Crimes of Paris

I’ve been trying to think of some intelligent or incisive explanation for the FIA’s treatment of the McLaren F1 team ever since the decision was announced, but I can’t. The decision only makes sense if one accepts a simple but ugly premise: it’s a complete stitch-up.

The message that this sends to current and potential sponsors and teams is that if you look like you’re about to beat Ferrari to a title, you can expect to get screwed over by the governing body. It happened in 2003 when Michelin’s tyres – that had been in use for months – were suddenly declared illegal; it happened last year when Alonso was penalised for supposedly blocking Massa; and it has happened this year. All three instances happened at or around the Italian grand prix. There were no such happenings in 2004, when Ferrari won the titles easily, or 2005, when they were simply not in the hunt. It is all far too smelly to be a simple coincidence.

The full justification for the decision to fine and exclude McLaren has yet to be published, but a fair bit about the evidence is already known. Unless the full document reveals something totally unexpected, we are stuck with a problem: not only is there no smoking gun, there is not even a body. Nobody, as far as I can tell, is suggesting that McLaren used any of Ferrari’s intellectual property as detailed in the 780 page dossier when developing their car. Alonso and De La Rosa discussed some aspects of Ferrari’s package such as the weight distribution – but as Martin Brundle observed in commentary for today’s qualifying session, that kind of information regularly floats around the F1 paddock, indeed it is often shared with TV viewers by commentators. What exactly did the two drivers discuss that the FIA have managed to prove was not available to them through any channel other than deliberately leaked information? And what demonstrable difference did it make to the performance of the cars? If the FIA has not been able to prove that the information can only have been acquired by illicit means, or if they have been unable to demonstrate that it led to an enhanced performance on the car, then McLaren will have been blatantly banned for no reason. It seems far from clear at the moment that any such proof has been made.

Another thing that would make no sense if we were simply dealing with a breach of the regulations is that the drivers have been allowed to continue in the championship, even though they are supposedly using illegal cars. The FIA cannot have it both ways: either the points amassed by Hamilton and Alonso have been gained by illegal means and should therefore be docked, or the cars have been perfectly legal and the team should be allowed to continue in the championship. This peculiar fudge suggests that the FIA have run with a Ferrari agenda to screw McLaren, but have not had the balls to wreck the driver’s title race: the result is a bodge of a punishment borne of pure conspiracy.

Max Mosley’s extraordinary outburst prior to qualifying, openly accusing Ron Dennis of lying, was difficult to fathom. Max did not even seem to consider the possibility that Dennis might have been unaware of the email exchanges: it seemed that he was interested in flinging mud at McLaren rather than exploring the issue rationally – why else would he not even attempt to be balanced? Max Mosley is a canny operator and says nothing without considering it carefully: his statement today was not a slip of the tongue, but a calculated smear against Ron Dennis.

His argument that the fine was actually quite fair – the sum was enough to reduce McLaren’s budget to the same level of some of their competitors, but no more, and anyway $100 million is about market value for the IPR in that dossier – seemed quite interesting and reasonable. Of course, that assumes that a punishment was deserved in the first place, which seems very much open to doubt, so let nobody been fooled by the justification for the level of the penalty. It is not the issue.

The final element in all of this is Alonso: my first instinct was that he must have believed that there was something in those emails which would land McLaren in schtuck – which seems to me to offer the only indication that McLaren might just have been at fault. And one has to admire Alonso’s brass neck in attempting to blackmail his boss, if the media accounts are accurate.

But thinking about it further, the fact that he levelled those accusations in an attempt to leverage some advantage for himself within the team must be kept in mind. Put simply, Alonso may have been bluffing, and the emails may have been more innocent than he suggests – but he has been forced to declare them to the FIA because Dennis called his bluff, and this played beautifully into the hands of the pro-Ferrari conspiracy. That scenario would fit with the rest of the evidence, but it is of course conjecture… for now.

Or, if we want to be even more cynical, Alonso may have a contractual clause which allows him to walk in the event that McLaren falls into disrepute. This would provide a perfect motive for Alonso to play up the significance of the emails to the FIA: if Dennis had caved in to his alleged blackmail, he would have had better treatment within the team; if Dennis called his bluff, he would be able to engineer a scenario in which he could leave without contractual penalty. Of course this is pure speculation and could be totally wrong… but it does fit the available facts as I understand them at present.

Stranger things have happened, but it seems incredible to think that Alonso will race with McLaren in 2008: even if Alonso makes no move to leave, Dennis may well be trying to secure the driver’s title, after which he will haul Alonso over the coals for his behaviour and throw him out of the squad.

So, what does this mean for the driver market? Alonso must surely go back to Renault if he is to move: OK, it’s possible Ferrari might clear the decks and take him on board, but I understand he has a long-running feud with Jean Todt, who would have to be ordered to sign him. Then again, if Ross Brawn takes over the running of the Ferrari race team, that obstacle would vanish. Or if he went back to Renault, which driver would Renault keep alongside him? They know Alonso can beat Fisichella, which is what the Spaniard seems to want from a team-mate, so it could play out to the disadvantage of the far superior Kovaleinen.

And who would swoop for the McLaren drive? Button would probably have to buy himself out of yet another contract, but he might well be wise to do so (then again, could the fine adversely affect the development of the 2008 McLaren, stranding Button in mid-grid once again?). A driver displaced by Alonso from Ferrari or Renault would be a strong contender (unless Fisichella does get the chop, in which case one has to think it would end his career). Who else is there that is not currently under contract…?

It’s a fascinating, but black, hour for Formula 1.

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