McLaren 'minutes' from being thrown out of Formula One

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The Ferrari "spying" scandal almost led to Lewis Hamilton's dream of winning the world championship in his debut season coming to nothing.

As the FIA, motor sport's world governing body, yesterday revealed in a 14-page document how Hamilton's team - McLaren - had come to be fined a staggering £49.2m and stripped of all their constructors' points, it appeared that the judgement could have been a lot worse.

Formula One's ringmaster, Bernie Ecclestone, told the BBC that McLaren came "within minutes" of being excluded from this year's title race.

"It came very close to McLaren being thrown out. It really was a genuine possibility," he said. "A few of us sort of battled on and campaigned for the fine instead."

It emerged that the new evidence, which persuaded the FIA to reconvene the World Motor Sport Council meeting of 26 July, rather than hear an appeal against that hearing's findings on behalf of Ferrari, embraced a series of emails and SMS messages. These passed between the disgraced McLaren chief designer, Mike Coughlan, who received information from the former Ferrari head of performance, Nigel Stepney, and the McLaren drivers Fernando Alonso and Pedro de la Rosa.

How that information came to the notice of the FIA is a moot point. Some suggest that it resulted from a conversation between Alonso and his former employer Flavio Briatore, of Renault, who then informed Ecclestone who in turn informed Max Mosley, the FIA president.

Having effectively subpoenaed the McLaren drivers into revealing their email and SMS communications, the FIA learned that, unequivocally, Alonso and de la Rosa received the confidential Ferrari information via Coughlan; and that both knew its exact nature and that it had been received by Coughlan from Stepney.

Though they could not prove that such information had actually been used to improve McLaren's cars, the WMSC took the view that de la Rosa's evidence made it clear that there was no reluctance or hesitation about testing the Ferrari information. Other facets discussed by the three included a flexible rear wing tried by Ferrari, their braking system, and the gas used to inflate their tyres.

The WMSC did not accept de la Rosa's claim that he did not share the information and its source with other team members.

In his affidavit [submitted in the context of the High Court Proceedings] Coughlan said that there were a number of contacts between him and Stepney and described incidents where confidential Ferrari information was transferred.

New evidence strongly indicated that the transmission of Ferrari information from Stepney to Coughlan was not limited to the 780 page dossier that was already known about, and that a far greater level of communication existed between them than was originally appreciated.

This evidence was submitted by Ferrari and was deemed credible as it originated from Italian police analysis of records of telephone, SMS and e-mail contacts between Coughlan and Stepney.

The evidence suggested that at least 288 SMS messages and 35 telephone calls passed between Coughlan and Stepney between 11 March 2007 and 3 July 2007. The WMSC concluded that the illicit communication of information was very likely not limited to the Ferrari dossier discovered at Coughlan's home on 3 July 2007.

The WMSC also believed that Coughlan may have had a more active role in the design of the McLaren than they had previously appreciated.

They did not have evidence that any complete Ferrari design was copied and subsequently wholly incorporated into the McLaren car as a result of Coughlan passing confidential from Stepney to McLaren, but said: "It is difficult to accept that the secret Ferrari information that was within Coughlan's knowledge never influenced his judgement in the performance of his duties.

"It is not necessary for McLaren to have copied a complete Ferrari design for it to have benefited from Coughlan's knowledge. For example, the Ferrari information cannot but have informed the views Coughlan expressed to others in the McLaren design department, for example regarding which design projects to prioritise or which research to pursue. "

The WMSC also took into account the argument that there was little evidence of the information in question being disseminated to others at McLaren, and that Coughlan was a single rogue employee. However, they stressed that it was not necessary for them to demonstrate that Ferrari information was directly copied by McLaren or put to direct use in the McLaren car. They felt entitled to treat possession of another team's information as an offence meriting a penalty on its own if they so chose.

In light of all the evidence placed before them, the WMSC did not accept that the only actions of McLaren deserving censure were those of Coughlan.

"The evidence leads the WMSC to conclude that some degree of sporting advantage was obtained, though it may forever be impossible to quantify that advantage in concrete terms," they concluded.

"I note that the findings of the World Motor Sport Council show that we have not used Ferrari intellectual property to achieve any competitive advantage for our cars. In addition it's been recognised that McLaren have been open, cooperative and transparent throughout the entire process," Dennis said.

"I want to stress that once I became aware that new evidence might exist, which I did on the morning of the Hungarian Grand Prix [5 August], I immediately phoned the FIA."

In other words, Dennis blew the whistle on his own employees.

"We now have seven days to appeal and are carefully considering the company's position," he added "Our focus is on winning the remaining four races and the Drivers' World Championship."

The telling emails: Hi Mike, do you know the Red Car's weight?

From: Pedro de la Rosa [McLaren test driver]

To: Mike Coughlan [McLaren chief mechanic]

Date: 21 March 2007

Time: 09.57

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

PS: I will be in the simulator tomorrow."

In evidence, De la Rosa confirmed Coughlin replied by text with precise details.

From: Fernando Alonso [McLaren's world champion]

To: Pedro de la Rosa

Date: 25 March 2007

Time: 01.43

"[The Ferrari's] weight distribution surprises me."

From: Pedro de la Rosa

To: Fernando Alonso

Date: 25 March, 2007

Time: 13.02

"All the information from Ferrari is very reliable. It comes from Nigel Stepney, the former chief mechanic. He's very friendly with Mike Coughlan."

From: Pedro de la Rosa

To: Mike Coughlan

Date: 12 April 2007

Time: 12.25

"Can you explain me as much as you can, Ferrari's braking system... are they adjusting from inside the cockpit."

Coughlan replied on 14 April with a technical description of the principles underpinning the Ferrari breaking system