McLaren yesterday found themselves facing another threat from the governing body of world motor sport, the FIA, after Renault's Formula One team appeared to get off scot-free, with nothing more than a mild stain on their character, following the World Motor Sport Council's ruling that, though they were guilty of breaching rules by viewing confidential McLaren data, they would not be penalised.
Shortly after exonerating Renault, who had admitted to the same crime of receiving stolen intellectual property for which McLaren had been fined $100m (50m) in September and had their constructors' championship points wiped out, the FIA issued a statement which said that in the WMSC's September decision the FIA's technical department had been told to investigate preparatory work on McLaren's 2008 car to see if it "incorporates any confidential Ferrari information".
A detailed report on that investigation has now been submitted to the WMSC. McLaren, Ferrari and the other Formula One competitors can make "considered representations" on the report at an extraordinary general meeting of the WMSC to be held on 14 February 2008 in Paris.
In other words, while Renault are off the hook despite admitting possession of McLaren's intellectual property, McLaren may yet find themselves with a negative points score before the start of the 2008 season if the FIA deems that their MP4/23 car contains influences of Ferrari, whose intellectual property their disgraced technical director, Mike Coughlan, was found to possess in July.
Observers were left to ponder why McLaren were fined so heavily and lost their constructors' points when only Coughlan, and the drivers Pedro de la Rosa and Fernando Alonso, had knowledge of the Ferrari data, yet Renault received no penalty points even though McLaren proved that their former design engineer Phil Mackereth had downloaded their property on to Renault computers and had shown some of it to Renault designers, the FIA's lofty 3,800-word justification notwithstanding.
The FIA also announced so-called cost-cutting plans from 2008 to limit teams to no more than one wind tunnel, which may only operate at 15 runs per eight-hour day five days a week; limitations of five days per year on full-scale specific aerodynamic testing, and restrictions on computational fluid dynamics testing and development as an alternative to wind tunnel testing. In far-reaching interference which some believe goes beyond the ambit of a regulatory body, other restrictions are also to be placed on rig testing, design and manufacturing, suspension and brakes, hydraulic systems, bodywork, weight distribution, circuit testing and the number of personnel at races.
The only discordant note as the governing body yet again flexed its muscles came on Thursday, even before the Renault decision, at the influential Motorsport Business Forum in Monaco. The keynote speaker, Sir Jackie Stewart, attacked the FIA president, Max Mosley, who had recently described him as "a certified halfwit". Stewart, the three-times world champion, had criticised Mosley after the decision to punish McLaren.
He called for a serious rethink about the way Formula One is run and "the removal of any concern of genuine independence and impartiality in the governance of sport by the FIA".
While questioning the evidence that led to McLaren's fine, he suggested that power within the FIA is overly concentrated in Mosley's hands.
"The sport should be headed by a chief executive, a captain of industry to be head-hunted," he said. "Someone who is not involved and not from within the FIA. We need this to ensure the very survival of the sport and the long-term future."