place will ever happen again,” the team said.

Editing by Clare Fallon