The 2007 McLaren Scandal & How Hamilton Lost his First Title

In 2007 McLaren were involved in one of, if not the, biggest scandal in F1 History.

One of McLaren’s employees was in possession of 780 pages of technical documents on the Ferrari’s current F1 car. 

You are probably aware that McLaren were eventually Disqualified from the constructors championship for that year and fined an incredible $100million dollars, to this day the largest fine in sporting history. 

However there is so much more to this story, including Alonso’s key role, Ron Dennis’ repeated misdirected and, biggest of all, the mystery surrounding Hamilton’s title loss that year.

Is it possible that McLaren purposely ensured that both Hamilton & Alonso lost the title in 2007? 

I think in reality this is a story that began in the 90’s, long before the scandal actually took place and to really understand the motivations for everything that happened and to uncover the extent of what lengths the team would have been willing to go to, we need to first understand the McLaren of this era & in particular, Ron Dennis. 

Ron Dennis’ Project Four Racing merger with McLaren had put him in charge and brought the team to their most successful decade in the sport. They had taken 7 championships in the 80’s with Senna, Prost & Lauda and they looked set to continue this into the 1990’s. They dominated the early years taking back to back championships in 1990 and 1991 with Ayrton Senna. 

However this is where Dennis’ run of glory would end and the struggle for McLaren would begin for nearly a decade. Williams active suspension and the designs that Newey and his team brought made them the dominant team in the 1990’s. However to add to McLaren’s woes, Honda pulled out of the sport, leaving them searching for a new engine. After a deal with Renault (William’s engine supplier) fell through and the Lamborghini V12 test didn’t go as well as hoped, McLaren eventually settled on Peugeot. This partnership worked out so badly, that it just barely lasted the 1994 season.

Thankfully for McLaren and Dennis, a partnership with a German manufacturer named Mercedes would be struck for the 1995. This is a partnership that would eventually bring the team success but in 1996 they had their 3rd winless season, a streak that wouldn’t be broken until David Coulthard took a win at the opening race in 1997 at Australia. That win was the start of McLaren’s return to the top, in a year in which Adrian Newey had joined the team. This was a vital hire and he got the 1998 regulations spot on, and this combined with Williams losing their Renault works engine, led McLaren to take both championships in 1998.

Sadly for McLaren this return to form would last only two seasons with them taking the Driver’s Championship in 1999 but losing the Constructor’s Championship to Ferrari. At this point they were in for another near decade wait for a return to the top, as Ferrari went on a run of dominance which was then handed to a two year run of form by Renault and Alonso. 

Throughout these years McLaren were hampered by Tyre issues, massive reliability issues and even FIA safety concerns with their 2003 car. In 2006 their golden goose, Adrian Newey, left for the fledgling team. Dennis needed a solution to get McLaren back to the front and he needed it fast. He had a driver lineup for 2007 that, in hindsight is one of the strongest in history, Alonso and Hamilton. McLaren just needed a car to give them so they could win. Enter Nigel Stepney, Mike Coughlan, his wife,Trudy Coughlan, and a photocopying shop employee who would cost the McLaren team the 2007 constructors title and $100 million, still the largest fine in sporting history.

Play with phone or notepad to give a few seconds as voice comes in

This is where the story begins to go done a winding road of characters ranging from Ron Dennis, to Alonso and even Renault getting accused of being involved. I think the best way for us to unpack this story is to follow a timeline of events, give you the facts that we know are true and then we can go to the biggest mystery surrounding 2007 and unpack everything we know about that. It all begins in roughly February of 2007…

…when Nigel Stepney, who had been part of the Ferrari dreamtime including Ross Brawn and Michael Schumacher who led the team to their wild success in the late 1990’s and the first half of the 2000’s. However after losing the 2005 and 2006 world championship to Renault, the team had decided to reorganise and this pushed Ross Brawn to leave the team. That month Stepney was quoted as saying:

“I am looking at spending a year away from Ferrari, I’m not currently happy with the situation within the team – I really want to move forward with my career and that’s something that’s not happening right now. Ideally, I’d like to move into a new environment here at Ferrari – but if an opportunity arose with another team, I would definitely consider it.”

After these comments, Ferrari announced that Stepney had been given a new role within the team as Head of Team Performance Development. In this statement they announced “After many years spent working on the Formula One circuits, the last 13 of those as part of the Ferrari Race Team, Nigel Stepney, with the approval of the company, has chosen to take on a different role that will see him no longer have to attend the races.” Something didn’t sit right with all of this.

It was then around June of 2007 that the meat of the story begins, with Ferrari at the United States Grand Prix announcing that they had filed a formal investigation against Stepney but at the time, it was for reasons not known to the public.

Jumping to July 3rd, reports began to hit the media that Ferrari had completed this internal investigation and as a result removed Stepney from the team. Ferrari, on the same day, then announced that Ferrari had been let go due to “”Irregularities discovered at the Ferrari factory prior to the Monaco GP”.  

On that very same day, things then began to appear even more bizarre as Ferrari also announced in a press release that it was to take action against a Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes engineer: “Ferrari announces it has recently presented a case against Nigel Stepney and an engineer from the Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes team with the Modena Tribunal, concerning the theft of technical information. Furthermore, legal action has been instigated in England and a search warrant has been issued concerning the engineer. This produced a positive outcome.”

We would later, thanks to Autosport.com, discover that this engineer at McLaren was one Mike Coughlan and that the search warrant had been for his house. The positive outcome they noted was the recovery of documents from his home address that were from the Maranello factory and pertained to Ferrari’s current Formula 1 car. The plot thickens. 

7 Days later, on July 10th of 2007, a high court hearing was held and adjourned for one day to allow Coughlan to submit an affidavit of the events surrounding the case. This was when the bizarre events surrounding what had taken place began to leak to the press. It seemed that someone had passed Coughlan 780 pages of technical information on the 2007 Ferrari F1 Car, the F2007, and then Coughlan’s wife Trudy had taken these documents to a local photocopying shop in Woking to create a copy. Ferrari at this point were unaware that the documents had been removed from their Maranello factory until an employee from this shop noticed the documents were marked confidential and contained the Ferrari stamp. At this point he called the companies HQ in Italy to inform them of this information. 

Coughlan never submitted the affidavit the next day for fears it would be used against him in a trial playing out around the situation in Italy. It wouldn’t make a difference though as Ferrari dropped its High Court case in return for their full disclosure of all they know about the case and a promise of future cooperation.

On the 16th of July, McLaren announced that it had finished its internal investigation and stated: “no Ferrari materials or data are or have ever been in the possession of any McLaren employee other than the individual sued by Ferrari. The fact that he held at his home unsolicited materials from Ferrari was not known to any other member of the team prior to July 3.”

Earlier in July, McLaren had tried to get ahead of all of this by inviting the FIA to review their car. In a statement from McLaren, it was announced that “In order to address some of the speculation McLaren has invited the FIA to conduct a full review of its cars to satisfy itself that the team has not benefited from any intellectual property of another competitor.”

26th of July 2007, following a meeting of the FIA motorsport council with McLaren, it was announced that no use of materials had been found and no breach of the rules by McLaren had been noted. The FIA essentially gave the McLaren team the all clear. McLaren stated:  “[a] unanimous decision has been taken by the FIA which in McLaren’s opinion is very balanced and fair.”

Ferrari though still weren’t happy, saying the ruling was “incomprehensible” and that they were “furious” at the decision. The case was then referred to the FIA’s International Court of Appeals and a date set for the 13th of September 2007.

We knew that at some point, McLaren would try to fight back before the Court of Appeals date. They had to, if they were to lose then their car for 2007, and possibly their car for 2008 would be in jeopardy. So in August of 2007, Dennis began their offensive.

1st of August, Ron Dennis in an open letter to the president of the Italian motorsport authority Luigi Macaluso, accused Ferrari of giving a false and dishonest version of events and further that the car used to win the 2007 Australian Grand Prix was illegal. His letter went on to allege that the floor used by Ferrari at that particular race was illegal and that Stepney informing the McLaren team of this as an activity of “whistle blowing.” The point of this was that Dennis was pushing the angle that this hadn’t been a transfer of technical information for use by McLaren but instead to out Ferrari’s illegal breaking of the sports technical rules. This would then explain why Ferrari had dropped the case against Coughlan so quickly upon recovering the documents. This had some semblance of truth, but was it accurate?

A few days later at the Hungarian Grand Prix (on August 4th) a few more pieces and characters would be added to this already winding debacle. The weekend will go down as one of McLaren’s most controversial weekends even just on the track. Lewis Hamilton had disobeyed a team instruction, disadvantaging Fernando Alonso, and so Alonso held Hamilton up in the pit lane during qualifying, denying Hamilton a chance to record a final lap time. Ron Dennis was seen throwing his headphones to the ground and later having a heated discussion with both Alonso and his trainer throughout the day. On the day of the race, August 5th, Alonso met Ron Dennis in his motorhome and allegedly threatened to send his email exchanges with McLaren test driver Pedro de la Rosa and Coughlan to the FIA. We know this as Max Mosley later publicly stated Ron Dennis informed him of the conversation and told Mosley that the threat was an empty one, “There’s no information, there’s nothing to come out; I can assure you that if there was something, Max, I would have told you.” 

As we would later learn though, these threats from Alonso clearly weren’t as empty as Ron Dennis would let leave us to believe and that the most expensive can of worms in sporting history was about to blow up in Dennis’ face.

On the 5th of September 2007, the FIA announced that it had new evidence in the case. Instead of the appeal hearing, the case was to be fully re-opened on the 13th of September. All of a sudden, a story that had faded from the minds of most fans of the sport was thrown back into the spotlight as we awaited the news of what this new evidence could be. It later transpired that the new evidence was the driver’s emails that were sent to Bernie Ecclestone, F1’s commercial rights holder who then informed the FIA. This would lead us to believe that Alonso had followed though on his threat, especially given that Alonso, De La Rosa and Hamilton were all asked to attend. They were also told that in exchange for this they would in no way be penalised as long as they were fully transparent but if it was later found that they with held any information, the FIA would come down on them like a safety car full of bricks. 

The plot thickened once again and unlike the distance between Monaco’s barriers, as time went on, the intrigue on this case would increase. 

On September 13th the hearing took place and quickly the FIA imposed a penalty for illicitly collecting and holding information from Ferrari to confer a dishonest and fraudulent sporting advantage upon McLaren. The penalty? McLaren was disqualified from the 2007 constructors championship and fined a record $100 million, less the money earned TV and travel income over the course of accruing these points. Importantly the McLaren team was also ordered to send their 2008 chassis for scrutiny by the FIA. 

The next day Ron Dennis announced that he was the one who sent the information to the FIA about the driver emails, in a move to save face for the team. The day after though, Max Mosley shot back informing the press that Alonso had been the one to send on this information. Things clearly weren’t happy internally at McLaren and even though at this point it wasn’t publicly known, Alonso had already made plans and informed the team he would be moving to Ferrari for 2008 after just one season at the team. 

As for the driver’s championship, thanks to both Ecclestone’s lobbying and the co-operation from the driver’s, Hamilton and Alonso were not stripped of their points and the title challenge was still on. That though would be the source of a massive, and still on going controversy which sparked many conspiracy theories. A mystery which we will try to uncover in a few minutes. 

As we know now though, the case wasn’t exactly closed. Martin Whitmarsh (then COO of McLaren) would later in December accept that the team did have access to these technical documents. This later caused McLaren employees including Paddy Lowe to receive €150,000 fines. However before we could even finish the 2007 season and get to that controversy, more breaking news would come to light and this time it included Alonso’s old comrades, Renault. 

On September 11th of 2007, McLaren had gone to the FIA accusing Renault of having information on the 2007 McLaren car, ”including, but not limited to the layout and critical dimensions of the McLaren F1 car, together with details of the McLaren fuelling system, gear assembly, oil cooling system, hydraulic control system and a novel suspension component used by the 2006 and 2007 McLaren F1 cars”

There was enough evidence for a hearing to be announced for December and on December 6th of 2007, Renault were found to be in breach of the sporting code. However unlike McLaren the team escaped penalty. 

This, we all thought, would be where to story ended and we thought after September’s incident that we could now sit back and enjoy an enticing title fight that saw Hamilton leading, set to become the only driver in F1 history to win the championship in their rookie season. However the rumour mills were in full swing and word quickly spread that McLaren and Ron Dennis were worried that if they won the driver’s championship they would put too much of a spotlight on their 2008 chassis from Ferrari and be disqualified from the next season as well. 

7th October 2007

Going into the Chinese Grand Prix, Hamilton led teammate Alonso by 12 points, with a maximum of 20 points up for grabs in the next two races, as this was back when it was 10 points for a win, Kimi Raikennon was the only other driver in the fight with and sat 17 points behind Hamilton. 

That weekend Hamilton qualified on pole, with Alonso qualifying in 4th behind the two Ferrari’s of Raikennon and Massa. After which he kicked the hinges off a door in the paddock and began claiming that the team had sabotaged his car’s tyre pressures. 

As the rain fell Hamilton led the first stint, but as the rain stopped McLaren left Hamilton out on his inters saying that it was strategic so as not to lose to Raikennon who had pitted for slicks and dropped back but by lap 31 Hamilton was struggling and Kimi overtook him as he Hamilton ran wide. At this point Hamilton’s tyres were literally showing the white inners of the tire, and McLaren finally pulled the trigger to pit his car. If he came out and finished in second, he could win the championship that day. However his tires were so worn that he slid coming into the pits and got beached in the gravel. Raikenon won. Alonso came second.  Leading to a three way fight for the title at the next race in Brazil. 

As we went into Brazil, the championship leader Lewis Hamilton (107 points) was 4 points ahead of second placed driver, Fernando Alonso (103 points). Kimi Räikkönen (100 points) was 7 points behind the leader. This was the first three way title fight decider since the 1986 Australian Grand Prix. The excitement and F1 ratings were through the roof. Exactly what Ecclestone would have wanted. 

21st October 2007

Even before the title fight had began, it was already a strange situation in the paddock for McLaren who had been appointed an FIA representative to ensure that both of the McLaren cars were equal in every way for the race. This was due to Alonso’s talk of sabotage at the last race. It wouldn’t make any difference.

At the start of the race Hamilton had a bad drive off the line and fell to 3rd by the end of the Senna S’s. He only needed to finish 4th to secure the championship, but an F1 driver of his caliber never settles for less than the win and while pushing into turn 4 he ran wide and dropped a couple of places further. However Kimi in the lead meant that he only needed to finish 5th if it stayed that way. 

However more drama unfolded on lap 8 as Hamilton last all of his gears. This would later be described by Paddy Lowe as a piece of debris that entered a valve causing hydraulic loss, that later cleared through the valve and the gears returned. It took 25 seconds for this to happen though, a lifetime in Formula 1. 

Hamilton fell back to 18th. His pace thereafter though was incredible. The recovery drive was on and thankfully if there was one thing McLaren were known for, strategic might and pit stop perfection. It was Hamilton’s to lose still or so we thought. 

McLaren pitted Hamilton for a second set of tyres on lap 20. The strategic idea was to give him a stint on low fuel to catch the cars in front, and then make one more stop and go to the end of the race. However the soon decided that his tyres after the short stint and a second pit wouldn’t go to the end. They moved Hamilton onto a three stop strategy. This cost him a further 28 seconds. He finished 7th.

Kimi took the championship by one point, with both McLaren’s finishing level on points. 

This amount of blunders for the McLaren team was extremely out of character and up and down the paddock, most experts seemed to agree. There had to be more to this. 

In December, after losing the championship, McLaren’s 2008 chassis investigation was dropped by the FIA. The matter was officially closed, but most to this day still are of the opinion that there is more to this.

Hamilton was asked in 2012 by the race’s Mark Hughes whether this was bad luck or was there more to it. His simple response:

“I didn’t know at the time, but I do now. It’s not something I can talk about.”

Hamilton’s comment to me, leaves the impression that Dennis and McLaren played this out to a tee, ensuring the FIA would back off their 2008 car and not lose the company more money. It wouldn’t be the first or last time the FIA and Formula 1 teams would make a shady deal, but that’s a case for another video on the Ferrari Engine Scandal.

I’d love to know what you think, let us know in the comments below.

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